But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. I Timothy 3:15

The Bible describes the church of Jesus Christ with many striking figures. Among other things the church is called the body of Christ, the temple of God, the bride of Christ, the sheepfold of Christ, Mt. Zion, and Jerusalem.

One of the more unusual descriptions of the church is found in Paul’s first epistle to Timothy. Paul describes the church as “the pillar and ground of the truth.” The Spirit leads Paul to draw for us a graphic picture in order to bring out important truths about the nature and calling of the church. What is the idea of this figure?

A pillar is the part of a building that is designed to support the structure. Often it supports the roof of the building. Think of the huge Greek temples of Paul’s day with the massive pillars supporting the entire temple. Or think of Samson in the temple of the Philistines’ idol Dagon, taking “hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up” (Judges 16:29), with that last miraculous strength that God gave him to pull down the entire temple upon the Philistines. The church is that kind of a pillar—the pillar of the truth.

But, Paul adds, the church is also a “ground.” The ground is the foundation of the building. It is upon the ground that the pillar rests, and the entire building. The importance of the foundation cannot be overstated. Jesus’ parable of the wise and the foolish builders (Matt. 7:24-27) illustrates that the quality and stability of the foundation will determine whether or not the building stands. Build your house on the rock, and it will stand firm in storm and flood. Build your house on sand, and the winds and floods will tear it apart. If the ground or foundation of a building is unstable, the building will not last. It must be firm and secure.

Scripture applies that figure to the church, calling the church the pillar and ground “of the truth.” In this figure, the truth is pictured as the roof, as it were. As the pillar of the truth, the church holds up the truth. As the ground, the church is that on which the truth rests. The picture reveals that the church on this earth acts as the support of the truth. Without the church, the truth would come crashing down.

That is, initially, a surprising figure. We might think that the relationship of the church and the truth is the other way around. Does not the Bible teach that the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:19-21)? And is it not so, that if the church loses the truth, then the church is soon destroyed? Does not the truth, then, support the church? All that is true; yet the Spirit also identifies the church as the pillar and ground of the truth.

In what sense is that true, and how does the church become the support of the truth?

First, and negatively, it is not that the church determines the truth. Rome used this passage in its attack on the Reformers. For Rome, the members who come to worship do not constitute the church. Rather the church is the magisterium, that is, the priests, bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and on up to the pope. From that mistaken view of the church developed the serious error that only the church could determine what is truth. Rome maintained that the Bible is under the magisterium—only the church can interpret the Bible. So, if the pope says, “This is truth,” then it is truth. The opposite is also true: what the Pope condemns is not truth.

The Reformers rejected that view of the church and its relationship to truth. They pointed to John 17:17—“Thy word is truth.” The church does not determine the truth—the Bible does. The church must study the truth and set it forth clearly, but always subject to the Bible.

What then must the church do to be faithful to this description, to this calling? In a word, the church must defend, maintain, and promote the truth. What a glorious calling God has given the church! The truth is a treasure beyond compare, for it is the revelation of God Himself, the sovereign Creator and Preserver of the entire creation. It is the truth of the Holy One, far exalted above all that He has made, infinite in His perfections. It is the truth about Jehovah, the Triune, covenant God.

That truth is set forth in God’s beloved Son, Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the life. This Jesus is the very Word of God. When God speaks, He reveals Himself to His people. That speech is always in and through Jesus Christ, for “grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). To His people, God’s speech expresses His love for them, manifested concretely in the cross of Jesus.

What a glorious possession is God’s truth! Because God is unchanging, His truth is unchanging. God’s truth reaches “unto the clouds” (Ps. 57:10). All His “works are truth” (Dan. 4:37) and He “keepeth truth for ever” (Ps. 146:6). Thus, His “truth endureth to all generations” (Ps. 100:5), even “for ever” (Ps. 117:2).

Truth is a vitally important gift. “Mercy and truth preserve the king” (Prov. 20:28); it is the believer’s “shield and buckler” (Ps. 91:4). God “begat…us with the word of truth” (James 1:18). Jesus promised all His disciples that they will “know the truth, and the truth shall make [them] free” (John 8:32). And He commanded that “they that worship [God] must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).

The church is the pillar and ground of that truth. She is called to set forth that truth in all its beauty. The church studies the Bible with the desire to grow in understanding of God’s truth. She develops the doctrines of Scripture so that the truth is ever more clearly and precisely maintained. This happens weekly as the minister of the Word searches the Scriptures and preaches the truth to his congregation. This happens as believers expound the truth in articles, pamphlets, and books. The truth is being held up, sharpened, and displayed.

The church displays this glorious truth through the spread of the gospel. As missionaries go forth, they spread the truth of God. As those books and articles traverse the globe, the truth is spread. The church zealous for missions is a church faithful to her calling to be the pillar and ground of the truth. The desire to send forth the gospel is not only a desire that the church be gathered, but also that the truth of God be known throughout the world. And as the church is gathered, and new congregations established, those churches likewise stand as the pillar and ground of the truth.

A vital part of her calling as pillar and ground of truth is that the church defend the truth against heresy. The truth must be kept pure. The necessity of defending the truth is due simply to the reality that God’s revelation always faces opposition in this sinful world. Jesus indicates Satan’s steadfast opposition to truth: He “abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him;…he is a liar, and the father of it [the lie]” (John 8:44).

Not only that, but the world of the ungodly actively opposes that truth. Romans 1 teaches that unbelievers “hold [i.e., hold down, suppress] the truth in unrighteousness” (v. 18). Hence, they have “changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen” (v. 25).

With all that opposition, if God were simply to send His Word into the earth, it would soon be twisted beyond recognition. God’s truth would quickly be completely obscured, hidden from the sight of men. Even in the church that can happen. If the church fails vigorously to proclaim and to defend the truth, false prophets oppose it, and soon the truth is unknown in the sphere of the church. The prophet Hosea’s rebuke to the Old Testament church confirms this: “Hear the word of the Lord, ye children of Israel: for the Lord hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land” (4:1).

Knowing the depravity of man, God determined to preserve His revelation by making the church the pillar and ground of the truth.

There are, conceivably, other options. God could periodically appear on the earth to keep His truth pure. Or, perhaps God could have chosen to send angels to oversee the preservation of His truth among men—striking fear into the hearts of unbelievers, and correcting any errors that crept into the doctrines. God might have continued the Old Testament method of revelation, sending prophets who were not allowed to interpret the Word, only repeat God’s message word for word. Or, perhaps God could have determined to send a new revelation every few decades, say, a Bible with a new revelation of the truth.

But God chose none of those methods. He chose rather to have a church on earth from the beginning to the end of time having the right and the privilege of being the pillar and ground of the truth.

In his commentary on I Timothy 3:15, Calvin writes:

Accordingly in reference to men, the Church maintains the truth, because by preaching the Church proclaims it, because she keeps it pure and entire, because she transmits it to posterity. And if the instruction of the gospel be not proclaimed, if there are no godly ministers who, by their preaching, rescue truth from darkness and forgetfulness, instantly falsehoods, errors, impostures, superstitions, and every kind of corruption, will reign. In short, silence in the Church is the banishment and crushing of the truth.

In the last while, I was again reminded of how easily the truth can be lost. The first reminder was an entire semester of teaching medieval church history, a graphic reminder of how the church of Jesus Christ on the earth neglected, ignored, and eventually despised and violently opposed the truth. The second reminder was through two significant lectures given at the PRC Seminary by Rev. Tom Reid on the history of the French Reformed churches.1 These churches failed completely to root out the error of a conditional covenant theology, and they eventually lost the truth. Though there were other factors involved in their demise, that failure was the beginning of the decline. The church in the land of John Calvin, the Reformed church at one time numbering many thousands, today is reduced virtually to nothing.

No wonder, then, that the inspired apostle writes an entire epistle to instruct the church concerning proper behavior in the church. If the church is not faithful in her offices, worship, and walk of life, she will neglect the great treasure God has entrusted to her—the truth. Proper behavior is the good order that God requires in His church. God is not the God of confusion, but of peace and order. It may never be as in Israel when there was no king, and every man did what was right in his own eyes. When that happens in the church, decisions are based on the minister’s or consistory’s fancy, without proper and biblical grounds.

History has shown the disastrous effects on truth when there is not good order. Consistories, classes, and synods make decisions that are unjust, for they are not well grounded in Scripture, but rather decisions swayed by public opinion. The truth is sold for a mess of pottage. There is strife, bitterness, and schism. And the truth suffers.

Again, Calvin zeros in on the importance:

By holding out to pastors the greatness of the office, he undoubtedly intended to remind them with what fidelity, and industry, and reverence they ought to discharge it. How dreadful is the vengeance that awaits them, if, through their fault, that truth which is the image of the Divine glory, the light of the world, and the salvation of men, shall be allowed to fall! This consideration ought undoubtedly to lead pastors to tremble continually, not to deprive them of all energy, but to excite them to greater vigilance.

With all that is in us, let us hold fast the truth God has entrusted to our care. In the office of minister, in the seminary, in the ecclesiastical gatherings, as well as in our homes and in their extensions, our schools. And let this description of the church be an encouragement, not to look about to see who in our judgment might not be holding to the truth. Rather, let this be a personal encouragement to every believer and officebearer to be faithful in the position God has given.

1 Rev. Tom Reid is the head librarian in the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh. His speeches are available online through the PRC Seminary website (www.prca.org). They will be printed in future issues of the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal.