(1 Tim. 3:15) Is the Church the foundation for the Bible?

CLAIM: Roman Catholic interpreters note that Paul writes, “The household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Of course, “pillars” are the foundation of the house. From this, they conclude that the Church is the foundation of the Bible—not the other way around. Is this the case?

RESPONSE: The resounding teaching of Scripture points to the fact that the Bible is the only authoritative source of spiritual truth (see “Sola Scriptura” and “Interpreting Scripture”). Therefore, we shouldn’t press the imagery in this one passage too far. At the same time, how should we interpret Paul’s statement?

Pillar. Paul uses the term “pillar” (stylos) to refer to Peter, James, and John (Gal. 2:9). If the Church is a “pillar,” then so are all three of these apostles. This wouldn’t fit with the Roman Catholic view that only Peter was an authoritative apostle.

Support. The term “support” (hedraioma) occurs only here in the entire NT and perhaps in all of extrabiblical Greek (BDAG shows no other entries besides this passage). While the NIV and NLT render the term as “foundation,” it can also be rendered “support” or “bulwark.” Guthrie writes, “By rendering the word hedraiōma as ‘bulwark’ instead of foundation the major difficulty disappears, for the church has in varying degrees been the custodian of spiritual truth, and was in any case intended to be so.”[1]

All three terms (e.g. “church” “pillar” “support”) lack the article. Without the article, these terms should be rendered “a church,” “a pillar,” or “a support.” Mounce writes, “The lack of the definite article before ekklesia indicates that Paul is thinking of the local church.”[2] In fact, the only article in this verse is found before “the truth”! In other words, Paul is not referring to the Universal Church, but to a church—namely, the church in Ephesus. Guthrie writes, “It is important to notice that no articles are used with either pillar or foundation in the Greek. And this must be considered intentional. A building needs more than one pillar. The pillar in fact stands for each Christian community.”[3] In fact, to follow Paul’s symbolism, we need to acknowledge the fact that buildings need multiple pillars. As Hort notes, “To speak of either an Ecclesia or the Ecclesia, as being the pillar of the truth, is to represent the truth as a building, standing in the air supported on a single column.”[4]

Paul might only be thinking of the gospel here—not the Bible. When he writes that the church is “the pillar and supporter of the truth,” this is similar to when he writes, “[God] desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth [i.e. the gospel]” (1 Tim. 2:4). In this reading, Paul is saying that the church is the way that God will spread the gospel. As a Christian leader, Timothy would guard the gospel in Ephesus.

However we understand Paul’s statement, we need to remember that elsewhere, Paul writes that the foundation of our faith and ministry is Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:10-11; Eph. 2:20).

[1] Guthrie, D. (1990). Pastoral Epistles: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 14, p. 102). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[2] Mounce, W. D. (2000). Pastoral Epistles (Vol. 46, p. 222). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[3] Guthrie, D. (1990). Pastoral Epistles: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 14, p. 103). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[4] Christian Ecclesia, 174. Cited in Mounce, W. D. (2000). Pastoral Epistles (Vol. 46, p. 223). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.