Thursday, November 08, 2018

A Bigger House

“I hope to come to you soon, but 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.”

The household of God is his church. That should be an uncontentious statement. Paul says it plainly to Timothy.

Where we have difficulty is in defining what it is exactly we mean by “church”. Many modern teachers interpret Paul’s instructions to Timothy as if he has in view only church meetings; as if the church only really exists in the moments its members come together. This is useful if, like egalitarian Margaret Mowzcko, one is attempting to argue that 1 Timothy 2:9 refers to women praying out loud in public gatherings of God’s people, something that is not obvious from the passage.

It is also wrong.

The Household of God

The phrase “household of God” does not mean merely the church meeting. Such a view is way too limited. It does not accurately reflect the subject matter we find in Paul’s first letter to Timothy.

Conceptually, the household of God encompasses all interactions between believers bound together in Christ, whether these actions are religious, domestic, social, public or business-related. Church meetings are part of that, but they are far from the totality.

Most often these exchanges take place between believers who regularly attend the same gathering, but there is no good reason not to apply many of Paul’s instructions to interactions between believers from different congregations. We are all part of the same body. As Paul says in connection with prayer, “I desire then that in every place ...” What he is laying out for Timothy is standard operating procedure in all the churches of God, not just in Ephesus.

Paul is not merely saying to Timothy “Do these things in your local church meeting.” He is saying something more like “Everyone who belongs in God’s family should always behave like this …”

More Than Public Worship

The idea that “household of God” means more than the regular gatherings of the local church did not originate with me. It has been put forward by many respected expositors over the years. For instance, Barnes says:
“This [the house of God] does not mean in a place of public worship, nor does it refer to propriety of deportment there. It refers rather to the church as a body of believers, and to converse with them. The church is called the ‘house of God,’ because it is that in which he dwells.”
Again, Matthew Poole:
“[T]he house of God, a people in and amongst whom he dwelleth ...”
That church life extends beyond the walls of a building and outside the scope of arranged meeting times is also evident from the IVP New Testament Commentary’s notes on this passage:
“The privilege of being called out to live in God’s presence carries with it, however, the responsibility to live a life worthy of the One who has called.”
Thus, the teaching of 1 Timothy is not merely about how to conduct ourselves when we gather to worship, pray and learn, but how to BE in this world as a people who constitute God’s household, both when we come together and when we are apart.

“These Things”

Paul tells Timothy “I am writing these things to you.” The question is which “things” Paul is referring to, since he does not specify. There is no obvious limitation on the statement. Some might wish to restrict it to the qualifications for deacons and overseers in chapter 3 which immediately precede it, but the early verses of chapter 1 are equally statements about how one ought to behave in the household of God, as are numerous instructions in all other chapters of the epistle.

I take the statement to refer to Paul’s entire letter. Once again, I am not the first to notice this. Jinson Thomas identifies two main purposes for the epistle, the second of which is that “you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God.” He believes “these things” refers to the entire letter. David Guzik, writing for the Blue Letter Bible Commentary, and Paul Suckling also consider the statement to sum up the purpose for which Paul was writing. The Overview Bible calls the statement the epistle’s “theme verse”. In fact, most commentators take for granted the phrase “these things” refers to the entirety of 1 Timothy.

There are exceptions. Michael Stark assumes it refers to all of chapters 2 and 3, but gives no reason for excluding chapters 1, 4, 5 and 6. William MacDonald takes the statement to refer to chapters 3 and on. But I am unable to locate a single commentary that makes any case (let alone a credible case) for narrowing the application of “these things” to less than two chapters of the book.

The “These Things” Problem: A Chapter-by-Chapter Breakdown

But this creates a problem. If Paul’s entire epistle (or significant portions of it) was intended to help Timothy understand how one ought to behave in the household of God — as most of us seem to believe — we are compelled to define the “household of God” much more broadly than merely the meetings of a local church. Why? Because many of Paul’s instructions involve situations that commonly arise both in and outside church meetings. Others explicitly have to do with the home, the workplace and the world. This mixture of “venues” — if we can call it that — is found in every chapter of the book.

We often say “the church is not the building, it’s the people”. If so, then all our interactions with fellow believers take place “in the household of God”, not just the ones that occur between 10:30 and noon on Sunday. And in fact, this is the sort of thing Paul is laying out for Timothy.

Chapter 1. The “different doctrine” he refers to can certainly be aired in church meetings. Far more often, false doctrine spreads through private conversations between believers, over coffee, around the dinner table and in small groups that gather for this purpose or that. I ran into a prime example of this just last week. Addressing false doctrine may also require different levels of response. In Matthew, the Lord taught that dealing with sin may be a private matter or may escalate to require gathering the brothers. So too, false ideas circulating among the saints may be dealt with different ways, depending on the gravity of the error and how widely it has spread.

Chapter 2. Supplications, prayers and intercessions may be corporate. Equally, you could intercede or supplicate as easily at home as in a church meeting. The lifting of “holy hands” in prayer likely refers to a church meeting, but the idea that Paul was only concerned about gatherings of the saints when he gave Christian women the direction to dress respectably seems more than a little improbable. And childbearing, faith, love and holiness in v15 are definitely not goals to be pursued only in church meetings; they are general features of Christian living.

Chapter 3. Overseers and deacons prove they qualify for their responsibilities almost entirely by their track record outside church meetings. Keeping one’s children submissive, for instance, is a full-time job with many aspects to it. Further, if the servants of the church in Acts 6 give us any sort of glimpse of the types of service in which deacons are expected to engage (e.g., ensuring that the poor among God’s people are fairly treated), we can reasonably conclude that, like elders, a significant portion of their service takes place during the week when the church is not assembled.

Chapter 4. Training for godliness is almost entirely an outside-of-church-hours exercise. Public reading of scripture is corporate, but exhortation and teaching can be done anywhere and are often better done one-on-one when the issues are personal. Again, exercising any spiritual gift can be done in or outside church hours.

Chapter 5. Encouragement of individuals, whether old or young, men or women, especially as an alternative to sharp rebuke, is something we would rarely consider doing in a public forum. And it would be absurd to suggest that the children and grandchildren of needy widows are only to care for their relatives during Family Bible Hour. Again, providing for the members of one’s household is an all-day, everyday job for men. The instructions to younger widows to remarry, have children and manage their households are of minimal value during church meetings, and the critique of busybodies is that they do their work “from house to house”. Again, not an in-church-meeting problem.

Chapter 6. The command to slaves to honor their masters and serve them well is obviously not intended to apply only to church meetings. It is their public testimony outside the church that is in view, after all.

Thus, in every chapter of his letter, Paul gives direction about matters that are social, domestic, public and/or work-related. These are not inconsistent with the concept of God’s “household”. They are not outside it.

In Conclusion

Siblings remain members of the same family whether they meet together, in ones and twos, or even when they operate out in the world on their own pursuing the family business. So too, the phrase “household of God” encompasses all aspects of the Christian life. It is not limited to church meetings or buildings designated for specific purposes. My parents may be virtually housebound these days, but they remain an enthusiastic part of the local expression of God’s household all the same.

Paul is not without the ability to make clear distinctions between instructions intended for church gatherings and instructions intended for outside them when he has reason to. In his letters to the Corinthians, he uses phrases like “in church”, “the whole church comes together” and “when you come together” to indicate that he means the church meeting.

Such expressions are notably absent from 1 Timothy because the scope of Paul’s teaching there is larger than formal church gatherings. He moves easily back and forth between instructions relevant to church meetings, instructions about home and business life and about social interactions between believers. Sometimes he does this between one sentence and the next or even mid-sentence.

This being the case, any attempt to argue from immediate context that a woman ought to dress in respectable apparel because she is preparing herself to worship audibly in the church meeting is without basis. Those who argue this have failed to observe that Paul’s instructions to Timothy are not merely about how to behave in church meetings, but about how to live life as member of God’s family.

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