“I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:14-15).
The church in America has confidence problems. And, perhaps, rightly so. We have failed on any number of fronts to live as the people of God in a foreign land. Feeling our story to be a bit too radical, we have convinced ourselves that our story is not all that different from the stories of the culture around us. It is only through the most egregious and idiosyncratic misreading of the New Testament, for example, that we can justify dropping bombs on people as a way of achieving peace. Rigorous intellectual gymnastics are required to read the New Testament and still come away believing that the accumulation of more and more stuff has no moral implications, or that to be better Christians we merely need to accumulate more and more “Christian” stuff. Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek and camels going through the eye of a needle seem fanatical and outlandish in a world in which violence and wealth are romantic ideals. We much prefer to blunt the razor’s edge of Scripture. “Surely, Jesus didn’t really mean it when he said . . .”
Chop a little bit off here, rationalize a little bit there, and pretty soon the Church begins to look and sound like everybody else–with a little extra Jesus language thrown in for good measure. In fact, there are those among us who think that what we need to do is to get the world to look and act a little bit more like the church, in effect blurring the line between the church and the world in the name of relevancy. The Church in America is so unsure of itself, so insecure about its own ability to produce disciples that there are actually people who think that we ought to turn to the government and the public school system to prop up our flagging faith. Is the church in such bad shape that the best we can offer young people are proposals to “teach the Bible in school,” to put “prayer and the Ten Commandments back in the classroom?” Is Christian leadership in this state so impotent that it would consider abdicating its responsibility for the teaching of the faith in favor of cheap sloganeering? Praying, living a moral life are practices that need to be taught and learned within the context of a worshiping community whose goal it is to form saints. They are the treasures of the church; they can’t just be farmed out when the church gets tired of the hard work of teaching them. Beyond that, praying and the moral life are unintelligible to a world whose view of morality is not already shaped by the cross.
The author of First Timothy is writing to a congregation that is trying to come to terms with its place in an apparently hostile society. In the first thirteen verses of chapter three, he describes the characteristics that will be present in good leaders. Interestingly enough, he says very little about the actual functions of bishops (episkopoi) and deacons (diakonoi). Instead, the author is careful to point out what type of folks are suited to those offices. Why is that? Because leadership in the church, from the very beginning, was seen as a position vital to the community precisely to the extent that it put forward leaders who could teach others what it meant to be a good Christian. Leaders in the early church were given the responsibility of teaching the faith, of passing on the tradition. That understanding of teaching, however, assumed not only a facility with words, but a life worthy of imitation. Being a leader in the early church entailed so much more than being able to recite the Ten Commandments, it required a commitment to living them.
The early church knew what we have apparently forgotten: learning something as complex praying and learning to read the Bible necessitates seeing it embodied in people who are held up as examples. You don’t turn over something as precious as that to just anyone. You don’t just tack up your prized possessions on the wall and hope somebody pays attention.
If the Church is ever going to be “the pillar and bulwark of the truth,” it is going to have to quit hoping that someone else will raise our children.