Essay / Culture

Catholicity, Race and Sunday Morning

For the last 1600 years, Christians have confessed belief in the ‘one holy catholic and apostolic church’. The ‘catholic’ bit of that confession makes many Protestants fidgety, but it need not. Its etymology renders it simply ‘according to the whole’. Catholicity gets at the universal character of the church, and it does so by two ways.

First, it reminds us that the church is more than our local Sunday gatherings. It encompasses the communion of saints across time and space. That means that the eighty of us who worshiped at Fountain of Life Covenant Church in North Long Beach yesterday are not the church by ourselves. We are the church with those worshiping yesterday in Auckland and those worshipping last year, a hundred, a thousand years ago throughout the world. We are the church, only and ever with our brothers and sisters in the non-Western world, in the non-modern world. Catholicity, then, means diversity.

Second, confessing the church’s catholicity commands our allegiance to the church as well as our commitment to her unity. We have ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism’ (Eph. 4.5), and the very acknowledgment of this implies a submission to the Lord and his church. Confessing the church’s catholicity and refusing to live a life of being reconciled together is what Karl Barth would call an ‘impossible possibility’ — possible in that it happens, but impossible in that its very happening is utterly foreign to the logic of its own existence. In other words, the blocking of reconciliation in our relationships violates the catholicity we (claim) to confess. Catholicity means unity.


Today America celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and martyrdom, a life and death spent fighting segregation in the name of Jesus. (Incidentally, if you’re wondering about the application of ‘martyr’ to one whose death is not directly the result of a profession of Christ, see Craig Slane’s stirring discussion of Bonhoeffer as modern martyr.’) Here is how King describes segregation in his prison epistle:

Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I- it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. Paul Tillich said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression ‘of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? (‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’)

It was King who called 11 a.m. on Sunday morning ‘the most segregated hour’ in America. Despite marvelous strides in church and society, our churches remain largely segregated.

It used to be that churches worked on a parish model. If you lived in a particular town, you went to its church. The model reflects the organization of medieval society as well as regionally and nationally established churches. One of its blessings is its inherent catholicity. The local church in the parish model reflects the make-up of the community. Even though not everyone from the community shows up, everyone is represented. The poor are there, as are the rich. Men and women, married and single, young and old, black and white are there. In this, the local church mirrors the universal church.

What makes this model attractive is its inherent desegregating orientation. The person sitting in the chair next to me (or even worse — the pew! I might have to touch them!) could be anyone — young people and poor people and married people, oh my! The church promises to be one of the few places where people who don’t belong together, belong together. It is a place where people who we wouldn’t pick for friends become our brothers and sisters.

It’s for this reason that I’m not a big fan of catering to our felt needs to be with people just like us in church. There’s a place for singles groups, young parents groups, hip tattooed people groups, motorcycle enthusiasts groups. But only a peripheral and penultimate place, one that fills a gap and looks to groups of people who are nothing like one another. The heart of the church is difference. Our small groups should be places of difference, where we live the reconciled life with people to whom we aren’t necessarily reconciled.

Clubs are for people who want to hang out with people like them. Churches aren’t.

The thing is, as attractive as the parish model is, it doesn’t quite work here and now. American society is stratified. We have built whole communities around the idea that lookalikeness is next to godliness. Our churches set up shop, reach a community and, often enough, reflect the homogeneity of that community. But in so doing, they fail to reflect the ‘come one, come all’ character of the church universal. Structures of sin set society up in such a way that we have to be unnatural (moving to or going to church in a different neighborhood, say) to be natural (that is, truly kata holos, truly catholic).

None of this is to sideline King’s vision. Nor is it to prematurely pronounce its realization. It is, though, to remind us that the church’s catholic nature and its call to catholicity include a number of ‘natural’ divisions. The church’s catholicity is the pudding that proves the words of Paul: ‘In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.’ And, in her catholicity, the church points to the future, to a day when every tongue and tribe and nation will be worshiping before the throne of God and of the Lamb.

Thanks be to God for his servant, our brother, Martin.

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