Thursday, May 14, 2009

My enthusiasm for the Pillar of the Truth

I've grown tired of the church-bashing jargon that gets tossed around so flippantly by some Christians these days. It's as though the Church of Christ was just another piece of plastic in our disposable world that we can discard when it no longer feels relevant to our fickle souls. Yes, I know that people have been hurt in churches and so that seems to legitimize a disregard for whatever caused them pain. But I'm not so sure. It seems to me that the Church of Christ is too important for such drastic reactions. My reading of the New Testament leaves me convinced that the corporate and unified expression of Christianity is not an option -- but is a vital part of God's plan.

An old friend of mine who is quite the scholar has for some time been grappling with the place of the church in this world. In one of his reflections on this topic, he quotes William Willimon, a Methodist bishop, theologian, writer and preacher whom I'd never read anything by...

"I hold to the statement that we [he and Stanley Hauerwas] made in Resident Aliens. 'The only way for the world to know what it is to be redeemed is for the church to point to the Redeemer by being a redeemed people.' The only way for the world to know that it is the world -- namely fallen, corrupt, yet being saved and redeemed -- is through the presence of a 'being saved and being redeemed' community, the church. Salvation must have institutional embodiment, for it is hard to keep so strange a story going, over time, across the generations when the triumvirate of the government, the economy, and Hollywood have such powerful means of marginalizing such a story. It's hard to envision a new heaven and a new earth, all things restored in Jesus, if we do not at least have a glimpse of that future here and now. Left to our own devices, we tend to regard this world with its present princes, powers and social arrangements as normal. The church's existence is in itself a corporate, material, political claim about salvation that the world cannot smother, despite its best efforts." (Emphases mine)

As more and more people seek to distance themselves from what they call organized religion and institutional Christianity, I think of things that Paul said as he wrote to Timothy. Right there in the inspired pages of the New Testament, Paul gave us his view of the Church. He instructed Timothy to establish the office of overseers (1 Timothy 3:1) and explained that there must be qualifications for both overseers and deacons (3:2-13). Paul spoke of people having authority to rule in the Church (5:17) and of there being roles in the Church, such as the public readings of Scripture in obvious reference to the public gatherings of the Church itself (4:11-14). And he spoke of young and old all being together in unity in the Church (1 Timothy 5).

I don't intend this to be a study of everything Paul wrote about the Church. I simply want to reinforce the idea that the Church is actually meant to be an organized and structured corporate expression in which authority is exercised and unity is essential. Such ideas are not the evil invention of some controlling so-called modernists!

There is one statement Paul makes that seems to communicate this better than any other, and it appears right after all his organizational talk of offices and overseers : "I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Timothy 3:14-15).

Two things jump out at me in that statement. One is that Paul saw the corporate expression of Christianity as a "household" or as a family, something that has its own necessary expressions of authority and unity, and which is meant to be defined by God rather than by the preferences of humanity.

The second is that the Church is a "pillar and buttress of the truth." Ask your average Christian what they think the pillar of the truth is and they'll likely say the Word of God or Christ Himself (the living Word). But Paul says it's the Church. In other words, the Church is needed in a unified corporate expression -- with its offices and its public gatherings -- in order for a watching world to know what the truth is. So why don't we as Christians stop bashing the church, and instead try to be of assistance as it sincerely attempts to accomplish that task (in all its many valid expressions)!

© 2009 by Ken Peters

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