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The catholicity of the church 1


R. Sollie-Sleijster



DGK deputies ACOBB wrote a clear note on catholicity for the talks with GKN. It deserves a broader and more international notoriety. Moreover it shows how DGK view this property of Christ’s church and consider it.

Below we publish the translated document in extenso (headings are ours).




Deputies BBK of DGK


With the Nicene Creed we distinguish four properties: one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Just as about the other three features of the church there is quite a lot to say about the catholicity of the church. So for this note we’ll have to restrict ourselves very much.

Grateful and with approval we make use of the Beknopte Gereformeerde Dogmatiek (BGD), C. Trimp, Kerk in aanbouw (esp. Par. 3.2; 3.3; 3.5) and the booklet by dr. W.G. de Vries, J. Kamphuis, J.W. van der Jagt, De kerk (series Woord en wereld, nr. 27).


Church and catholicity


The word ‘catholic’ in the confession of the catholicity of the church is connected with the universal, the worldwide character of Christ’s church. Connected with its entirety. But the catholicity of the church also has a qualitative aspect. It also points at the full Scriptural contents of the doctrine of the church. Read what the apostle Paul writes in Efeze 3:14vv. about ‘together with all the saints’ and about the fullness which is given in Christ. The catholic church remains in that fullness of Christ by keeping to the Word (John 14:15vv.)

The early Christian church meant with the ‘catholicity of the church: the true church which at the same time is the universal church, or the universal church which at the same time is the true church. The catholicity is also connected with the whole truth and the fullness of salvation’ (BGD, p. 651).


Catholicity and sects


The catholicity of the church is fully founded on the Bible: see John 3:16; Matth. 28:19; Acts 2,10,11; 1 Cor. 12; 13; Efeze 2:14-16; Col. 3:11; Rom. 3:29,30; Rom. 10:11-13; 1 Tim. 2:5,6 etc.

The catholicity of the church is confessed in the confessions of the church. Especially we mention HC question and answer 54. That the Son of God from the entire human race assembles for Himself a congregation, from the beginning of the world till the end (…), in the unity of the true faith.

And of course in Art. 27 of the Belgic Confession (BC):


We believe and confess one catholic or universal church (…). This church has been from the beginning of the world and will exist till the end. (…) This holy church isn’t situated in or bound to or restricted to a certain place, or bound to certain persons. But it is spread out and scattered around the whole world. Yet with heart and soul it is brought together and united in one Spirit through the strength of the faith.


The confession of the catholicity as formulated in Art. 27 BC is a rejection of the Roman vision on the catholicity. Rome embraces a rigid binding of the church to cities, persons (the pope) and institutions (hierarchy). On page 653 of BGD, where the Roman notion of catholicity is rejected, we also read about rejecting the sectarian interpretation. We’ll have to be on our guard for sectarian notions in the ecclesiastical life. You can think of the formation of groups absolutizing certain ideas while disregarding the full Scriptural doctrine. As a sectarian notion on the church we mention e.g. the doctrine of rev. Joh. Hoorn about Art. 28 BC. GS Heemse 1984 quite rightly rejected the ideas of rev. Hoorn as being contrary to Scripture and confession.


(In)visible church


It’s not right to see the catholic church, as we confess it in Art. 27 of the BC, as the ‘mystic body’ of Christ. In viewing the catholicity of the church it would also be unjust to think of an ‘invisible church’ which would then consist of the total number of the chosen.

Calvin talked about visible and invisible. But not with the distinction of two churches, a visible and an invisible one, but to distinguish in the one church two sides (W.G. de Vries, 14). Art. 27 starts with mentioning one church. But at the end the article speaks in the plural: churches are spread and scattered all over the world. The secret is that the one catholic church of Christ frequently presents itself in the often hardly discernable [insignificant?] local congregation (C. Trimp, 61). We firmly stick to the conviction that the articles 28 and 29 of the BC are also about the same church as mentioned in article 27 BC.




From that one catholic and universal church nobody has the right to separate himself. It can turn out that the believers must separate themselves from the church institute. Then they have to separate themselves ‘from those who don’t belong to the church’, so art. 28 BC says. That calling to separation is reached when in the church institute the doctrine of Christ is abandoned, the church order is disrupted and the worship (sacraments) are falsified. Thén separation is needed, because it is required in order to remain a catholic church of Christ (C. Trimp, 68).

But that one catholic church is not the same as the perfect church. John Calvin strongly opposed against the perfectionism of the Baptist radicals. The Baptists aimed at a church without any failings. Calvin saw a lot of shortages in the churches which had been reformed, but he didn’t fall into the trap of Baptist zealotry and fanaticism.

Faults and shortcomings may not be disguised. But the one catholic church of Christ, the legal church congregation, may not be left because of the reason that there ‘is no perfect purity and undamaged life’ (W.G. de Vries, 18). Connected with this we also refer to what K. Schilder in the Collegedictaat ‘De Kerk’ says about the legitimicy and purity of the church


‘Legality is first and foremost, purity is secondary’. ‘The Reformed church may degenerate, but as long as it doesn’t officially accept the ‘mess’, it is legal, in spite of its impurity’. ‘Legality asks for the papers of the church’ (p. 143).


Place and time


Because of the catholic quality of the church, when looking at the churches abroad, it should be taken into account that in other parts of the world Christ is gathering his church in the history of those countries and peoples,


‘so that the churches have their own history conform the nature of people and country and their struggle against decline and oppression, which is reflected in the way in which they have confessed God’s truth in their own confessions with their own imperfectness.

Thus between particular churches of different places and countries there can be drastic differences in worship, liturgical practices (compare article 47 CO), while essentially they agree in confessing God’s truth and in maintaining the true doctrine and administration of the sacraments. Although there may be different agreements for the ecclesiastical life, they nevertheless acknowledge Jesus Christ as the one and only Head, while they don’t want to deviate from what He has ordered’.


This somewhat longer quotation is from a committee report which served at GS Groningen-Zuid 1978. DGK has never distanced itself from the contents of this report. The way of talking about the catholicity of the church, as in this report, made reformed synods (Amersfoort-West 1967) characterize the Westminster confession as a confession in agreement with the Word, a reformed confession. This doesn’t mean that there are not some parts of the Westminster Confession which are open to criticism [update 12-05-18].  It is also right to watch and consider the practices of foreign  churches with the Westminster Confession.




The catholicity of the church has a clear limit. The different qualities of the church may not be exchanged. The catholicity may not be advanced at the expense of the unity of Christ’s church. On the one hand: The causing of discord and schisms are not without reason sins, which make office-bearers liable to removal (see art. 80 CO). And on the other hand: If it is obvious that ecclesiastical congregations exist next to each other, while each of them wants to adhere fully to the Scripture and the Scriptural confession, then the Lord’s Word urges for ecclesiastical unity (Efeze 4:1-6; Joh. 17).

When the ‘ecumenical will’ is lacking, then the catholicity of the church is at stake. Then you can’t satisfy yourself with experiencing spiritual unity across the ‘church walls’. Church federated unity and adherence to church federated agreements is also given with this charge for unity (Revelation 1-3).


Of course the catholicity of the church may not be advanced at the expense of the apostolicity of the church, i.e. the adherence to the doctrine of Christ, the Scriptural doctrine.

The catholicity of the church is at stake when not Christ’s words, the teachings of apostles and prophets, are the foundation and norm, but (e.g.) the particularities, specialties, views and tradition (J.W. van der Jagt, p. 81). Subsequently: pluriformity is not a synonym for catholicity. The quality of the catholic church is


'that one directs one’s ways conform the pure Word of God, everything contrary to that rejects and Jesus Christ acknowledges as the one and only Head', (Art. 29 BC).