I didn’t come from an Evangelical home, and though he never told me outright, I’m sure my father never wanted me to become a pastor. I can’t blame him—not one bit.
My father was a corporate attorney who traveled in circles of power and influence. He had been involved in politics and was friends with senators and governors. He was engaged in the world of big business with its fancy board rooms and corporate jets. He had lunch with university presidents and high-priced lawyers. I had the impression that he thought the church may have been fine for children and old ladies; it may have been a place to get married or get buried; but it never seemed to connect with real life—at least not with the areas of life that mattered. After all, the only time a church ever made the newspapers was when a pastor embezzled money or sexually abused children. The pastors he knew seemed to have been the milquetoast variety who knew how to handle themselves at afternoon teas and who delivered rather tepid moralistic messages about how the world would be a much better place if we all just tried a little harder to get along. I think my father wanted more for his son than that—and I respected him for it.
I became a Christian through Young Life in high school. My father didn’t understand what was happening when I went off to college and got very involved in a church. I could sense his confusion when I began to talk about being a pastor. My older brother was also a lawyer, so my dad joked about me balancing the honor of the family name, but I don’t think he meant it. He didn’t mind my studying theology in Oxford, but he was baffled with my decision to pass on Harvard or Yale and instead attend a place called Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He’d never heard of it. And when I went to pastor a church in Virginia—a church of about a hundred at the time, meeting in a rather modest upstairs fellowship hall—I assume he thought it was OK for starters. Surely, I could move up in time. There are big, powerful, and impressive churches, but this wasn’t one of them—and twenty-two years later, it still isn’t. I could see how it was a disappointment for a father with high aspirations for his son.
1.1. The Church: A Lowly Cinderella
It’s true: the church, which once held a prominent position in the social makeup of American society, no longer receives much respect. About fifteen years ago, a reporter in our local paper, The Washington Post, described Evangelical Christians in America as “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command.”2 There was an uproar about that comment, but its accuracy didn’t matter much because it captured a real perception. This is how the church, particularly the Evangelical church, is viewed by many on the outside. It’s not much to look at, not something that successful people, thinking people, really need to consider.
Though Michael Lindsay’s recent book, Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite,3 suggests some change, one can still say that where once the church occupied a privileged place in the American public square, both literally and figuratively, now the secular gatekeepers of our culture—the journalists, political pundits, academic leaders, and even some county zoning boards—are no longer quite sure where churches fit in the American landscape.
Unfortunately, this low view of the church is not only a prevailing opinion of society at large; it is found even among many Christians. “I can be a Christian without going to church, can’t I?” And even many who do “go to church”—an expression I hesitate even to use—are often very tentative and tepid in their commitment. In our consumer culture, they go when it’s convenient, or they go when it meets their needs. We have a whole culture of “Lone Ranger” Christians who keep a safe distance from any of the complicated connections created by a church community.
Who needs a church? George Barna’s book Revolution raises that very question.4 And it’s a question that is very relevant to a passage we consider briefly—1 Timothy 3:14–16. For Paul, this community of Christians that we call a church was more than just a convenient spiritual support group. It was more than a social club meant to lessen our loneliness. The church, in Paul’s view, was central to the purposes of God in the world.
1.2. The Church’s Hidden Glory
Paul, writing to Timothy, says this: “Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:14–15).5 The conduct that Paul is calling for from the Christians in Ephesus is based on who they are, and three descriptions of their identity are embedded in these two verses.
2. The Church as the Family of God
First, Paul says that these Christians must know how people ought to conduct themselves, literally, “in God’s house.” By this phrase we know Paul is not talking about a building, some sacred space that demands a certain solemn decorum. He is referring to the community of people who constitute the church. They are God’s house; they are God’s family.
Family language is prominent in this letter. Already in 3:4 Paul has said of elders that they must manage their own households well, for how else could they manage the household of God? In 5:1–2, Paul urges Timothy to treat other Christians in Ephesus as members of a family: “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.” Paul talks about the church bearing the family responsibility of caring for widows in those cases where those widows have no physical family to support them (1 Tim. 5:4). The picture of the church that Paul presents here is that of a family.
2.1. Family Leadership
Several implications flow from this understanding of a church. First, it matters in the way we structure the leadership of a church, reflecting something of the structure Paul outlines for the home in other places (cf. esp. Eph 5:22–6:4). In our church we speak of the elders as having a fatherly role with the primary leadership function. We have recently instituted a distinctly motherly role in our church consisting of a team of five mature godly women, appointed by the elders, to assist the elders in their pastoral care of women. We call it the Titus Two Team. This has worked very well, and it reinforces this model of the church as a family with significant and distinctive roles for husbands and wives, fathers and mothers.
2.2. Family Relationships
The model of a family is reflected not only in structures of leadership, but also in the way members of the church are to relate to one another. You can choose your friends, but you are stuck with your family. The question is not “Do we like one another?” but “Will we love one another?” This is not a consumer choice, but a divine mandate. Christians are to exhibit a kinship affinity, a blood relationship, through their common participation in the saving blood of Christ.
2.3. Family Diversity
This model of the church also suggests the nature of the church’s composition. It is to reflect a generational diversity as much as possible. A family has young and old: it has children, grandparents, aunts, and uncles of all ages—all of whom contribute to the makeup of that extended family. The church becomes that village, that moral community, that helps to shape our lives and the lives of our children. So in our church we work to hold young and old together as best we can. That’s a great challenge in this culture, but it’s a biblical imperative if we understand what the church should be.
2.4. Family Purpose
The church is God’s household, God’s family, and unlike a business enterprise or even a parachurch organization, the success of a family can’t be measured by numbers on a spreadsheet. A family is a place of refuge, encouragement, and discipline. It is a place of education and instruction and nurture. It is a web of loving relationships, working themselves out as together we grow up and mature, becoming more like God our Father and Jesus Christ our elder Brother. It is out of this family that we live out our various vocations in the world.
A family may also have a mission, but again, unlike a business, it can’t exclude those who can’t do much to contribute to that mission. A family forms a home, and as Robert Frost once described it, “Home is a place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.”6 That’s not true of parachurch organizations, which is why they sometimes make the church look sadly inefficient in comparison! But efficiency is not the church’s highest value. You’re not valued in the church by how much you can contribute to the mission, but by how much you are loved by our heavenly Father. An underachieving child isn’t kicked out of the family. In fact, sometimes a troubled or unhealthy child—the child who “produces” very little—is the one who receives the most love and attention. That’s why a healthy church often attracts a lot of unhealthy people—odd people, socially awkward people, needy people. The church is one of the few places where those people will be taken in and find the acceptance and love that reflect God’s love and acceptance in the gospel.
2.5. Homeless Christians?
So people who say “I can be a Christian without being a part of a church” are missing the whole point. You might as well say I can be born without being a part of a family. That may be true, but who would want to? Being a part of a local church is part of what it means to be a Christian. Like marriage, living as a Christian is something that can’t be done alone. For the church is the family, the household, of God. In our postmodern culture, with its tremendous sense of homelessness, both socially and cosmically, I can think of no more powerful attraction than to find one’s home in the family of God.
3. The Church As the Gathered People of God
The Apostle also speaks of the Christians in Ephesus as “God’s household, which is the church of the living God.” They are the church of the living God, not the Dead Poets Society. Our God is very much alive. He is at work among his people, and that living divine presence distinguishes a church from every other human assembly. Without that presence a church is nothing but a self-help group, a mere social club.
The presence of God among his people is perhaps the central covenant promise of the Bible: “I will live with them and walk among them,” the Lord says, “and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” In the NT, that promise takes a special form when Jesus says, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matt 18:20). In Christ, Paul says, we “are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Eph 2:22).
What an incredible thought that is: if you want to find God in the world today, the Bible says you need to look not in the chambers of Congress or in the lecture halls of Harvard or in the mansions of Hollywood. If you want to find God in the world today, the Bible says you are to look in an ordinary gathering of Christian believers in a local church, which is the gathered people of the living God.
4. The Church As the Pillar and Protector of Truth
Finally, Paul describes the believers in Ephesus as “the pillar and foundation of the truth.” At first sight it seems odd for Paul to say that the church is what holds up and protects the truth. In Eph 2:20, Paul says that the truth is the foundation of the church. In relation to the church’s source, its life, and its health, the church must be built on the truth of the gospel. There can be no other foundation. But in relation to the church’s mission to commend the gospel to the world, the church itself upholds and protects the truth.
But isn’t it the job of the seminary to protect the truth? Don’t we look to the biblical scholars and theologians at places like Trinity Evangelical Divinity School to guide us theologically so that we do not fall into error? Well, yes, but there are lots of seminaries that teach theological rubbish. How can Trinity be protected from that? It still comes back to the church. With no connection with and dependence on local churches, with no accountability to the faith of the people of God in the churches, how many academic institutions have gone off on their own into all sorts of theological detours and dead ends?
But isn’t it the job of the pastor to be the pillar and protector of the truth? Well, yes, but churches, especially in our Free Church tradition, have a great deal to say about the kind of pastor they call. Again, ultimately, it is the role of the church to be the pillar and protector of the truth.
4.1. A Truth That Must Be Lived
The truth that must be protected is not just what is taught, but also what is lived. In our postmodern world in which people are so skeptical about even the very notion of truth and are very wary of rational arguments in support of truth, it is increasingly the case that the truth that we proclaim in Christ must be seen and experienced if it is to be believed. It is in the context of the life of the church that we are to display this wonderful truth of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ and say, “Come, taste and see that the Lord is good.”
This is why Paul is so concerned about how believers in the church behave. Our lives are a part of the message of the truth that we are called to proclaim to the world. If our lives are no different from those around us, if the gospel has no impact on the way we relate to one another—on the way we handle our money, on the way we go about our work, on the way we approach trials, or even the way we approach death, then why should anyone believe what we have to say?
That new humanity in Christ which God is creating through the gospel is itself to be embodied and displayed to the world through the church. The church is the firstfruits of what is to come. In the words of John Howard Yoder, “The church does communicate to the world what God plans to do, because it shows that God is beginning to do it.”7 The church is missional in its very being, for its very existence is a demonstration of the gospel it proclaims. The medium is indeed an essential part of the message. The church is to be a living witness to that good news of God’s work in the world. It is to be the pillar and protector of the truth.
4.2. The Mystery of Godliness
The church as the household of God, as the gathered people of the living God, as the pillar and protector of the truth—is that what the world sees when it looks at your church or my church? Isn’t this a bit romantic and idealistic? Paul addresses just that question in what follows.
“Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory” (1 Tim 3:16). This mystery of godliness is the story of Jesus Christ, who came into this world as a baby in a manger. He lived like one of us and died the shameful death of a criminal, yet he was vindicated by the Spirit when he was raised from the grave on Easter day. He was seen by those in the angelic realm, but not by all here on earth. His story still had to be preached to the world; it still had to be believed. It is only then that he will be given the glory that belongs to him.
It is a mystery, not in the sense that no one understands it, but that no one could understand it if God had not now made it known. Jesus came to bring the kingdom of God, and he did—but not in power and glory. He brought the kingdom into the world silently, mysteriously—like a tiny mustard seed you plant in the ground, like a little yeast that you put in a lump of dough. It does its work without fanfare and is seen only with the eyes of faith.
The presence of that kingdom is now embodied in a peculiar people whom Jesus calls his body, the church. This is a profound and wonderful mystery, and it is the same mystery that was revealed in Jesus himself. It is the mysterious pattern of lowliness and humility in this world—a true identity hidden and disguised, seen only by those who have eyes to see. Only later will it be vindicated before the world. Like Master, like disciples.
I think of the statement by Dorothy Sayers: God underwent three great humiliations in his efforts to rescue the human race. The first was the incarnation, when he took on the confines of a human body. The second was the Cross, when he suffered the ignominy of public execution. The third humiliation is the church. In an awesome act of self-denial, God entrusted his reputation to ordinary people.
God entrusted his honor to people, Paul says, who were not wise by human standards, or influential or of noble birth (1 Cor 1:26). He might have said, “to people who are largely poor, uneducated and easily led.” This is not what anyone would expect the kingdom of God to look like. It is the mystery of the church: God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things —and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him (1 Cor 1:27–29).
Who would have thought, looking at her scrubbing the floors, that Cinderella would have been the star of the ball? But that’s who we are. We as the church of Christ are like Cinderella—chosen by God in his grace to share in the very glory and splendor of Jesus Christ our Lord.
The church is the centerpiece of God’s purposes for humanity. Paul says that it was God’s intent that “now through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph 3:10–11).
That is what the whole Bible is about, isn’t it? God’s purpose is to undo the sin of Adam, to reclaim fallen men and women for his kingdom, to create a new society, a new humanity. The church is to be that new humanity-in-the-making, a new community in which the rule of God’s kingdom is confessed and lived out in the world.
Is that hard to believe? It is when I look at my church, full of very ordinary people and full of all the failures to which ordinary people are prone. It is hardly a group of people that are going to change the world. Could that possibly be what Paul the Apostle is talking about? But just think how hard it was to believe that a carpenter’s son from the small backwoods town of Nazareth who was crucified as a criminal by the Roman governor was the Son of God and Savior of the world. It is a mystery—a mystery grasped only by faith.
4.3. Ambassadors of a Disputed King
As pastors there is much to discourage us. We can feel insignificant compared to the powerful and influential people of our age. We are engaged in what has been called a “perplexed profession” in our modern world, and many are seeking to make it more professional as a result. It is tempting to seek the recognition and validation of the culture around us.
Richard Neuhaus compares our present situation to that of being the ambassadors of a disputed king.8 Compared with other members of the diplomatic corps at the courts of the world, an ambassador for Christ is in an awkward position. Most ambassadors bear the authority of and are legitimated by the sovereignties that they represent. But the sovereignty of the one we claim to represent is itself in question. The claim is under the shadow of a history shadowed by powerful evidence against his sovereignty. The shadow will not be dispelled, the question will not be answered, until he returns in glory.
The temptation, Neuhaus suggests, is one of relieving the awkwardness of our position by accepting a lesser authority from another kingdom. In other words, we are tempted to play by their rules. We are tempted to use some power of this age—the power of money, academic reputation, political clout, or something else—to make the other members at the world’s court listen to us. But that is just what we must not do, for until he comes, our King is enthroned upon a cross; and he has called us to claim no authority but that of his sovereign, suffering love for the world. We are called to hold on to that mystery of faith.
Being a pastor is not easy, but this is what encourages me. This is what sustains me. This is what makes me think that I could be doing nothing more significant with my life in all the world than this: serving as a pastor in a local church. As we look at the very ordinary local churches we serve, may we see the church as Paul saw it: the family of God, the gathered people of the living God, the pillar and protector of the truth, manifesting to the powers of the invisible realm the manifold wisdom of the mysterious purposes of God for his own glory.