The Church: A Pillar and Buttress of the Truth
â€œI am writing these things to you so that you may know how one ought to behave in the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.â€ - 1 Timothy 3:14-15
Definition: A Pillar supports the roof and walls of a structure and a buttress supports a pillar, allowing it to stand stronger and higher. Therefore the Church is called to stand strong by supporting the truth of the gospel and sound doctrine.
Key Thought: The function of both a pillar and a buttress is to hold something other than itself up.
By all accounts, when Paul wrote this letter to his son in the faith, Timothy was the pastor of the Church in Ephesus. Paul's use of imagery would not be lost either on him or his congregation. Ephesus was the home of the great Temple of Diana (or Artemis), known as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
William Barclay describes this Temple as follows:
â€œOne of its features was its pillars. It contained one hundred and twenty-seven pillars, every one of them the gift of a king. All were made of marble, and some were studded with jewels and overlaid with gold.â€ (The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975], 89).
Knowing this background, Paul's obvious intention in describing the Church as a pillar is two fold. Firstly, He wishes to express the Church's immense dignity and value in the sight of God. Though often scorned by men, the Church is exceedingly precious and beautiful to Him.
Secondly, the term "pillar" denotes the Church's function; that of holding up the truth of God to the world around her.
From the Ligonier Website:
Other translations use the word "foundation" in place of buttress, suggesting that the truth finds its grounding in the church, which is the Roman Catholic position. Yet Paul cannot be saying that the church establishes truth, as elsewhere he says the Word of God â€” the apostolic and prophetic writings â€” is the churchâ€™s foundation, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone (Eph. 2:19â€“20). As the second-century church father Irenaeus reminds us, â€œthe â€˜pillar and groundâ€™ of the church is the gospel and the spirit of lifeâ€ (ACCNT, vol. 9, p. 178).
Buttress is a more appropriate term here because the apostle is emphasizing the way in which the church supports the truth. As the church faithfully obeys Scripture it lives out the truth and supports its claim that the gospel brings real change. When the church presents the gospel accurately it holds forth the truth to the world much as statues were displayed on pillars in the ancient world. The church is no afterthought but is established by the Fatherâ€™s plan and Jesusâ€™ work and used by the Holy Spirit to persuade the world of the love of God in Christ.
The NASB translates the final phrase of this verse as "the pillar and support of the truth." Concerning this, Dr. James White writes:
"The description of the Church as the "pillar and support of the truth" is thoroughly biblical and proper. There is, of course, a vast difference between recognizing and confessing the Church as the pillar and support of the truth, and confessing the Church to be the final arbiter of truth itself. A pillar holds something else up, and in this case, it is the truth of God. The Church as the body of Christ, presents and upholds the truth, but she remains subservient to it. The Church remains the bride of Christ, and as such, she listens obediently and intently to the words of her Lord Jesus Christ, and those words are found in Scripture itself." (The Roman Catholic Controversy, p. 58)
The great Reformer of Geneva, John Calvin, had a clear grasp of this issue:
"This, then, is the difference. Our opponents (speaking of the Roman Catholic Church) locate the authority of the Church outside God's Word, that is, outside of Scripture and Scripture alone. But we insist that it be attached to the Word and to not allow it to be separated from it. And what wonder if Christ's bride and pupil be subject to her spouse and teacher so that she pays constant and careful attention to His words. For this is the arrangement of a well-governed house. The wife obeys the husband's authority. This is the plan of a well-ordered school, that there the teaching of the schoolmaster alone should be heard. For this reason the Church should not be wise of itself, should not devise anything of itself but should set the limit of its own wisdom where Christ has made an end of speaking. In this way, the Church will distrust all the devisings of its own reason. But in those things where it rests upon God's Word, the Church will not waiver with any distrust or doubting but will repose in great assurance and firm constancy." (Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV:8:13)
God has given the Church immense dignity and has made her beautiful in His sight. As Paul stated elsewhere, "Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish." (Ephesians 5: 25-27)
The Church is immensely precious to God, yet this is only half the story. She also has a distinct role to play in this world: holding up the truth of the word of God and the wonderful Gospel of Grace. That is her function, the very reason she exists in this world. When a so called "Church" fails to do this, or distorts the message of the Gospel, she can no longer be thought of as "the Church" at all. As Martin Luther made clear, "Justification by faith alone is the article upon which the Church stands or falls."