While we were living in British Columbia, the governing party—a socialist labor party called the New Democratic Party, or NDP—held a leadership race; the provincial premier, a deeply unpopular little mountebank called Glen Clark, got himself indicted for corruption, so they had to replace him. It was a circus, as BC politics tended to be, and produced some truly funny moments. One of my favorites came from the Agricultural Minister, Corky Evans, who had something of a country-bumpkin image which he liked to play up for comic effect. In announcing his candidacy for party leadership, he told the story of the time he had decided to build a house for his family; being impatient, he didn’t want to take the time to put in a foundation, so he just built the house right on the ground. It seems to have come as a surprise to him when the house began to sink. As he told the crowd, this left him with two choices; he could either tear down the house, or lift it up and put a foundation under it. Either way, it was going to be a very messy business.
Now, Corky Evans used this to describe the state of his party, but it applies just as well to the church. There is and always has been the tendency to try to build the church with, and on, and out of, human efforts. Some churches are built with music; some are built on one person’s charisma; some are built out of programs. Some are built by spending lots of money on advertising and entertaining Sunday services. Then there’s our denomination, the PC(USA), which has concluded that its polity—its structure of governance—is the only thing keeping it together, and is now trying to keep dissident congregations from leaving by threatening to take their property if they do.
The problem is, to build a church in such a way is to do what Corky Evans did: it’s to build a house without a foundation. If you try to build a church on the most popular music, or the most entertaining preaching, or the most exciting service, or the best structure, or what have you, you may appear to succeed for a time; you may produce a large organization, with lots of members and money and a high profile in the community. What you will not have, in any meaningful sense, is a church, and so it will not endure. Sooner or later, it will begin to sink, leaving you with only two options: either tear the whole thing down, or try to lift it up and put a foundation under it, because without the proper foundation the building cannot stand. And as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, there is only one foundation on which the church can be built, and that is Jesus Christ; which means it must be built with the truth of who Christ is and what he taught if it is to last.
That’s the value of 1 Timothy for us, and why we’ll be spending the next few weeks in this book. It’s often treated as a handbook for church operations, because of its practical instructions on such matters as the qualifications for elders and deacons; but that misses what’s really going on here. You see, Paul didn’t write this letter to give Timothy a refresher course in church government, he wrote it because heresy had broken out in Ephesus. Since Paul’s departure for Jerusalem, false teachers had popped up who were pushing some really strange things, and Timothy needed some help in dealing with them. One reason Paul wrote this letter—which he intended for the whole church, not just for Timothy—was to throw his own considerable authority behind Timothy, to buttress his position; but as well, he wrote to remind both Timothy and his church of some very important truths which were in danger of being lost in Ephesus.
This includes the concern for truth itself—the understanding, as I said a moment ago, that the church must be built with the truth of who Christ is and what he taught, and thus that false teaching is a very serious problem. There are a lot of folks who don’t see that, because they assume that what you believe matters less than why and how you believe it; but Paul understands that it doesn’t work that way. The teaching of the truth produces “love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith”; to wander off from the truth, even out of the best of motives, interferes with that and detracts from it. If we leave the truth of God for our own inventions, our heart isn’t pure even if we think it is, and our conscience isn’t good even if we’ve filed it down enough to keep it quiet, and so even if our faith is completely sincere, our love cannot be true.
This means that we must be rooted in Scripture, and must accept its authority; we must let it define us, rather than claiming the right to define it, because it is, in Luther’s phrase, “the cradle that contains the Christ.” It’s through this book that God has spoken to tell us who he is—and to show us who he is, in Jesus. If we deviate from its teachings, as Timothy’s opponents in Ephesus were doing, then we distort our understanding of Jesus and wind up worshiping a false Christ—which distorts everything else about our faith and life. When the leaders of the church turn away from Scripture, this effect is multiplied, distorting the whole church; this is why Paul is so concerned in this letter for how the church is to be led, because false teachers can do damage far beyond themselves.
Only the true gospel builds us up in the love of God; only the true teaching of Scripture, inspired by the Spirit, shows us Jesus in all his true glory. Only submitting ourselves to be transformed by the truth of God, rather than seeking to conform his truth to our own ideas, will fit us to be built up together as the people of God. God calls us to be the body on earth that contains his body, just as the Scriptures are the word that holds his Word; to answer his call, we must be faithful not to teach any different doctrine, not to pursue our own idea of truth, but to submit to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he has entrusted once for all to the saints.
What does this look like? Well, consider Paul’s greeting. He describes himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope.” In this, we see present, past and future all together. Paul’s present, his daily life, is defined by his relationship with Jesus, and it’s that and that alone that gives him his identity. He is in Christ, and Christ has called him to a particular task, and it’s that call that defines his life and who he is. Everything else is secondary. In the past, he looks back to God’s saving work, accomplished through Jesus, which is for him—not just God the Savior, but God our Savior, including him—which is the root from which his whole life, every part of it, grows. And his future is sure in “Christ Jesus our hope,” as he looks forward to the day when Jesus will return in power and glory to judge and redeem the world. He sees his life, at every point, as existing on a line which stretches right from the beginning of God’s saving work in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ through history to its conclusion at the glorious return of Christ; that and that alone is the context for everything he experiences and everything he does. May it be so for us as well.