The Church Universal
“You have come to…the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn” (vv. 22–23). - Hebrews 12:18–24
Many Protestants wonder why they profess belief in the “holy catholic church” when they recite the Nicene Creed. Is this a confession of allegiance to the pope? If a church is not in communion with the Roman Catholic Church, then why would it affirm this part of the creed?
The answer, of course, is that the “holy catholic church” and the “Roman Catholic Church” are not identical. The term catholic simply means “universal,” and in the creeds of the church it refers to the reality that the one church of Jesus Christ is not limited to any particular geographical region, ethnicity, economic class, age group, historical era, or sex. When we say that we believe in the “catholic church,” we are simply affirming that the church is made up of people from all kinds of backgrounds. Anyone who turns from sin and trusts Jesus alone for salvation is a part of the church universal (Gal. 3:28).
Practically speaking, this means that English-speaking Christians can find brothers and sisters in Chinese house churches. Indians, Arabs, and Europeans can all worship together freely. Africans who meet for worship in a chapel made with mud bricks have less in common with countrymen who do not know Christ than they do with Brazilians who praise God thousands of miles away. Even when verbal communication is impossible, two believers have intimate fellowship with one another because both are united to Jesus, who enables them to be in union with every other believer on earth and in heaven.
Today’s passage is a good picture of catholicity as it applies to Christians from all times and places. When we come into worship, we enter into the heavenly sanctuary and join with “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Heb. 12:22–24). Though this reality is not apparent to our eyes, our worship includes not only the members of our individual church but Moses, Esther, Augustine, Calvin, and every other believer from history are worshiping as well.
Most importantly, when the body of Christ gathers for worship, Jesus is present in ways He is not present at other times. This is hard to understand, but it is true and should make us all the more eager never to miss corporate worship.
As important as it might be, the commitment we have to our country is superseded by our commitment to the church of Jesus Christ. Because the church is to embrace people from across the globe, it is incumbent upon us to support churches in other parts of the world, even if they are located in countries that are hostile to our own. Pray today for the church around the world and remember that the catholicity of the church enriches our study and worship.
Passages for Further Study
- Genesis 12:1–3
- Isaiah 56:1–8
- Matthew 28:18–20
- Revelation 7:9–12
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