The Meaning and Importance of
Catholicity and the Local Church
In this chapter we will press for a clearer image of the Church by examining the Local Church. In order to grasp the early Christian meaning of the Local Church, however, we must first understand another commonly misunderstood term: catholicity. The concept of catholicity holds a great deal of importance for the Church today because a proper understanding of catholicity can erase many popular misconceptions regarding the Church's nature.
To many Fundamentalists-Evangelicals, the word catholic is simply an abbreviation for Roman Catholic. The term catholic, however, can never be the property of a denomination. In fact, as I shall show in a moment, those who use it to segregate Christians from each other are actually contradicting its very meaning! The ancient Church understood catholicity to mean wholeness, fullness, integrity, and "totality." This is the primary meaning of the Greek word katholou (kaqolou), catholic.1
Another popular misunderstanding of the word catholic is "universal," as in, the church which exists throughout the world. This was not at all the early Christian understanding. The Church of the first centuries used the term as a synonym for the fullness of Truth, not as a geographical description. For example, Ignatius of Antioch (the first Christian father to use the word to explain the Church) states that the Church is catholic because in her assembly, the faithful welcome the presence of Christ in all His Truth. The idea of a universal Church, understood as being constituted by all "churches" throughout the world, never occurred to Ignatius.2
Actually, it was not until the Fifth Century and then only in the West that catholicity began to take on a geographic emphasis.3 For centuries, "catholicity" never implied the sum total of all individual local churches, but rather was a reference to the Church's inner being.4 Catholicity is a matter of the Church's inward unity in wholeness, not her outward administrative structure throughout the world. Indeed, if "catholic" meant universal, even the first Church in the Upper Room could not be considered catholic.5
Catholicity Means Identical Faith, Not Identical Form
If the Church is catholic in its very being, and not because of its existence as a world-wide structure,6 then it follows that the unity of the Church is realized through a shared Faith, and a shared life, not just a shared administration.7 The early Church did not believe that its doctrine was catholic because it existed everywhere, but because the very nature of Truth is catholic.8 Its unity was based on Truth, not on form or politics. The Church was one by virtue of its possessing the one, identical, and whole Faith of the Church, not because each Local Church submitted to a central bureaucratic structure.
Oftentimes many modern day Christians tend to think that doctrine is divisive, unnecessary, or even an obstacle to true Christian unity. But a catholic understanding of doctrine leads us to the exact opposite conclusion. Ignorance of the Truth and false beliefs are the hindrances to unity, not encouragements to it. Catholic Truth is whole and entire, and the unity of the church must reflect this reality. "Fundamentally ... there can never be any unity without truth or any truth without unity."9 As the presence of Christ in the Church is indivisible, so the Truth which He embodies within her is likewise indivisible. The Church is catholic precisely because it embodies all Truth and stands "opposed to all forms of particularism and sectarian separatism or heresy which would compromise the Truth." 10 "Unity is realized through participation in the one truth ... in Christ. "11
CATHOLIC TRUTH VS. DENOMINATIONALISM
Catholicity cannot be squeezed into a denominational mold. The Church (not one particular denomination) sees and attests to what is of God, and bears witness to the Truth wherever it may be. The Spirit blows where He wills and He blows wherever a true witness of God's life is evident (1 Cor. 12: 3; 1 John 4: 2-6). Thus, a religious body that refuses to recognize the Spirit outside of its administrative borders is not a catholic expression of the Church: it is a denomination. Or even worse: it is a sect.12
This compels us to again recognize the fundamental truth that the Church is not many, but One. There are no flavors of Christianity. No different shades of truth can co-exist in the Church. Denominations do not represent a "cereal assortment pack" of the Church, each one emphasizing its own special truth (e.g., the Baptists represent "Missionary Christianity," the Pentecostals the "Christianity of Spiritual Gifts," the "sacramental" Churches offer "Liturgical Christianity," etc.). Christianity is Christianity. Truth is Truth. And the Church is the (one) Church.13
It is a contradiction to God's presence and love within the Church to say Christianity can be cut up or denominated according to particular tastes or functions. We may see the Church as divided, but our perception does not always accurately reflect the true nature of the Church. Certainly Christ does not see His Body this way! He has one Body, not many.
All this is not to say that Truth cannot be expressed in a diversity of cultures, styles of worship, or even theological systems, for it certainly can be, and in fact is. But this does not mean that Truth is relative to culture or anything else, only that various cultures can be used of God to speak the one same Truth to a variety of peoples. The catholicity of the Church encourages both the unity of faith, and at the same time, Spirit-inspired diversity. Catholic diversity, however, neither contradicts the one Truth nor divides the one Church. Denominationalism, on the other hand, gives the impression that the Church could be divided and that contradictory doctrines are acceptable in the Church, thus denominationalism encourages neither unity nor diversity !14
Catholicity refuses to restrict the life of the Church to any one time or place in history (i.e. New Testament times, the Middle Ages, Reformation Europe, the Counter-reformation, etc.). Catholicity implies a unity with the past (in the Faith of the Apostles) and a unity with the future (the Second Coming).15 To fragment the Church's life and experience as if the real Church were only in the past (30 - 100 A.D.), in heaven, or found on the Last Day, is to deny the Church's intrinsic catholicity (wholeness).16 As Christ is both within and beyond time, so is His Church. "The catholic nature of the Church is seen most vividly in the fact that the experience of the Church belongs to all times."17
Christ's Catholicity and Our Task
Plainly stated, the Church is catholic because Christ is catholic. "The Church is catholic, because it is the one Body of Christ; it is union in Christ, oneness in the Holy Ghostand this unity is the highest wholeness and fullness."18 St. Ignatius wrote "Wherever Christ is, there is the catholic Church"19 because Christ's presence within His Body will and does now unite us and all creation into wholeness and totality (Eph. 1:9, 10). By His uniting everything and all peoples in His Church, the fragmenting power of sin, satan, and the Fall are overcome in Christ's catholic nature. In Jesus Christ, all will be re-united and healed. When Jesus gathered and united a people from the diversity of humanity and culture, He performed a truly "catholic act." No longer is there any "distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman." Now, in the Church's catholicism, "Christ is all, and in all" (Col. 3:11).20
Christ's presence in the Church, however, does not automatically manifest the Church's catholic nature among us. "Catholicity has been given to the Church; [but] its achievement is the Church's task."21 We have a necessary part to play. Although the Church's inherent catholicity is founded in Christ and is not dependent upon our behavior, our experience and participation in His catholicity does demand our active co-operation. What does this mean?
Each is called to reveal Christ's wholeness, love, and redemption within the Church, and then to bring that catholicity into the world by loving as Christ loves. This inner "catholic consciousness" of the Church will only be revealed when her members take steps of faith, and when they open their lives to one another in heart and mind. Such an active Catholic Community will have no "barriers," whether they be national, regional, racial, sexual, economic, cultural, or social. All these divisions will be overcome by God's love.
There is another aspect of living a catholic life, and that is committing oneself to follow the Truth wherever it might lead. Within the catholic Church, in fellowship with one's brethren, each must take the responsibility to experience Truth in spirit, mind, and action. It is not possible for "someone else" to know the Truth for us (i.e. a Sunday School teacher, our pastor, a professional theologian). Each must make the Truth his own to be consciously catholic. Each must study, each must pursue Truth, each must give his heart in Christian discipleship.
It is the same with the responsibility to love. Catholic unity will be demonstrated only when each person works both to give and to receive love. This personal, responsible love manifests the Church's catholicity as nothing else can. In this love, Truth will be perceived, shared and lived in a catholic manner (Eph. 3: 17-20).22 This again reiterates the truth that love and doctrine are inseparable, for one's experience of God's Truth directly corresponds to his ability to give and receive love in catholic communion.23 Christ does not disclose Himself in one's self-imposed isolation, but in an environment of giving, sharing, receiving, and communion. In this context alone is the character of God revealed.24
THE CHURCH IN THE ASSEMBLY (EKKLESIA) AND COVENANT
To more fully understand what we mean by the Catholic Church, let us now define exactly what we mean by the term "Church." The word originates from the Greek word ekklesia (ekklhsia), those who have been "called out" from among others to form a union. The word is also often used synonymously for our English word gathering. In ancient Greece, the ekklesia was descriptive of the political assembly where all full citizens were called out to decide upon fundamental political and juridical issues.25 In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), the word was used as a rendering of the Hebrew word Qahal (Judges 20:2; Deut 18:16; Num. 1:16). The Qahal was the gathering which represented the whole nation of Israel (Deut 9:10; Ex. 19:20; Acts 7:38), placing "a special emphasis on the ultimate unity of the Chosen People, conceived as a sacred whole".26
The authors of the New Testament adopted aspects of each of these meanings, but it was primarily the Old Testamental understanding of Qahal that they favored in their depiction of the Christian Church. It was this emphasis which led the first Christians to see the Church as "first of all the organic continuity of the two Covenants."27 The Qahal, as a community of people united to God and one another in the Old Testament, was understood as a type for the ekklesia in the New (1 Pet. 2:9).28 It was this covenanted community of God's people that the Lord Himself had in mind when He spoke of the Ekklesia - the Church.29
The Ekklesia As a Gathering In "The Name"
The revelation of God's Name in the Old Testament as YHWH revealed something distinctly "personal" about the character of God. Chiefly it disclosed the Lord's intimate identification with Israel as a people ... as Qahal. God's relationship with Israel was unique; only Israel personally knew the Lord as YHWH; His Name was the special property of God's covenant people, for God bound Himself to Israel in a way which no other nation knew.
The covenantal significance of His name has not passed away with time. The Name of YHWH - the name which reveals that God gives Himself to a people - still holds a great deal of importance for the New Covenant Christian. Each believer's identification with Jesus (Aramaic for "YHWH is salvation") designates him or her as a member of God's people, those who personally know God in covenant. Like his or her counterpart in the Old Testament, a Christian knows God within a covenanted people (Eph. 2:12, 13), just as the individual Jew was known in Israel. The New Testament Christian is now part of "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession " (1 Peter 2:9).?
It would have been a contradiction for an Old Testament believer to say he had committed his life to YHWH but was aloof from Israel (The Qahal). Likewise it would have been inconsistent for a Christian in New Testament times to affirm his commitment to Christ yet refuse membership within the Church (ekklesia) of his town. A person did not "come to Christ" (know the Name of Jesus), by merely making a private decision. The nature of covenant was constant in both Old and New Testaments in this respect: it was never something which existed solely between God and the individual believer. If one was covenanted to God in the Name (YHWH/Jesus), he was also covenanted to his fellow covenantors - and joined himself to a covenant people.
This leads us to a stunning conclusion. If one wants to be a Christian and yet does not want to be a part of an ekklesia a people, i.e. the Church he cannot be one. Christianity is, in its very nature, covenantal and communal.30 Christ established the Church in the covenant of His blood and we accept what He offered in His covenant (Heb. 12:24). To ignore the ramifications of Christ's covenant is to build on a different foundation than Christ (1 Cor. 3:11).
What is most significant for a right understanding of Jesus' view of the church is that God dealt with a community rather than with isolated individuals.31 We can neither separate ourselves from others, nor casually gather together as an uncommitted body of individuals, and still say that we are living New Covenant Christianity. To gather "in the Name" necessitates that we gather as a covenanted people.
The Ekklesia and The Significance of Covenant
We can better understand the impossibility of "Christian individualism" by taking a closer look at the meaning of covenant. Both Old and New Testament senses of the word communicate the idea of "binding together." The word for covenant in the Hebrew, beriut means "to fetter." The Greek New Testament equivalent is diatheeke (diaqhkh), the word is often translated testament. Diatheeke connotes the idea of a "contract" or "a pledge to another upon one's death." This latter conception is perhaps the best of all translations of the word.
In the Old Testament we see a foreshadowing of what Christ has done for us through covenant. A covenant was the vehicle used to establish "family-like" relationships between agreeing parties.32 Similarly, in the covenant given to us by Christ, we have been made a family. We have become brothers with Christ and one another, joint members of "God's household."33 In the early years of the Church it was this brotherhood which was most observable in the Local Church, and it attracted many to Christ's love and peace. The unbeliever saw that it was in covenant brotherhood that the peace of God's family could be known.34
Ignatius rightly discerned each Christian gathering (the Local Church) as a focus of covenant solidarity. He expressed this most powerfully in his seeing the Eucharist as the central feature of each local church. In his letters, Ignatius uses the Greek phrase epi to afto (epi to auto) as an equivalent for "assembly", or "unite" (as "to unite in prayer").35 In each usage he refers to the Eucharistic assembly. From this we can surmise that his usage of the phrase, and the meaning it held for himthe Eucharistic-covanental gathering of the Churchwas that of the Christians in the New Testament period (After all, their era was his era [30-107 AD].). With this background, it becomes all the more clear that when the New Testament uses the Greek phrase epi to afto (which literally translates to come together "on the same place"), it also bears Eucharistic significance.36 The implications of this will be more fully discussed in the chapter on the Eucharist, but our major point here is that the Eucharist was the expression of Christ's covenant and as such was the "gathering in the Name."
This insight gives us a clearer understanding of the nature of the Church. The issue is not just coming together,37 but "when you come together as a church " (1 Cor. 11: 18). As Israel was God's people because Yahweh was present among them in the covenanted Qahal, so now Christ's covenant makes Him present in a unique manner within the ekklesia, the gathered people of God.38 In this respect, each Local Church reflects the whole (Catholic) Church.
THE MEANING OF THE LOCAL CHURCH
Given this background of catholicity, let us now look into the last statement more fully: the whole Church resides within one specific Local body. Many are puzzled by such a statement because they see the Church as a composite, administrative string of "churches," not as the united spiritual organism she actually is. The Eastern minded Christian maintains that "the Church in its fullest manifestation is not found in some distant and exalted state of existence, but rather in the Local Church."39 The Scriptures make it plain that the Local and the 'universal' Church represent the same spiritual reality (Phil. 3:6; 1 Cor. 10:32; Eph. 5:23, 27, 29). How can this be? Just as an individual person is not "a slice" of humanity but a full expression of it, so also the Local Church is not a slice of the Church, but her fullness. Let me illustrate this by focusing in on six ways the Local Church demonstrates to us what it means to be the Church.
(1) The Nature of The Church's Catholicity
The Local Church is a true representation and manifestation of the one Church which exists in many places because each Local Church is catholic in its full expression of the Faith, teaching, life, and communion. In fact, the phrase "catholic Church" was applied almost exclusively to the Local Church within the first three centuries.40 The notion of a mystical (i.e. invisible) Body of Christ as the Church was far from the New Testament writers' minds. Their usage of the term "Church" was primarily a reference to a specific, local, concrete, and visible assembly.41
The synagogue of New Testament times even mirrored this aspect of the Church's catholicity. Each one looked upon itself as a miniature of Judaism as a whole.42 Paul perceived the synagogue residing within each city as the local manifestation of the whole congregation of Israel. The Apostle, seeing each Christian Assembly as a microcosm of the whole ekklesia,43 naturally transferred this perspective to the Local Church.44 He did not get drawn into a frame of reference which falsely divided the Church into Local and Universal.45 Paul saw each Local Church like a full circle within a circle, every community being a concrete, specific expression of the whole Church. His salutations stand as revealing commentaries to this: 'the church of God which is at Corinth,' 'to the church of the Thessalonians'; 'the church in your house'..."46
(2) The Church As The Body of Christ
To ascribe anything less than wholeness to the Local Church would be to deny that the Body of Christ is present in each assembly. The Local Church is "catholic" by virtue of each Local Community being Christ's Body existentially. EACH assembly shares in HIS unity. EACH assembly shares in HIS catholicity. As we stated before, when St. Ignatius wrote in 100 A.D. to the Church of Smyrna that "Wherever Christ Jesus is, there is the catholic Church", he was making a reference to the fullness of Christ's indivisible Body as it existed within each Local Church.47 The Body of Christ is in, with, and among each assembly.48 This truth creates no tension between local and universal in the Church's catholicity.
(3) The EUCHARIST Makes The LOCAL Church Truly Church
Although I will take up the subject more extensively in later chapters, the meaning and significance of the Eucharist is so central an understanding of the Church that I must briefly mention some things about it now. The third reason each local community is the whole (catholic) Body of Christ, is that each community celebrates the Eucharist. In this celebration, the Body of Christ is revealed, not just by "symbols" of Bread and Wine, but, by that people of God, that particular gathering. Wherever the Eucharist is, there is the "whole" (catholic) Christ with the "whole" (catholic) Church. For this reason - that Christ is present within the specified assembly - all theology about the Church in the East is rooted in the Local Church.
The Church exists universally only because it exists Locally. The "universal" Church can only be manifest in the Local Church,49 because the Eucharist can only be celebrated Locally. And it is the Eucharistic assembly, as the Body of Christ, which makes the Local Church transcend its geographical limitations. The foundation for this is seen in Paul's very description of the Church as "the body of Christ" (1 Cor. 12:27).50 In fact, it is reasonable to assume that the very phrase "body of Christ" had its origin in the Eucharistic assembly: "In the Eucharist the body of Christians (to svma tvn Kristianwn) becomes the body of Christ (to swma tou Kristou)."51
The Local Assembly cannot be only a "part" of the Body of Christ. The Eastern Orthodox Churches of today emphasize this truth in a pattern of worship they still maintain. No more than one Eucharist can be celebrated in the same parish each day, and no minister can celebrate more than once each day. The purpose of this practice is to make it clear that the entire body of the Local Church (not just a segment of it) must be present in the gathering. A fragment of the body cannot manifest the reality of the one, whole Church gathered in the Eucharist. If this were the case, Christ would not be fully present within each celebration of the Eucharistonly parts of Him would be. And how can you have just a part of Christ's presence? We, as the Church, are the members of His Body, not members of His parts! Each Assembly manifests the whole Christ because each is united to the whole Christ. Paul did not greet "a part of the Church" that met in Aquila and Priscila's home, but "the Church" gathered there (Rom. 16:5). That local Body was just as much the Church as The Gathering of the Christians in Rome, or Thessalonika,52 or any other city where believers were assembled.
(4) The LOCAL Church's Equality With Every Other LOCAL Church
As can be concluded from the above, no Local Church or group of Local Churches could legitimately claim any right of rulership over other Local Churches. Just as no one Local Church can have more of the Eucharist, more of Christ, more of the covenant, or be more catholic than any other, so no one Local Church can be more Church than the others.53 Since Christ is equally present within each assembly, each sister Church equals all the others. The Eucharist shows each Local Church to be the embodiment of the all-encompassing Christ,54 and, therefore, it is impossible for any Local Church to be "governed" by anything or anyone else but Christ.55 Because Christ is within each Church, the primacy of the Church must be located within each Local Church.56
The Church councils in early Church history are powerful illustrations of the equality and unity which each Local Church shared. In these councils, the heads of each Christian community (as representatives of their respective assemblies), protected their Catholicity by making sure that they stood in harmony with the other Local Churches. Nothing could be concluded in a council without the unanimous consent of each overseer. Each bishop was understood to be each other bishop's peer.57 These councils were a demonstration of each Community's catholic expression of the Faith.
These Church councils were not standing bureaucratic structures of power, nor a religious board of directors. They were spontaneous events convened only when the Local Churches sensed a crucial need for them. Here, in the Church council, was the practical out-working of the Church which sees its existence both in the Local context and beyond. In essence, the council represented "the most official negation of the division between Local and universal...".58
(5) The LOCAL Church's Communion With The Church Elsewhere
The Local Church is not fully dependent upon another Local Church for its identity; however, neither can it ever be completely independent of it, for although the Local Church is the complete Church, it is only this because it is mutually joined and inseparable from the Church as it exists elsewhere in the world.59 No truly catholic Local Church can rightly see itself as "independent" from the others. Among them stands a relationship of inter - dependence. Alexander Schmemann, a professor of Eastern Orthodox theology, sums up the catholicity and inter-communion of the Church, and their manifestation among the Local Churches in this way:
This vision of the Local Churches being "part" yet "whole" "many" but "one" is reflected well in the life of the Trinity:
No One Person of the Trinity exists without the others. Similarly, the Local Church, like any Person of the Trinity, cannot exist unless it exists in relationship with the other Local Churches throughout the world. The Father is Father because of His relationship with the Son, and the Spirit; the Son is the Son because of His relationship with the Father and the Spirit; and the Spirit is the Spirit only because of His relationship with the Father and the Son. The Local Church exists as Church only because of its communal relationship with every other genuine Local Assembly which manifests Christ. As Each Divine Person's very being is communal so the Church is called to be a people of communion.62
Although the same intensity of communion cannot be realized by us, the Local Church is nevertheless called to somehow reflect the union of the Trinity with all other truly Catholic Churches (John 17:20-23). The Trinity, though Three Persons, is Unity because of their love for each other, in the same way each Local Church, though found in many different locations, is called to express its inherent "indivisibility" by love, interdependence, and selflessness.
Each Local Church is Church because each shares a unity in the one Christ and in the life of each other¹s local Community. If a Local Church begins to see herself exclusively and cuts herself off from the rest, she ceases to be the Church, and to break off her relationship with the complete body of Christ is to become mutated, to become only a "piece" of Christ, i.e. to become something which does not exist! ?
(6) The LOCAL Church As The Church In Identity of Faith
Finally, the Local Church is one and the same with every other local Body because of the common relationship each shares in Christ's Body. The Local Church as the Church means each "can and... must recognize in each other the same faith, the same fullness, and the same divine life."63 This identity is observable in the identical Faith which all genuine Churches demonstrate in life and in their communion in the Truth. It was for this reason Bishop Cyprian of Carthage (220-258 A.D) taught that each Local Church was identical with the other Local Churches, each local bishop being able to make Peter's confession of faith (Matt. 16:16).64
In the early centuries, the faith of one Local Church was identical with all the others, and only in this oneness of faith not through some over-arching structure was each united. A further illustration of "the identical faith" manifesting "the identical Church" was seen in the practice of each Local Church's refusal to consecrate any candidate for bishop unless other bishops from nearby local Communities also approved of his candidacy. This exercise is not to be misunderstood as saying that these ordaining bishops had power over the newly ordained, but merely that their testimony (again, as representatives of their respective Communities) witnessed to the fact that the faith of both the new overseer and the Community was identical with theirs, like testifying to like. If the Community's leadership, life, and witness were not in conformity with Apostolic practice, the Local Churches on its borders would not recognize it as one of theirs.
The Church is whole; it defies "denominating" and cannot be delineated in purely administrative terms. Christ's presence within the Local Assembly underscores the Church's innate wholeness. The Church is whole because Christ is whole. Its call to be catholic leads the Church both to embrace all Truth and to refuse all falsehood. The Church is fullness in Life, Love, and Communion, and is open to all who would be whole. It can not accommodate those who live in isolation and prejudice. In conclusion, every Christian has a mandate to discover and embrace the Church's oneness in her fulness and completeness. Only in this soil can the true unity of the Church be displayed.
The experience of Church takes place not at an evangelistic crusade or in a Bible study group (as good as these may be), but when Christians come together as an assembled people. The Church is communion with God and one's brethren, a reality which is to be realized and experienced in the Local Church. Here, in the the Covenant Assembly, believers are gathered in Jesus' Name and manifest their union with Christ and each other as His body. Here in a specific place at a specific time with specific people God's love is demonstrated in a way that is impossible universally or invisibly. When this vision of the Local Church is regained, the Church will once more be "the light of the world, a city set on a hill that cannot be hidden" (Matt. 5:14).
NOTES FOR CHAPTER TEN
"what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ." (1 John 1:3,4)
"For He has delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Col. 1:12) [A kingdom which is to be experienced on earth as well as in heaven (Matt. 6:10)]
"I [Jesus] do not ask in behalf of these alone [the Disciples], but for those also who believe in Me through their word [Christians of all generations]; that they may all be one ; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us..." (John 17:21)
"...the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us out of the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father." (Gal. 1:4)
The only way to escape that "present evil age," was to enter into another Kingdom. The Church is the environment of this deliverance..
"And with many other words he [Peter] solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, 'Be saved from this perverse generation!" (Acts 2:40)
And then those who responded to Peter's invitation were baptized, "added" to their assembly, and devoted themselves to the fellowship (Acts 2:41, 42).