"I believe in the holy catholic church?" What is the Apostles Creed referring to?
At our church we recite the "Apostles Creed" together nearly every week. Nearly every week, then, we all repeat the phrase "I believe in the holy catholic church." For many christians, this assertion is problematic, because it could be understood as an endorsement of the Roman Catholic church. Is this what the Creed is referring to? What exactly are we confessing when we affirm our belief in the holy catholic church?
First, let us be clear that when the Apostles Creed uses the word catholic, it is not referring to what we now know as the Roman Catholic church. The Creed in its present form was composed not later than the 4th century, while the Roman Catholic church had its beginnings with the Council of Trent in the 16th century. The world catholic is derived from a greek word which is best translated by the english "universal/whole." When we confess to believe in the holy catholic church, then, we are simply affirming that we are part of the one true church of Jesus Christ, whenever and wherever it is located. The true catholic church includes all of the believers in Jesus who have ever lived. It "consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all." (Westminster Confession of Faith, 25:1)
By this affirmation, we remind ourselves every week that we are not the only true church of Jesus Christ in this world (praise God for that!). The Church of Jesus has never been restricted to one place or one particular denomination. Wherever the Lordship of Christ is acknowledged, the true Gospel proclaimed, and sacraments rightly administered, there exists a true church of Jesus Christ. By affirming the catholicity of the church, we are affirming that the PCA is not the only denomination in which the Spirit of God is present and at work. When we affirm the catholicity of the church, we battle against our own sinful tendency to arrogance and exclusion.
As one pastor says well: "The Church of Jesus Christ is larger than our local church and denomination. It is larger than Presbyterianism, even Protestantism...It predates the Reformation. The catholic church is one worldwide fellowship of believing people together with the triumphant saints in heaven - both Old and New Testament saints - all united to Christ the Husband and Head."