The famously influential Nicene Creed contains a line that modern Christians sometimes misunderstand: "I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church." The word "catholic" can be a source of confusion for those who think it is referring to the Roman Catholic Church, but the word simply means "universal." This leads us, then, to consider the important theological concept of the "universal church."
The term commonly used for the church in the New Testament is the Greek word ekklesia. Jesus is the first to use the word ekklesia in the New Testament (Matt. 16:18), but it is used in various ways with various meanings. As theologian Louis Berkhof explains, ekklesia can have the following meanings:
The last two definitions are explained by John Calvin in his treatment of the visible and invisible church. The "visible church" describes Christianity that can be measured and counted externally:
- A specific local group of Christians or a local church (Acts 11:26; 1 Cor. 11:18; Gal. 1:2).
- A house church (Rom. 16:23; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col 4:15).
- A group of churches in a region (Acts 9:31).
- All those throughout the world who profess to be Christians and organize for worship (1 Cor. 10:32; 11:22; 12:28).
- All those throughout history who have been or will be united to Christ as their savior (Eph. 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23-25, 27, 32; Col. 1:18, 24).
The whole body . . . scattered throughout the world, who profess to worship one God and Christ, who by baptism are initiated into the faith; by partaking of the Lord's Supper profess unity in true doctrine and charity, agree in holding the word of the Lord, and observe the ministry which Christ has appointed for the preaching of it.
However, Calvin recognized that not all who profess to be Christians and outwardly take part in church practices are truly united to Christ. Only God, who knows the hearts of all people, knows the exact membership of the invisible church:
The Church as it really is before God---the Church into which none are admitted but those who by the gift of adoption are sons of God, and by the sanctification of the Spirit true members of Christ. In this case it not only comprehends the saints who dwell on the earth, but all the elect who have existed from the beginning of the world.
Another word is used for the church: kuriake, which forms the basis for the English word "church." Kuriake means "belonging to the Lord," emphasizing that the true church is the people who belong to the Lord. This is simply another way of expressing the biblical truth that the church throughout the world is Christ's "body" (1 Cor. 12). As Christians, we are not simply individuals; we are part of something much greater than ourselves.
Jesus Builds His Church
The concept of the universal church is important for Christians to grasp as we trust Christ and look to the future. Movements will rise and fall, and individual churches will come and go, but God's people, the church universal, will never be destroyed. Why? Because Jesus builds his church, and Jesus will not fail.
In Matthew 16:18, Jesus tells Peter, "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." These are the first words out of Jesus' mouth in response to Peter's powerful declaration, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
Beginning with "and I tell you" gives a hint that what Jesus is about to say is very important: he is explaining the significance of him being the Christ. Jesus announces that, as the Christ, his intention and task is to build his church. And Jesus makes it personal with the first person pronouns: "I will build my church."
Jesus' promise to build his church should give us hope and certainty that God's purposes for his church will ultimately succeed, but it should not make us arrogant about our own abilities. God loves to use the weak and frail people of the world to shame the strong and powerful (1 Cor. 1:27-29). By paradoxically exalting the low and helpless, God shows that he is the strong and powerful one whose purposes cannot fail. This means that Jesus' church will be built up not with outward, human strength, but rather in weakness and frailty, depending on the power of God's Spirit to advance his kingdom and bring glory to Jesus.
Jesus' very personal promise to build his church also reveals that there will be cosmic conflict involved ---"the gates of hell shall not prevail against" the church Jesus is building.
The organized authority of the kingdom of darkness---the "gates of hell"---conspire against Jesus, his gospel, his kingdom, and his church. The demonic forces engaged in conflict with Jesus before he built his church, and they will continue to attack his church.
This theme of cosmic conflict in Matthew 16:18 sets the existence of the church within the context of the ultimate conflict in Scripture, running from Genesis 3:15 to Revelation 20. The conflict in Genesis 3:15 is a divinely inaugurated hostility, which is a promise of conflict and redemption but also victory. From the beginning to the end of the Bible, the work of God in the building of the church is set in a conflict that will be won by God in the end (Rev. 20). As Edmund Clowney writes,
This fallen, broken world is now Christ's world. It is the theatre of his redemption (1 Cor. 4:9; Rev. 5), the place of his mission, over which he has total authority for the accomplishment of his saving work (Mt. 13:38; 28:18-20; Jn. 8:12; 17:15-18). The rule of Christ will bring this present world to the glory of the world to come (1 Cor. 15:22-26; Rom. 8:19-20; Acts 3:20-21; Rev. 21:1). He will come again in glory to judge the nations and form a new universe (Mt. 24:14; Acts 1:11; Rom. 16:26; 2 Thes. 1:7-10; 2 Pet. 3:10).
God has always built a place for his own dwelling: Moses built the tabernacle, Solomon built the temple, and Jesus is Immanuel ("God with us"). But he doesn't stop there as he builds his church. The church is his, and he has committed to build it, despite all the strategies of the enemy. Jesus is the great church builder, and he will not fail.
Justin Holcomb is an Episcopal priest and a theology professor at Reformed Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He wrote Know the Creeds and Councils, Know the Heretics, and On the Grace of God. Justin also co-authored with his wife, Lindsey, Is It My Fault? and Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at JustinHolcomb.com.