Grace, Race, and Catholicity

Michael S. Horton
Wednesday, January 2nd 2008
Jan/Feb 2008

When Protestants encounter the words “catholic church,” they usually think of a prominent branch of Christendom. When we confess, however, in the words of the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds that we believe in “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” we are one with Christians in all times and places in acknowledging an elect communion in Christ that is even now visible to some extent among us through the ministry of preaching and sacrament. “Catholic” here simply means ‘universal’-the church in all times and places, where the Word is properly preached and the sacraments are properly administered. At a time when churches are divided along ethnic, political, socio-economic, and generational lines, the question is as urgent for us today as it was for the apostolic church: Will we be defined by Christ and his victory, or by the rival catholicities of this passing age?

Christ Has Already Broken Down the Walls

One of the central concerns of the Apostle Paul was to show that in Christ not only are the wicked justified, renewed, sanctified, and eventually glorified, but that the old wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile has been dismantled. Ephesians is especially clear in underscoring this “mystery hidden in past ages” but now made publicly manifest in Christ’s person and work (Eph. 2:11-4:16).

The most potentially divisive moment in the apostolic church was provoked by the extent to which the gospel defined the church. The predominantly Jewish church was faced with the urgent question: What to do with the Gentiles who professed faith in Christ? Do they have to become Jews when they embrace Christ, or are the laws that distinguish Jew from Gentile no longer binding in the new covenant? “After much discussion,” Peter-who was known to vacillate on the subject-addressed the assembly of apostles and elders with great resolve:

“Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Acts 15:6-11)

The Jerusalem Council set the course for the Christian church-defined not by ethnic distinctives of the old covenant, but by faith in Jesus Christ. Peter’s persuasive argument was not drawn from social theory, marketing strategy, or political ideology, but from the logic of the gospel itself.

If the wall between Jew and Gentile has been torn down by the gospel, then surely any divisions that Gentiles erect could be only more unfounded than the first-century tensions. Precisely because the Abrahamic blessing comes not through the law but through the promise: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:28-29).

Racism, therefore, is in some sense a denial of the gospel. It narrows the saving work of Christ to the realm of the individual, instead of recognizing that it is a sweeping act of God that rearranges our relationships to one another as well as to God. Because we are reconciled to God by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, any other identification marker is at least implicitly another gospel, something other than Christ is the tie that binds. Ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church, is therefore closely related to soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. We cannot consistently say that we cling to Christ alone for our personal salvation while denying the catholicity of the church in him.

Where Catholicity Comes From

There are voluntary societies based on cultural affinities, ethnic roots, age demographics, hobbies, political views, tastes in music, and so forth; and it is fine for Christians to participate in them since they are citizens of earth as well as heaven. But when it comes to the latter, to their identity as the body of Christ: “There is one body and one Spirit-just as you were called to one hope when you were called-one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-5).

Earlier in Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, he grounded this catholicity in the Father’s sovereign election, the Son’s redemption, and the Spirit’s application of redemption (Eph. 1:4-13). I can choose my circle of friends or my neighborhood; but covenantal catholicity is grounded in God’s electing action, not ours. It is the result of a covenant between the Father, Son, and Spirit before all time-not a contract that we make with God and the church.

Jesus reminds us, “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (John 15:16). Consequently, we are commanded to “love one another” (v. 17). I did not choose these people for my sisters and brothers; God did. If I am to be God’s child, I must accept these others as my siblings, co-heirs in Christ. A local church (or wider body of churches) is not free to develop its identity in continuity simply with the givens of racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, or consumer affinities. Each particular expression of the church must seek to exhibit the catholicity that is grounded in God’s electing choice rather than in our own. A church in suburban San Diego should seek to be a local expression of the “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that the doctrine of election warns against surrendering the individual to the community, reminding us that each member of the community of saints is elect, not just the community itself. “God therefore really sees the individual, and God’s election really applies to the individual.” (1) Nevertheless, it is only part of the story. The communion that Christ creates by his Spirit is not a fusion but a communion of persons. The gospel justifies the ungodly and, consequently, liberates them for each other in Christ.

Yet this work of the Spirit is not only individual, it is social-or, as I would put it, covenantal. The Spirit is at work in each of the elect, says Bonhoeffer, but precisely because this is so: “It follows that in moving the elect who are part of the church-community established in Christ, the Holy Spirit simultaneously leads them in to the actualized church-community.” (2) It is only because of the election of the Father in the Son with the Spirit that this is not just another community alongside others, defined by the circumstances of this present age. This community is not a human ideal, but a divine achievement.

Also, in both Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 8-14, the Supper (along with baptism and preaching) plays a critical role. In Ephesians, the communion that each of the elect enjoys with Christ (chapter 1) simultaneously creates on the horizontal register (to which Christ also belongs as head) a communion of saints that defies the divisions of both Athens and Jerusalem. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread,” says Paul (1 Cor. 10:17). In the work of the Spirit through the event of Word and sacrament, the church is not simply reminded or brought to a new awareness of its unity, but becomes more and more the catholic church in truth.

This means, practically speaking, that the most decisive “location” of any believer is “in Christ.” That is not to say that one’s ethnicity, language, culture, age, socioeconomic status, or gender play no role in how one hears and follows God’s Word; but it does mean that if the gospel is God’s one word of salvation to all peoples in all times, then the church is the one society on earth that is completely and exclusively defined by its proclamation.

One Word, Many Languages

It has been frequently observed that whereas the Spirit descended on Babel in judgment to scatter the proud nations and divide their languages, the same Spirit descended at Pentecost in blessing to unite the peoples and give them a common tongue. However, it is apparent from Acts 2 that the diversity of languages was fully preserved at Pentecost. In fact, this point is emphasized throughout: “in the language of each”; and “amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language…about God’s deeds of power?” (vv. 4-8, 11b). Evidently, this gift of interpreting foreign languages was retained during the apostolic era (1 Cor. 12:10, 30; 14:2-4).

Much like modernity, the Promethean ambitions of those gathered on the plains to build a tower reaching to the heavens would not create the unity of different people with differing gifts, but a generic sameness: a natural community. By contrast, the Spirit who created a world full of diversity preserves it in that diversity and plurality. Those gathered near the temple at Pentecost who trusted in Christ that day were more perfectly one than any society, yet in a harmony of difference: “In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” They were one because they shared the same thing, not because they became fused into the same thing. While modernity suppresses diversity, post-modernity suppresses unity. Refusing to settle for either form of reductionism, contemporary evangelical reflection must take its cue from Pentecost. There are not many lords, but one Lord; not many faiths, b ut one faith “once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3); not many baptisms, but “one baptism” (Eph. 4:5); not many spirits, but one Spirit of truth (Eph. 4:4; 1 Cor. 24:11, 13).

As we survey the contemporary ecclesial landscape, however, this account of catholicity seems to be reversed. Whereas an almost infinite diversity of doctrine and practice is tolerated, even celebrated, churches are becoming more hegemonic than ever with respect to politics, socioeconomic position, age, gender, and cultural tastes. According to pioneering missiologist Donald McGavran, “People like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers….This principle states an undeniable fact…[that] the world’s population is a mosaic, and each piece has a separate life of its own that seems strange and often unlovely to men and women of other pieces.” (3) Some readers will see this as capitulating to cultural narcissism. McGavran replies: “It is better, they think, to have a slow growing or nongrowing church that is really brotherly, integrated, and hence ‘really Christian,’ than a rapidly growing one-people church.” (4) Thoug h clearly rejecting forced segregation on the basis of race, McGavran argues that before people can embrace true “brotherhood” they must become Christians; and since people become Christians more rapidly in culturally homogeneous units, we should do whatever it takes to serve that missional end. (5)

South African theologians Allen Boesak and John de Gruchy argue that it was Pietist missionaries who assumed this very principle when they planted “homogeneous” churches that inadvertently helped to bring apartheid into existence. In adopting this “missional” path, the Dutch Reformed Church reversed its earlier repudiation of divisions within the church along racial lines. (6) According to anti-apartheid theologian and pastor John de Gruchy, Reformed churches were not segregated until the “revivals in the mid-nineteenth century” by holiness preacher Andrew Murray and Pietist missionaries:

It was under the dominance of such evangelicalism, rather than the strict Calvinism of Dort, that the Dutch Reformed Church agreed at its Synod of 1857 that congregations could be divided along racial lines. Despite the fact that this development went against earlier synodical decisions that segregation in the church was contrary to the Word of God, it was ratio nalized on grounds of missiology and practical necessity. Missiologically it was argued that people were best evangelized and best worshipped God in their own language and cultural setting, a position reinforced by German Lutheran missiology and somewhat akin to the church-growth philosophy of our own time. (7)

Ecclesial apartheid is expanding as each generation and demographic market is treated to its own study Bibles and devotional materials, small groups, and “worship experiences.” In fact, some of the leading megachurches with which I am familiar in Southern California offer professionally choreographed theme-services based on musical preferences (50s rock, Hawaiian, country, hip-hop, and alternative). Affinity with our peers threatens to rival our affinity with Christ. The sociological “is” (that is, people like being together with others who are like them) is simply taken as the theological “ought,” as if the gospel had no power to redefine our mos t important social reality. It is as if the church were simply one community of this passing evil age alongside others, rather than the harbinger of the age to come created by the Spirit through the Word.

I have been increasingly impressed by the fact that wherever Christ is the focus of catholicity and Word-and-sacrament ministry the means, a genuinely multicultural and multigenerational community is generated. However, where ethnic distinctiveness is prized over catholicity, the church easily becomes a reflection of a rival catholicity.

By embracing rather than eliminating cultural differences, the community generated by Pentecost is necessarily oriented toward a catholicity that expresses the end-time harvest of the nations. The fact that Paul’s clearest teaching on the Supper is motivated by the practical problem of allowing socioeconomic differences in the communion of saints shows the similarities with our own age.

Within the history of American Protestantism, catholicity has been undermined more grievously by slavery and racism as well as by socioeconomic divisions. As these divisions are increasingly recognized as sinful, however, the solution is often to find cultural ways of negotiating and celebrating differences rather than by renewed attention to the cultus-that is, the ministry of the gospel that creates ecclesial unity. As a Christian of northern European descent, it is easy for me to notice that many African-American churches I have attended are shaped by a particular subculture, but I just assume that my own church is not distinguished by such factors. Yet an African-American brother or sister might think differently. We need to worship together in Christ in order to recognize how culturally bound we are and to negotiate the challenges of being one people.

The current phase of ecclesial division is actually welcomed in the name of mission. In addition to the false catholicity of ethnic bonds or race, it is the false unity of the market. Not only separate churches, but separate “churches-within-churches” are proliferating, each targeting its unique market. In this context, the church becomes a collection of consumers or tourists rather than a communion of saints and pilgrims. Hardly benign, the priority given to the invisible hand of the market is just as schismatic as the divisions of the early church; and for all the appropriate lamentation concerning the denominational splintering of traditional Protestantism, individual choice and stylistic preferences threaten catholicity in our day not only between local churches but within them. It is of the essence of marketing to attract consumers by appealing to the “felt needs” that are ostensibly unique to them, creating demographics defined by those consumer habits. If everyone were fairly similar in basic needs, there would be no motivation to purchase the panoply of ever-new accessories for one’s ever-changing personality.

Where it used to be said (and is still the case) that America’s racial divisions were most evident on Sunday, it is increasingly the case that even families are more divided up into their market niches at church than anywhere else. Today, there are resources for every conceivable demographic and “Christian” versions of anything can be found in popular culture. To the extent that the content generated by this industry retains any substance of the Christian faith, it is cropped to highlight that which a specific focus group might find useful, entertaining, or relevant. We have learned to think as never before in terms of the uniqueness of over-stereotyped generations. Where church divisions once resulted in denominations defined by doctrinal distinctives (Lutheran/Evangelical, Reformed, Orthodox, Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregational, etc.), they are now celebrated as “megachurch” and “emergent,” as if each generation were an ex nihilo creation. As Timothy Gorringe says, “‘Community’ in this world is a collection of individual consumers, who might change their preference from week to week.” (8)

In the name of “incarnational ministry” and diversity, are we actually perpetuating a catholicity of the market that imposes cultural homogeneity while marginalizing unity in doctrine and church practice? One of the brilliant successes of the market is that it has convinced us that we are sovereign choosers even while, through its ubiquitous preaching and catechesis (media) and sacraments (advertising), it determines the horizon of our choices.

Catholicity does not depend on the similarity of our cultural tastes, consumer preferences, or political views. Nor does it depend on a similarity of our conversion stories, our progress in holiness, or even on our having identical formulations of every doctrine or practice. Yet it does require a common confession concerning the Triune God and the action of this God for our salvation in Christ: one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

Keep the Unity!

The gospel indicatives create the church. The church does not have to achieve its catholic identity; it is catholic because it is Christ’s body. Nevertheless, on the heels of this indicative, unfolded in the first three chapters of Ephesians, Paul states the imperative: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). This is difficult labor as he points out in several places. The strong must bear with the weak. Effort is required to maintain the bond of peace, especially when we are seduced into living as if other bodies, other spirits, other callings, lords, faiths, and baptisms vie for our ultimate allegiance. We read in those verses that this requires humility, gentleness, and patience. Not only the young but the old must love their fellow-saints and seek to preserve a connection with the future as well as the past.

The gospel creates a unity, both among those who already belong to the covenant community and to those outside of it who are drawn to Christ through the Word. This catholicity requires patience on all sides. By settling for the truce of different niche groups and even worship services, we not only perpetuate ecclesial apartheid, but deprive ourselves and our group of the graces that enrich the whole body: the weak and the strong (Rom. 14:1-15:6; Gal. 6:1-10); the rich and the poor (2 Tim. 6:17-19); Jews and Gentiles (Rom. 15:7-21; Col. 3:11); men and women (Gal. 3:28); young and old (1 Tim. 5:1-10). Not because we all listen to the same music or share the same political agenda, but “because we eat of that one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17) and have been “baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13). “Because we eat of that one bread” and embrace the same faith in one Spirit (Eph. 4:4-5) do we find our true affinity. It was precisely because of worldly divisions that Paul wa rned the Corinthians to examine themselves before eating and drinking at the Lord’s Table (1 Cor. 11:27-34). Each local expression of the catholic church is under that solemn obligation to “[b]e subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21).

As we “give ear” to God’s Word and privilege the interpretation of that Word by the communion of saints in all times and places, there arises the possibility of a genuine catholicity that rivals its parodies. Of course, we pick up on some things and suppress others in part because of our socialization. However, we all suppress God’s claim and promise; and in Christ we embrace both, in a communion of saints. When we sit beneath the Word, we are all equally condemned by the law and co-heirs with Christ by the gospel. We are not baptized into a sect of secular sociology and marketing, so should not our hearing be governed by our being in Christ, in the already/not-yet tension of his kingdom? Is not this social location more determinative for us than any other? When the Word creates community, the result is a church and not a special interest group or market niche. A new community is formed by the Spirit as an imperfect yet nevertheless real oasis in a world of strife.

As much as is possible, given the profile of the neighborhoods that churches serve, each local church should be a visible expression of this catholicity that one day will be fully revealed. It is a place where grandparents worship together with their children and grandchildren, and it is once again the case that the older teach the younger by word and example; where there is a story larger, broader, and richer than the micro-narratives defined by this fading age. This communion includes both living and dead; those in the suburbs, cities, and rural countryside; multi-generational citizens and immigrants in “developed” nations, and those who make up two thirds of the rest of the world; socialists, democrats, and free-market capitalists.

The church is the place where the young learn to confess the same faith as their elderly brothers and sisters. Yet it is also a place where strangers are welcomed. In the public confession of sin and absolution, in the prayers, singing, and hearing of the Word, at the font and table, we not only recall that the most demographically decisive location is “in Christ,” we actually become located there.

From its Pietist legacy, Protestantism (especially evangelicalism) has more often given rise to new movements than to renewed and reformed churches. At the same time, traditional churches must not treat their people as givens but as gifts-indeed as treasures that have been entrusted to their communion and care. By no means unique to Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions, the challenge of caring for each member of the church-community is just as apparent in Protestant churches. Whenever the congregation is treated as an “audience” or “mass,” Bonhoeffer reminds us, the problem of coming personally to profess the faith for oneself recedes behind the collective faith of the church. (9) Baptism is not only God’s promise, it is God’s command to the whole church to assume its responsibilities to the child as agents of covenantal nurture.

Thus the church-community as the community of saints carries its children like a mother, as its most sacred treasur e. It can do this only by virtue of its ‘communal life’; if it were a ‘voluntary association’ the act of baptism would be meaningless. This means, however, that infant baptism is no longer meaningful wherever the church can no longer envision ‘carrying’ the child-where it is internally broken, or where it is certain that baptism will be the first and last contact the child will have with it. (10)

Bonhoeffer’s comments not only serve to show the critical difference between a contractual economy (“voluntary association”) and a covenant community, but to impress upon those of us who endorse the latter the danger of socialization without salvation. However, the answer is not to give up on the church-looking outside of the covenant and its institutions that have been appointed by Christ for his people-but to renew a genuine covenantal piety and practice that restores intergenerational and interracial integrity.

The prophets remind us repeatedly of the vision of the latter days, with the nations streaming to Zion, bearing their gifts for the great celebration. As a foretaste of that festival, each gathering of the Lord’s people should reflect as much as possible the diversity of gifts that serve the unity of the body. While the younger believers learn from their elders, they also have gifts to give to the wider body. Think of the ways in which our churches could be enriched by a diversity of cultures. What a blessing it is to us, a testimony it is to the world, and thanksgiving it is to the Triune God when our local churches become more concretely and visibly a sign of the marriage feast of the Lamb!

1 [ Back ] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 1, ed. Joachim von Soosten; English edition, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss and Nancy Lukens (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), p. 162.
2 [ Back ] Bonhoeffer, pp. 158-159.
3 [ Back ] Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, ed. C. Peter Wagner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 163.
4 [ Back ] McGavran, p. 174.
5 [ Back ] McGavran, pp. 174-175. C. Peter Wagner defends McGavran's approach in Our Kind of People: The Ethical Dimensions of Church Growth in America (Atlanta: John Knox, 1979).
6 [ Back ] Allan Boesak responds, "Manipulation of the word of God to suit culture, prejudices, or ideology is alien to the Reformed tradition." (Black and Reformed: Apartheid, Liberation and the Calvinist Tradition, ed. Leonard Sweetman [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1984], p. 87).
7 [ Back ] John de Gruchy, Liberating Reformed Theology: A South African Contribution to an Ecumenical Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), pp. 23-24.
8 [ Back ] Timothy Gorringe, A Theology of the Built Environment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 164, from Tönnies', Community and Society, trans. C. Loomis (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), p. 165.
9 [ Back ] Bonhoeffer, pp. 239-240.
10 [ Back ] Bonhoeffer, p. 241.

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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
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