The famously influential Nicene Creed contains a line that modern Christians sometimes misunderstand:  “I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” The word “catholic” can be a source of confusion for those who think it is referring to the Roman Catholic Church, but the word simply means “universal.” This leads us, then, to consider the important theological concept of the “universal church.”

The term commonly used for the church in the New Testament is the Greek word ekklesia. Jesus is the first to use the word ekklesia in the New Testament (Matt. 16:18), but it is used in various ways with various meanings. As theologian Louis Berkhof explains, ekklesia can have the following meanings:

-A specific local group of Christians or a local church (Acts 11:26; 1 Cor. 11:18; Gal. 1:2).
-A house church (Rom. 16:23; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col 4:15).
-A group of churches in a region (Acts 9:31).
-All those throughout the world who profess to be Christians and organize for worship (1 Cor. 10:32; 11:22; 12:28).
-All those throughout history who have been or will be united to Christ as their savior (Eph. 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23-25, 27, 32; Col. 1:18, 24).
The last two definitions are explained by John Calvin in his treatment of the visible and invisible church. The “visible church” describes Christianity that can be measured and counted externally:

“The whole body . . . scattered throughout the world, who profess to worship one God and Christ, who by baptism are initiated into the faith; by partaking of the Lord’s Supper profess unity in true doctrine and charity, agree in holding the word of the Lord, and observe the ministry which Christ has appointed for the preaching of it.”

However, Calvin recognized that not all who profess to be Christians and outwardly take part in church practices are truly united to Christ.

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