Nearly every time I drive over the I-35W bridge near downtown Minneapolis, I think about the day it collapsed. If I happen to forget, there are thirty-foot memorials at each end to remind me of what happened.
At 6:05 in the evening on Wednesday, August 1, 2007, in the heat of rush hour, the heavily trafficked four-lane steel bridge gave way and fell eighty feet into the Mississippi River. In all, 111 vehicles were damaged or worse, 98 people were treated at local hospitals, and 13 died. After months of investigation, it was determined that the gusset plates (small sheets of steel applied to joints or beams for reinforcement) had been a half-inch too thin.
The support beams under bridges are life-sustaining, death-defying realities that we almost never think about unless they fail. Just imagine how many people drove over the I-35 bridge that Tuesday, the day before it fell — on average, some 140,000 cars — and casually looked left or right to enjoy the view. Knowing, afterward, just how easily it might have been their car among the rubble, I’m sure they all felt (and continue to feel) the preciousness of good bridges and the pillars that support them.
In that way, my drives over the new I-35W bridge (likely one of the strongest, most-inspected bridges in the world) also help me feel the preciousness of the church. As the apostle Paul tells Timothy,
I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. (1 Timothy 3:14–15)
Again, we probably don’t think enough about pillars (much less buttresses, for that matter) to see and feel the beauty of what God has said about the church when he calls her “a pillar and buttress of the truth.” Just one chapter earlier, Paul highlights the significance of the truth:
[God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all. (1 Timothy 2:4–6)
God wants men and women everywhere to hear, believe, and enjoy the truth — the truth about God, about grace, about the cross. And under that truth, he has placed a chosen pillar, a buttress he himself designed and constructed for this global and eternal purpose: the church.
Could any pillar have been more precarious? Could God have made the gusset plates any thinner? When Paul wrote his letter to Timothy, the church was only decades old, and it was embattled on nearly every front. Fragile. Sinful. Divided. Persecuted. Afflicted. Far from the picture of a weight-bearing beam. And yet God saw a reliable, even unshakable pillar in her — because he had promised to establish and reinforce her. He intended, from the beginning, to make the weak and wandering church the stage for his divine homily.
To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 3:8–10)
“Through the church.” God could have revealed his unsearchable wisdom, the riches of Christ, the mystery of the ages in any number of ways, but he chose to unveil the truth through the church. Throughout all generations, God has made the church — the wobbly, stumbling, spreading, and prevailing church — the keeper and messenger of the truth.
How strange and tragic is it, then, when the truth we’re meant to hold up and draw attention to begins to take a backseat in the church — when we start coming to church for reasons other than the truth? Even then, Paul knew this would happen, and so he warned Timothy in his next letter:
The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (2 Timothy 4:3–4)
The ears were already itching in his day, and they certainly haven’t stopped in ours. Our society has only given us more ways than ever to have our itches scratched — books, podcasts, social media, YouTube, and more, all constantly vying for our attention and devotion. Has it ever been easier to accumulate teachers to suit our unique passions, lusts, and fears? Has it ever been easier to wander after whatever’s trending (and away from the truth)?
This puts significant pressure on church leaders to scratch the same itches — to build churches and plan services and develop programs that compete with what people love and follow online. For our part, we may start choosing (or leaving) churches based on the Sunday morning “experience,” rather than whether they preach, live, and love what God says. The demand for entertainment subtly slides from the screen to the pew, and truth moves from the center of our life together to the margins.
Remember, these pressures and temptations are not new. The apostle was already warning the church in the first century, nineteen centuries before the first iPhone. Satan has always warred to make the truth seem boring, inconvenient, secondary. He knows how much earthly and eternal good a truth-loving church can do — and how much damage one can do that neglects or compromises the truth.
So if the church wavers on or fades from the truth, will the truth fall? Certainly not. Social media and online entertainment habits may have distracted many of us from the church and the truth, but they are no serious threat to either.
Remember, God chose and constructed this pillar (not the poor engineers responsible for the I-35W bridge). And Jesus promises that nothing and no one will fell her, not even the unfaithfulness within her: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). So how do we join him in guarding and uplifting her? How do we, in our individual local churches, act like the pillar that we are? We feast on what bores itching ears.
God gave Timothy the remedy: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:1–2). What makes the church a pillar and buttress of the truth? She holds up and lives out what God has said — whatever God has said, however he has said it, whatever it means for us. J.I. Packer writes,
Doctrinal preaching certainly bores the hypocrites; but it is only doctrinal preaching that will save Christ’s sheep. The preacher’s job is to proclaim the faith, not to provide entertainment for unbelievers — in other words, to feed the sheep rather than amuse the goats. (A Quest for Godliness, 285)
Faithful churches seek the words of God like silver (Proverbs 2:4). We meditate on them day and night — not because we have to, but because his words are a river of nourishment, contentment, security, and joy (Psalm 1:2–3). Whatever happens around us, we stare through the truth — his truth — like a window, until we see our realities as he sees them.
Pillars in the Pews
God has made the church the pillar of truth. So does it serve that purpose in your life and in the life of your church?
If you’re not sure, you might begin by asking what drew you to your current church, and what keeps you there. Has your time in this church deepened your understanding and enjoyment of the word of God? Is it a church that loves to hear from God in the Bible, even when what he says is confusing, uncomfortable, or convicting? Do the gatherings gladly lead with the truth — or with music, humor, and an atmosphere that softens the harder edges of the truth? Does your church consistently shy away from beliefs and verses that the world hates — on sin and hell, on sexuality, marriage, and abortion, on race and justice, on the sovereignty of God and election, on the cross? Or does your church have a manifest and growing love for the truth?
And then, even more personally, how are you contributing to your church’s pillar-ness — or not? Are you a thin and unreliable gusset plate waiting to break, or do you intentionally devote yourself week in and week out to the truth? How are you currently seeking to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18)?
God strengthens the pillar of the Church by building and fortifying individual churches, and he strengthens individual churches by building and fortifying individual souls — souls like yours. He steeps each of us in truth — through his word and in fellowship with other truth-lovers — so that the church stands firm in every age and circumstance. The pillar doesn’t rise or fall just with preachers, but with ordinary people in ordinary pews filled and overflowing with the truth.