The church universal and especially the unique, individual congregations of the church have had many meanings in the history of humankind and the history of the church. Many have seen the church as an arm of oppressive government; baptizing war, causing destruction, and stifling academic and scientific progress. For others, the church in its global and local form is a tool for political and social agendas; an agent of governmental and societal “progress”. For the faithful the church is an educator, a social club, a place of worship, a place of edification, a place of conflict, a place of love, and much, much more. The entities known as “the church” over the last many thousand years have at one time or another been negative and positive influences towards the reconciling efforts of our loving God.
However, even in her darkest hours, with corrupted episcopal leaders more focused on the workings of church and state politics than the missio Dei, God's purpose for the church as a means for the outflowing of prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace-filled sacraments and practices was not hindered. In every culture, in every time, and in every circumstance – no matter how dire – the church has remained, as proclaimed in the creed commonly called the Nicene, “the one holy catholic and apostolic church.”1
The first property of the church as noted in the Nicene Creed is that she is “one.” But, what does “one church” mean? Is that to mean there is only one “real” church amongst the many traditions? In my estimation the creed is not speaking of one church, but rather a church displaying the property or characteristic of oneness. For me this oneness is spoken to each time United Methodists gather around the Lord's table for Communion praying to God the Father, “By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory, and we feast at his heavenly banquet.”2
The oneness of the church is seen in her common purpose. As Israel was to be a “light to the nations”3 the new creation made through Jesus Christ – those men, women, and children justified by faith in Christ and living, as the Apostle Paul puts it, “in Christ” – was to even more so be a means for the reflection of God's grace. Being one church means having an eye only for the glory of God; it means displaying and practicing a reconciling love that moves all of creation to unity with the living Triune God. As those “in Christ” gather around the Lord's table, baptize, pray, expound upon scripture, serve, and generally live lives in similitude of the example set forth in the Messiah, the oneness of the church is displayed to all the world, inviting them to participate in the life of the One.
The holiness of the church has been a misunderstood and abused property over the millennia. There were times in the history of the church and, sadly, in the modern practice of the church where one was assumed holy merely by association with the church. Indeed, if the church is defined as I did earlier, those justified by faith in Christ and living in him, then all those that make up the church are by definition of the justification provided through Christ, holy. However, the common secular definition of the church as an institution or organization includes those who have not yet experienced justifying grace and thus stand outside of the holiness provided through Christ.
Getting a firm grasp on the holiness of the church is difficult because the church – by either definition – is made up of people who are not perfectly holy in practice. Episcopal leaders sometimes do unholy things as do members of local congregations all over the world. Visibly the church is not always holy. However, by my definition the church is inseparably connected to Christ and by that union eternally holy. This is what is meant in the creed. Like Israel, the holiness of the church in Christ ensures that her witness of light will be preserved through all tribulations. Even the powers “of Hell shall not prevail against” her.4 The church is holy because God has made her so; he has chosen to work through her brokenness as a means of sharing his grace.
Thirdly the church is catholic. Not in adherence to the bishop of Rome – though some in the church do –, but in spirit as famously discussed by John Wesley in his sermon “The Catholic Spirit.” Wesley defines this spirit as loving “as friends, as brethren in the Lord, as members of Christ and children of God [...] all, of whatever opinion or worship, or congregation, who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.”5 The catholic spirit of the church is closely related to her oneness, but distinct. Where oneness relates to the purpose of the church, the catholicity of the church relates to her various congregations looking over their individual sub-cultures, pet theologies, and traditions and looking to the greater culture and theology shared by all who are in Christ. The “one church” is the goal and a “catholic spirit” is the means to get there.
Finally, the church is apostolic. This property of the church has, depending on the tradition, a single or dual meaning. As my Methodist tradition falls in line with those who see two meanings to the apostolic nature of the church I will discuss both, noting that those who do not follow the second definition of apostolic are no less members of the church.
The first meaning of apostolic, that shared by all traditions, is that the church is an unbroken institution preserving the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostles he left behind, and the prophets and historians of Israel. The church is bound by these teachings as recorded in the Bible and is not free to devise new beliefs. There are no bounds to the church's service or love in oneness, no end to her holiness, and her catholic spirt is to bear all things, but in belief and practice the church is bound by the teachings of the apostles and prophets and the God they proclaim.
The second meaning, closely related to the first, is that not only is the institution of the church and her Bible unbroken, but that the authority given by Jesus to the apostles to administer the means of grace to all who would believe also remains unbroken. In the church's episcopal leaders: bishops, superintendents, elders, priests, deacons, etc. there is an unbroken succession of men and women ordained of God to administer the sacraments of grace set forth by Jesus Christ himself.
There are many ways to define the church and many frames to study it through. All lead to a better understanding of those who gather around the living God – for whatever reason – and the complex relations they have with each other and the outside world. Whatever words are used to describe the church throughout the ages, she has remained the “one holy catholic and apostolic church”6 proclaimed by so many, for so long. The church is striving towards being one in purpose, perfectly holy in all her actions and thoughts, catholic in her relations with herself, and faithful to the foundations of the faith even as she translates the faith to a modern context. She does all this that she might “be for the world the body of Christ.”7
Ammerman, Nancy T. Studying Congregations: A new Handbook. Nashville, Tn.: Abingdon Press, 1998.
Blevins, Dean G. “Holy Church, Holy People” A Wesleyan Exploration in Congregation Holiness and Personal Testament.
Blevins, Dean G. Practicing the new Creation: Wesley's Eschatological Community Formed by the means of Grace. Asbury Theological Journal 57, no. 2 and 58, no. 1 (Fall 2002/Spring 2003) 81-104.
United Methodist Church (U.S.). The United Methodist hymnal: Book of United Methodist worship. Nashville, Tn.: United Methodist Pub. House, 1989.
Wesley, John. “The Catholic Spirit.” The Wesley Center Online. http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-theological-topic/ (accessed June 1, 2013).
1. UMC Hymnal, The Nicene Creed, 880.
2. UMC Hymnal, Word and Table II, 14.
3. Isa 42:6
4. Matt 16:18
5. John Wesley. The Catholic Spirit.
6. UMC Hymnal, The Nicene Creed, 880.
7. UMC Hymnal, Word and Table II, 14.