What is a Catholic? Is it the same as a Christian? Is there a difference between Catholics and Christians? Does it matter?
In order to tackle this topic, you first need to understand a bit of church history. The term “Christian” was used in the first century to describe a follower of Christ (Acts 11:26). It was a derogatory term used by the pagans in Antioch to describe the Apostles. The term “Catholic” was being used throughout the second century (110 A.D.) to describe the universal Christian church. In fact, Catholic simply means universal. Therefore, the Catholic Church during that time was simply a reference to the universal body of believers who call themselves Christians throughout the world.
During the fourth century (313 A.D.), Emperor Constantine established Christianity as the national religion of Rome. As a result, Rome became the headquarters for Christianity worldwide, still being referred to as the Catholic or universal church. It wasn’t until 1517, when Martin Luther’s protest against the Catholic Church, created a new division of Christianity. This division resulted in a group of Catholics protesting against the establishment of Roman Christianity. The Roman Christians labeled them as Protestants. Also during that time, Anglican Christians wanted to continue to call themselves Catholics, so they labeled the Christians in Rome as Roman Catholics. Although a bit of an oxymoron, the name Roman Catholic (i.e. Roman Universal) stuck. Today, Catholic and Roman Catholic are synonymous and the rest of Christianity falls into the Protestant camp with minor exceptions.
All this to say, it can become a slippery slope when simply trying to define a Christian by a specific term or label. Historically, we can see that names and labels had different meanings based on their context.
So, is there a difference between Catholics and Christians?
The better question to ask is what do they believe, not what are they called? Do they believe what scripture says about needing God’s grace and mercy in order to be saved? (Ephesians 2:8-9) Do they believe that the payment for sin took place on the cross and that you can’t earn your way to heaven (see my blog post, 3 Reasons to Avoid Church)? It is important to remember that Scripture defines Christians by what they believe not what they are called.
Just because you call yourself a Catholic or Protestant doesn’t make you a Christian. I personally know Catholics who have trusted Christ as their Lord and Savior and Protestants who haven’t and vice versa. I also know people who call themselves Catholics or Protestants because of family heritage, yet they aren’t spiritual at all. So the key is always going to be found in what one believes about Jesus and how to spend eternity with Him.
Yes, there are doctrines within the Roman Catholic Church today that are unbiblical. Yes, there are doctrines within various denominations of the Protestant churches today that are unbiblical. I have found that many times individuals don’t even know the unbiblical doctrines of the churches they attend. So rather than quickly defining or determining a person’s Christianity by a title, it is important to drill down and understand what they believe. The more we avoid the labels and stick with scripture, the better off we will be in terms of unity and misjudging others.
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