Do Doctrine and Conduct Really Matter?
Passage: 1 Timothy 3:14-16
I’d like to begin this morning with a confession. Not this week, but the week prior, I struggled all week to get motivated to preach. We had just spent two weeks in Hebrews 12, and that study was very rich for me, and I felt a strong urgency to communicate what was on my heart. But now it was time to go back to deacon qualifications. It was hard to get as excited about deacon qualifications as it was about the obedience of Christ and the resurrection life he has given me. Even into last Sunday morning, I struggled to get excited about what I had to preach.
I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you had the same struggle. We spent 7 weeks working our way through the roles of men and women in the church and then the qualifications for pastors and deacons. And maybe along the way you thought, “I’m dealing with real problems, and I don’t see how some of this matters in comparison to the real issues I am facing and that others are facing.”
This is a common sentiment. Last year, Pastor Kris and I went to a breakfast the Gideons hosted for local pastors, and we were talking with another pastor about some theological controversies. He told us that those things don’t really matter because they don’t give any help to the single mom who is struggling to get by day to day. His point was that she doesn’t need a sermon about deacons or the deity of Christ. She needs the church to tell her that Jesus loves her and to give practical help for her day-to-day struggles. Is he right?
As I was struggling a week ago with that very question, I was reminded of the next paragraph in 1 Timothy. It gave me strength to preach last week, and it ought to provide a foundation for everything we do as a church (Read).
This passage is very important not just for what it says but for its place within 1 Timothy. This passage gives the purpose statement for the entire book. Paul wrote 1 Timothy so that Timothy and the Ephesian church would know how to conduct themselves in the church. He tells us that the church is significant, not just as a service to single moms, as important as that is, but ultimately because it is the house of God and the safe house of right doctrine.
Since all of us have a tendency to look at the church solely for what it can do for me, this passage is a needed reminder of what Life Point really is and of one of the fundamental reasons why God has left us on the earth. Let’ begin by considering vv. 14–15 where Paul describes the significance of the church.
The Significance of the Church (vv. 14–15)
Paul begins the passage by telling us about his plans. Remember that Paul had sent Timothy to Ephesus to guide the church through a very troubling time. False teachers has risen up within the church and were doing tremendous damage to the church’s theology, conduct, and testimony before the world. Paul planned to visit Timothy and to guide the church through the process of fixing these things. But for whatever reason, Paul wasn’t sure how soon he would get to Ephesus, and the issues at Ephesus couldn’t be allowed to drag on indefinitely, and so Paul wrote this book to help Timothy address the issues until Paul could get there.
Verse 15 follows with a loaded statement regarding the nature and significance of the local church. I do want to emphasize that word “local” because it dramatically affects how we read this passage. I think we all understand that when the NT talks about the church sometimes it is talking about the universal church, which includes all NT believers. Anyone who is saved is part of the universal church, but church can also refer to a local group of Christians who regularly worship together and have committed themselves to each other under biblical leadership.
We know that’s what Paul has in mind here because all of the descriptions of the church in this passage lack the article. In other words, there is no “the” in front of them. This tells us that Paul is not talking about THE church (i.e., the universal church) but about the significance of A church among many, the local church. As well, the whole context of this passage following a long discussion of local church matters indicates that the local church is in view. Therefore, this passage teaches important details regarding the significance of Life Point Baptist Church.
Let’s start by considering what it says about…
The Nature of the Church:
Verse 15 gives three descriptions of the church, and the first 2 tell us some incredible things about what the local church is. We can read this verse as saying that Life Point Baptist Church is “a house of God.” Hopefully we understand that Paul is not talking about our building, since none of the first century churches would have had one. Rather, we ought to understand house in this verse in light of how it is used in vv. 4–5 and v. 12 where it refers to a man’s family. Therefore the house of God is the people of the church. We are the family of God.
It’s pretty incredible to think of the church in those terms. We are a family, and we need to cultivate familial love and care for each other. But what is especially important in this verse is that we are God’s family, God’s house. God’s relationship with Life Point is special. He loves this church as well as every other biblical church in the world. How incredible is it to say that Life Point is the house of God.
This is very comforting, but it is also very sobering because Paul’s point is that we belong to God. And as God’s family, we have a duty to represent our God well.
Paul’s next description builds on this fact. He calls us a “church of the living God. The word for church is ekklesia, and it literally means “the called out ones.” According to his sovereign will, God has called us out of the world and into his church, and so we belong to the “living God.”
The phrase “living God” is significant. It is used a number of times in the OT, and it is intended to set God apart from the dead idols of pagans. God is not merely a block of wood derived from the imaginations of men. No, he is alive. And this fact again heightens the significance of the church. We have been called out of the world to serve the one and only true and living God.
Folks, Life Point Baptist Church is a house of God, a church of the living God. This is a heavy idea to consider because we can easily begin to think that the church ultimately exists to serve me. And when I think that way, I look at everything in the church through a lens of selfishness. Are we singing the songs that I like, are we doing the activities that I prefer, and are we spending our money the way I want us to spend our money. Pastors can be very guilty here. They begin to view the church as my kingdom to build for my glory instead of God’s.
Now, it is also true that Life Point is your church, and if we aren’t effectively meeting people’s needs, then we aren’t obeying the Great Commission. But we have to keep our priorities straight.
If we forget that Life Point ultimately belongs to God, not us, we will fail in our most important mission of glorifying our Savior. And so let’s all be reminded today of the true significance of Life Point. This church is much bigger than any of us or our agendas. We are significant because we are “the house of God,” “the church of the living God.”
Paul’s third description tells us that the church is also significant because of its purpose.
The Responsibility of the Church:
Paul describes the local church as “the pillar and support of the truth.” This is a building metaphor, and it would have been very significant to people from Ephesus. Ephesus was the home the Temple of Diana, one of the greatest wonders of the ancient world. Archaeologists have uncovered the temple, and it was huge. The structure itself was 180’ wide and 377’ long, and it sat on a platform which was 239’ feet wide and 418’ long. That’s quite a structure to build without modern technology. What is particularly significant about the temple in our text is that the roof of the temple was held up by 117 pillars that were each 60’ tall and 6’ feet in diameter. All of these pillars were necessary to support the incredible weight of the temple’s roof.
When the Ephesian Church read this verse, they would have pictured the most famous structure in their community. And so Paul compares the truth, or right doctrine and church practice to the incredibly heavy and significant roof on this temple and each local church around the world to one of the pillars that is holding the truth high for the world to see.
This means that every local church has a duty to uphold the truth. We must teach doctrine, not just help people with their felt needs. We must defend right doctrine by giving a reasonable defense for what we believe. And we must oppose false doctrine that threatens the truth.
It is only when we teach and defend the truth of Scripture that we fulfill our responsibility to uphold the truth. Now that’s not always convenient. It’s not fun to tell someone he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing or to wage a public war against error. Sometimes it means losing influence. If we stand with the biblical view of marriage, people will not be happy with us and who knows how it might cost us someday.
And we could tell stories for a very long time of pastors, Bible teachers, and churches that have failed to fulfill this duty and have allowed false doctrine into churches that claim to believe the gospel. I have commentaries in my office by men who claim to be Christians and yet they don’t believe that Isaiah wrote Isaiah, that Matthew wrote Matthew or that Paul wrote 1 Timothy because if you take the Bible for what it says, these scholars would immediately lose their academic credibility with liberals. And so they have sacrificed the foundation of inspiration. And these professors are teaching future pastors who will then teach churches to erode their foundation.
This book is Reforming Fundamentalism by George Marsden. It tells the story of Fuller Theological Seminary, which is just 75 miles from us in Pasadena. Men who were strongly committed to biblical doctrine started Fuller Seminary in the 1950s, but they wanted to start a school that would gain the ear of liberal scholarship, which by the way is a worthless pursuit because unbelievers don’t want to accept the truth of Scripture. Over the years the desire for scholarly respectability slowly ate away at the school’s foundation so that today while Fuller still calls itself evangelical, many of its professors have denied the inspiration of Scripture and other core doctrines. And they are passing their beliefs on to the next generation of pastors and teachers.
A couple of years ago, I watched an online pastor’s conference, and a pastor from a large church in New Hampshire was talking about the church and homosexuality. He believed that if the church stands with the Bible, it will lose its opportunity to impact a large swath of society, and so he asked, “Do we want to make a point, or do we want to make a difference?” His conclusion was that making a difference was more important than standing with the Bible.
And what is so sad is that every time a church forsakes a core truth, it’s like a huge crack runs up the side of their pillar. That pillar is no longer able to support the structure like it once could. Or when a church rejects the truth or closes its doors, a pillar evaporates. Now because there are so many pillars, the truth does not come crashing down, but it has less support than it did, and the gospel has one less light to reach people with the truth.
Truth matters, and if we as a church ever begin to think that we just exist to help single moms, as important as that is, it’s only a matter of time before we lose our power to give single moms the only thing that can really help them. We have a duty to be a pillar and support of the truth.
And we also have a duty to help raise up new pillars. I don’t want us to despair today because yes, a lot of pillars are falling but Life Point is a new pillar, relatively speaking, And God is raising up new pillars all over the world. And so let’s not be discouraged, because Jesus promised to build his church. But let’s also feel the weight of our responsibility to uphold the truth.
In light of that, notice…
The Conduct of the Church:
The word translated conduct refers generally to our behavior or way of life. In this context it has a narrow and a broad meaning. Narrowly, Paul has in mind the instructions in this book regarding church order. Church conduct has to do with exercising church discipline in chapter 1, corporate prayer, gender roles, and modesty in chapter 2. In chapter 3 it has to do with the kind of men who are placed in positions of leadership. In chapter 4 it has to do with resisting false teaching and living a Word-centered life. In chapter 5 it has to do with caring for widows and honoring elders. In chapter 6 it has to do with master/servant relationships and again with resisting false doctrine.
Sometimes we don’t think these things matter. We can think we just have to get people saved and then help them make it through life. As long as we are doing those things, it doesn’t really matter how we get there. But God says it does matter.
That means it ought to matter to you. You should care what the Bible says about what makes a good pastor or deacon. You should want to know what the Bible says about church discipline or widow care. Because God tells us that doing these things correctly is part of our responsibility to uphold and defend the truth. If you come to God’s Word or to church only looking for something that will help you in the moment versus with a hunger to hear and apply everything God has said, you will fail to do your part in helping Life Point be a strong pillar.
But there is also a broader significance to what Paul says because it wasn’t just these matters of church order that were destroying the Ephesian’s witness to the world. There was also a lot of petty strife among the Christians that betrayed the kind of unity Jesus prayed for in John 17. Among some there was an antinomian spirit that took a casual attitude toward holiness and obedience. The worldliness of these believers gave unbelievers a distorted picture of Jesus. And all of this was happening not out in the world but in the house of the living God among those supposedly called out of the world. This kind of ungodliness was also putting a crack in the Ephesian pillar and hindering their witness to the truth.
We must carefully watch our conduct with each other. We cannot tolerate petty division, slander, gossip, or judgmentalism because those things destroy our power. And we must be so careful to live holy lives that stand out in a world of darkness because the truth of God and the glory of God are at stake. Each of us must conduct ourselves well and help each other do the same so that we can be a worthy house of God.
Paul has a lot to say in vv. 14–15 about the significance of the church. He follows in v. 16 by touching on…
The Center of Christian Doctrine (v. 16)
Within Paul’s argument, it’s clear that v. 16 is intended to remind us of the incredibly significant truth, the core of Christian doctrine that the church is responsible to hold up before the world. There are a number of doctrines that we would consider essential to our faith, but v. 16 reflects the fact that the center of fundamental doctrine is the gospel. The six statements in v. 16 all have to do with Christ’s work and its proclamation to the world.
Paul calls this the “mystery of godliness.” When the NT refers to the gospel as a mystery, it is describing the new revelation that has come about in Christ. Now certainly the seeds of the gospel are in the OT, but the incarnate Christ is a new revelation of God, and he brought with him many means of grace that no OT believer enjoyed. We are united with Christ. We are indwelt by the Spirit, and Christians are united together in the church, among other things.
Paul follows with six closely parallel lines, leading most scholars to believe that they were a part of an early Christian hymn. These lines are a bit tricky to interpret because a couple of them are rather vague. As a result, it’s hard to follow the intended logic of the hymn. I think the best way to understand this hymn is to see it as having three two-line units. According to this reading, there are intentional contrasts in the hymn between flesh and Spirit, angels and Gentiles, and the world and glory. Therefore the first two lines describe what Christ accomplished, the second two lines describe the proclamation of his work, and the final two lines describe the reception of his work.
Paul begins by saying that Jesus “was manifest in the flesh.” This is a reference to incarnation. It is an incredible miracle that God who is infinite spirit would take on the limitations of a human body and soul. It’s so incredible that the Greeks really struggled to accept it. But the fact that Jesus was eternal God and also fully human is foundational to the gospel.
The second phrase is especially difficult. The verb here is the same verb that is typically used of justification in salvation, but it can’t mean that here because Jesus doesn’t need that kind of justification. The idea is that he was vindicated. Specifically Jesus’ claims about himself were proven to be true when the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from the dead. And so the first two phrases describe the beginning and the completion of redemption. Nothing is more essential to the truth we are called to proclaim than these two facts.
Again, the next two phrases describe the proclamation of Christ. The best way to understand “seen by angels” in light of parallel statements in the NT is that it refers to post-resurrection appearances of Christ. The resurrection is not a fable. Angels saw him and proclaimed the good news to men.
And then these men “preached among the Gentiles.” The apostles saw the risen Christ, and the indwelling Spirit radically empowered them. And so they took the gospel to the nations. Paul repeatedly emphasizes that the mystery of the gospel includes the fact that it is intended for all people. Israel’s Messiah is the Savior of the world, not just the Jews. And so the universal proclamation of the gospel is both a testament to the work of the gospel in the apostles and to a core aspect of its message.
Again the final two lines describe the reception of the message, first among the peoples. The Book of Acts describes how the gospel worked its way out from Jerusalem and the incredible reception it received wherever it went. The gospel worked so powerfully that the Jews in Thessalonica said that the gospel was “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6) And Acts 19:26–27 tells us that it stirred up the whole city of Ephesus to the point that the silversmiths were concerned that it would overthrow the worship of Diana. It’s hard for us to appreciate how incredible it is that a gospel about Israel’s Messiah would have such a mighty effect on a Greek city. That’s the power of God.
The final line refers to Christ’s ascension to heaven. In this context, it speaks to the fact that Jesus was not just accepted among men, the Father accepted his work on earth. And Jesus now sits in glory awaiting the day when he will finally destroy all evil and reign in righteousness.
Folks, the gospel is amazing, and there may be someone among us who has never accepted its message. Maybe you aren’t sure if it’s really true. There are many powerful evidences of the truth of the gospel, but this verse notes in particular the mighty work of the gospel that has now continued for close to 2,000 years. The gospel has worked mightily, and not through military force like Islam or cultural forces like most other religions. It has crossed every cultural boundary and been powerfully effective because the hand of God and the promise of God to build his church has been behind it. I pray that the Spirit of God will work in your heart to see who Jesus is and what he has provided, and I pray that you will believe on him today and be saved.
For those of us who are saved, v. 16 is a powerful reminder that we have been given a great trust. And so we need to defend this great trust with our lives. Life Point must earnestly contend for the faith once delivered as Jude 3 says, and then we must proclaim this faith. This week, you need to pray for gospel opportunities and pursue gospel opportunities. And finally, we need to live worthy of the gospel. We need to make sure Life Point reflects in our church order and by our lives that the great calling we have received and our standing as the house of the living God.