[This is part of an ongoing series. See my introduction.]
“I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.” -1 Timothy 3:14-15 NASB
Paul begins verse 14 by telling us that he wrote “these things”. This begs the question: what are “these things”? They are the subject of the previous 13 verses: the qualifications and proper behavior for church leaders in the local church (3:1-13).
He starts off chapter 3 with the qualifications for an overseer (i.e. an elder): he must be monogamous, slow to anger, loving, a good teacher, not an alcoholic, not a new convert, and have a good reputation. Paul then moves on to the qualifications for a deacon: he must be a man of dignity, a non-alcoholic, etc. He also mentions female leaders within the church: they must not be gossips but temperate and faithful.
He wrote the things mentioned above so that the leaders within Timothy’s church would know how to conduct themselves. After all, this isn’t something like a college fraternity. Rather, it is the remnant that God chosen to redeem (Romans 9:22-27), to purchase their salvation with His own blood (Acts 20:28). It is the group that God has called out of the world for His own eternal glory (Ephesians 1:12) and to be the chosen ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20) by which to spread the word of His covenant lawsuit against the heathen (Acts 17:22-31).
The church is to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16) in that we are the representatives of God to a world in rebellion against Him and bearers of the truth now revealed to us at the first coming of Christ (John 17:14-21). As such, the church is to “conduct” itself worthy of such a calling by its Master (1 Thessalonians 2:12, cf. 1 Timothy 3:15).
The next verse should also be noted: “By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He [i.e. Jesus] who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (v.16). Here, Paul recites what is believed to be an ancient Christian hymn, and he cites this to show that the proper behavior we are to imitate (i.e. “the mystery of godliness”) is that of Christ Himself. In other words, because we are Christ’s representatives to the world, we are to act like Christ before the world so as not to bring reproach upon the truth of God’s Word** (cf. v.7).
“The Pillar and Support of the Truth”
This brings us to the phrase we are inquiring as to its meaning. From the context I explained above, the church, the entire body of Christ and not just the clergy, is the “pillar and support of the truth” in that it is the representative of God and bearer of the truth of God’s Word**. The church is to conduct itself so that it will not bring disrepute on Him who gave it such a mission. Instead, it is to hold up the truth of the living God so that the unbelieving would either: a.) be convicted of their rebellion and repent or b.) be judicially hardened in their unbelief and bring greater condemnation upon themselves, storing it up for the judgment.
The church (i.e. the body of all Christians) is the bearer (“pillar and support”) of the whole counsel of God** (“the truth”) to the unbelieving world. The church is to behave in such a manner as to not bring disrepute upon the One whom they serve, but instead, they are to act like Christ seeing that they are His representatives.
The High Church [Mis]interpretation
Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and various cult apologists will cite “the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” in v.15 to allegedly prove their doctrine that their church is either infallible or that the clarity of the truths of the Christian faith depend upon their church’s pronouncements. Since this is part of a review of Dave Armstrong’s book, The Catholic Verses, I shall use him as an example and review the other minor arguments put forth in the section of his book dealing with 1 Timothy 3:15.
A Review of Dave Armstrong’s The Catholic Verses on 1 Timothy 3:15
[Unless otherwise stated, all of these quotes come from Dave Armstrong, The Catholic Verses: 95 Bible Passages That Confound Protestants (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2004).]
After quoting only verse 15, Dave writes his commentary on the verse:
“Catholics accept this passage at face value: the Church is the ground or foundation (the word used in the New International Version [NIV] translation) of the truth; it is infallible; it is specially protected by the Holy Spirit so that it can be the Guardian and Preserver of apostolic tradition and truth and doctrine.” (emphasis original; Armstrong, op. cit., p.3)
That’s it!!! There was neither a discussion of the entire previous passage, an entire 14 verses that preceded verse 15, nor of verse 15’s connection to verse 16! The context of the previous verses is primarily ethical/moral, not epistemological. This should have some bearing on one’s interpretation (if not an overriding one). This is a classical case of Text Isolation (see my intro. to this series, part f).
Second, the term “foundation” in the Greek text, hedraioma, can be translated as either “foundation” or “support”, neither of which necessarily mean (in this context) “source of knowledge” or “dependent upon for clarity”***. Even apart from the previous verses, the phrase “pillar and support of the truth” could mean any number of things only one of which is “source of knowledge” or “dependent upon for clarity”***. It was Armstrong’s underlying presuppositions that caused him to see in this verse a proof for infallibility. Thus, this is also a case of Superficial Reading (see intro., part i.).
Likewise, he commits the fallacy of anachronism (see intro., part a.) when he equates the word “church” with the clerical orders. The word ecclesia in the New Testament referred to the entire people of God (laity and clergy), not just the clergy as it came to mean in later times. This is quite manifest by the fact that the phrase referred to in this very verse, “the household of God, which is the church of the living God,” is used elsewhere and in equivalent phrases (1 Cor. 3:16, 2 Cor. 6:16, Eph. 2:21, 1 Peter 2:5, and 4:17) all of which refer to the entire body of the redeemed. This fact also shows quite clearly in the inclusion of women in this “church” (v.11).
Lastly, even under the assumption that “pillar and support of the truth” means that the church is the source of the truth, this does not necessarily mean that the church is *infallible* as Mr. Armstrong claims. The Old Testament clerical authority, the Levites, were given the task of being the guardians and teachers of the Torah, but yet, they fell into grave error time and again resulting in God sending the prophets. [Although it should be noted that the Levites weren’t the only ones given the task of teaching the Torah since it was given to every head of each household to teach their sons and daughters God’s law privately (Deut. 6:7-9), another proof that God intended His word to be perspicuous to the common man. However, I’m getting off track, and that shall be saved for a later discussion.] Thus, Armstrong commits the fallacy of the overextended conclusion (see intro., part g.).
“Reluctant to acknowledge the Catholic Church headed by the Pope in Rome, Protestants must fall back on an alternative notion of an invisible, spiritual church that cannot be identified in earthly, historical, concrete terms.” (ibid., p.4)
This is a straw-man. The invisible church manifests itself visibly when it congregates, but not every one who congregates is truly a member of the redeemed. This can hardly be denied since the New Testament witnesses to it (Acts 20:28, 2 Cor. 11:13-15, 1 John 2:19, Rev. 2:14-15, 2:20, etc.)
He notes Martin Luther’s stance on the subject of the visibility of the church, but yet, he never deals with the Reformer’s defenses of it. To quote Luther himself:
“Under Elijah the prophet, all the people and every public institution among them had gone astray into idolatry, so that he thought he was the only one left; yet, while the kings and princes, priests and prophets, and all that could be called the people and church of God, were going to ruin, God had reserved seven thousand to Himself (1 Kings 19:18). But who saw them, or knew them to be the people of God? And who will dare to deny that in our day, under these principal men of yours (for you only mention persons of public office and of great name), God has kept to Himself a church among the common people, while allowing all whom you mention to perish like the kingdom of Israel? For it is God’s prerogative to bring down the chosen ones of Israel, and, as Psalm 77 says, to slay their fat ones (Psalm 78.31); but to preserve the dregs and remnant of Israel, according to Isaiah’s words (Isaiah 10.22).” –Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, trans. J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1957), p.120.
“Look at the time of the Arians, when scarcely five catholic bishops were preserved in the whole world, and they were driven from their sees, while the Arians reigned everywhere, taking to themselves the public name and office of the church. Yet under these heretics Christ preserved His church; though in such a way that it was not for a moment thought or held to be the church.” –Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, trans. J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1957), p.121.
Thus, Mr. Armstrong fails to take into account the very Biblical and historical doctrine of the “remnant” (Romans 9:24-33). The visible succession of office does not necessarily guarantee the truthfulness of the teaching authority. To quote John the Baptist speaking to the Pharisees:
“…do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you, that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham” -Matthew 3:9
[As with modern Jews, the Pharisees supposed themselves to be not only God’s chosen people but also His spiritually redeemed people, those that would receive the resurrection unto eternal life (Dan. 12:2), simply because they were genealogically descended from Abraham. Some modern Jews even believe that atheists will be saved as long as they’re ethnically Jewish!]
“According to sola Scriptura, the Protestant is ultimately free to pick and choose his doctrines in a sort of “cafeteria Christianity” – so long as he can reconcile them with his own interpretation of Scripture.” (Armstrong, op. cit., pp.4-5)
This is a straw-man. What Mr. Armstrong just described, “cafeteria Christianity,” (which sadly, is all too common not only among Protestants but Catholics as well) is not sola Scriptura, but a perversion of it, solo Scriptura.
Does Mr. Armstrong deny the individual believer the right of conscience? Didn’t he join the RCC because “he can reconcile” its teachings “with his own interpretation” of church history and Scripture?
“But because Calvin disagrees with the theology of the Catholic Church (and causally assumes the prerogative to judge that Church), he manages to believe that it “died” and that somehow a “new church” (of course, the one he advocates) has arisen to take its place…” (ibid., p.5)
This is also a straw-man. The true remnant of God never died and cannot die (Matthew 16:18), but the visible/outward authority can just as it did under Elijah the prophet or under Athanasius during the Arian ascendancy (see the Luther quotes above). This is clearly what Calvin meant. Again, Mr. Armstrong cites Calvin’s opinions but never deals with the arguments Calvin presented: the instances in which the Old Testament “Church” became corrupted and God had to send the prophets (a remnant in themselves) to restore the “Church” (Institutes 4.2.10). [I realize that he has limited space in his book, but he could have at least spent a page or even a paragraph dealing with the Reformer’s main arguments.]
Also, it is *NOT* the position of historical Protestantism that the church didn’t exist for 1,400 years. Rather, there were many great and godly men in all ages and not just a few of them within the Church of Rome itself (including a few Popes, no doubt!) who, although they agreed with Rome on almost everything, were part of that Remnant. We still hold that there are still many within the RC and EO communions.
Finally, didn’t Mr. Armstrong have to “judge that Church” in order to determine it was the true Church and become a Roman Catholic? Why should we limit private judgment to the Scriptures? [I suppose that one could argue at this point that the data from church history is much clearer than the Scriptures. However, that is a debatable point and makes the separation of perspicuity between ‘T’radition and Scripture one of degree, not of kind.]
“Almost by logical necessity, then, Calvin too must appeal to an invisible church, a concept not taught in Scripture at all…” (emphasis original; ibid., p.6)
Of course, this is plainly false. The concept of the Remnant is found all throughout Scripture and is termed a number of things: the “remnant” (obviously; Romans 9:27), the “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16), “servant” in Isaiah (through chapters 40-53, the term oscillates in reference between the nation of Israel as a whole, the remnant, and the Messiah), etc. The Remnant was an Israel within Israel, an Israel of God.
“Methodist commentator Adam Clarke, in his commentary, illustrates Protestant confusion and mixed feelings over this seemingly easily understood verse…” (ibid., 6)
First of all, just because you are a Protestant commentator doesn’t mean that you’re a good commentator. There are plenty of Protestant commentators who try to interpret a verse in isolation from its surrounding text (just like Mr. Armstrong :) ). It amazes me how many Calvinist commentators get stumped by 2 Peter 3:9, but that’s a different discussion.
Second, Mr. Armstrong likes to cite Protestant commentators in favor of the Catholic interpretation all throughout this book as if *everyone* is finally coming to the realization that the Roman Catholic teaching on the Bible has been right all along. Yeah right!
He’s blithely unaware of the many (if not most) modern Roman Catholic scholars who give the same interpretation of the Bible as Protestants. I’ll try to note that throughout this series.
** I had originally said “gospel” which is true since all of God’s Word is contained in it (compare 2 Timothy 2:15 with Colossians 1:5). However, God has given all of His truth to the Church, not just evangelism, and so, I felt that I should change it to be more clear. This change was made on October 7, 2007.
*** I had originally said, “…‘source’ or ‘dependent upon’.” Though it was not my intention, I can see how one might assume that it meant that the Roman Church was the source of truth as if it made it up. This, of course, would be an error since Roman Catholicism teaches that God is the source of all truth, but He has set up the Church to be the epistemic source through which He mediates His truth for Christians. This change was made on October 7, 2007.