A phrase in the Apostles’ Creed that sometimes causes confusion is “the holy catholic church.” To confess that you believe in the “catholic church” can sound strange to Protestant ears. This confusion is easily cleared up, however, since the word “catholic” merely means universal. What we confess to believe in the Apostles’ Creed, then, is that we believe in the holy, universal church.
But the church is not universal in the sense that it encompasses all people without exception. As Psalm 133 implies, there are boundaries that define the church, or the family of God, which is what that psalm is talking about when it extols the goodness and pleasantness of brothers dwelling in unity. After all, we can’t call everybody our brother or sister without emptying those words of any meaningful content, nor can we define the church as the universal church without any kind of boundary.
So, then, who exactly is a member of the family of God, which is the church, and how is the church properly understood to be catholic? Historically, this has been answered in two ways, which we call the invisible and visible church. We’ll take some time in this reflection to think through these terms and how they apply to our confession of faith in the holy catholic church.
On the one hand, the family of God is the sum total of all God’s elect through time and space. That is to say, the church is composed of true believers around the world from the past, present, and into the future—but no one else other than those whose names have been written in the book of life from before the foundation of the world. This view of the church has been called the “invisible” church because you can’t point to one single time or place and say, “There it is!” (except for the coming new heavens and new earth but that’s excluded from consideration in this present age). This view of the church is rightly called the “holy” church because it is composed of those who have been set apart by God through the work of Christ applied by the Spirit. It is also rightly called the “catholic” church because it is a universal church through time and space.
On the other hand, the family of God is all those who profess the true religion and their children. That means that, at least in one sense, the church is what you see when we gather together as a congregation, whether for worship on the Lord’s Day or for another purpose. But this definition of the church also means that it is the sum total of congregations gathered in the name of Christ. Thus, we can talk of a particular church or a group of churches, but we can also call that group of churches “the church” in the singular because that group of particular churches is still just the one church composed of all those who profess the true religion and their families.
This view of the church, sometimes called the “visible” church, is also the “holy” church because it is the gathering of those who have been set apart from this world by baptism and a profession of faith. Note, however, that the holiness of the visible church is different from the holiness of the invisible church in that the visible church is composed of true believers and pretenders. That is to say, the visible church is not completely pure and holy in its membership because some members of the visible church may profess the true religion but ultimately prove by word and deed that the confession of their lips is not the desire of their hearts.
Nevertheless, the visible church is rightly called “holy” because there is—or there ought to be—a visible separation between those who have professed faith and the rest of the world. The visible church still has boundaries that make it holy. The visible church is also rightly called the “catholic” church because it is not merely some regional or sectarian group but a universal church through time and space.
It is this latter view of the church that is easiest to see (obviously) and appreciate, and it is also this latter view of the church that is the most immediate referent in Psalm 133. But it is the former view of the church that receives the fullness of the blessings of God, for, while God gives his common grace to all without exception, he blesses his chosen sons and daughters with his special grace, which allows us to have intimate communion with him, which is the fullness of the goodness and pleasantness of brothers dwelling in unity.