For centuries, the Apostle’s Creed has formed Christians’ faith and practice. This creed has defined Christian orthodoxy since the fifth century and serves as a central confession of faith for believers across traditions and denominational lines. The Apostle’s Creed outlines the fundamentals of the faith and includes everything from the historicity of Christ to trinitarian theology and eschatology.
But among these various doctrines, there is one we in the American church often overlook: “I believe in the holy catholic church [and] the communion of saints.”
This line summarizes what Paul states at length in 1 Corinthians 12:12:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit, we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
The word catholic is derived from the Latin word catholicus, which means universal. But this word does not simply describe the geographic reaches of the church. Christ's church is universal in that it spans space and time; it is one because it is contained in Christ and ruled by Christ. Its oneness is spiritual, a new family bound together by spirit and water, reconciled to Christ through his death and resurrection. When we confess that the church is universal, we acknowledge that all those who have passed through the waters are mysteriously bound up in our own lives. In God, the many are made one, and the one is made many.
There is no them, and there is no us.
But more often than not, the church is catholic in belief and not in practice. The us/them dichotomy rises to the surface when the church is struck by tragedy and scandal. All of a sudden, the church becomes an entity separate from us. In the face of scandal, whether among leadership or laity, we begin to point fingers, as if those people aren’t us, as if the mystical bond has been broken (or never existed), and their problems belong to them and them alone. Those scandalized by the church's brokenness begin to act as if the scandal is an external problem and not an internal dilemma.
And in some sense, this makes sense. It’s easier to act as if the body of Christ is segmented into faithful and unfaithful communities, to diagnose and decry from afar, acting as if they were not our own. But the church’s catholicity does not allow us to distance ourselves from the brokenness of believers and the failings of the church. The shadow-side of Christ’s bride doesn’t belong to strangers out there but to the whole family. Their brokenness is our brokenness. We are broken.
The church’s universality calls us to look within, to see the issues that devastate communities as problems present for all those who call the church home. It’s not their problem, it's our problem. When we own the church's brokenness, we say to a watching world that we are willing to confront our darkness. Like Christ, we are called to face our crosses head-on, and in this way, we act out the salvation story. We confess so that we might be restored.
Strains of protestant theology have overemphasized the individual aspects of salvation. As a result, many of us relate to Christ on a one-on-one basis. We confess him as our “personal” savior. Our propensity to dislocate ourselves from the issues that plague the church is often a product of our narrow soteriological focus. When salvation is primarily about me, it becomes easy to forget we, the community central to the outworking of our faith. But salvation is first and foremost communal: Christ has redeemed for himself a people.
Full maturity is a corporate affair. As Paul states in his letter to the Ephesians,
But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.
Telling the truth in love is not a blasé approach to injustice and sin. Nor is it about endorsing cheap repentance. Truth in love embodies God’s justice and mercy, through which the body of Christ is held to account so that it may grow into its fullness.
While we cannot cover the vast complexities of trying to uphold this reality, I believe that these two practices are necessary if we are to embody our universality with truth and in love.
1. Inward Examination
St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, the Orthodox bishop and theologian, said, “Whatever you do, on no account condemn anyone; do not even try to judge whether a person is good or bad, but keep your eyes on that one evil person for whom you must give an account before God — yourself.” The bishop’s point is clear: Before we can be responsible for the injustice around us, we must first examine ourselves. Jesus makes a similar point in Matthew 7:3, “Why do you see a speck in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye.” We often use the sin of others to distract ourselves from our corruption. We use the moral failings of those around us as a backdrop to highlight our perceived righteousness. Ignatius takes it a step further as he warns against oversimplifying humans and human behavior. The world is not color-coded, and it is not easily delineated into the good and the evil. God is the final judge, and we await his verdict.
This does not mean silence, however, especially when we witness injustice and brokenness. It does mean that we call out and name those broken spaces and places in hopes that God might fill them.
2. A Praxis of Prayer
In the 21st century, prayer has gotten a bad rap. It has been co-opted by those who would use prayer as an excuse for passivity. “Thoughts and prayers” have become code words for neglect and silence. But prayer is more than a platitude of the passive; it is an invitation to a Holy God to make himself known and to work in the world. In prayer, the in-breaking of heaven draws near and begins the secret work of the Spirit in the wounded spaces it occupies. As St. Ignatius of Antioch said, “He who carried God in his heart bears heaven with him wherever he goes.” What the church needs now more than ever is prayer. Not passive, do-nothing, say-nothing prayer, but prophetic, action-oriented, world-changing prayer. Prayer unites us with saints living and dead, and it reminds us that the whole vast, unwieldy, universal church belongs to God and that he has not finished redeeming us.