I am not Catholic, but I am “catholic.” Since most people associate the term “catholic” with the Roman church, it is easy to lose sight of the word’s true meaning. “Catholic” means “universal.” Although this important word with a capital “C” does represent a specific church body, it also reminds us there is a universal church including everyone who has received grace through Jesus.
Let me state clearly that it does matter what we believe about Jesus, and how we interpret the Bible. But not all Bible topics are created equal. Some are essential because they represent the foundational truths of our faith and they offer very little, if any, room for interpretation. The place of Jesus as the Son of God and His death, burial and bodily resurrection would fit this category. Other Bible topics are not essential, insofar as we are required to interpret them in a specific way, since God Himself has not been specific.
This doesn’t mean there is such a thing as an unimportant verse in the Bible, or even that there are Bible verses that don’t come from the very breath of God. I believe wholeheartedly in the authority of the entire Biblical record and will defend its role in our lives with a passion. Yet, we must be careful not to be dogmatic in areas where God, in His infinite wisdom, has not been specific. For example, God has not told us when the Lord Jesus is coming again. Some people have suggested His wisdom in this might be that the unpredictability of the second coming keeps us on our toes and forces us to live every day with the end as a present reality.
To be honest, there are church bodies with which I have sharp differences of opinions. I am not a Roman Catholic partially because I cannot subscribe to its system of penance, which I believe lessens the role of Jesus as our Advocate before the Father.
But, just because I have sharp disagreements with people on some key doctrines doesn’t mean I can’t celebrate those moments when we come together on essentials. I enjoyed following the pope during his recent visit to America because Francis has a gift for cutting through the red tape of man-made religion and casting the pure vision of the cross as we find it in the gospels. His message in Philadelphia reminded us the biggest scandal in the church isn’t that some people let the Spirit lead them to prophesy in Jesus’ name, but rather that the church has such little faith in the Spirit that it cannot imagine God working outside of religious bureaucracy. I can get on board with this gem of truth! I may have to disembark at the next station when I encounter something erroneous, but I am always willing to travel with someone who preaches Jesus as the Messiah who died, was buried and rose again, proclaiming victory over sin and death.
The church I serve has a slogan that says, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty and in all things love.” I actually think our church movement may have lifted this statement from Augustine. But it is no less true. At first glance it might seem to represent the fact that in any given church family we need to give each other the liberty to disagree on topics where God has not been specific. This is certainly the case. However, I would add that it also means we can come to agreement on essentials with people who are not a part of our particular church body, and with whom we disagree at many points.
I will caution that our commonalities don’t negate the seriousness of our differences. We shouldn’t say our concerns over poor doctrine simply don’t matter since we have agreed on the basic message of Jesus. On the other hand, we should count those who agree on essentials as our friends, and walk with them whenever possible. Christ has enough enemies in the world. We don’t need to create more by refusing to associate with other believers with whom we disagree.
I am a part of the universal church, and to the extent I can collaborate with others who love my Lord, we can lift His name high for the world to see. “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21)
Dear God, help us come together on the things that matter most.