What Michael continues to teach me about the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church

spencer mercer

I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church, but regret that it doesn’t exist.

• William Temple

• • •

Michael Spencer has been one of my best, most reliable guides in the post-evangelical life I now live. I find it ironic that, at this stage of my life, our experiences of church mirror each other.

It might be said that Michael never truly found a “church home” as a post-evangelical. His isolated living situation in the hills of eastern Kentucky was a main reason. There simply weren’t congregations in his vicinity that worshiped and functioned as practicing representatives of the Great Tradition of creedal, evangelical, ecumenical, liturgical faith and practice. As we heard in the podcast earlier this week, he sought that and tried to create that but ultimately decided it was prudent to participate in the little Southern Baptist church at his doorstep. Furthermore, as the Spencers entered the “empty nest” stage of their life Michael’s wife Denise was on her own journey and chose to go beyond what Michael could do in good conscience as a Reformation Christian — she joined the Roman Catholic Church.

Keep in mind that Michael still lived and served every day in an intentional Christian mission community, teaching students at the boarding school, leading chapel, giving spiritual counsel, and interacting with the brothers and sisters among whom he lived. And of course he wrote and ministered to a growing audience of people through Internet Monk, his podcasts, and the opportunities for speaking and serving that those activities brought him. He had a missional calling broader than that of the local congregation which led him into an even more intense walk with Christ and others.

So how can we possibly say that Michael Spencer had “no church home”? Such language only has meaning in a culture where “church membership” equates to putting my name on the rolls of an organization comprised of one group of Christians that is distinct from another organization right down the street which is likewise made up of a Christian constituency. More on that in a minute.

I feel similarly “disconnected” when it comes to a “church home” for my family and me. Gail and I are empty nesters, no kids around any more, and I guess I thought this season of our life might signal a return to the kind of partnership in congregational life we enjoyed before the children came along. It hasn’t happened yet. We belong to an ELCA Lutheran congregation, but our involvement is limited. Gail directs a choir at another church and has to leave during or shortly after our worship service, and so we don’t get to spend our Sunday mornings together like we used to. We both often work into the evening, so participating in meetings during the week is a problem. She attends a morning Bible study at a third church. I write Internet Monk after coming home from my chaplain ministry. We’re doing different things and it feels scattered and disjointed and it challenges my OCD preferences for an “ordered” life which contains more habits that revolve around belonging to a church family. Yet every day as a chaplain I serve in a broader parish, getting into neighborhoods and homes where any church I might join could never be found.

I guess I can’t call myself a “churchman” anymore. I love the church, am concerned about the church, think about the church all the time, and consider ecclesiology to be one of the greatest issues Christians face in our day. But the “local church” — that real organization with a building and meetings and activities — gets little of my own personal attention these days.

However, Michael’s experience (and mine) has turned this whole idea of “belonging to a church” on its head for me.

Let me start by saying that the quote by William Temple at the top of this post is dead wrong, a classic example of missing the most important point. Temple said, “I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church, but regret that it doesn’t exist.” I am coming to see that it does indeed exist, that it’s all around us in plain sight, and that the real problem lies in us and the ways we fail to comprehend it, not in the non-existence of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

I think I can get at what I’m trying to say by framing it with two questions:

(1) What does God see when he looks at the church?

(2) What does God require when he calls us to live as part of a faith community?

michael_spencerWhen God looks at the church, I believe he sees one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. God only has one congregation. Every single assembly within that congregation and every individual member is badly flawed, each group all along the spectrum of doctrines is wrong about certain truths or emphases, all segments of the church are poor at living out a variety of virtues and missions to which God calls them. I am not saying every group within the Church is the same, that differences don’t matter, that all streams of tradition are equally muddy or polluted. But I am saying there is ultimately only one church. It exists. God sees it. We’re all a part of it. If I am a Christian, I have a church home. I am a member of Christ’s Body. I belong to the Church.

I also belong to a local expression of the Church. I live in Franklin, Indiana and am therefore a member of “God’s Church in Franklin.” It doesn’t matter if I’m a “member” of St. Rose, Grace Methodist, Franklin Memorial Christian, Franklin Community, the Assembly of God, Good Shepherd Lutheran, Hopewell Presbyterian, Friendship Baptist, or Journey Church. Or any one of the dozens and dozens of individual congregations in our little town. Together, and along with those who don’t identify with any particular congregation, we — all of us — are this area’s local expression of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. No one congregation or group in our town can claim that. We are all part of the Church in Franklin, and I think God looks at us that way — just as he looked at “the church in Rome” and included in that designation groups of believers scattered throughout the city and region.

We’re all members. We may not act like it. We may not accept others as part of it. We may even actively work against some other groups within it and they against us. That’s what William Temple was getting at, I assume. He doesn’t see that one church operating in the world as it should. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Nor is its existence a mere matter of theory in some mystical or spiritual sense, as though there were some “universal church” ideal. No. The Church of God in Jesus Christ is incarnate, literally inhabited by all who by grace through faith in Christ have been welcomed into the family. It is made up of real flesh and blood people. Real congregations. Real mission groups. Real communities.

So, sorry William Temple. I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. It’s real. It exists. I regret that we don’t get it, have never gotten it, and probably won’t ever get it, but it’s there and we’re a part of it. I have a church home and so do you. So did Michael Spencer. The fact that he and I have often lamented our “homelessness” here on this blog doesn’t change that. As I have meditated upon his experiences, I might be starting to get it. No one in Jesus Christ is homeless just because they don’t get together with a group of people and follow that organization’s way of “doing church.”

So, what does God require when he calls us to live as part of a faith community? It is not about “getting involved” in a local congregation. It might be. Then again, it might look completely different than that. It is not about becoming a member of an organization, supporting its programs, attending its services, participating in its activities. You may or may not do any or all of that. You may work on Sunday and be unable to go to church. You might not have two pennies to rub together and can’t give financially. You may have commitments that keep you from going to meetings, serving on committees, teaching, or ministering in some other way. You may even decide a particular congregation is not for you (for whatever reason) and go across town to identify with another. You’re still part of “The Church in ______.” It is essential that we deconstruct the institutional mindset that keeps us thinking we’re failing God if we’re not “good church people.”

None of that really, at the core, matters. You are still part of the church, and what God asks is that you follow Jesus in a life of faith, hope, and love. That you pray in the manner of the Lord’s Prayer, recognizing that “you” are part of a “we” that is praying to “our” Father and joining with us all in asking that his will be done on earth as in heaven.

Michael and I related and served in church congregations for so long and were involved so deeply that it has felt strange and wrong to not have that in our lives in the same way and to the same extent. It feels like wilderness. Maybe it’s not wilderness after all. Maybe it is just an unrecognized path to a new and different appreciation of what the life of faith and “church” is all about.

34 thoughts on “What Michael continues to teach me about the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church

  1. “Who are “we” to make the “call” on this ?”

    Hi Dennis~ You seem to have made a call on this yourself, and I much agree with you as to the underlying issues that produced the creeds. I more and more hear negativity and reaction reading between the lines of the Nicene Creed(s), find the Apostles Creed much more positive. In any case they are important in understanding how we got to where we are today. If the Nicene Creed was presented as a poetic description of something that cannot be defined rather than a loyalty oath, I would be much more comfortable with it. But not with that divisive filioque.

    In any case, to answer your question and speaking only for myself, I am a child of God who with the help of God’s Spirit am finding my way into the 21st century. Along with you perhaps.


  2. I am not a creedalist. I am perhaps a heretic/apostate/schismatic for having joined, then left, the Eastern Orthodox Church. 🙂

    I am saying/suggesting that “one holy catholic and apostolic church” probably meant something more concrete and defined/restricted than the “universal/spiritual body of Christ” idea that many Evangelicals and/or other Protestants hold to. So I am asking if non-EOC / non-Roman Catholic, etc., Christians who don’t hold to the idea of the church being of the nature and practice(s) that those who gathered at the Council(s) meant by the “church” can appropriate the phrase and apply it to something that would likely not meet their criteria for something to be described by that phrase?


  3. I could be mistaken, but I don’t think EricW is a creedalist. His comment doesn’t necessarily mean EricW holds that the Creeds are essential to Christian belief; it could as easily mean that he sees no need for Christians to cling to the language of the Creeds, by stretching them to mean what they were not intended to mean, since he believes that the Creeds are not essential to Christian belief and practice. If I correctly remember some of the theological perspectives of EricW’s comments in the past, the latter would be case.


  4. Hi Charles,

    In regards to creeds, I realize that in Early Christianity, due to communications issues, the influence of metaphysics and political ambitions, creeds and anathemas were being hurled left, right & centre. Especially when obscure issues from the 4th Creed on, were being nutted out. However, if the 1st 3 or 4 creeds don’t reflect the Scriptures, liturgical practise & Apostolic teaching, what does ?

    Just because modern Christianity, in some quarters, has abandoned the creeds / liturgy, or been unable to address them in a current cultural context, doesn’t mean they are a “museum piece”. Who are “we” to make the “call” on this ?



  5. Eric. you may be one of those who hold that the Nicene Creed is the one touchstone we all need to recognize in order to be ecumenical. I am not one of those, and there are increasingly parts of the Creed that I am just not comfortable in saying any more. I wish it would go the way of the Athanasian Creed. I don’t feel this way about the Apostle’s Creed, but was surprised to learn this year that it is part of the Latin tradition and not recognized by the Eastern wing. As far as that goes, the Nicene Creed as held by the Western wing is not recognized by the Eastern wing either, for valid reasons in my opinion.

    I’m guessing that the leaders who railroaded the Nicene Creed thru against all disagreement and opposition, if magically transported to our time would look around and first be horrified, second would say that the Eastern wing is the only true remnant who have held on to the truth. In many ways I would agree with them, but this Eastern wing will not let me sit at their table, nor will the Roman wing, nor will the Missouri Synod, and I’m sure there are others. I expect to testify to this as a child of God on the other side when things are sorted out.

    So I’m saying that authorial intent had its say in its day, it served more good purpose than not, the authors meant well and probably got us thru to where we are today. But I do not recognize their authority over me now. I recognize their place in the history of the church that deserves much respect, but I don’t think they are capable of making this jump into the 21st century that we all are faced with, not at least with the level of understanding they had in dealing with the world back around the 4th century. Those were tumultuous times and they did well in giving us the opportunity today to make another jump in understanding. Their understanding may have grown since then on the other side. They might even sit down at the table with me now.

    Authorial intent has a say but not the final say, as I see it from here.


  6. Ted, i would like to suggest looking into More’s life a bit further. He was Henry VIII’s lord chancellor, but ultimately refused to take an oath re. the recognition of Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn (mother of Elizabeth I). I know that Henry was tyrannical and, imo, paranoid and not a little crazy as he aged, but More wasn’t quite the person he was pictured as in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. Anne, whatever else she may have been, was a Protestant, prior to the beginning of her affair with the king, and that’s part of what More was against. There are some overblown stories about More in some contemporary Protestant sources, but there are other things that are, unfortunately, not to his credit, that are true.


  7. But is that what the authors of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed meant by “[We/I believe] in one holy catholic and apostolic church”?

    They creedalized the phrase. Does authorial intent have a say in what we are allowed to make the phrase mean, or how to apply it?


  8. I’m a big fan of Yancey too.

    Not to change the subject, but is he being quietly shunned? I don’t hear much about him in evangelical circles these days, and he’s still writing.


  9. It’s a freeing thing when one comes to the place where it’s not necessary to find the “right” church, or hold all the “right” theology; isn’t it enough to look to Jesus Christ, to trust him, to let go of the need to get everything “right,” and of the need for make sure others get everything “right”? The weight of trying to get everything right is enough to drag anyone down.


  10. Yeah, I was about to comment on your “good king, once he converted…” statement. I didn’t think you were that hard-core. 🙂

    I took some liberty in my translation, but that’s what it reminds me of.

    Not everything is worth a mass, or a compromise. I’m just reading in The Ragamuffin Gospel about Thomas More refusing to pay allegiance to Henry VIII (no relation to Henry IV, I’m sure) and lost his head over it.


  11. This also expresses where I’m at. I spent my whole life serving in the local church, for good and for bad (mostly bad). Now it’s two years after the last one I helped lead died, and in my mid-50s I can’t get up the enthusiasm to give it yet another go. I’ve tried.

    I still love the church, even the local church, after all I’ve been through. But I’m seeing things differently–and I daresay I’m happier–now. Except for the guilt that often assails me that as a Christian the local church is where I should be putting my time, energy and money. I have Christian community in other ways now, and I have a broader perspective on the church universal.

    Sometimes I wonder if local churches are in trouble because the world has changed so much, especially in the last century. I mean, now we expect local churches—led by volunteers—to Do So Much. Just two examples: having a website, and having awesome Sunday worship with multimedia and a band and a coffee bar etc. My last church was a non-denom, and just putting that darn Sunday service together every week took hours and hours of time from a small army of people. It is exhausting and sucks the life out of people.


  12. Maybe we can begin to understand the relationship of Christ and His Church if we think about Our Lord’s words to Saul on the road to Damascus, the same Saul who was then fiercely persecuting the Church:

    “3 As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; 4 and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him,

    “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”

    5 And he said,
    “Who are You, Lord?”
    And He said,
    “I am Jesus Whom you are persecuting” ” (from Acts, Chapter 9)


  13. I’ve been waiting a long time to hear someone say these things and you did it eloquently. This is exactly where I’ve been living for the past several years with ever increasing conviction. I’m very much enmeshed in the larger church body without walls which both challenges and encourages me, and I am also rubbing shoulders with others who I am able to share my faith with naturally. It is both amazing and discouraging that these simple thoughts are so elusive to otherwise good and godly church people.


  14. “In crisis moments, I feel stressed that I can’t seem to figure out how to label myself …”

    How about “Maverick”? That’s how I think of myself and most people who hang out here. Mavericks are the people I most prefer to hang out with and to read, tho they are sometimes not so easily found, and should not be confused with Contrarians. In thinking outside the box, it is necessary to know what’s in the box and to understand it both in terms of those inside the box and in terms of your own understanding. I don’t know any place better for doing that than right here, and I certainly consider the Monastery a church in every sense of the word except “building”.


  15. Good article, CM. I lead an adult Sunday school class and always view it as a church within a church. I think it fits well with what you’re saying here, that all churches and faith communities, both large and small, are a part of what God sees as His whole church. Good article; well-written.


  16. I should clarify. Converting to Catholicism was not what made him a good king, it was the condition of his becoming king at all.


  17. That’s Henri IV, Ted. He was a good king, on the whole, once he converted from Protestantism to Catholicism. Ironically, though, he was murdered, stabbed in the eye by a fanatical monk. Not everyone is willing to expand his definition of church.


  18. Good article, Mike.

    Not to nitpick, but maybe to second-guess what William Temple meant. It may be that the “one holy, catholic, apostolic church” is not accessible to us. While we acknowledge that it does exist, at least in the eye of Christ, we may not fully experience it.

    As bishop of the Church of England, and Archbishop during World War II, Temple played the part of diplomat, politician, even autocrat in keeping the Anglican church from coming unglued. It was under siege from within—by all of the competing factions—and from without, as England was being bombed by Germany, another “Christian” nation. He probably could have re-phrased the statement if he’d thought about it, and in his position one wonders why he didn’t.

    Michael’s search for the “one holy, catholic, apostolic church” led to the church on the corner. Denise’s led to Rome. Both responses, no doubt, involved compromise.

    I’m reminded of one of those French kings after the Revolution, who was raised Protestant Huguenot but (for political purposes) converted to Catholicism to keep the throne. His explanation: “Paris is well worth a mass.” This can also be translated from the French “I believe in the one holy, catholic, apostolic church, but as it’s not entirely accessible, I’ll join the church on the corner, which happens to be Roman Catholic.”


  19. Mike, I relate to what you are expressing about not feeling connected or at home in a church. When I came to Internet Monk five years ago, it was more a happy accident than a conscious realization of being a post evangelical. Today, however, I am very conscious of it. In my quieter moments, I think that God must be doing something in me because I enjoy listening to and learning from the faith journeys of others. In crisis moments, I feel stressed that I can’t seem to figure out how to label myself … though perhaps that is the point. Perhaps, God wants me to come to the point where labels don’t fit me and where I don’t automatically label others.

    It’s been awhile since I read C.S. Lewis’ writings on the Great Hall, but I believe he was describing this one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. As Christ followers we meet around the great banquet table, but we might go into a quiet sitting room off the Great Hall for a chat with those we particularly share kinship. Those little rooms are our denominations. I guess I am at the point of wanting to crack the door and peak into a few of those rooms.

    Technically, I’m an empty-nester like you, Mike, and I also imagined that would bring with it more order and freedom and the ability to be a committed church member. No such thing. Work, aging sick parents, grown up kids, grandkids … oh, and puppy Jack keep me in a whirlwind. I know that caring for the people and responsibilities before me is holy work, though it often feels like so much craziness and not very holy. During this season of life, being able to go to a Bible study or work in the food pantry on a regular basis aren’t possible for me.

    Recently, I read about the life of Father Damian who ministered in the leper colony on Molokai, HA. When he became ill with leprosy, he continued to serve, but found himself isolated and desperate for spiritual encouragement due to the fears of others. At one point, needing the sacrament of reconciliation, he rowed his boat out to a ship that carried a visiting bishop. The ship captain refused to let Father Damian board, so he was forced to shout his confession from his little boat. I’m sure this man’s perception was that he was no longer able to practice his faith and sacraments in a customary manner and that his communion with others was cut off. But God’s work doesn’t always feel the way we think it should. Those feelings affect our ability to perceive our position in Christ’s Body.

    Anyway … just some rambling thoughts your very good post inspired. Thank you, Mike. It’s always a relief to read something that articulates beautifully what I feel, but can’t say.


  20. CM,
    For all the praise that Michael Spencer gets, and rightly so for his insight and brilliant writing, and at the risk of using a tired cliché; regarding this blog Michael was in many ways like Moses, given the opportunity to see beyond the post-evangelical wilderness but not able to enter it while he was alive. Like Joshua you have carried on the work and, as this post describes, have found a place where we belong, and it’s a good place. After several years (more like 5 or 6) in the wilderness my wife and I belong to an ELCA church, and this blog has been very helpful to me in negotiating our path along the way during the wilderness years. We also don’t have the type of involvement we had in previous churches but we are contributing and enjoy it there. The quality of writing in this blog continues to be consistently very high, certainly on a par with Michael Spencer, and I’m sure he would be proud of how you have carried it forward. Heartfelt thanks for the help you have been and continue to be.


  21. The intense longing for community coupled with an inability to fully participate in a community. It is the spirit of our age. A paradox for you. The community of those bound only by the sadness they feel at not being bound to a community.


  22. Hi Bob,

    I feel the same way pretty much. Reading both RC & EO articles I can see that there is truth in both theologies but the “die hards” on both sides think they are the “only” church. I think both William Temple & iMonk are both right in their own ways. If all churches have deviated from an earlier form of patristic based Christianity, to varying degrees, William Temple is right. However there is a sense in which iMonk is right in that I think God graciously overlooks our ignorance, to varying degrees, so that we are part of that one catholic church. In theology, you can call an apple an orange but in reality it will still remain an apple. The trick is identifying the “rule of faith” that is non-negotiable to the “plan of salvation”. Unfortunately, even this isn’t agreed upon by everyone in our “catholic” church.

    Once you go beyond “scripture alone” or attempt to identify how scripture was used by the Fathers, it gets difficult. On top of that you then need to wonder in what forms God won’t be overlooking the mess we’ve made. Also is it important identifying sacraments in churches that don’t believe in them ? What effect is there on our Christian walk if sacraments aren’t identified ?



  23. For a while, the IM blogroll had a link to Wayne Jacobsen’s “The God Journey”. Wayne recently published his book “Finding Church”, and it pretty much agrees with and expands on what you’re saying here. I hope you get s chance to review it.


  24. RC and EO Theology would state the Church is an incarnational extension of Jesus. Just as Jesus was visible 2000 years ago the church has to be visible in location and sacraments with apostolic ordination. William Temple was an Anglican and may have had an incarnational understanding of the church. I’ve been wandering in the wilderness for awhile and am stuck with thinking in the above post and wrestling with the rich understanding of EO and RC ecclesiology. I wander on…..


  25. I always have felt that I belonged to a bigger whole and that everyone was part of me. So many things I probably wouldn’t agree with but after putting those things aside I find peace. You put into words things I have felt for so long. This is treasure. Real treasure.


  26. I think of Simone Weil — though she never was baptized, and never joined any institutional church, she was part of the Church, because she trusted and followed Jesus Christ.


  27. It has been our experience as well when we left the organised part of church in 2001. We did not belong to a specific group or congregation and for a while we were very much alone. It was during this time and with the help of Philip Yancy’s books that we came to see the beauty of God in the different denominations and congregations. Although we did not always like the structure or overriding traditions in these groupings, we made peace with God and found a holy, catholic, and apostolic church within all the denominations. We are part of a home/cell congregation, but when we visit other congregations, it feels like home 🙂


  28. I think about someone like Mother Teresa — certainly part of the church, but not limited by a building or congregation.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: