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A Conflict of Catholicities

One of the dominant teachings of the New Testament is the universalization of God's plan of redemption. As a result of Jesus Christ's great work of redemption, God expanded His covenant purposes from the Jewish nation to include all the peoples of the earth. This is just what the Old Testament predicted.

  • P. Andrew Sandlin,
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. . . the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. - Isaiah 11:9

One of the dominant teachings of the New Testament is the universalization of God's plan of redemption. As a result of Jesus Christ's great work of redemption, God expanded His covenant purposes from the Jewish nation to include all the peoples of the earth. This is just what the Old Testament predicted. Paul summarizes this fact in Ephesians 4:4-6:

There is one body, one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.

The patristic church lost no momentum in adopting this view. They laid great emphasis on "one holy, catholic and apostolic, church."1 The idea of a Christianity that could be limited to and anchored in a single province, race, or nation was totally foreign to their thinking. They all knew of St. Paul, himself a Jew, whom God had called as the apostle to the Gentiles. He was the church's first great missionary and church planter beyond the confines of Israel. The truth of Christianity as a universal, or catholic, Faith gradually atrophied, however, as the churches at Rome (West) and Byzantium (East) gained preeminence. The greatest division in the history of the church, the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western branches of the church in 1054, highlighted the magnitude of this problem. In the West, the church had become solidly Latin, while in the East it became Greek. It was no longer recognizably universal.

The Protestant Reformation constituted, among other things, an attempt to restore the church's catholicity.2 Unfortunately, though, in eroding the Western church's Latinity, it usually countered with various national or at least nationalized churches: Anglican; German Lutheran; Swiss, German, or Dutch Reformed; and so forth. Even those churches that were not politically established developed a highly nationalized and ethnic character that undermined the catholicity of Christianity. It would be unfair to criticize these churches too harshly, because without the help of the Protestant princes, the Reformation, humanly speaking, would not have gotten off the ground. Adamant Protestant civil magistrates in Europe were essential to break the stranglehold of Rome's monopoly. In time, however, it would have been much more advantageous had these Protestant churches recognized the inherently provincial character of their arrangement.

What the Protestant churches may have lacked in the extensity of catholicity, they soon made up for in their intensity. The Faith is designed to be not only a universal fact; it is designed to pervade every area of life. Protestants, particularly the Puritans and later such Reformed luminaries as Kuyper and Van Til and their disciples, recognized that every area of life and thought must be brought under Christ's authority. Christianity is not only for the church; Christianity should pervade the entire culture.

The Christian Faith is a universal faith. There is not, strictly speaking, North American Christianity, Asian Christianity, Sub-Saharan Christianity, Bulgarian Christianity, and so forth. There is simply Christianity. It is true that there are local and regional variations and expressions of Christianity. For instance, the highly spirited music of orthodox African churches would seem out of place in orthodox Presbyterian churches in the United States, but this has nothing to do with the core of Christianity both churches embrace. One of the most counterproductive practices of many North American missionary agencies is trying to establish "Americanized" churches in other cultures. It is not only counterproductive; it is just plain wrong. It undercuts the catholicity of the Faith. The unity of the church does not consist in any particular provincial expression of it, but in worship of and union with the sovereign Triune God by means of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, and the affirmation of historic, Christian orthodoxy. This is the extensiveness of Christian catholicity.

Then there is the intensiveness of Christian catholicity. The Faith is designed to govern not only the entire globe, but also every area of life and thought on the globe. In other words, Christianity should no more be limited to Sunday school and prayer meetings than it can be limited to North Americans and Asians. Let me express this negatively, taking into account Christianity's conflict in the modern world. The same religious pluralism that combats the exclusive claims of Christian missions equally combats the exclusive claims of Christian culture. Regrettably, many of the same ardently conservative Christian mission agencies which argue that Jesus Christ is the exclusive way of salvation neglect the equally important fact that Jesus Christ is the exclusive way to culture. These Christians are justifiably angered at a modern pluralism, which insists that Christian evangelization is unnecessary because there are "other valid ways to God." Yet, they seem not the least troubled by the equally pluralistic assertion that there are "other valid ways" to culture.

If, however, the Faith is truly catholic, or universal, it must be catholic in its cultural dimensions no less than in its soteriological dimensions. If Jesus Christ really is the way, the truth, and the life, He is the way, the truth, and the life in all things, not just in individual salvation. In J. Gresham Machen's words, "The Christian cannot be satisfied so long as any human activity is either opposed to Christianity or out of all connection with Christianity. Christianity must pervade not merely all nations, but also all of human thought."3

This means He is the way, the truth, and the life in vocation, science, technology, politics, education, music, agriculture, and so on. These catholic claims of Christianity conflict at every point with the equally catholic claims of all non-Christian systems and, in today's Western world, notably secularism.

The Christian view of science, for example, is based squarely on the six-day creation account revealed in the Bible, and all that this implies. It implies, among other things, God's sovereign, purposive control of the universe. It denies every hint of chance, chaos, and human autonomy an autonomy by which the chance and the chaos can be reordered. This is an immediate and irreconcilable conflict with the secular view of science, which sees man as the evolutionary product of matter and time, a higher form of animal that can recreate reality including himself at his own whim.

Likewise, the Christian view of vocation is diametrically opposed to the secular view of vocation. According to the Bible, man's life is to be lived to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). His vocation provides sustenance for himself and for his family as well as for others in need and for the advancement of Christ's kingdom on the earth. Man's vocation, in summary, is a sacred calling. This is frankly the opposite of the secular view of vocation. In this view, man lives for himself and for his own aims and purposes. He may start a family if he chooses; and if he does, his vocation may provide them lavish material benefits. On the other hand, if he so chooses, he may divorce his spouse and his children and live only for himself. The objective of his vocation is not to honor God and advance His kingdom, but to advance the kingdom of man his own interests. If he works in a communistic state, he also works to advance the kingdom of man, collectively rather than individualistically. The Christian view of vocation is uncompromisingly opposed to the secular view of vocation.

Similarly, the Christian view of politics is fully antithetical to the secular view of politics. Politics is the realm of the state. The Christian view of the state is radically different from the secular view of the state. The Bible depicts the state as a genuine, though severely limited, institution (Dt. 1:9-18; Rom. 13:3-4). In a Christian society, its role is quite simple: maintain external order in Christian terms. To a remarkable degree, this essentially reduces to a protection of the early American trio of "rights": life, liberty, and property. The state and its officers, civil magistrates, stand under and are limited by God's authority. They are God's ministers, and they are subject to Him. This is not the secular view of the state, which invariably leads to tyranny. It can be the "benevolent" tyranny of modern Western democracies that unlawfully extort citizens' wealth to fund their own utopian educational system; illegitimately conscript citizens (of both sexes) to fight godless, foreign wars; and create special privileges for particularly egregious sinners like abortionists and homosexuals. In more malevolent tyrannies of modern secular societies, the state uses its monopoly of coercion to bulldoze the slightest degree of liberty of its citizens and grind humanity's collective face into the mud. It is ironic no, laughable when secularists express fear that a Christian society will somehow undermine liberty and freedom. The most tyrannical, persecuting, thieving, murderous, and warmongering societies in history have been secular or otherwise anti-Christian societies: the ancient pagan empires, the Islamic nations, revolutionary France, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and Communist China. By far the most tyrannical, murderous political regimes in history occurred in the twentieth century, and all of them were secular. There is a good explanation for this. A secular society imposes no barriers to state power. Political leaders are accountable to no one. They own a monopoly on firing squads, electric chairs, nuclear weapons, and, in some cases, guns. Therefore, they can torture and kill people if they want to. By contrast, a Christian society contains built-in barriers to tyranny. The most notable one is the fear of God. For this reason, an honest atheist and there is no genuinely honest atheist would prefer a Christian society to an atheistic society. Why? Because a Christian society would protect his life, liberty, and property, since this is precisely what the Bible requires, while an atheistic society is bereft of any transcendent standard and, thus, may and has easily developed the pernicious attitude that might makes right. The Christian view of politics is violently opposed to the secular view of politics.

And what is true of science and vocation and politics is equally true of family, the arts, education, medicine, architecture, and every other area of modern life. The catholicity of Christianity demands the Christianization of the world and all areas of its life and thought, and as such it dramatically conflicts with all fundamental anti-Christian views and practices.

A Conflict of Catholicities
Since Genesis 3, Satan's objective has been the subversion of God's plan for the earth. That plan is God's benevolent governance with Christians as His vicegerents, or representatives (Ps. 8). Satan's plan is not merely to stymie God's plan. In addition, it is his own version of earthly catholicity. Satan wants the worship the absolute allegiance of man (Mt. 4:8-9). The catholicity of Christianity is, therefore, on a collision course with the catholicity of Satan. There can be no détente between rival religions, visions, ethics, churches, and eschatologies that all claim catholicity. The universal vision of Satanic catholicity opposes the universal vision of Christian catholicity at every key point. They are comprehensively rival visions; there can be no peaceful coexistence.


1. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (Chicago and London, 1971), 156.

2. M. Eugene Osterhaven, The Spirit of the Reformed Tradition (Grand Rapids, 1971), 40.

3. J. Gresham Machen, Education, Christianity and the State (Jefferson, MD, 1987), 50.

  • P. Andrew Sandlin

P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author.  He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California.  He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation.  He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).

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