As a kid growing up in free church Evangelicalism we never talked about the great creeds of the Church. As least, I don’t remember it coming up. In fact, I’ve been in the Church my entire life, and I never heard of the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds until college. Even then, we talked about them only briefly, and skirted on passed them as though they were really irrelevant for us today. It wasn’t until my seminary days that I can recall actually reading them and studying their historical context.
Since then, I’ve come to view the creeds as critically important to the spiritual formation of all Christians. More than that, I now accept the Apostles’ Creed as an early summary of the gospel message itself. (Compare it with 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, 20-28 and Romans 1:1-5 where in both places, when he is giving a specific recap of the gospel, Paul gives statements that are remarkably similar to the Creed. Compare it with the various sermons in Acts, and you will see the pattern there as well.) I recite the Apostles’ Creed everyday as part of my devotional practice, and we’ve taught it to our children. The Creed reminds me of the Good News that saves, and the truths by which I live. It also serves as a reminder of the core – and most critical – beliefs of Christianity.
As helpful as I think the Creed is, it is not without its controversy. For some Protestants, the affirmative statement, “I believe in one holy catholic Church” is problematic. The use of the term catholic is highly emotionally charged for some, and there can be significant emotional reactions to using that language in any sort of positive sense.
At its core catholic refers to the universal nature of the church. That is, the term affirms that there is only one Church, and everyone who belongs to Christ though faith belongs to that church. But catholic means a little more than just universal. Imbedded within the term is the notion that the legitimate Church contains within in itself the continuity of teaching and gospel completeness handed down from Jesus and the apostles.
To say that we affirm a catholic Church, and that we are part of it is to say more than there is a universal Church, but that there is a Church in which the truth of the gospel is found as it was delivered by Jesus and the apostles. When we affirm this in our churches we are also claiming that this same gospel is found in our specific church, and that we are in theological continuity with the Church as it was established.
The Apostles’ Creed has been a regular part of my church’s worship practice going back at least 100 years. At some point 40 or 50 years ago, we removed the word catholic and replaced it with Christian. We did not want to be seen as affirming the Roman Catholic Church. Right or wrong, the change was made.
In recent months, the pastoral staff of our church, which has been entrusted to make decisions in matters of worship, decided that we would return to the use of catholic when we recited the Apostles’ Creed in worship. This has created a little conversation. For those who have been in our church all their lives, the change is not a big deal. For those coming to us out of Roman Catholicism or mainline Protestant traditions the change is generally not a big deal. Though for some former Roman Catholics there are bad memories of Catholicism they would rather forget. Those in our congregation coming from Baptist or free church backgrounds probably have the greatest angst over this decision. I understand this, and not so long ago I would’ve shared those concerns.
I’ve come now to change my thinking on the topic, and I have some reasons why I think it is important to affirm a catholic Church. First, I’m more than a bit of a traditionalist, and I don’t like the idea of messing with the wording of the Creed simply because of a negative emotional response to a word. We don’t have to allow our emotions to dictate our actions, we can and should engage our intellect when thinking about these things. We have here a teaching moment where we can expand our theological horizons, and think more deeply about what we are claiming when we say certain things.
Second, because of our fundamentalist roots, I question if some Evangelicals really believe there is a such thing as a universal Church. Many, it would seem, are pretty sure that there is just my church or group of churches, and any church that doesn’t agree with us is probably not really Christian.
Growing up, our softball team was not allowed to play in a certain league because some of the other churches didn’t agree with us on some doctrinal points. We all know that playing softball with paedobaptists and Amillennialists is likely to be soul destroying. We had our own league in which all the churches agreed on these key issues. Afterall, you really don’t want to be standing on first base and have to have a throw down with the first basemen over the timing of the rapture.
Third, and perhaps more importantly, if we give up claiming the word catholic for ourselves we are ceding the ground to those who would claim we do not in fact belong to the faith once delivered by the Jesus and the Apostles. By claiming catholic for ourselves, we are claiming not just that there is a broad and universal Church beyond our local congregation, but that we rightfully belong to that tradition because we teach the gospel as it was first given.
By affirming a “holy catholic Church” in the Creed we are not affirming Roman Catholicism or the Pope, we are affirming our rightful place as a legitimate body of Christians who faithfully follow Jesus and preach his good news. We are affirming that there is a Church in which the gospel is found, and we belong to that church.
You may wonder why this matters, and perhaps to some of my readers it doesn’t, but as free church Evangelicals we are, historically speaking, a splinter of a splinter of a splinter. I believe we are in real danger of losing sight of our history as we continue to innovate ourselves to death. It is my belief that effects of pragmatic worship based on pop-culture trends and watered down theology threaten to make us unrecognizable as a group of churches that actually preach the gospel of Jesus.
To this end, what we claim about ourselves matters, not just to our critics, but to ourselves and how we view ourselves. There is a direct connection between how we view ourselves theologically and what we do practically. We need constant reminder that we are not free to reinvent Christianity based on the whims of culture, but there is a stream of gospel truth passed to us through the catholic Church to which we belong. It is nothing less than our God-given mandate to pass this gospel gift on to those who come after us as those who came before us did for us.