How to Be Catholic

It was an afternoon in the late 1970s, and I was attending a meeting of the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches.

The Christian Reformed Church was not a member of the National Council, but I was representing the denomination in one of the slots that the commission reserved for non-member churches.

The afternoon session was about to begin. As I walked into the meeting room I saw an empty seat next to a friend who was a Greek Orthodox priest. There were two other people in the row, both of them, like myself, in the “non-member” category: a Missouri Synod Lutheran and a Catholic. My Orthodox friend leaned over and whispered to me, “You picked the right row, Richard. Here we are, the four people in the room who think they represent ‘the one true church.’ Maybe we should just leave the meeting and fight it out among ourselves!”

He was joking, but there was more than a grain of truth in what he said. Each of us did come from a denomination in which many members have thought of themselves as belonging to the only “real” or “pure” church.

The One True Church

This notion of being “the one true church” has certainly had some currency in our Dutch Reformed past. The Belgic Confession, in Article 28, makes much of the distinction between the “true church” and the “false church,” insisting that every Christian must be united with the former while staying separate from the latter at all costs.

This “true church/false church” distinction played an important role in the CRC’s past, especially in some major church splits that took place in both the Netherlands and North America.

Let me say right off that I see an important spiritual and theological impulse at work in insisting on “true church” versus “false church.” It is a good thing that we pay careful attention to what the Belgic Confession singles out as “the marks of the true church”: preaching the Word, observing the sacraments, and practicing church discipline. Those are important matters—especially so in a church culture like ours today, in which an “anything goes” spirit seems to dominate.

As a Calvinist, I want to be guided by the idea that it is important to strive to be a “true church.” But I also know that I cannot draw the boundaries along strictly denominational—or even theological—lines.

I am the president of a seminary, the largest in the world, and our student body includes people from more than 100 denominations and “non-denominations”—everything from Anglicans to Presbyterians to Pentecostals to folks from “no brand” congregations with names like “Living Waters” and “Lighthouse.” And, in recent years, our ranks have included more than a few Catholic and Orthodox believers.

I have many occasions to sit in worship services in which, surrounded by that kind of diversity, I join others in affirming my belief in “the holy catholic church” (that is, the true Christian church of all times and all places).

 When I say those words in that kind of setting, I am not privately restricting my meaning to the folks around the world who share my Calvinist convictions.

That does not mean I am downplaying those convictions. I’ll argue for my understanding of Reformed orthodoxy whenever I get a chance. But I do so with the profound sense that I am part of a much larger body of genuine disciples of Jesus—the majority of whom would not agree with most of the distinctive Reformed doctrines that I take seriously.

And here is the comforting thing: in my openness to people of other traditions, I am in good company as a Calvinist. For one thing, I can claim John Calvin himself as a supporter. To put it mildly, the Reformer did not have kind feelings toward the Catholic Church of his day. But, with all the harsh things he could say about Catholicism,  he taught in his Institutes that “the Lord wonderfully preserves” within that church “a remnant of his people, however woefully dispersed and scattered,” who possess “those marks whose effectiveness neither the devil’s wiles nor human depravity can destroy.”

Another Calvinist hero of mine who gives me much encouragement on this subject is the great 19th-century Dutch statesman-theologian Abraham Kuyper.

Kuyper was never reluctant to get into theological battles—he even led a group of congregations out of the major Reformed denomination of his day because of the inroads of theological liberalism. For all of that, though, Kuyper was deeply troubled by the Belgic Confession’s “true church/false church” dichotomy—so much so that he became convinced that the confession had it wrong.

“The one true church” notion fostered an unhealthy sense, he argued, that our “own Church was held to be the purest, not merely by way of comparison, but so as to be actually looked upon as the only lawful continuance of the Church of the apostles.”  


As an alternative, Kuyper proposed the idea of the “multiformity” of the church. We have different kinds of churches, with different theological systems, he argued. And much of this multiformity is due to legitimate “differences of climate and of nation, of historical past, and of disposition of mind.”

To be sure, this means there will inevitably be, Kuyper insisted, various “degrees of purity.” But even so, he said, we can still see in the midst of all of those differences “in some way or other a manifestation of the one holy and catholic Church of Christ in Heaven.”

Like Kuyper, I see many of the differences among churches as having something to do with different aesthetic preferences, temperaments, and spiritual emphases. Some folks like robed choirs and formal liturgies; others prefer bongo drums and informality. Some folks crave intellectual stimulation; others go to church yearning for an emotional uplift. Some folks prefer the parables of Jesus; others want to learn more about being Spirit-filled.

I hasten to add that I am no relativist. All of this has to be nurtured by solid, biblically-grounded theology. But the Word of God itself is an abundant storehouse, and we can draw many different kinds of riches from the pages of Scripture.

So what does all of this mean in more practical terms? Here are three guidelines that I encourage us as Reformed Christians to follow in our relationships with others in the larger Christian community:

1.The Lord has given Calvinists a special calling to show others what it is like to place a strong emphasis on God’s sovereignty, on our own inability to contribute to our salvation, and on what it means to be members of a covenant community that is engaged in Kingdom service in all spheres of human life. Our fellow Christians need to hear us testify about such matters.

2. We should be eager to learn from others. For one thing, we need to be sure we really understand other points of view. Too often we have operated under stereotypes and caricatures of other theological perspectives. That is bearing false witness against our neighbors. But even more, we can learn positive things from those whose callings may be different from our own—for example, we can learn from folks who have thought more about the ministry of the Holy Spirit than we Calvinists have, and from believers who are more effective in the work of evangelism.

3. We must find ways of partnering with other Christians in being salt and light in the world. The Baptist theologian Timothy George has written about the way in which the growing cooperation between evangelicals and Catholics in “right to life” activities in recent years is a kind of “ecumenism of the trenches.” The same can be said for our cooperation with Mennonites in ministries of compassion, and with other partnerships we have formed.

We need each other. I can testify to that. In my own encounters and partnerships with Christians in other traditions, two things have happened to me. One is that I have a much richer sense of the wonders of belonging to the body of Jesus Christ. The other is that my basic Calvinist convictions are stronger than ever. I thank the Lord for this. And I also thank the Lord for his servants John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper, who have given me Reformed permission to explore the rich meaning of my professed belief in “the holy catholic church”! 

  1. How would you describe the “true church”?
  2. Do you believe, as Mouw suggests, that as we strive to be a “true church,” we “cannot draw the boundaries along strictly denominational—or even theological—lines”?
  3. How can you be loyal to your Calvinist convictions and still be open to the gifts of other Christian denominations?
  4. Mouw suggests that we “should be eager to learn from others.” Name some of the aesthetic preferences or spiritual emphases of other denominations that you’d like to learn more about, and talk about how you could incorporate some of them in your worship or faith life.
  5. What gift of Calvinism is most precious to you?

About the Author

Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus and professor of faith and public life of Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, Calif.