Monday, September 08, 2008

Is the church a pillar & pedestal of truth?

I’ve discussed this verse (1 Tim 3:15) on more than one occasion, but since Catholics keep citing it as a prooftext for Catholicism, I have to correct them more than once.

To some extent I’ll repeat myself since they repeat themselves, but I’m also going to expand on some points.

Catholics always quote this out of context. But what questions should we ask ourselves when we approach this verse?

1. How should we render the Greek phrase? The Greek construction is anarthrous. There is no definite article. Therefore, there’s no reason to automatically translate the phrase as “the Church of God.”

2. Even if, for the sake of argument, we use a definite article, notice what the verse doesn’t say. It doesn’t say, “the Church of Rome is a pillar and pedestal of truth.”

3. So what church is Paul talking about? What’s the destination of the letter? The church of Ephesus (1 Tim 1:3).

4. So Paul is talking about a local church, and the referent is the church of Ephesus.

5. Why did Paul write 1 Timothy in the first place? What occasioned this letter?

The church of Ephesus had been infiltrated by false prophets. Paul sent Timothy to function as a troubleshooter and letter courier.

Now, think about that for a moment. Is a local church that’s been infiltrated by false teachers a “pillar and pedestal” of truth? Would such a church be a source of false teaching rather than sound doctrine?

Why did Paul write them in the first place? Why did he leave Timothy behind? To combat false teachers in the church of Ephesus.

6. And this is not the only example by any means. Was the church of Corinth a “pillar and pedestal” of truth? No, it was a source of false teaching. He had to write to correct their false teaching.

Were the churches of Galatia pillars of truth? No, they were teetering on the brink of apostasy. What about the church of Colossae? No, he wrote that church to combat the Colossian heresy. What about the church of Thessalonica? No, he wrote that church to combat the Hymenaean heresy.

And it isn’t limited to Paul. Were all seven churches of Asia Minor (Rev 2-3) pillars of truth? No. What about the Christian communities to which Peter addressed 2 Peter and Jude addressed his epistle? No. What about the destination of 1 John and the letter of Hebrews? No and no.

Because Catholics fall back on traditional prooftexting, and think in abstract rather than historical terms, they don’t stop to consider the concrete circumstances of the NT churches.

7. Catholics only quote 1 Tim 3:15b. But what’s the immediate context of that clause? 1 Tim 3:14-15a.

Does Paul say that in his absence, the church of Ephesus can get along just fine without him since the church is a pillar and foundation of truth? That Ephesian Christians can learn everything they need to learn from the Magisterium or teaching office of the Church?

No, he says nothing of the kind. To the contrary, he is writing to them so that they will know how to conduct themselves in church. They aren’t getting this from the church. They are getting this from him. From his teaching to the church (e.g. the household code in 1 Tim 2:1-3:13).

He is writing them because he can’t teach them in person—at the moment. But in any case, their source of sound doctrine comes from him. Not from the church, as a pillar and pedestal of truth.

In context, 1 Tim 3:15 is the very antithesis of a prooftext for ecclesiastical authority.


  1. Steve,

    Should #3 be tentative? Couldn't "the Church of God" refer to the Church in general, not a local church at all?

    Except...The verse refers to "how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God"--which really does sound like he's thinking about a particular gathering, not "the Body of Christ".

    Hmm... Actually, suppose I said, "You ought to behave righteously among the body of Christ." I would be thinking in general terms about the Body, even though you only ever gather with a local expression of the Body. So...

    Yeah, wouldn't "the Church of God" refer to the entire church?

  2. Tim,

    You’re being a bit of a nuisance. If you keep this up I’ll have to reprogram Cameron Phillips for a new mission.

    i) On a serious note (or maybe that was a serious note), no, it would *refer* to the entire church. It would be *applicable* to the entire church, but that’s quite different.

    Paul wrote different letters to different churches, and his ethical injunctions are applicable to the entire church, but that doesn’t mean his ethical injunctions to, say, the Ephesians, *refer* to the entire church.

    ii) Moreover, the entire church would just be a set of local churches. But that’s not how Roman Catholicism defines the church. It views the church of Rome as the one true church, founded by Jesus Christ. The church of Rome is the pillar and pedestal of truth. That defies the context of 1 Tim 3:15.

  3. I assume that you meant to say, "no, it would not refer to the entire church".

    I agree entirely on ii). On i), I see your point. But as far as I can see, the reading of 1 Tim. 3:15 seems to work either way--reading "the Church of God" as referring to the Ephesian church but applying to all churches, or reading it as referring to the entire church with special application here to the Ephesian church.

    But either way, we're still seeing the verse as definitely applying to the Ephesian church. That doesn't work if "the Church" refers to "the centralized Magisterial authority of one distinct organization".


    [Jugulum pauses to reread what he wrote before sending the comment.]

    Er... *sigh*

    OK, actually, I suppose you're right that the referent of "the church of God" is the Ephesian church--because you only "behave" in a local gathering, not in "the church universal". (Which is what I said originally, before I got myself confused.)

    To distract you from my silliness, I direct you to the most awesome movie imaginable.

  4. "Was the church of Corinth a “pillar and pedestal” of truth? No"

    So is the protestant claim that Ephesus was a pillar of truth, but Corinth was not? Can't be, because Paul calls Corinth the church, and Paul says the church is the house of God, pillar of the truth.

    so does our blogger here wish to flatly contradict Paul and deny that Ephesus was a pillar and ground of the truth? We aren't told.

    The point is, Paul calls the church (let's assume is is local) the pillar of the truth. Not that it could be, or ought to be, but that it is.

    So whaat distinugishes some random organization teaching falsity with the church? Obviously Paul has a far more concrete idea of the visible church than having a certain percentage of people in the truth. The church is the pillar of the truth independant of certain groups of people within it teaching falsity. Unlike our blogger here who contradicts Paul.

  5. Notice that Seraphim has simply disregarded my exegetical argumentation. And it doesn’t contradict Paul since my argumentation is taken from Paul. From exegetical data supplied by 1 Timothy as well as other Pauline epistles.

    Seraphim is one of those Scripture-twisters who engages in isolated prooftexting. Rips a passage from its proper setting, then transplants it to his own denomination. Seraphim wants to turn this verse into an unqualified statement about the church.

    But if you factor in the contextual considerations, which are taken from the very same epistle, as well as other Pauline epistles, then Paul does not believe that a local church is unconditionally a pillar and pedestal of truth.

    Seraphim doesn’t begin with the Pauline church, but with the Orthodox church, and then superimposes his traditional ecclesiology onto this verse in defiance of the contextual qualifications.

    He also suffers from a lack of basic reading skills. Did I say the church of Ephesus can be a pillar of truth, but not the church or Corinth? No. The same qualifications apply to all local churches.

  6. Jugulum,

    Yes, I meant to include the negation.

    Reference and application are not interchangeable. These are distinct linguistic categories.

    If I write a love letter to my girlfriend, my girlfriend is the referent.

    Now, there’s a certain generic quality to love letters. They tend to say the same sorts of things about the beloved. So you might claim that one love letter is applicable to someone else’s girlfriend. But that doesn’t mean a love letter refers to every woman, even if the content might be true of more than just the immediate and intended recipient.

  7. Jugulum: "To distract you from my silliness, I direct you to the most awesome movie imaginable."

    I got sucked into that link. Thanks for nothing Tim.

    That is a lousy "referent"!


  8. Steve,

    I realize that, in general. I was thinking that in this particular case, you seem to arrive at the same place from two different directions. The point of the verse seems to be the same either way.

    But then in my subsequent correction, I realized that statement about behavior in the house of God favors that the referent=="local church".

  9. Jugulum,

    Fine. I won't send Cameron to get you this time.

    Come to think of it, she's rather unstable these days. Went "bad." So I may have to keep my distance from her for my own protection. You're safe for now...

  10. Lets start from the beginning. The text reads: "I write so that you may know how to conduct yourself inn the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth."

    The phrase "pillar and foundation of the truth" is in apposition to the phrase "the church of the living God", and identifies it as such. It is true that house, church, and pillar and foundation do not have articles. While in the case of house the article might have been incorporated into the preposition, the others are predicate nominatives and normally would not receive the article in any case.

    These terms are generics that indicate what the object is, not the object itself. For instance, we can say that Fluffy is a cat and that a cat is an animal, but we cannot say an animal is a cat or a Fluffy. It is never true that if A is B then B is A. Therefore these generic terms cannot be reduced to the local church at Ephesus. They rather designate the genus to which Ehesus is a species. This is elementary greek logic which Paul would have learned in Tarsus which was a university town only second to Alexandria.
    Since this is instruction to Timothy and Paul sends him to work in many churches, e.g. 1Thess.3:2, it must be applicable in every place he goes to minister. Ephesus is not the only church so we cannot restrict this terminology to a description of Ephesus alone. I conclude that the pillar is the church as such.
    The church is that body of which Christ is the head (Col.1:18,24) and all baptized people are members (1Cor.6:11,15; 12:13,27). This body is one body (1Cor.12:13; Col.3:15; Eph.4:4) and all are members one of another (Rom.12:5). Christ and His Church are thus one whole Christ (see 1Cor12:12-13). This body is visible because the sacraments by which it is constituted are visible. The local churches are all parts of one visible church because the bread which they all bless and break is a participation of the Body of Christ, and all who partake of that one bread become one bread and one body.
    Thus all the churches are one visible catholic church and Timothy is to conduct himself in this way in all the churches that are the church of the living God which is the pillar and foundation ofthe truth.