Attributes of the Church: Catholicity

Kevin DeYoung

Editor's Note: Taken from forthcoming book, Daily Doctrine by Kevin DeYoung, Copyright © 2024. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187,

As a Protestant pastor I’ve lost tracked of how many times a congregant has asked me after we’ve recited the Apostles’ Creed in worship, “Why do profess to believe in the holy catholic church?” The answer is simple. The Greek word katholikos means general, universal, or pertaining to the whole. While we do not confess our faith in the Roman Catholic Church, we do confess to believing in the catholic, or universal, church.

We can think of the church’s catholicity in four different ways.

With respect to places. The church is not limited to one specific location. Believers everywhere can worship God in Spirit and in truth (John 4:21). God’s people are scattered around the globe, yet truly one in Christ. What’s more the church to which we belong on earth is a part of the same universal church reigning in heaven.

With respect to persons. The church is, and was always meant to be, a global body. Even now, worshipers from various tribes, languages, peoples, and nations are gathered around the throne (Rev. 5:9). Membership in the true church is not restricted by race or ethnicity, by sex, or by social standing (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11).

With respect to times. The church is diffused across geographic, political, and cultural boundaries. It is also diffused across the centuries. We are a part of the church that has existed since the beginning of the world and will exist unto the consummation of all things. No matter his personal age or the age of his church or denomination, the Christian belongs to the oldest, most diverse, most global institution on the planet.

With respect to truth. The word “catholic” in not found in the New Testament but was used often by the church fathers to distinguish the church which was bound by the apostles’ teaching from various sects and heretical groups. To be “catholic” does not mean we are in allegiance to an ecclesiastical hierarchy and an earthly pope. It means we are in allegiance to the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

A proper understanding of catholicity can help the church avoid a number of sins and errors. Racism, for example, is a fundamental rejection of the church’s catholicity, as our church growth strategies which try to build a church with only certain kinds of people. Catholicity can also be threatened when national concerns become confused as necessarily Christian concerns.

In its proper place, patriotism can be a Christian expression of loving our neighbor, celebrating self-sacrifice, and giving honor to whom honor is due. But as a pastor I should not lead my people on Sunday morning in saying, praying, or singing things that they would only believe as Americans and not in common with Christians from Poland, Japan, or Mexico.

Perhaps the greatest threat to the church’s catholicity is the defense and promotion of grave theological error. To be sure, the church has made plenty of doctrinal and ethical mistakes in its history. And yet, our default should be to trust the work of the Spirit teaching the church over the centuries. When, for example, churches move to bless same-sex unions or sanction abortion on demand, they not only presume to know more than any Christian communion prior to the second half of the twentieth century, they also do great harm to the catholicity of the church. If the church in the West really believes in one, holy, catholic church, it will cease to undermine doctrinal commitments that have been held, until a few decades ago, by Christians at all times and in all places.

Kevin DeYoung