For many “Protestant” Christians, anything “catholic” is automatically suspect. In the wake of the “Ninety-five Theses”, whose 500th anniversary is Tuesday, the Roman Catholic church excommunicated Martin Luther and otherwise made clear that it would not be restored to the true teaching and practice of the Bible, and so “Roman Catholicism” became something to be avoided. However, not every Roman Catholic thing could or should be avoided, nor did the Reformation events change the nature of the word “catholic”, with a lowercase “c”, as a modifier of the word “church”.
From a compound of the Greek words for “in respect of” and “whole”, the English word “catholic” means “general” or “universal”. In that sense, the “catholic (or universal) church” is identifiable by both the purely preached Gospel and the rightly administered sacraments (Holy Baptism, individual Absolution, and the Sacrament of the Altar), although even there may be gathered false believers or hypocrites, identifiable only by God, Who alone truly knows our hearts.
The Lutheran reformers regarded themselves as “evangelical” or “Gospel-oriented” catholics. The Gospel teaches that we have a gracious God, not by our own works or merits but by the works and merits of the God-man Jesus Christ, Who died on the cross for our sins. That Biblical and Lutheran proclamation was quite different from what the Roman Catholics proclaimed, as other teachings and practices also differed, both between the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics and between those two groups and other “Protestant” or “reformed” churches.
Now as then, groups sometimes use names or labels to denigrate others, but such names or labels that stick nevertheless ultimately can be of good use. The Jews of Jesus’s day may have tried to denigrate His followers by calling them “Christians” (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16), as the Roman Catholics of Luther’s day tried to denigrate his followers by calling them “Lutherans”. As Luther conceded, we use his name and boldly confess his teaching that is also Christ’s, and so we have a continuous tradition of teaching and practice from the New Testament, through the Reformation, to today, and to eternity.
The Rev. Dr. Jayson S. Galler is Pastor of Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Kilgore. You can reach him through the congregation’s website: www.pilgrimlc.org.