I Believe in the Holy Catholic* Church, the Communion of the Saints
Prof. Zach Howard
The Church’s Identity & Mission Samuel J. Stone wrote a collection of 12 hymns on the Apostle’s Creed titled Lyra Fidelium or Songs of the Faithful. The song we just sang—The Church’s One Foundation—is the hit single from that great album. Stone was an Anglican pastor and poet who wrote dozens of hymns and […]
The Church’s Identity & Mission
Samuel J. Stone wrote a collection of 12 hymns on the Apostle’s Creed titled Lyra Fidelium or Songs of the Faithful. The song we just sang—The Church’s One Foundation—is the hit single from that great album. Stone was an Anglican pastor and poet who wrote dozens of hymns and poems, some of which are rightly forgotten like the one he titled “Soliloquy of the Rationalistic Chicken.” I wouldn’t recommend it. He says true things but badly. I would recommend, though, studying the rest of his Lyra Fidelium—the 12 hymns that Stone matched with the 12 articles of the Apostle’s creed. They have titles like “None Else But Thee” for God the Father Almighty or “The Son Forsook the Father’s Home” for “Who was Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.”
Samuel Stone wrote these hymns as a local pastor eager for his church, which was just outside London, to remain faithful to orthodoxy and united with their brethren around the world. He wanted them not just to recite the creed in church but to sing its truths so they reflected on them more deeply. I love that as we turn to reflect on “The Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints” we have just done what Stone intended for his hymn: singing the truth to spur reflection.
Yet, Stone also wrote these lyrical reflections in the midst of a theological controversy that was deeply dividing the Anglican Church in the late 1860s. We see a hint of that controversy in the third verse:
Tho’ with a scornful wonder,
men see her sore oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder,
by heresies distressed,
Stone clearly does not dodge the disunity in the church. And for many of you, I imagine addressing the topic of the church brings up past hurts and questions about the church’s unity or lack thereof. Controversy didn’t just plague the church in Samuel Stone’s age; it is just as prevalent today. Inside and outside the church, conflict creates a strong appetite for unity and peace. But where does that unity come from and how is it achieved? Stone’s lyrics articulate the conviction that the unity of the Church must rest squarely on the recognition of the Lordship of Christ.
The first place Stone takes us in the hymn is to Ephesians 2 where Paul describes the church as a temple constructed on Christ the cornerstone. Hence the first line of the hymn: The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.
So, like Stone, I want to lead us in reflecting on the biblical roots of this article of the Apostle’s Creed by looking at Ephesians 2:19-22. Turn there with me.
Eph 2:19-22 – 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
These final verses of Ephesians 2 describe the consequences of our union with Christ.
In verses 1-10 Paul exults in the glories of our individual salvation from sin and death accomplished by grace alone. We have a new status or position before God because we are united to Christ. Our vertical relationship with God is restored. Then in verses 11-22 Paul describes the implications for our horizontal relationships. Union with Christ means the wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile has been broken down. We now are a new humanity who have been redeemed through Christ. Peace and unity are now possible. Christ’s cross work not only restores us to God; it also creates a whole new corporate identity: the church.
The church is the result of Christ’s cross work. Here in this passage, Paul shows how Christ’s reconciliation accomplished through the cross both creates the Church’s Identity—who she is—and also establishes the Church’s Mission—what she is for. Lets look first at the Church’s Identity and next at the Church’s Mission.
1. The Church’s Identity: Who She Is
The Church is a people with a new identity. Paul says it clearly: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,
Because we are now united to Christ, the identity on our paperwork changes from foreigner to citizen. Our visa now says “citizen of heaven.” We no longer have to worry if when we arrive at judgment day we will be rejected. We know that we are citizens of heaven.
And, to drive home his point, Paul gives another analogy: members of the household of God. Our former identity was not only foreigner but also outsider or alien—we were not a member of God’s family or household. But now through Christ’s adoption he brings us near, into his family. It isn’t just our paperwork that has changed but our very name. We bear Christ’s name—we are Christians, members of his household.
So Christ changes our identity from foreigner to citizen and from alien or outsider to member of the household. We have both a new passport and a new name.
But notice that there is a third identity here: We are “fellow citizens with the saints.” What exactly are saints? Saints or αγιος are those who by Christ’s work and through faith are righteous before God. Citizen is the analogy and saint is the reality—we are the holy ones of God. This has been Paul’s whole point in chapter 2—“even when we were dead in our trespasses he made is alive together with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly places.” That is true now; we areholy and yet also are being made holy. The first makes the second possible. Our status as saints make the experience of sanctification possible. Like a citizen traveling home, so we are saints being sanctified.
But look back again: Who exactly are these saints Paul is referring too? We must remember that Paul is writing to a specific church—the church at Ephesus. So when he says “you” he means those Christians in Ephesus and when he says “with the saints” he must have another group in mind. Could it be the Jewish Christians back in Jerusalem or Jewish Christians in general rather than Gentile Christians? No, that would go against the earlier context because Paul does not distinguish between Jewish and Gentile Christian but between Jew and Gentile before Christ’s reconciliation. Could saint refer then to the people of Israel, saints like Abraham? Perhaps but not just that group. It can’t only be earlier Israelites because saints existed even before Israel was formed as a nation. Adam was a saint but not an Israelite.
Instead, I think we see evidence for the universality of the church. “Saints” here must refer to “the redeemed of all ages.” A saint is any person from any time that God has redeemed. Those new believers in Ephesus, then, Christ unites as fellow citizens with the saints across the world and from past, present, and future. Paul is saying this local body of Christians gathered at Ephesus are fellow citizens with the saints across all space and time. This has massive implications for how we think about the church’s identity. Let me just highlight two important implications here.
First, the church is both local and universal. When individuals become Christians they join the universal church; they are born again into God’s heavenly family. If every Christian is seated with Christ in the heavenly places, then we are seated with every other Christian there. The church is a heavenly assembly where each persons has standing before God. This fact should encourage us to look beyond just our local body; to partner in the gospel with other churches; to remember God’s church is bigger than our local problems or successes.
Yet, the church is also a local assembly. That heavenly “membership” must “show up” in membership in the local church. I think Jonathon Leeman says it well: “Christians must put on or enflesh or live out that universal membership concretely, just like Paul says we must “put on” our positional righteousness in [embodied] acts of righteousness” (Eph 4:24; Col 3:10, 14; source). So just like our works of love show or reveal our faith, so too commitment to the local church displays or renders visible the universal church. And the church does this through gathering as covenant members who preach the gospel and participate in the sacraments of baptism and the table.
But if we see the universal church through the display of the local church, we must be careful to remember one other distinction.
Second, the church is both visible and invisible. Christ warns that the wheat and the tares grow together. Mere membership in the local church does not save you. It is possible, in other words, to belong to a visible church but not belong to the invisible church. Baptism and the table don’t save us, only regenerating faith in Christ. This is why Jesus in Matthew 18 gave the local church the keys of the kingdom to publicly affirm members of their church as citizens of heaven and to remove members.
So the Church’s Identity is both local and universal; both visible and invisible. Therefore, when we affirm the universality of the church we must not deny or diminish the local church body. And vice versa. We must care not just about the visible membership in the pew but about their invisible membership in the heavenly church. We must stand on both feet of the church’s identity: local and universal, visible and invisible.
If this is the church’s identity, what is her purpose? What is her mission?
2. The Church’s Mission: What She is For
Paul answers the question of the church’s mission by extending the analogy of the household of God into verses 20-22. The people of God are like a building, specifically a temple. And Paul wants us to see that God himself is the cornerstone, the architect, and the inhabitant of that building, that temple.
This is a trinitarian passage. One of several in Ephesians: Earlier when Paul praises God for our salvation in chapter 1, he blesses “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and who has sealed us “with the promised Holy Spirit.” Here too we see the Triune God at work: Christ as the cornerstone, the Father as the architect, and the Spirit as the inhabitant.
So lets look at each in turn so we can see how The triune God shapes the church for her mission—how He builds the church as his dwelling place.
First: Christ, the cornerstone
The rock on which God builds his church is not a man or an institution but Christ himself. In Matthew 16 when Jesus tells Peter “on this rock I will build my church” he was pointing at himself. Yes, the apostles like Peter and Paul laid the foundation as they spread the gospel from Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth. But it was Christ’s gospel. They aligned their message with Christ’s message just like every stone in an ancient building’s foundation was aligned and measured by the chief cornerstone.
Paul offers exactly this kind of reasoning in 1 Corinthians 1 in his call for unity in that church. He rebukes the factions in the church for saying “I follow Paul or “I follow Apollos” or “I follow Cephas” or even “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided?
“NO” is the correct answer to Paul’s rhetorical question. Christ is not divided. So be careful to align yourself and your church off the cornerstone of Christ.
Here we may be tempted, though, to think that if Christ isn’t divided then we need to go out and create the unity that is lacking. Paul immediately reminds, though, that God is the one who gives unity because he is the one joining us together.
Second, God the Father as architect.
God the Father is the unnamed actor behind the construction of his temple. He is directing the construction of his temple, the church. He is taking each individual Christian and joining us together so that we all grow into a holy temple to the Lord.
This verb “grow” really bothered me when I was first digging into this text because I don’t like mixed metaphors. I founding my self yelling at Paul, “No, buildings don’t grow! They’re not plants! What are you doing? Stop mixing metaphors!”
The word can also be translated “causes to increase.” We can see this by returning back to 1 Corinthians were Paul says in chapter 3 that “I planted, Apollos watered but God gave the growth.” That organic metaphor overlaps with the architectural metaphor here in Ephesians. It’s the same verb in Greek: growth or increase. And, Paul explicitly overlaps the metaphors in Corinthians when he says “You are God’s field, God’s building.”
And if we combine this verb with the preceding participle—being joined together—we get more of the sense of what Paul is saying. Ancient buildings were constructed with individual stones without mortar. The master craftsman fit together the uniquely shaped stones, perhaps shaving and shaping here and there. He had the grand design in mind as he selected stones to position next to each other.
God is the architect, the master craftsman who is shaping each of us to fit together in all are various sizes and shapes. And as he adds each new believer to his church he causes his temple to increase. It grows in height and breadth, in glory and beauty, as a people from every tribe and nation set apart—consecrated—to God.
Here we begin to see the purpose of church’s unity amidst such diversity. God’s joining a diverse people together to consecrate them to God. Our unity in the church’s identity and mission transcends every nationality, every political affiliation, and every personality type.
And here Paul shifts to describing the purpose of this building. The church—God’s temple—is to be holy in the Lord. Or, as he says in verse 22: to be a dwelling place for God.
Third, the Spirit as inhabitant
God didn’t design a beautiful house to sit empty—he is making a home there, even now, by the Spirit. The Spirit is now inhabiting the church.
So here we have individuals—Jew and Gentile—being built together as God’s dwelling place. And that language of dwelling place is important. One commentator says this phrase gives the “the idea… of a deep or settled dwelling.”God has come down to dwell with his newly created people.
In other words, God reconciles a people to himself and one another in order for them to be set apart, consecrated. For what end? To be his dwelling place. To be where God meets man. The tabernacle in the wilderness and the temple in Jerusalem were each designed to be the location where God came down to meet with man. And now that location is not a place but a people. It is a living, breathing body designed to worship God.
The church as temple imagery points ahead to the eschatological new creation of heaven and earth where God’s temple will reach completion; God’s people will see him face-to-face. The sojourning church on earth will join the heavenly church forever in God’s presence.
So, now, we’ve seen how our union with Christ gives the Church her Identity as heavenly citizens and members of God’s household. And that same union shapes the church to fulfill her mission to be the place where people meet God. The Church is God’s temple built on Christ the cornerstone, designed by God the architect, and inhabited by God the Spirit.
I want to end where we began with Samuel Stone’s situation: the church at odds with itself. If this doctrine of the church that we’ve seen here in Ephesians is true, then…
What should we do when there is disunity in the church?
Like Paul, I want to connect doctrine to practice. In Ephesians he focuses first on what we believe in chapters 1-3 and then how we should live in chapters 4-6. He urges the church at Ephesus to walk in a manner worthy of their calling—to live out their new identity and mission.
So what might that look like when there is disunity in the church, whether the local assembly or wider body of churches across the nation and world.
First, we must let identity guide practice:
You are going to disagree with other Christians but you should do so as brothers and sisters “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit.” Ephesians 2 tells us Christ has purchased our unity, and Ephesians 4 calls us to eagerly maintain that unity within the church. This means you should fight with your brother or sister as fellow members of God’s household; you fight as siblings eager to be reconciled in your disagreement because your greater reconciliation has already been accomplished by Christ. Our identity as fellow citizens and members of God’s household means we are already united in Christ and it is from that already given unity that we seek to maintain unity in doctrine and practice.
Our identity is formed around the gospel of Christ; we seek to align our lives and our ministries on that cornerstone.
What does it look like, though, to eagerly maintain the unity of the Spirit when there is sharp disagreement?
Second, we must ask questions and make distinctions:
Christian unity is not automatic. It requires wise application of biblical principles to specific people and situations. And no one will apply biblical principles wisely without learning to ask the right questions and make the right distinctions at the right time. Let me give some concrete questions to give you a feel:
Lets start with the topic you disagree on: is it an essential matter or adiaphora—non-essential? is it a matter of doctrine or practice? Is it a question of interpretation or application? These questions and distinctions must orient how you approach the disagreement.
But you can’t stop with simple theological triage: you must also consider the person or people in front of you: Do they profess Christ or not? Are they in my local church or another church? Are they a leader teaching the idea or a follower of the idea?
And don’t let your questions or distinctions stop there, though: You must also consider where is this disagreement happening? Is it in a private, one-on-one setting? Is it in a small group or Bible study? Is it in the church congregational meeting? Online before the watching twitterverse? If I’ve learned anything from the last year it is how much the setting influences how we respond. The higher the stakes, the bigger the audience the more we want to perform our disagreements or perform our agreements.
And unless we have asked the right questions and made the proper distinctions when it comes to the topic, person, and setting,
The topic, person, and setting matter for how you disagree. Christian wisdom
If this sounds complicated, it is. Christian unity is not simple; it is not automatic. Our unity in Christ is given and our unity in the Spirit must be maintained by exercising wisdom. Paul says the different offices of in the church are given to equip the saints until we all attain to the unity of the faith. Church leaders should aim at cultivating maturity so that we can wisely navigate disagreement and disunity.
Finally, we must speak the truth in love.
There is a reason that Paul concludes his argument for Christian unity through maturity with the phrase “speaking the truth in love.” It’s a wise saying and hard to live out yet so simple and practical for evaluating your own actions and motives.
Our eager maintenance of unity should be marked—characterized—by truth communicated in love. That makes asking questions and making distinctions all the more important. Yet it can’t end there. We must craft our words in such a way that we are loving. We must prayer for a disposition and demeanor marked by love, by attention to not just the ideas but the person we’re disagreeing with. And that must be true wherever we’re engaging that person. Just because it’s online, doesn’t mean we get to drop the love part. Or hide the truth part.
I so want this for myself and for my students. I so want our identity as Christians to be marked by love because that will serve the mission of the church bringing more to worship our great God.
Pray with me:
God, I ask that we would better understand and believe in the truth that we are “the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints.”
May Samuel Stone’s lyrics ring true for us:
The Church on earth hath union
with God the Three in One,
and mystic sweet communion
with those whose rest is won.
 Hoehner’s commentary.
*Catholic I.E. universal, not Roman Catholic.