Truth in the Pastoral Epistles (10): Its Preservation (1)

The pastoral epistles are filled with the truth of Divine revelation, telling of the God Who is the source of truth, Who has spoken into human history, revealing Himself and His will. We have noticed, too, the clarity with which they warn about the multi-pronged attack on the Truth that has been revealed. And, we have seen that there is an entity specially designed by God to be “the pillar and ground of the truth,” to display and defend Divine revelation. Writing to Timothy, Paul describes this entity as “the house of God, the church of the living God.” The local assembly is no mere cozy religious club. Nor is it only a vehicle for evangelistic outreach. Rather, in the purposes of God, it is to be the pillar and bulwark of truth, protecting it, even as it displays it.

Clearly, this is a role of the utmost significance, and we might justly ask how the assembly can discharge its responsibility. After all, it can field no army in defence of the gospel. It has no Scriptural mandate to found or fund seminaries or Bible schools. It is not a marketing organization or pressure group. It is not engaged in political lobbying or policy formation. In short, it seems to have at its disposal none of those facilities that we might think most useful for the preservation and presentation of truth. But nonetheless, that is its responsibility. Happily, these epistles, as well as emphasizing the assembly’s responsibility in relation to truth, also detail how the assembly might be expected to discharge that responsibility.

The pastoral epistles make it clear that the assembly is a place where truth is to be taught. They contain clear directions for those who have special responsibility for that teaching – for elders and deacons. Notice, for now, that instructions are given about who should teach.

We should also notice, instructions are given about who should not teach in the assembly meetings. “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” (1Tim 2:11–12, KJV). Public teaching is not the responsibility of the sisters. However, we must balance this by noticing the importance attached to the teaching of sisters in the domestic sphere. In 2 Timothy Paul reminds Timothy of his grandmother and mother. Timothy was forever shaped by that education. The lessons taught and the prayers prayed by these godly sisters played an incalculable role in fitting Timothy to serve God. The instruction of children in the home is clearly a sphere where a sister’s teaching is not just permitted, but where it is vital.

In Titus, Paul identifies another sphere in which sisters are to teach: “The aged women likewise, that they be … teachers of good things” (Titus 2:3-4, KJV). These aged sisters are not just to be “teachers of good things.” They are to be “good teachers,” both in what they teach, and the way in which they teach it. That teaching is to be clear and forceful, for the word used in verse 4 (sōphronizō) has the sense of “calling to their senses,” and is the only occasion on which Paul uses this word.  What this verse envisages is the moral instruction of younger sisters by older sisters. In this context, with urgency, immediacy, and relevancy these sisters can give instruction that could not be given by a brother in a public way, and though they do not teach in the assembly, they play a vital role in making the assembly the pillar and ground of the truth.

These epistles, then, contain vital information about who is to teach publicly, and who must not. They also tell us a good deal about how those who teach are to do it. So, for example, Paul instructs Timothy that the importance of his role as a teacher must not result in an arrogant or overbearing approach to either saint or sinner. Rather, Timothy’s priority in teaching was always to be the welfare of those he taught: “the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves” (2Tim 2:14, KJV).

Teaching must also be sensitive to the culture and background of those being taught. In Titus 1:12–13 (KJV), Paul warns Titus that “one of themselves, even a prophet of their own, said, The Cretans are alway liars, evil beasts, slow bellies. This witness is true. Wherefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith.” Debate about whether Paul is speaking about saved or unsaved Cretans rather misses the point of the passage. Paul is quoting a very broad statement about what Cretans are like. And because Cretan culture produces people like that, Titus must be prepared to teach them in an appropriate way. The lesson is still relevant. Different cultures produce different sorts of traits and, while we must never alter the message, we must temper our teaching to the temperament of our audience.

So, the pastoral epistles tell us who is to teach publicly (and not) and how we are to teach. They also tell us where, or at any rate in what setting, we should teach. This emerges most clearly in 2 Timothy 2:2: “the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (KJV). The crucial words here are “among many witnesses.” Paul’s teaching to Timothy had been public and, because of this, Timothy could not depart from that teaching. If he distorted it in any way, there were many brethren who could have stepped forward to say, “That’s not what Paul said.” Paul’s wisdom in this is patent, and what was wise for Paul is wise still today. We cannot value highly enough the public teaching meetings of the assembly, and ought to be present when such teaching is given. This does not mean that believers, in their homes, should not emulate the example of the godly remnant in Malachi’s day, when “they that feared the Lord spake often one to another” (Mal 3:16, KJV). Indeed, it is a sad indictment of our Christianity if the discussion at our supper table rises no higher than that of our unsaved friends and neighbors. Nor does it mean that we disregard the gracious approach that Aquilla and Priscilla adopted to Apollos, when they welcomed him to their home and “expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly” (Acts 18:26, KJV). But these passages and others like them in no way negate the value of Paul’s example in this passage.  The pattern of the NT is that the assembly should “come together” and “gather together” for prayer, preaching, the remembrance of the Lord Jesus, and the imposition of assembly discipline (Matt 18:20; Acts 14:27; 20:7–8; 1Cor 5:4; 11:17–18, 20, 30; 14:23, 26). We abandon this Scriptural template at our peril.

So the assembly is “the pillar and ground of the truth” because it is where the truth is taught. But we cannot stop there, because the pastoral epistles forbid us to decouple the teaching and the practice of the truth. It is neither accidental nor incidental that “godliness” and “good works” are recurring themes in these epistles. So, for example, in 1 Timothy 2, the chapter where the public teaching of women is unambiguously proscribed, the significance of the behavior of the sisters is stressed: “women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works” (vv9–10, KJV). This behavior is as fundamental and as necessary to the assembly as the public prayer of brethren, for the two are linked by the “in like manner” of verse 9.

In Titus, too, the importance of the practice, and not just the teaching of the truth is emphasized in relation to two classes of people who were little esteemed in Roman society. Writing of young sisters, Paul urges that they “be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed” (Titus 2:5, KJV). In this verse, the bulwark aspect of the assembly is in view. The godly behavior of young sisters has a defensive role to play, stopping the blasphemy of the enemies of truth before it can ever issue from their lips. By contrast, the obedience and reliability of slaves has a pillar function: “Exhort servants to be obedient unto their own masters, and to please them well in all things; not answering again; Not purloining, but shewing all good fidelity; that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things” (Titus 2:9–10, KJV). Slaves, on the lowest rung of the social ladder, and with the fewest opportunities and the greatest limitations, were able to live their lives, to practise truth, in such a way that they would adorn (decorate, or “bring credit to,” NET) “the doctrine of God our Savior in all things.”

When a precious artifact is placed on display in a museum or gallery, its setting is planned with meticulous care, so that it will emphasize the intrinsic beauty of the object, without in any way distracting or jarring the viewer. Our behavior in the home, in the workplace, and in society ought to be such that we contribute to the assembly’s role as the pillar and ground of the truth, and not detract from it.