Holy Catholic Church

The church is holy because Christ stands in her midst.

In the church I attend we recite the Apostles’ Creed every Sunday. These days I find myself drawn to the statement “I believe in the holy catholic church.” That’s a good place to start thinking together about our identity as the Christian Reformed Church.

We should say this phrase with a taste of ashes on our tongues. The rise of denominations, like the CRC, stands as a monument to our failure to obey Jesus Christ and honor his prayer to the Father “that they many be one as we are one.”

How can we understand our identity as a denomination and still be faithful to Christ and to the apostolic faith expressed in the creed? 

One way is to keep in mind that our denominational identity and mission are always provisional and temporary. As with our own personal lives, what we are as a denomination is not what we ought to be. If we as a church really believe what we say in the creed, one of  the most important activities of the CRC lies in the Ecumenical Relations Committee.

On a practical level, each of us needs to learn to think of the divisions within the holy catholic church in a new way. It’s as though the light of Christ, that blazing, holy light of truth and love, has been refracted through the lens of denominations. As regretful as that is, we can at least recognize that the many colors reflected in the various denominations are each beautiful in themselves.

So in viewing other denominations, our first impulse should be to recognize the beauty of the one light of Christ refracted in each one: the evangelistic energy of the Baptists; the staggering beauty of Eastern Orthodox worship; the worldwide scope and influence of the Roman Catholics; the spiritual fervor of the Pentecostals. In all of them—not in any one of them—the full light of Christ can be seen. We can then value our own distinctive mission and doctrines, but only as a beautiful color in the rainbow of the whole church of Christ.

It’s important to notice that we don’t just believe in the catholic church but in the holy catholic church. That doesn’t mean we believe in the church only when it is pure and united and faithful. The church is not holy by the measure of its own efforts. Let’s face it, most of the time the church is a mess; the bride of Christ stands with a torn dress, dirty feet, and dripping mascara from her tears.

The holiness of the church comes not from herself, but from her Lord, the bridegroom. The church is holy because Christ has identified with her, redeemed her, and stands in her midst. He is the magnificent and holy one who walks among the candlesticks in Revelation 1. 

Each week in our worship it's as though we come in with ragged clothes and dirty bare feet, and Christ invites us to try on the wedding dress and look in the mirror. Can it be true? We are the bride of Christ, the holy catholic church?

That’s our deepest identity, before any denominational label, before any particular doctrines, true as they may be. We are members of the one holy catholic church, the body and bride of Christ.

A practical place to deepen that awareness might be in our congregational prayers. What if we prayed not just for the persecuted and suffering churches, but for the megachurch to which some of your members moved, the liberal mainline church downtown, and the Roman Catholic parish down the street? Doing so says that for all our problems, we are really the one holy catholic church.

About the Author

Len Vander Zee is a retired CRC pastor now serving as interim minister of preaching at Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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