What does the word ‘catholic’ actually mean? It means that the Church is universal: that the Gospel message is equally relevant in all places, at all times and to all cultures. It does not mean that the Church includes absolutely everybody in the world! God’s Kingdom embraces all kinds of people, but not all people: Jesus welcomed sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32)!
The true Church is therefore composed of people of every age, race, nation, culture and status (Revelation 7:9,10). Jesus’ first group of disciples included men from both ends of the political spectrum, and some of them had Greek names (showing cultural variation, even though all of them were Jews). In that little band, they were obliged to live and work alongside those with whom they had little or nothing in common – other than their allegiance to Jesus. It must have widened their horizons considerably to mix with those from whom they would normally have kept their distance (because of political, economic or social divisions).
Whatever racial, cultural, linguistic, religious, social, economic and sexual divisions may exist outside, within the Church they should cease to be relevant. It doesn’t matter who we are or what our background is; we belong together as members of God’s family, and our essential equality outweighs all our differences. There are no ‘second-class’ citizens of God’s Kingdom (Galatians 3:26-28). In Christ we are equal – in our need of salvation (because we are all sinners who cannot save ourselves) and in our status before God (because we are all now His children).
It is one thing to acknowledge this in theory; it can be surprisingly difficult to work it out in practice (James 2:1-4). This is because it is perfectly natural for us to prefer to associate with people who are ‘like us’, whether in physical appearance, educational level, social class, or whatever. The problem is that we can unconsciously form cliques that exclude certain sections of the community. The early Church was exclusively Jewish; and even though the apostles had Jesus’ commission to preach the Gospel “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), it took divine intervention (in the form of a vision) to persuade Peter to receive the first Gentiles into the Church (Acts 10). Later, in the church at Corinth, other divisions opened up between rich and poor – to the extent that even the Lord’s Supper was becoming segregated (I Corinthians 11:17-34).
For practical reasons, Christians today meet together in relatively small groups (known as local churches). Many of these churches have a particular ‘flavour’ (in service format and music style, if not in theology); and thus many different tastes can be catered for. But there is a danger, especially since we live in a culture that lays a high value on personal preferences, that people make no effort to ‘fit in’ with anything that they happen not to like. How many modern worship services, for example, are effectively segregated by age?
There is also the temptation for individual churches to isolate themselves from one another, ignoring what other Christians are doing in the same locality. We all know that we should fight against this tendency, and ‘united services’ used to be quite popular, but my experience of them was that they never quite seemed to work; they usually ended up as an incoherent patchwork of elements from the various denominational traditions. And yet we do need to forge links with churches of other denominations. A more effective way of doing this might be through practical local projects such as evangelistic events and foodbanks. For churches overseas, we can offer financial and prayer support. These things are more than window-dressing; they enable us to develop genuine relationships with believers from other places, cultures and traditions.
And what about Christians who lived in past ages? Many of us have only a hazy understanding of church history, and it is easy (but incorrect) to assume that there were no ‘real’ Christians between the end of the first century and the Protestant Reformation in the fifteenth century. We currently enjoy the publication of a steady stream of modern English-language Christian literature; but this makes it possible to ignore the authors of the past. It would be tragic if some of the old (or even not so old) classics were to be forgotten. We who are ‘running the race’ now can be encouraged by the witness and example of those who have gone ahead of us (Hebrews 12:1).