Just for Catholics

THE CHURCH

The church is the assembly of God’s people. The Greek word for church, ekklesia, is derived from the verb ‘to call out’ – it means a congregation, a community. In the New Testament it refers to all God’s people (Eph 1:22; 3:10; 5:23), but more frequently, to local communities of believers (Acts 5:11; Rom 16:4).

The church is the work of the three Persons of the Trinity: ‘In whom [the Lord Jesus] you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit’ (Eph 2:22). The church is the family of God (Eph 2:18; 3:15; 4:6), the body and bride of Christ (Eph 1:22, 23; 5:23-32; Rev 19:7), and the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16; Eph 2:19-22).

One Holy Catholic Apostolic

In the Nicene Creed (325 AD) we confess that the church is ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic’.

One

Christ has one body, the church, made up of many members. ‘For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ’ (1 Cor 12:12). The church’s unity is not the result of centralized and world-wide organization. The unity is spiritual, as the Scripture insists, ‘for by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body’ (1 Cor 12:13). The church of Christ is manifest on earth in many different local communities of believers. Through having distinctive slants and characteristics, the local churches find their unity in their faith in Christ, their Head and Saviour, and in their love for one another.

Holy

The church is a holy because it set apart from the rest of the world and consecrated to God; it is not sinless, but it is cleansed and forgiven, ‘sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all’ (Heb 10:10). All Christians are saints (holy ones), ‘sanctified by faith’ in Christ (Acts 26:18). The Lord is building us together into a holy temple, the dwelling place of God by the Spirit (Eph 2:19-22).

Catholic

The church is catholic (meaning ‘universal’) because it is made up of people of all languages and countries, Jews and Gentiles. With one mind and one voice we praise the Lamb: ‘You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation’ (Rev 5:9).

Apostolic

The church is built on the teaching of the apostles and prophets (Eph 2:20). Their doctrine is recorded in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament. A particular church is truly apostolic as long as it faithfully embraces the teachings of the Bible. A church is not necessarily apostolic because its leaders claim to be historical successors of the apostles. The Bible warns us that false leaders (the apostle Paul calls them savage wolves) arise even from among the bishops of the apostolic churches (Acts 20:29). Doctrine, and not historical lineage, is the acid test for the church.

Local Church

Every disciple of Christ has the privilege and duty to join other believers in a local church for mutual edification. ‘Let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching’ (Heb 10:24, 25). The lone Christian is a contradiction of God’s saving work. Can there be a family if the brothers and sisters never meet? Can the members of the body, the eyes, the hands, the ears, live independently of one another? Can there be a temple if the stones are scattered?

There is no such thing as a perfect local Christian church. The church is made up of disciples, or pupils, who are still learning. We know the truth, but not entirely; we live godly lives, but not perfectly. Ignorance, error and sin are found in every believer, and hence, in every congregation made up of imperfect members. Moreover, some of the members may be false brethren, as Jesus said, the wheat and the tares will grow together until the harvest. At the very extreme, apostate churches and the cults cannot be considered legitimate Christian churches because of their damnable heresies (such as the denial of the Trinity or the deity of Christ).

Even so, it is still God’s will for his children to meet together in local churches. The solitary Christian, puffed up with spiritual pride, cannot find a suitable church: none is good enough for him! It would be much better for him to learn a little humility, pull up his sleeves and start contributing to the edification of the church rather than criticize and whine about the poor state of the church.

True Christians are the only legitimate members of the church. The Lord adds to the church those who are saved (Acts 2:47). New believers are welcomed into the fellowship when they submit to baptism, the sign of their union with Christ, as was the practice of the apostolic church. ‘Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them’ (Acts 2:41).

Leadership

The Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of the church (Col 1:18), sustains his people by the Holy Spirit (John 16:7). The Lord calls men from among the brethren to serve as bishops and deacons (Phil 1:1). The bishops (overseers) are also called pastors (shepherds) and elders (or presbyters). These terms refer to the same kind of leader. Thus, for instance, Paul addresses the elders (presbyters, v17) in the church of Ephesus, who are overseers (bishops, v28), and whose ministry was to shepherd (pastor, v28) the flock (Acts 20:17, 28).

Historically there was a departure from this pattern of leadership. At first the local church was led by a number of presbyters, who were also known as bishops. Later on, a distinction was made between the bishop and the presbyters (or priests, as they were then called). Further on, the bishops of important cities came to be considered higher than other bishops, and were called metropolitans. By the fifth century the bishops of five important cities, Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem, exercised great authority, each one in his own territory. They were known as Patriarchs. The final step -- the elevation of one bishop above all bishops, invested with authority over the entire church – has never been reached.

The elders are appointed to shepherd the flock of God, serving as overseers, and being examples to the flock (1 Pet 5:2, 3). They are fully equipped for their ministry by the Scriptures for teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:15, 16). The members of the church should obey their elders and submit to them (Heb 13:17).

Church Life

The principal activities of the church are teaching (bible reading, bible study, teaching and preaching), prayer, the Lord’s Supper and singing to the Lord. ‘And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers… speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord’ (Acts 2:41, 42; Eph 5:19).

All members, not only the leaders, have an active role to fulfill; all should contribute to the health and function of the body. The Holy Spirit gives spiritual gifts to every member to serve and build up the church. ‘As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. If anyone ministers (serves), let him do it as with the ability which God supplies’ (1 Pet 4:10, 11).

Together we learn the graces of life – humility, kindness, patience, forgiveness and love. We learn to help and care for one another. We should endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace so that with one voice and one heart we praise and worship God our Father. ‘To Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen’ (Eph 3:21).

A healthy church has an evangelistic outlook. The church is the light of world. The members are trained and equipped to reach out to a lost world (especially by their love, holy life and sharing the gospel). They invite and warmly welcome non-Christians to the church service to hear the message of the gospel. The unity and peace among Christians is powerful evidence that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, the Saviour of the world.

Christ Jesus loves his bride, the church; he gave himself for her to sanctify and cleanse her. One day the bride will be gloriously presented to him, and they will be united as a man and his wife in marriage. The church is blessed in Christ; he finds his fulfillment in her just as a husband in entirely happy with his wife.

© Dr Joseph Mizzi. 2008. Permission is given to reproduce and distribute this article in any format provided that the wording is not altered and that no fee is charged. Please include the following statement on distributed copies: Copyright Dr Joseph Mizzi. Website: www.justforcatholics.org. Used by permission.