Posted by Lee Gatiss, 1 Mar 2018
Lee Gatiss examines what the Apostles’ Creed means when it declares “I believe the Holy Catholic Church, and the Communion of Saints.”
“For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:18-22).
Trusting in the Church?
It is important to point out that when we say we believe in the holy catholic church, we are not saying we believe in an institution in the same way that we trust in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. We are not declaring our faith in the church to save us, or asserting that all the pronouncements of a particular denomination or local fellowship are infallible and perfect. We don’t in that sense believe “in” the church.
Our minds rest on God as true, and our confidence is fully satisfied in him alone. The Holy Spirit has spoken to us in the pages of scripture and what he says is utterly sufficient for our life as Christians, so we don’t need any further sources of divine revelation and guidance. What the Creed is alerting us to, however, is that Christ has created for himself a people, and not just saved you or me as isolated individuals. It is not just about “me and Jesus”, but about being part of Christ’s body, the church.
As John Calvin put it, everyone who has God as their Father, must also have the church as their mother, since we grow up as Christians under the care and nurture of the church. We confess that we are “members of the household of God” before we get to those parts of the Creed that are about personal salvation, so to speak. It is through the ministry and fellowship of the church that we normally comes to know and enjoy the salvation we have in Christ.
We believe we have fellowship in the body which Christ calls his own. By faith we are united in that happy company. There is only one such body, one holy catholic church, because you can’t tear Christ into little pieces so that he has 2 or 3 or 100 bodies. The word “catholic” in the Creed here means universal, worldwide. It does not mean Roman Catholic, as if we were affirming that we are part of that particular denomination or that we give that any authority. Indeed, we are saying the opposite: that we believe in the universal church and not simply the Roman part of it!
As members of the community which Christ died to save and which the Spirit is creating to be set apart from the world, we have a new identity and a new loyalty. Whatever our ethnic background, our nationality, our language — however we chose to identify ourselves to others in the world before we were Christians — above all these things we are now a part of the universal church of Jesus Christ, and children of one heavenly Father.
Fellowship with the saints
Each local church is the visible outcrop of the one universal church. We are God’s army, tasked with recapturing the world from evil by spreading the good news of Jesus and living it out together, to bring light into a dark world. To do this we must stick together, because we need each other. As Paul puts it, “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:15-16). Christ is our Head, but we need the different parts of the body to hold us together and help us to grow.
This is the communion of the saints. Again here we have to be careful with how we define certain words. In some circles, to be a “saint” means to be especially holy and good, to be a super-Christian perhaps, with miraculous powers or exceptional devotion. Over the centuries certain Christians have acquired the title “Saint” (e.g. St Paul, St Augustine) as if it was reserved for a special elite believer. That is not the way this word is used in the Creed, or indeed in the Bible. There we find that “holy ones” or “saints” is a name given to all God’s people.
Also, “communion” here does not refer to the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion, sharing the bread and wine as Jesus taught us. It means our fellowship, our partnership, our joining together with other Christians (which may of course include sharing bread and wine together, but also so much more than that).
The communion we have as God’s saints is that we are part of something which unites heaven and earth, angels and humans — all those who are chosen by God whether they are alive on earth now or safely in heaven with Christ (see Hebrews 12:22-23 and Ephesians 1:10). That does not mean we can talk to angels or to the dead, or that they are watching our every move and can intervene to help us if we ask them. We pray to God alone. Rather, it means we are part of something so much bigger than ourselves, and that “in Christ” we have unity with all the saints, alive or dead. They are our family, but especially those who are here on earth with us, to whom we have an especial responsibility.
Questions for reflection:
1. What part did the church play in your coming to faith in Christ?
2. What part does the church play in helping you to stay a Christian and grow in Christ?
3. How does your membership of the universal church relate to your lesser loyalties and identities (e.g. your “tribal” group or sporting preference or personal characteristics)?
Prayer: Almighty God, who has set apart all your chosen people in one universal church, the body of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord: grant us grace so to follow the godly examples of your people and build one another up in love and good deeds, that we may come to those unspeakable joys, which you have prepared for all those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society
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