Catholicity and what it is not


Over the past eighteen months, you’ve watched the embers of latent disaffection fanned into flames of revolt. The revolutionaries triangulated their notions of equity, tolerance, and diversity into a particular interpretation of the world, one rejecting the Nature of Things. A thin consensus about love, race, and sex animates local mobs and well-tailored media. But what is lacking cannot be counted, so the consensus penetrates only as deep as the outer surface of life. After observing the flummeries of the revolutionaries over the previous years, one gets the sense that the actual thing—the real thing—is purposefully kept in the background. That’s why it’s not only needful but refreshing to be in the company of Christians with whom you can speak words that correspond to the actual thing—the real thing.

There exists the need for a renewed and deeper Christian unity among the saints of God. The need is as old as the church itself and it is especially pronounced now. It is precisely for this reason, plus many more, that catholicity is one of the distinctives of Trinity Reformed Church (TRC).[1]

Catholicity refers to unity. In practice, it means that we want to bring Christians together rather than separate them. We will not divide over socio-economic status—white collar and blue collar are welcomed. We will not divide over dietary restrictions—organic only and meat and potatoes are welcomed. We will not divide over competing definitions of “Reformed”—some label themselves “truly reformed,” others as “reformed Baptist,” and so on. All are welcomed, even if you don’t identify as “reformed” at all. We will not divide over COVID. You don’t have to agree to one predetermined opinion about masks or COVID. All are welcomed here. We will not divide over the credo vs paedobaptism question.Even though confessionally we are paedo-baptist, for those who wish to delay the baptism of their children until there is a confession of faith, the session will defer to the head of each household.

Some Christians hear this vision with skepticism. To them, it sounds like another spineless church without a distinct flavor. It sounds generic rather than convictional; tepid rather than courageous; wimpy rather than strong. Indeed there are different visions of ecumenism. One calls for lowering all peaks to ground level lest anyone think Christianity has hills to die on. Another wishes to keep the hills, thinking clear confessionalism and catholicity make for a better vista. The first tends toward a short bullet-pointed list of beliefs inclusively worded. The second embraces the historic confessions of the church. At TRC we are decidedly the latter, which means we don’t feign unity with just anyone who wears a Jesus t-shirt. We define ourselves as “Reformed catholic,” which means we uphold the distinctions of the Reformation while seeking unity with all Christians who fall within the parameters of the ancient ecumenical creeds (i.e. “orthodoxy”).

G.K. Chesterton was right when he called it an error “to suppose that absence of definite convictions gives the mind freedom and agility.”[2] The only way to respect another’s convictions is to have some of your own. As J. Gresham Machen said of Harry Emerson Fosdick’s relativism, “Since he does not believe in the objective truth of his own teaching, we might be pardoned if we failed to be interested in it.”[3] Robust catholicity rejects indifferentism in practice and theory. Within the circle of orthodoxy, catholicity requires deep exploration of the differing beliefs. There is freedom when you learn to acknowledge the strengths of other positions without fear of a shouting match.

What catholicity is NOT?

First, catholicity is not relativism

At TRC, we use a “Book of Confessions” to state what we believe the Scriptures teach. This includes:

  • The Apostles’ Creed (ca. 200)
  • The Athanasian Creed (ca. 361)
  • The Nicene Creed (325; revised, 381)
  • Definition of Chalcedon (451)
  • The Thirty-Nine Articles (1562)
  • The Three Forms of Unity (including The Belgic Confession [1561], The Heidelberg Catechism [1563], The Canons of Dort [1619])
  • The Westminster Standards (including the Confession of Faith and [1646] the Shorter and Larger Catechisms [1647]; American revision [1789])

The Westminster Confession of Faith is our primary confessional document. That means it is the tie-breaker and the standard for doctrinally examining elders. We are also Presbyterian in our church government. That means, among other things, we function with a plurality of elders. We seek both the peace and purity of the Church, without compromise. We deny that catholicity requires us to sacrifice our convictions that are rooted in Scripture and the historic Christian tradition.

Second, catholicity’s standard is not the “least common denominator”

In 1961 Martyn Lloyd-Jones lamented the problem that:

Everything is being brought down to the same level; everything is being cheapened. The common man is made the standard and the authority; he decides everything, and everything has got to be brought down to him. You are getting it on your wireless, your television, in your newspapers; everywhere standards are coming down and down. Are we to do this with the Word of God? I say, No! What has always happened in the past has been this: an ignorant, illiterate people in this country and in foreign countries, coming into salvation, have been educated up to the Book and have begun to understand it, and to glory in it, and to praise God for it. I am here to say that we need to do the same at this present time.[4]

With the advent of the internet, then the smartphone, then social media, the problem of everything being “brought down to the same level” has worsened. Catholicity is not about appealing to the hollowed-out version of evangelicalism that dominates the landscape. It does not appeal to the gradual turn that’s occurred, where people, even church members, take pride in their ignorance rather than their knowledge. God opposes the proud either way (1 Pt. 5:5). We shouldn’t be afraid to know what we believe and talk to others about it.

To be educated up to the things of God is not a call for stuffy Christian academics who cough in ink. Rather, it is to confess that the tastes and preferences of the natural man need to be put to death (Rom. 8:13), the inner self needs to be renewed day by day (2 Cor. 4:16), and Christians ought to grow up in every way into Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:15). To “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pt. 3:18) requires confessing the ecumenical creeds together and admitting these are hills worth dying on. It also requires acknowledging that not every point of doctrine is an equally tall hill.

Third, the Church’s catholicity is not like the world’s

In 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Paul brings the principles of unity and diversity together by using the human body as a metaphor for the church. The unity and diversity of the church are entirely different from the world’s idealistic pursuit of unity and diversity. Some may object that it doesn’t seem all that different. Look at UNICEF. It unites people from different countries to provide aid to starving children. Look at the European Union. It strategically unifies all the diverse European countries economically as a way to discourage war. Look at our public schools. They are strategically rezoned to unite different socioeconomic groups for education. Look at sports and all the diverse fans who unite to cheer on their teams. They may not be Christian organizations, but look how they set their differences aside for the greater good. They are seeking unity and diversity just like the church seeks unity and diversity.

There are at least two key differences between the church’s catholicity and the world’s. First, in the sphere that matters supremely, UNICEF, the EU, and sports teams have no unity or diversity. These groups have a naturalistic moral understanding that organizes social cooperation strictly for human benefit. They do not operate with reference to their Creator. They don’t serve for the glory of God. Their unity and diversity are flattened to a purely human level. It is meaningless.

Second, the church’s unity and diversity are based entirely upon the unity and diversity of God. God designed the church to be one body with many members because God himself is One God existing in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each person of the Godhead has a different role. For example, in redemption, God the Father planned salvation, God the Son accomplished salvation, and God the Spirit applies salvation.  When the church functions as the body of Christ, they are reflecting the loving triune God who forgives and saves. But when the church inappropriately divides itself they are living in a way that runs counter to the unity of the triune God.


As the world is increasingly aligned against the church, it is our conviction that we are stronger together. If the church is chopped and sold for parts by an ochlocracy trying to redefine the world, then we too will be redefined. There is what is seen and there is the reality behind it. The current cultural revolution is remaking cultural commonplaces so that the nature of existence appears different than God intended. In the end, it’s a project that will fail. Reality eventually trumps appearances. Many in the church talk about unity. Few do anything about it. Once the church unites around Christ, the Real Thing will return to the foreground. Words that correspond to reality will once again be privileged and the chuffy mob will become nothing more than an ambient cultural anomaly.

[1] This has nothing to do with the Roman Catholic Church. The word “catholic” comes from a Greek word that means “universal.” The word “catholic” simply refers to the whole body of Christ.

[2] G.K. Chesterton, Heretics (Nashville, TN: Sam Torode Book Arts, 1905), 22

[3] J. Gresham Machen, What is Christianity and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1951), 194.

[4] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Knowing the Times: Addresses Delivered on Various Occasions 1942 – 1977 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2001), 112.

Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.