01 May 2007

May 2007-Faith to Live By

An Exposition of the Apostles' Creed - The Church

14. The Church
the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints

Some Christians may wonder what it means to declare that ‘we believe in the Church’. The statements so far refer to faith in the Triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But what does it mean to say that we have faith in the Church? It is extremely important that the significance of this statement is understood, for in its formulation this statement is vulnerable to misinterpretations that will yield unhealthy consequences.

For instance, this statement could be read as an invitation to put confidence in the Church. This way of reading and understanding the statement is evident in some circles, and even among some evangelical Churches. ‘We believe in the Church’ is understood in the same sense as ‘I believe in you’, which means essentially ‘I have confidence in you’. When this statement of the Creed is understood in this way, the Church is essentially asserting its own self confidence.

Evangelicalism today has witnessed many instances of such ecclesiastical triumphalism or colossalism, and theologians like David Wells, Martin Marty and Mark Noll have written extensively in criticism of such approaches. A Church which expresses such self-confidence has already taken leave of God. It is drawn inwards and is excessively and unhealthily preoccupied with its own collective ego. A Church that expresses such titanic self confidence and seeks after its own fame is guilty of the most insidious form of idolatry.

The statement ‘We believe in the Church’ points in exactly the opposite direction, and serves as an antithesis to the interpretation expressed above. For to say that we believe in the Church is to confess that the Church is a creature of grace, and to say that only by faith can the Church as Church be recognised. Of course empirically we can talk about the 'Church’ as a gathering of like-minded people who claim to be followers of Christ. Or we could say that the ‘Church’ is a society of people who adhere to the Christian religion.

In other words, outside of faith we can provide a whole array of sociological, historical, and phenomenological definitions of the Church. But it is only in faith that we can say that the Church is a justified people of God, redeemed by the blood of Christ, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Outside of faith, the keenest sociologist or phenomenologist of religion could at best say that the Church merely claims to be such.

In this way, ‘We believe in the Church’ belongs to all the other articles of faith that we have examined thus far. The Church is a reality that can only be seen by the eyes of faith. Only those who hold the preceding statements of the Creed to be true can perceive the reality of the Church as Church, that is, as the people of God. Thus those who declare ‘we believe in the Church’ can never place their confidence in themselves. Rather, those who truly understand what this declaration means will place their confidence in God, who has brought the Church into being. They will know that the Church is totally dependent on God for its existence. And they will recognise the fact that the reason for the Church’s existence is not its own glorification, but the glory of God.

The Nicene Creed describes the Church as ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic’. These four adjectives bring to expression the self-understanding of the Church. The New Testament teaches that unity is the basic characteristic of the Christian community. In Matthew 23: 8-11 Jesus told his disciples, ‘You are not to be called “Rabbi”, for you have only one Master and you are all brothers’. In John 10, the Church is said to be one flock because she has one shepherd.

It is perhaps in 1 Corinthians 12 that the clearest teaching concerning the oneness and unity of the Church is to be found. There the Apostle Paul asserts that although in the Church there can be found a diversity of gifts and ministries, there is but one Lord: ‘There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men’ (1 Cor 12: 4-5).

In the same way, the New Testament testifies to the holiness of the Church. Although this attribute of the Church is well attested to by Scripture (see Mark 1:1-8, 14; Eph 4:1, 25; 5:1; 1 Pet 1:14-16), what it means by this is not always very clear. In the Bible, holiness is an attribute of God alone. Holiness, when applied to the Church therefore does not refer primarily to the moral and religious behaviour of its members. In fact, holiness cannot be said to stem from the Church herself – it cannot be an intrinsic quality that she possesses.

The Church is holy because of the will and the word of God. It is God who sanctifies the Church and makes it holy. God has called the Church into being from before the foundation of the world, set it apart as his very own, and God will bring his people to perfection when his kingdom is consummated.

To say that holiness is not primarily about the Church’s behaviour does not of course mean that the concept has nothing to do with Christian conduct. Paul continually exhorts Christians to holy living, that is, to conduct their affairs in a way that is in keeping with their calling to be God’s holy people. This truth is given unequivocal expression by Peter when he wrote thus to the Christians in Asia Minor: ‘But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy”’ (1 Peter 1:15).

The third attribute or characteristic of the Church is catholicity. For many Protestant Christians, the word ‘catholic’ wrongly connotes ‘Roman Catholic’. In some versions of the Apostles’ Creed, which are gaining currency especially in Lutheran Churches, ‘Christian’ has been used to replace ‘Catholic’. However, I question the wisdom of this move. In the first place, replacing one term with another simply because of the historical baggage that that term happens to carry is a short sighted approach to resolving the problem. The new term may lack the history and tradition that the previous term enjoys. In this particular case, I think to clarify what we mean by the term ‘catholic’ is more constructive than replacing it. Clarification entails education and a sense of history: it is a process by which the tradition is recovered and restored. 

The term ‘catholic’ simply means ‘universality plus identity’ and ‘universality plus continuity’. By professing faith in the ‘catholic’ Church we are asserting the permanence, stability and multi-cultural nature of the Church of God. The Church cannot be parochially defined in the framework of one denomination (e.g., Methodist) or one ethnic group (e.g., the Chinese Church), or even one tradition (i.e., the Roman Catholic tradition). When we confess faith in the ‘catholic’ Church, we confess also the ecumenicity of the Church. But the catholicity of the Church does not simply transcend denominations; it also transcends time. By this profession we are asserting faith in the whole people of God – past, present and also future.

Finally, we come to the Church’s apostolicity. The Church is apostolic because the apostles and prophets are affirmed as the foundation of the Church through whom the revelation of God is received (Eph 2:20; 3:5). There has been much controversy regarding the question of apostolic succession, and this issue has impeded the progress of much of modern ecumenical relations. Who is the true successor of the apostle – the Roman Pope, the Patriarchs of the Eastern Churches, or the Reformers?

When apostolic succession is seen in this way, connected inextricably to ecclesiastical office, then the problem will be irresolvable. But if apostolicity is understood in light of faithfulness to the message and ministry to the one and only true Apostle, Jesus Christ, then perhaps a way to surmount the present conundrum will begin to present itself. According to this perspective, the apostolicity of the Church is dependent on the Church’s faithfulness to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, the true Apostle.

Reflection on these characteristics will surely leave some of us disappointed, if not disillusioned. For it does not take a careful observer to notice how far the empirical Church falls short of the high ideals that are presented in Scripture and expressed in the Creed.

The empirical Church is anything but one, holy, catholic and apostolic. The disunity of the Church is clearly evident – that, after a century of ecumenical efforts. The Church is scarred by moral failings and scandal, and at times appears to have acted more dishonourably than secular institutions. The catholicity of the Church remains an abstract notion: that which is clear for all to see is the discontinuities and the fragmentation. And, in a world which despises truth, the claims to apostolicity evaporate and appear ludicrous. Today, there are no more heretics. This is not because everyone embraces the truth. Rather it is because the truth is no longer taken seriously.

But these empirical realities should not detract us from the fact that faith holds the Church to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic.

This brings us back to where we began. To say ‘I believe in the Church’ is to say that I believe that the God who has set aside his people has a special plan and purpose for the Church. It is to say that no matter how things may look, God will in the end fulfil his purpose, and his Church will be presented as a spotless and unblemished bride to the Bridegroom. To say ‘I believe in the Church’ is in the end to put our confidence and trust in the God who has called us out of darkness into his light.

Roland Chia
Dr. Roland Chia is Dean of Postgraduate Studies and Lecturer in Historical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Theological College, Singapore.