Someone asked me a good question a few days ago about the Apostles' Creed. Why does it say "I believe in the holy catholic church?"
The confusion is perfectly understandable. "Catholic" to us often means "Roman Catholic Church." But a simple definition, along with some history and biblical explanation, should clear up the confusion.
The term "catholic" comes from the Greek word katholikos, meaning "general" or "universal," and it is still used that way in contemporary English. The catholic church is the universal church.
Early Christian leaders described the church in this way for three reasons. First, the church spreads throughout the whole world and is thus universal. It is not limited to any particular nation or ethnic group. Second, the church is universal because it takes into itself all kinds of people. Kings, criminals, rich, poor, intelligent, simple, married, unmarried, old, young, men, women - all sons of Adam who are in Christ are in the church. Third, the church is universal because it holds forth the gospel which is the universal remedy for sin.
Is this description biblical? Very much so. Christ commanded his disciples to "make disciples of all nations" (Matt 28:19). Jesus "ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation" (Rev 5:9). All who have put on Christ are one in Christ Jesus, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female (Gal 3:28). We preach the gospel because "it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believers, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Rom 1:16). These are the biblical truths that are confessed when we say, "I believe in the holy catholic church."
Over time, for a wide variety of reasons, catholicity became attached to being in fellowship with the bishop of the church of Rome - i.e., the pope. In other words, you are part of the universal church if you are in fellowship with the pope. We reject this unbiblical teaching. But while rejecting what is unbiblical, we must also hold to what is clearly biblical. Belief in the catholic church is basic biblical truth.