‘catholicity’ – Institutional, Incarnational, or Impossible

‘catholicity’ – Institutional, Incarnational, or Impossible

‘catholicity ‘(small ‘c’) is used in at least two ways among non-Roman Catholics: 1) the spiritual unity of the universal church, i.e. the unity of all believers in the gospel of Jesus Christ; 2) the continuity of a particular church group with the apostolic church. Wikipedia offers this explanation of the second definition of catholicity:

The Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans and some Methodists believe that their churches are catholic in the sense that they are in continuity with the original universal church founded by the Apostles. The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox churches all believe that their church is the only original and universal church. In “Catholic Christendom” (including the Anglican Communion), bishops are considered the highest order of ministers within the Christian religion, as shepherds of unity in communion with the whole church and one another (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholicity).

Wikipedia could add to the list of those who lay claim to apostolic continuity certain groups of Baptists, such as Landmark Baptists. Having been at one point in my ministry an adherent of the “Trail of Blood” mentality, I understand the desire of a particular group to be the ‘one true expression of the apostolic church.’ Unfortunately, this desire is most often rooted in human pride, rewritten history, and sparse exegesis of the Scriptures.  In seeking to establish and maintain the ‘catholicity’ of any particular group, true catholicity, i.e. the spiritual unity of the universal church, is undermined.

True catholicity is brought about by work of the Holy Spirit who brings all believers into union with Christ and therefore with each other. True “catholicity’ is determined by the gospel and those essentials of Christianity that undergird the gospel, such as expressed in the Apostle’s Creed.

The external experience of true catholicity must be incarnational not institutional. By incarnational I mean that believers must embody gospel-centered values that bring the reality of Spirit-created catholicity into Christian practice. Where the gospel and gospel values are central in the lives of believers, then despite denominational and institutional differences, there arises a commitment to practice the reality of unity that already exists, i.e. the spiritual unity of all believers. When the gospel is central and gospel-centered values are embodied, then the external expression of catholicity becomes possible and is pursued wherever and whenever believers cross paths. Gospel-centered values make catholicity a practical reality both locally, cross-denominationally, and globally.

When institutions and denominations elevate their doctrinal distinctives so that these distinctives become the expression of ‘true, apostolic Christianity,’ then the goal of genuine gospel-centered catholicity is undermined by the pursuit of an alien, denominationally-defined catholicity. Denominationally or institutionally defined catholicity makes genuine catholicity impossible.  The unity to which the Bible calls us is possible only when temporal denominations, institutions, and particular churches are subordinated to the Spirit-created body of Christ brought about through union with Christ.

On the other hand, genuine catholicity is not against denominations. There are many benefits to belonging to a larger group that has a worldwide institutional presence and ministry. Nor is genuine catholicity in conflict with one’s commitment to a local church that has an institutional presence and ministry in a particular locality.  There are denominations and local churches that maintain a doctrinal distinctiveness while expressing a gospel-centered catholicity to all believers. In these types of denominations and churches, there is no claim to be the sole representative of apostolic Christianity. Rather there is an adamant gospel-centeredness, a humility that accompanies the pursuit of doctrinal clarity, and a desire for incarnational gospel-centered unity in the universal church.

I confess that early on in my ministry I had an over-exalted view of the local church (especially the one I was leading) and a greatly diminished view of the church universal.  Back then I had no concept of ‘catholicity.’ Probably, catholicity was equated with unbelieving ecumenism.  Today I realize the goodness of a believing ecumenism and that believing ecumenism is essentially, catholicity. I still have an exalted view of the local church but an even a grander view of the church universal.  I pray that God will enable Grace Church of Philly to be a local church that contributes to true catholicity

While we presently struggle with our own sinfulness that hinders catholicity, we seek God’s grace to live peaceably with all men, especially those of the household of faith and we long for the ultimate external expression of catholicity at the resurrection day when all believers gather before the throne of Jesus and with one voice worship Him.

Revelation 5:8-10 8 And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.  9 And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation,  10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”


Dr. John P. Davis is currently Lead Pastor of a church plant in Philadelphia, PA.  Grace Church is a gospel-centered city church seeking to reach people of all nations. John received the Bachelor of Arts in Bible with a Minor in Greek at Bob Jones University (magna cum laude), Master of Divinity from Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (magna cum laude), the Master of Theology in Old Testament from Westminster Theological Seminary, and the Doctor of Ministry from Biblical Theological Seminary. His ThM thesis was on A Critical Evaluation of the Use of the Abrahamic Covenant in Dispensationalism. His DMin project/dissertation was on Common Factors in the Practice of Ongoing Personal Evangelism. In addition to Philadelphia, PA  John has pastored churches in Buckingham, PA, in Brooklyn, NY, in Roslyn, PA and in Sunnyside, NY. Three of the churches were church-plants.


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