What Does It Mean to Be “Catholic?”

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TylerR's picture


I always appreciate Olson. He is certainly not a "conservative," but it's always refreshing to hear a perspective from outside your own orbit. In this one, I think he's hit on something important. I think fundamentalism has long had a problem with the concept of "catholicity." I don't mean in the mushy ecumenical sense. I mean in the "family of God," corporate sense - that all true Christians, regardless of their denomination, are part of the future kingdom of God. Why has this been a neglected area of emphasis in fundamentalism?

  1. It can lead to ecumenical mushiness. It can lead to a deliberate breaking down of orthodoxy in favor of a Gospel center, where everything but the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is up for grabs. It can lead to the very worst kind of "mere Christianity." This is a real danger.
  2. Fundamental Baptists have long had a Landmark strain in our midst, and sometimes deny the very concept of a universal church. Anybody who has attended a Baptist fundamentalist institution knows precisely what I'm talking about.
  3. Baptist fundamentalism, particularly since the 1950s, has been more characterized by what it is against than what it is for. It has become a reactionary and insular movement, especially in certain circles. In some sectors, it has often sought to toe the line on a particular strand of 1950s American Christianity, and contented itself with enthusiastically pointing out compromise. In short, Baptist fundamentalism has been aggressively reactive, not proactive in the past half-century.
  4. Baptists have been hounded and martyred for so long for our emphasis on regenerate church membership (and all this implies), that any hint of catholic "ecumenical mushiness" (real or imagined) seems to fly in the face of all our Baptist ancestors fought and died for.  

So, I understand the aversion to a "catholic" concept in Baptist fundamentalist circles, whether those reasons are good or bad. Yet, at the same time, I think we would benefit from looking outside our own narrow sphere of American Baptist fundamentalism more often. The Reformation-era confessions are excellent resources, even if we don't agree with everything in them. But, we so often wall ourselves off from what we disagree with (e.g. "the 1689 LBCF is Calvinist - it's bad!") that we fail to learn from some good people. For example, I've heard some educated people complain that Baptists shouldn't read material from Presbyterians. This is anti-catholicity gone to harmful extremes, in my opinion.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

JBL's picture

11And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood,eto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.


I agree with Tyler when he says that Fundamentalism has by and large ignored the issue of catholicism (small c).  The issue is treated more as an irrelevant abstraction, and that Jesus Christ, while head over thousands of local NT bodies, does not require a relationship with any other local body.

So the question is, does Scripture fully support this interpretation?  In the passage above, virtually no one would argue that apostles, prophets, and evangelists are given just to a local church body.  But the vast majority believe that shepherds and teachers are.  Is there not an inconsistency in that treatment?  Furthermore, verses 15-16 seem as if they are written from the standpoint of the universal church.  The whole body surely does not just refer to a local church.

If indeed these passages speak of gifts that are given to the church at large, and also refers to the church at large as being the whole body, should not the concept of catholicism play a more important role in our ecclesiology?

Just wondering Smile

John B. Lee

TylerR's picture


You asked,

If indeed these passages speak of gifts that are given to the church at large, and also refers to the church at large as being the whole body, should not the concept of catholicism play a more important role in our ecclesiology?

This is a very good question. The irony is that fundamentalist Baptists, who value ecclesiology so much, have neglected this area. I don't think they've done it because they're unaware of it. I think it is often neglected because of a theological tradition that is suspicious of the very idea of catholicity.

  • How do you appreciate differences of emphasis within the corporate body, while still championing your own interpretations?

I find it interesting that the church in Jerusalem, even up until Paul's arrest, was still characterized by a far more Jewish flavor than Paul would preferred. Notice (in Acts 21) that James asked Paul to accommodate himself for the sake of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, in an effort to make peace. James was eager to quell murmurings from within his church against Gentile Christians. After all this time, these people were still suspicious of Gentiles! Read between the lines, and you have a major problem in the Jerusalem church. When you read Paul's writing, it is clear the man had moved beyond the Old Covenant ceremonial law. You have two different flavors (i.e. emphases) of Christianity here, with James and Paul. Yet, they managed to make it work.

There is a tension here, especially because fundamentalism has historically been marked for a quest for doctrinal purity. This is a good goal. I am glad fundamentalism has taught me to be this way.

  • But, how do we do this without being Pharisaical towards other Christians? While still being catholic?   

This isn't a discussion that can really be had in some institutions. It is a hole in our ecclesiology.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

"Secondary separation".  Maybe there's a workaround, but given that a lot of fundamentalists really believe it's important not to listen to Johnny Mac because he didn't separate from someone who failed to separate from the Billy Graham organization, I'm at a loss as to how a coherent doctrine of "catholicity" can be established--at least in those quadrants of fundamentalism.  

Given all that we can learn from brothers with whom we disagree, I think this is a huge problem.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

T Howard's picture

Having spent many years in a large IFB church in my 20s, I remember the numerous times we were told that IF Baptists weren't protestants ("We were never part of the Catholic church, so we had nothing to protest about! Amen!"), and that pretty much all protestants were compromisers. Presbyterians were baby baptizers and believed in the "damnable doctrine" of Calvinism. Methodists believed you could lose your salvation. Lutherans and Anglicans were basically Roman Catholic-lite. Southern Baptists were theological liberals. The only true church was comprised of IFB-type churches. My church wasn't part of Landmarkism, but it was very much a "everyone else has issues" church, so "keep yourself from those people." Which, practically meant, stay within IFB-dom or else you're opening yourself to heresy and compromise.

Ron Bean's picture

I heard the same stuff including condemnation of the Puritans and Luther for not separating from their respective churches immediately. I called it Baptist "Pride".


"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Bert Perry's picture

....about a person being welcomed in Heaven by St. Peter, who gives him a tour.  He sees the charismatics raising the roof (if that were possible), the Methodists having an ice cream social.....and then St. Peter tells him to be very quiet as they walk by another room.....the man whispers "why?", and Peter replies

it's the Baptists....they think they're the only ones here.

And yes, sad to say, I've also had theoretically well-meaning pastors do the same....and along those lines, it strikes me that Fundamentalism as originally constructed, and as documented in volumes like The Fundamentals, was to a degree an ecumenical project where the writers were Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, you name it.  Really any Protestant who could affirm the Nicene Creed and the Solas was eligible, so you had a huge amount of catholicity right there.

Sad to see what's happened.  I'm all for figuring out what's really in the Word, I understand the need to separate at times on significant issues, but it's hard to describe what happened in polite speech. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.