The Ancient Catholic Church

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I am committed to this thing called ‘ecumenism’. It’s a funny word, I know, and it has multiple meanings depending on the context one hears it. In it’s simplest form, for me, ecumenism is referring to any inter-denominational movement towards unity or concerted cooperation among Christian denominations, including Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants. I’m not here to define clearly my view of ecumenism, which would be a good post for another day. As I have thought and prayed and connected outside of theological ‘tribes’ that I’m usually comfortable with, I have wrestled with what the word “catholic” means, and particularly, what did it originally mean when referring to the church.

Justo González, in his fantastic work of retelling The Story of Christianity (volume I), ends his 8th chapter with a small closing entitled, “The Ancient Catholic Church”. The context of the chapter is a discussion of the 2nd and 3rd century church’s “deposit of the faith”, which would be how the church would refute false testimonies about their lifestyle, their doctrine, and their traditions. Creeds, the canon of Scripture, and the apostolic succession were all a part of determining “the rule of faith” for followers of Jesus.

González mentions that the first time the phrase “Catholic church” is used among Christians, it was used to identify Christians in the 2nd century apart from Gnostics and Marcionites (google the meaning of those sects if you’re curious). The Catholic church was not only the church that was connected to apostolic successors (Christians who were discipled by an apostle in the 1st century or by a disciple of someone who was an apostle; see the first comment from Matt Marino for a brief background of the episcopal collegiality and why apostolic succession was so important in their apologetic), but it was also the church that was connected to the network of bishops or church leaders who desired to stay true to the rule of faith and who were approved as godly leaders by apostolic successors.

Many people may think of the word catholic as referring to the Roman Catholic church, and some creedal Protestants and Orthodox would understand the word catholic to mean “universal” in terms of being the “one” church of God. However, the ancient church in the 2nd century first used the word catholic to mean “according to the whole”, or “according to all the bishops and church leaders” who were interconnected by creeds, apostolic succession, and the canon of Scripture, to preserve the truth of the gospel.

González goes on to say that the ancient church understood this title to refer to “both its universality and the inclusiveness of the witness on which it stood… the total witness of all the apostles and all the evangelists.” This “Catholicity” among the church would be it’s claim to a true witness of Christ Jesus and his gospel. This was what kept the teaching of the person and divinity of Christ truthful, or orthodox, or catholic. 

The irony of this story is that after many centuries of church growth and polity, arguments and discussions about what the word catholic really meant began to be centered on “the person and authority of a single apostle–Peter”, more so than the authority “according to the whole”.

Now I’m not here to pick on any Catholic forms of authority, but I wanted to tell this story to draw our attention back to the ancient church’s desire to hear the collective voice of the whole, which provided a type of shared leadership that formed organically before it was institutionalized in the 4th century.

There is much we can learn from the ancient, or the first Catholic church, and their desire to have a collective voice together, protected by creeds, apostolic successors, and Scripture. There is much division among the body of Christ today, and there is no one answer, but there are on ramps to this movement for us today.

One on ramp that I am reminded of today is that we need to work really hard in each city to connect the whole body as much as we are able to, and begin dialogues and prayer gatherings, trusting once again the “forgotten” God of the Protestants, the Holy Spirit, to be the one to preserve the purity of the church and for Christian leaders stop living in fear of “going down the slippery slope” of universalism or theological liberalism if they were to embrace those who differ from them theologically.

God preserves his church and his people. We are to be so utterly confident in that truth that we can be free to reach across tribal boundaries and trust that Jesus’ people are in more corners of our cities than we ever imagined, and that if we were to be courageous enough to go to those places and extend a hand of friendship, that Jesus’ prayer in John 17 would begin to reverse some of the curse we see in modern day Christendom.

Ecumenism is an important endeavor for the bride of Christ, and for many, it will mean that you may lose friends and favor among some of your “Christian” circles. So be it. Be courageous and confident in the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Jesus the Christ, to begin friendships and gatherings with those who claim to follow Jesus. Give God’s Spirit a chance to surprise you and sift through the junk of all of differing theologies.

I will close with the words of Pope Francis at a vespers prayer in St. Paul (Rome) last Sunday: “To plumb the depths of the mystery of God, we need one another, we need to encounter one another, and to challenge one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who harmonizes diversities and overcomes conflicts.”

Saint Francis

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As a follower of Jesus who holds to Protestant doctrines, it seems that I have been conditioned to cling to the Reformation doctrine (which I do) in such a way that I am to be against all other doctrines that comes against it, on paper at least! It also seems that we have done a really good job of putting together really good doctrinal statements that puts to shame those who “didn’t reform” with us 500 years ago. The doctrines of the Catholic church, on paper, I’m sure have done the same thing.

This is problematic because what we believe in writing never matches exactly what we believe by the way we live our lives. If we are honest with ourselves, we know this is true. I understand the need for right doctrine, I’m graduating from a really great theological seminary with a master’s of divinity degree (which I think is a crazy title… master of the divine… hardly!), and I value the men and women who have labored and died over the years to preserve the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ for generations after them to read and to believe.

But in a day and age like ours (many call it postmodern days which means science is no longer “the” god to worship, but that we all have our own truths and there is no “one” single story that is universally true for anyone, which I know is already an argument that contradicts the core of postmodernism), the need for an apologetic of love is so necessary. The need for what Christians (Catholics or Protestants) believe on paper to be radically lived out is among us. People (including myself) are tired of empty rhetoric about the truth of the gospel being proclaimed by those who only love those who love them. John Perkins, the great Civil Rights activists and urban developer, says that “the greatest apologetic to the Christian faith is love.” And in my own words, he goes on to say, “a love that moves into the pain and agony of the people of our day.” Even those who disagree with us!

This is what the Catholic saint (who by the way was never ordained to the Catholic priesthood) Francis of Assisi deeply believed, and his life became the greatest apologetic for the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This picture I took of the statue of St. Francis is found downtown on the property of the second church in the history of Phoenix, St. Mary’s Basilica (3rd St. and Fillmore), and below it is a plaque that has this quote from St. Francis. The words are popular, but they need to re-heard today by Protestants and Catholics today, as I believe the door is opened more now than ever for us to rally around Christ Jesus and love one another better in the spirit of Jesus’ prayer in John 17:

Lord, make me a channel of thy peace,

that where there is hatred, I may bring love;

that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness;

that where there is discord, I may bring harmony;

that where there is error, I may bring truth;

that where there is doubt, I may bring faith;

that where there is despair, I may bring hope;

that where there are shadows, I may bring light;

that where there is sadness, I may bring joy.

Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted;

to understand, than to be understood;

to love, than to be loved.

For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.

It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.

It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.

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