It is the honor and privilege of the church to be the upholder of the truth in the world. The church preserves and promotes the truth. The truth depends upon the church as a great building rests upon its supporting pillars and stands solidly on its foundation. Take away the church, and the truth disappears from the world.
Upholder of the truth is what the church is. This belongs to her essence as she has been created by the Spirit of Christ. It is not merely a matter of a task that has been assigned her, so that she is still the church even though she fails to uphold the truth. Whatever religious organization fails to uphold the truth is not the church, regardless of its claim and regardless of its impressive appearance.
The apostle of Christ gives pointed expression to what is said about the church throughout the New Testament in I Timothy 3:15: "... the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
In view of the worth of the truth as the revelation of God in His glory and as the power of the salvation of the people of God, to be upholder of the truth is surpassing honor for the church. Calvin remarks on this in his commentary on I Timothy 3:15:
No ordinary enhancement is derived from this appellation. Could it have been described in loftier language? Is anything more venerable, or more holy, than that everlasting truth which embraces both the glory of God and the salvation of men? Were all the praises of heathen philosophy, with which it has been adorned by its followers, collected into one heap, what is this in comparison of the dignity of this wisdom, which alone deserves to be called light and truth, and the instruction of life, and the way, and the kingdom of God? Now it is preserved on earth by the ministry of the Church alone.
Only the church has this honor and privilege. Para-ecclesiastical organizations are not upholders of the truth. It was to no purpose that in the late 1970s and the 1980s evangelicals in the United States attempted to preserve the doctrine of the infallible inspiration of Holy Scripture by means of a "council," apart from the church. Man-made, quasi-ecclesiastical movements are not upholders of the truth. The efforts on behalf of the truth in the Netherlands by federations within apostate Reformed churches are vain. Individual, sound preachers and theologians remaining within departing churches can never be pillars of the truth.
It pleases Christ to maintain His truth in the world by means of the church, not otherwise.
The evidence is plain. The doctrine of Scripture is in shambles in evangelicalism in North America today. Witness the open denial of the historicity of Genesis 1-11. Some of the worst offenders are the very men who were quite in prominence at the "International Council on Biblical Inerrancy." The "bonders" in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands get absolutely nowhere in checking the headlong falling away of their churches, much less in reforming the churches. If their magazines are any indication, their witness to the truth is hardly more than a feeble, pathetic bleating. Individual theologians are silenced. Over the years their own weakening is noticeable. They become tolerant of certain aspects of the lie, and even defend them. They are able to do much for themselves personally. They do little or nothing for the truth.
The church is the pillar and ground of the truth.
The reference is to the instituted church. The church that God has made upholder of His truth is the local congregation of believers and their children, organized in the offices of bishop (teaching and ruling elders) and of deacon. I Timothy 3 leaves no doubt about this whatever. The church of the living God is the local congregation, and she is the pillar and ground of the truth. She is the upholder of the truth, however, not in the splendid isolation and self-sufficiency of congregationalism but in the bond of church unity with other faithful congregations. Thus, indirectly but importantly, the denomination of such churches is upholder of the truth.
That the church upholds the truth has nothing to do with Rome's proud claim that Scripture, gospel, and doctrine depend upon the (Roman Catholic) Church in an ultimate and absolute sense. According to Rome, the church does not depend upon the truth, but the truth depends upon the (Roman Catholic) Church. Even if it were the case that the truth of the Word of God depends absolutely upon the church in the sense that the church originates, determines, and is sovereign over the truth, this would do nothing for the honor of Rome. For Rome does not uphold the truth. It is exactly the fundamental description of the church as the upholder of the truth that clearly unmasks Rome as a false church. Rome has always been, and is today, an enemy of the truth and of the Reformed church that upholds the truth.
But the church is not the upholder of the truth in the sense that the truth is subject to the sovereign church. The church does not produce the truth, but the truth produces the church. The church does not determine the truth, but the truth determines the church. The church does not have the last word about the truth, but the truth has the last word about the church. We Reformed must be clear about this. It is by no means only Rome that likes to exalt the church over the truth, that is, over the Word of God. A Reformed synod, or a Reformed consistory, does the same thing when it decides contrary to or apart from Holy Scripture and then demands compliance from the congregations, or from the congregation, simply because the assembly has so decided.
Ultimately, the church is founded upon the truth. Christ taught this in Matthew 16:18: "Upon this rock I will build my church." The apostle taught this in Ephesians 2:20: "... built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone." The truth precedes the church. The truth forms the church. The truth is the foundation upon which the church stands. Again and again in history, the truth reforms the church despite the opposition of an institute that has hardened itself in apostasy.
But the truth is the foundation of the church in such a way that the truth uses the church to preserve and promote itself in the world. As a standard bearer serves his kingdom by holding aloft the banner of the kingdom, so does the church hold up the truth. It pleases Christ to maintain His truth in the world by means of the church, not otherwise. Therefore, to destroy the church (which the father of the lie has worked at for some 6,000 years—unsuccessfully) would be to abolish the truth. The church upholds the truth by her confession. This explains how upholding the truth belongs to the very being of the church. The church is a confessing church. She confesses in her official creeds. The Protestant Reformed congregations confess by means of the "Three Forms of Unity." Basic to this confession is the binding of all officebearers to these creeds through the "Formula of Subscription" and the firm enforcement of this sacred vow.
The churches confess in the preaching and teaching of their pastors, particularly in the worship services, the catechism classes, and the seminary. Through the faithful teaching of Holy Scripture as interpreted in the Reformed confessions by their ministers, the Protestant Reformed congregations are pillar and ground of the truth.
The church confesses in her singing at public worship. The songbook of the Protestant Reformed Churches, basically the Psalms with their magnifying of the covenant God, their message of gracious salvation from sin, and their call to a thankful life of obedience to the law, is an important aspect of the support of the truth by these Churches.
The church also confesses by the official decisions of her consistory, as well as by the official decisions of the classis and synod, for which each church is responsible.
Being upholder of the truth involves definite, sharp condemnation of the lie. A church that cannot say "no" to the lie is a crumbling pillar of the truth. The creeds condemn error. The preaching necessarily does this. Consistorial and synodical decisions must do this.
This involves the church's judging on confessional issues that become controversial because of the teaching of error. The church does not forever allow debate over the historical reality of Genesis 1-11, over the origin of the universe by creation in six days, or over the eternal, unconditional predestination of all humans to everlasting bliss or to everlasting woe. But she preserves and promotes the truth by condemning the view of Genesis 1-11 as unhistorical, the theory of theistic evolution, and the teaching of a universal, conditional love of God.
The condemnation of the lie that is part of the church's upholding of the truth includes also that the church disciplines the impenitent heretic and transgressor. Their mouths must be shut. They must go out. Otherwise, as far as that institute is concerned, they pull down the whole structure of the truth. That institute is responsible.
A calling is implied by the honorable designation of the church as the upholder of the truth. The calling is, "Be what you are!" "Uphold the truth!"
The truth is not only all the doctrines concerning Christian belief as made known in Scripture, centrally the doctrine of Jesus Christ as God in the flesh. It is also all the doctrines concerning the Christian life. For example, the church is called to uphold the truth of marriage. The world certainly will not. It cannot even defend the truth that marriage is exclusively for a man and a woman. The church must be pillar and ground of marriage and, thus, of the family.
The individual member of the church is not excluded from this calling. As member of the church he or she is included in this calling. Let him or her know the Reformed confessions; see to it that the truth is soundly preached and taught; receive the preaching with a believing heart; do his or her part in discipline; speak out in defense of the truth personally; practice the truth; and support in every way the church that shows herself the upholder of the truth.
To be upholder of the truth is, as Calvin put it, "so magnificent a title."
It is also awesome responsibility.
It is to be the church of the living God.
This article was published in the January 15, 1994 issue of the Standard Bearer and was written by the editor of the magazine at that time, Prof. David Engelsma.