Marty Foord continues our Apostles’ Creed series …
Christians can’t do without the Church. The reason is found in the classic declaration of the Apostles’ Creed.
Does a Christian have to belong to a church? As a teenager I regularly heard an answer to this question: “Being in a garage doesn’t automatically make you a car, and so being in a church doesn’t automatically make you a Christian.” That answer was both helpful and unhelpful. It was helpful because a person doesn’t become a Christian by going to church. But it failed to show why Christians can’t do without the Church. The reason this is so, is found in the classic declaration of the Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in the Holy, Catholic Church, the communion of Saints …
When the early Christians crafted the Apostles’ Creed, why did they describe the church as: “Holy”, “Catholic”, and a “Communion”?
Much of the reason why the early church wanted to affirm that the Church is holy, catholic, and a communion, is found in the controversies of the second century. This era saw the rise of other “Christian” gatherings, such as the Gnostics, Marcionites, and Montanists. Each claimed to be the true followers of Jesus, but their teachings were strangely different to that which was in the traditional churches.
The appearance of other “churches” would have been tremendously confusing for the average Christian. Which gathering should they attend? And so the Apostles’ Creed set out a series of beliefs that helped believers identify true Christian communities. And part of this teaching concerned the importance of the Church. Christians did not have the luxury of living without the Church—because it was holy, catholic, and a communion.
What did the early Christians mean by the church as “holy”? Interestingly, it did not fundamentally relate to the godliness of each Christian. Rather it referred to their collective status. The early church took its cue from (amongst other parts of Scripture) Paul’s statement:
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. (1 Cor 3:16–17)
Here, God’s church is “holy” in the sense of being sacred. And the early Christians recognised that God’s people were not just any kind of people. They enjoyed a special dignity unlike any other people group on earth. As Justin Martyr said:
But we Christians are not only a people, but a holy people, as we have already shown: “And they shall call it a holy people, redeemed by the Lord” [Isa. 62:12]. Wherefore, [not only] are we not a contemptible people, nor a tribe of barbarians, not just any nation as the Carians or the Phrygians, but God even chose us and appeared to those who did not seek him.
So significant is the Church to God that Christ shed his blood to make her “holy” (Eph 5:25-26).
In the eyes of this world, God’s people look incredibly unimpressive … from God’s perspective, the community of believers are the most significant people on earth
In the eyes of this world, God’s people look incredibly unimpressive: a coterie of deplorables! The Sunday church gathering may look kitsch or lame when compared to the secular work conference or rock concert. But from God’s perspective, the community of believers are the most significant people on earth, and church gatherings are the weightiest group events in our world. And this brings us to the second aspect of the church being “holy”.
If God’s people are “holy” then, as God’s temple, his “Spirit dwells among” her (1Cor 3:16-17). It is not simply that each believer possesses the Spirit. Rather, the Holy Spirit is particularly at work amongst God’s people as a whole. The early church recognised this, and used the word “holy” to convey the idea that God preserves believers by the Church. That is, the true Christian perseveres by means of the Church, as Theophilus of Antioch declares:
God has given to the world which is driven and tempest-tossed by sins, assemblies—we mean holy churches—in which survive the doctrines of the truth, as in the island-harbours of good anchorage; and into these run those who desire to be saved, being lovers of the truth, and wishing to escape the wrath and judgment of God.
This encapsulates the important (and often forgotten) teaching that, “there is no ordinary possibility of [final] salvation” outside of the visible Church. This is not salvation by works; it is Christ preserving the truly saved by their participation in the Church.
The individual quiet time, whilst crucial, is not enough; believers also need partnership with God’s people. The church is the body of Christ, where each member needs the others (1 Cor 12:15-27). God has provided the teaching ministry of the Church to feed God’s people so that we all serve each other and stay the course (Eph. 4:11-12; 1 Tim. 4:16). To neglect this is to reject the spiritual nourishment Christ has especially provided for us (Heb 10:24-25).
For a while now, the word “Catholic” has been associated with one particular denomination: the Roman Catholic Church. However, the Christians of the first two centuries used this word to convey that the church was universal, both geographically (it was everywhere) and ethnically (it was for all people groups).
A massive change occurred … Membership in the Church was now for all people everywhere
A massive change occurred with the coming of Christ. God’s OT people were geographically and racially confined: they were ethnic Jews whose physical home was Israel. But when the Church was born, these boundaries were broken. Membership in the Church was now for all people everywhere (Matt 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; Acts 10:34-35). And so the Church is catholic: it is found all over the world, and contains people from every nation tribe and tongue. As bishop Irenaeus said against the Gnostics: “the Catholic Church possesses one and the same faith throughout the whole world.”
And that is why the early church did not create ethnic churches as tempting as it was. At Antioch, when Peter was tempted only to eat with Jews, Paul publicly rebuked him as not “acting in line with the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). A church for only one ethnic group of people is not catholic. It places race above Christ. History is racked by racial tension. But the one place where this should not occur, is in the Church because allegiance to Jesus is greater than allegiance to ethnicity, gender, status, or sexual orientation.
3. The Communion of the Saints
The description of the Church as the “communion of saints” was the last phrase to be added to the Apostles’ Creed. It seems the earliest appearance we find is with Niceta of Remesiana (late 4th – early 5th Century) who wrote an exposition of the Apostles’ Creed. Niceta understood the “communion of the saints” to be the bond that all believers have with each other, past, present, and future. Whether we realise it or not, we believers have a special connection with each other that the world does not possess. This teaching picks up the NT teaching that all believers are united to Christ (1 Cor. 1:9) and so possess a spiritual bond with each other by the Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14; Phil. 2:1-2).
Parents know the powerful bond they have with their children. It dramatically affects the way parents live: they expend emotions, energy, time, and resources for their children. Married people similarly experience a unique bond with their spouse which will also affect their emotions, energy, time, and resources. And the “communion of saints” speaks of a spiritual bond all believers have with each other—a bond that should affect our lives in all kinds of ways.
In particular this bond is the reason why believers should be at peace with each other (Eph 4:2-3). It is, after all, the love between church members that especially and visibly indicates to the world the truth of the gospel (John 13:34-35; 17:20-23).
Does a believer have to be involved in the church? If they wish to persevere, yes. If a finger is severed from the hand, it will die. And because the Church is a body, people who sever themselves from it will also spiritually die. This is because the church is holy, catholic, and a communion.
 See, for example, Augustine, The Creed 6.14.
.Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 119.3-4, Dialogue with Trypho, trans. Thomas B. Falls, Revised ed. (Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 178-79.
.See Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 18.26,”For this is the distinctive name of this holy Church, the mother of us all, and the spouse of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of God (for it is written: “As Christ also loved the Church, and delivered himself up for her,” and all that follows)”; The Works of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Volume 2, trans. Leo P. McCauley and Anthony A. Stephenson, 2 vols.; The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 64 (Washington: Catholic University of America, 1970), 134.
.Theophilus, To Autolycus 2.14, ANF 2:100.
.The Westminster Confession of Faith, 25.2.
.Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.10.3, ANF 1:331-332. For example, in the mid second century, the Church in Smyrna wrote this to the Christians in Philomelium: “The church of God which sojourns at Smyrna to the church of God which sojourns in Philomelium and to all the communities of the holy and catholic church sojourning in every place: may mercy, peace, and love from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ be multiplied”, Martyrdom of Polycarp, Introduction, Michael W Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 227.