Question: "What does 1 Timothy 3:15 mean when it says that the church is the pillar and foundation of the truth?"
Answer: Catholic apologists are fond of citing 1 Timothy 3:15 as evidence that “the church”—specifically, the Catholic Church—is the true, infallible earthly source of spiritual knowledge. In particular, they claim this verse not only supports the inerrancy of Catholic teachings but that it also contradicts the doctrine of sola scriptura. Read completely out of context, the verse could be taken that way:
“If I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).
But, as with any Bible text, what something means out of context is irrelevant. Looking at the verse in light of its scriptural setting not only defeats this particular claim, it strongly contradicts other aspects of Catholicism.
First of all, it would be one thing to use 1 Timothy 3:15 to generically claim “the church” as a source of authority or truth on earth. Catholic apologists, however, frequently point to this passage and extract concepts such as an inerrant magisterium, an infallible Pope, and so forth. The scope of the verse in no way supports that kind of overreach. This is particularly true in light of what Paul and the rest of the New Testament says about the church and truth.
First Timothy 3:15 is the end of Paul’s description of proper conduct for church members, including leaders. He nowhere mentions a unique power of these leaders to make doctrinal or interpretive decisions. Nor does he declare members of the body incapable of making those interpretations themselves. In fact, in verse 14 Paul specifically says that his written words are what define proper conduct. This actually suggests the concept of sola scriptura; Paul is assigning authority to the written Word. He does not say, “The church will tell you what this letter means.”
At the start of the epistle, Paul explicitly tells Timothy to oppose those who teach unsound doctrine (1 Timothy 1:3–7, 18–19). He does not tell Timothy to oppose those who disagree with “the church” or with church leaders. This echoes other statements of Paul that indicate that the content of a belief is what matters, not the person who proclaims it (2 Corinthians 11:14; Galatians 1:6–8). Paul refers to those proclaiming the gospel as stewards of the truth, not the source of it (1 Corinthians 4:1; 9:17). Elsewhere, Paul explicitly says there is only one “true” foundation for our faith, which is Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11), so what he says in 1 Timothy 3:15 must be taken in that context.
It’s also short-sighted to use 1 Timothy 3:15 to support Catholicism, given the words that come directly before and after it. In 1 Timothy 3:1–13, Paul says that church leaders ought to be “the husband of one wife” and to have demonstrated control over their household and children. Yet Catholicism demands that priests be unmarried and celibate, a prohibition that Paul condemns a few verses later (1 Timothy 4:1–3). That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of Catholic doctrine.
How, then, should 1 Timothy 3:15 be interpreted? Judging by the context of 1 Timothy, as well as the rest of Scripture, certainly not that “the church” has an infallible grasp of truth. In this case, Paul seems to be saying that the ekklesia—the body of believers, “the church”—is the structure that holds up and holds forth the gospel to the world. For that reason, the conduct of the body and its selection of leaders are critically important.
This interpretation is strongly supported by Paul’s use of two Greek words, stulos and hedraioma, translated as “pillar” and “foundation.” Stulos means “pillar, column, prop, or support” and is found in the New Testament only here, in Revelation 3:12, and in Revelation 10:1. Hedraioma means “prop or support” and is found only in this verse. Both words come from Greek root words that imply something that stiffens, stabilizes, steadies, or holds. These are completely different words than what are used for other occurrences of “foundation” in English Bibles. For instance, Paul’s reference to Christ as our “foundation” in 1 Corinthians 3:11 uses the word themelios, which means “foundation of a building” or “initial and founding principles of an idea.”
So, in 1 Timothy 3:15 Paul is not referring to “the church” as the source of truth or the creator of truth. He’s saying “the church” is what holds up and holds firm the truth in the world. Again, this interpretation fits with Paul’s warnings not to be swayed by carnal philosophies (Colossians 2:8), false teachers (2 Timothy 4:3), or any person who changes the gospel (Galatians 1:8). Rather than fall prey to false doctrine, we’re to compare teachers to the Word of God (Acts 17:11; 1 Corinthians 4:6; 2 Timothy 3:16; Romans 15:4).
“The church,” that is, the entire population of Christian believers, bears the earthly responsibility of holding up the truth of the gospel. The ultimate basis of that truth is Christ, not the proclamations or infallibility of members of that body. Paul is calling on believers to care for the structure that “supports” or “props up” our message to the world. First Timothy 3:15 cannot be taken to mean that the church itself is the source or standard for truth.