It only recently dawned on me that I have been trying to be “catholic” since the time I became a Christian. With a lot of hesitation, I am ready to announce that I … no, we … have arrived.
I’ve been telling people for a long time that in the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, the word “catholic” does not mean Roman Catholic, but universal. The early Christians referred to the “catholic” churches, which was almost identical with referring to the apostolic churches. The catholic churches were the churches formed by the apostles and remaining in unity.
That had great meaning in the first couple centuries of the church. In our modern era … not so much.
However, I read a new definition of “catholic” that I really like:
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.
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. (Bajis, Jordan. Common Ground. Chapter 10. Emphasis in original.)
To be a part of a church where “the faithful welcome the presence of Christ in all his truth” is exactly what I’ve been searching for all my adult life. It is what I have been experiencing for almost twenty years.
I realize now that being “catholic” is what I have always wanted. I have always wanted to be right in the middle of the stream of God’s Spirit as he moved in his people in this world.
I’m ready to believe I’ve found it.
The Eastern Orthodox View of Catholicity
I am not trying to define the Orthodox churches’ view here. I am just taking one part of what’s been told to me by Orthodox members and applying it to myself and to the Christians who are my near and dear relatives in Jesus and fellow members of the local body of Christ.
I wish I could remember the exact wording, but a friend spoke of the “conciliatory of churches.” This was the idea that the catholic churches—the apostolic churches—were together, joined to one another in love, and mutually watching over one another. They did not rule over one another, but they did admonish one another and keep one another on the right track.
We have entered wholeheartedly into this definition of catholicity!
We draw from every tradition we can. We test the teachers and teachings by the fruit they produce. We learn from the earliest Christian writers. We pay attention to Roman Catholic dogma, and we read about Orthodox teachings and talk to Orthodox members and priests. We study Protestant scholarship, and we love history. We want our life and teachings to be grounded in the historical church.
In doing so, we have rejected the doctrine of the primacy of the Roman bishop as unhistoric. We have rejected the claim that the authority and power of God is limited to churches who can claim a human line of bishops, one laying hands on the next from the time of the apostles.
The approach I have described above to being catholic is exactly what has led us to reject those claims.
We believe that we are entering into, growing in, and experiencing “wholeness, fullness, integrity, and totality.” We see that the result of this pursuit has been that the we, not just I or him or her, have been grounded in good works, shining such a light that the world has taken notice of us and given glory to our Father in heaven. We have tasted how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity. We have fulfilled our longing to pursue the teaching of the apostles, the breaking of bread, and fellowship continually and daily.
I do believe that we can rightly claim that we are holy, catholic, and apostolic. We long for the day when all those who share that claim will also be able to share the claim that we are one.