Rome is not what it says it is. I’ve spoofed this notion here, but it’s going to be important to deconstruct each of the various things it claims for itself in order to support my initial contention.
Catholic writers often cite 1 Tim 3:15 in support of indefectibility or infallibility of the church. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church itself has made this interpretation an article of faith, most recently in Lumen Gentium 8:
This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, which He erected for all ages as "the pillar and mainstay of the truth". This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him…
My contention in this posting is that Rome’s official usage of this verse is wrong at best. But what’s worse is that in popular apologetics, Roman apologists are going far beyond what even Rome says in this verse.
One popular Catholic writer said this:
“As Saint Paul taught, the church is ‘the pillar and ground of the truth’ – she does not err. (1 Tim 3:15)”
But is that what Paul tried to say? Is that what he actually said?
It seems to me that for Catholics to try to force their meaning on this phrase is a fundamentally dishonest use of this language.
Daniel Wallace, a professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, has written many textbooks on the Greek language. Here’s what he said:
“Before we can know what a particular text means we must know what it says.”
(From his essay, “Laying a Foundation: New Testament Textual Criticism in the work “Interpreting the New Testament Text: Introduction to the Art and Science of Exegesis”.)
Let's look at the verse in a bit of context (ESV translation):
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 NASB translation for this phrase is “the pillar and support of the truth.”
It’s important to note the word that gets translated by various translators as “mainstay” (the Vatican website translation), “buttress,” “support”. I’ve also seen “bulwark.”
It’s true that the phrase has the leadership of the church in mind (see Galatians 2). But they are called to “support” “the truth” not in terms of a “teaching authority,” but by their behavior (a notion that should, and does, lead directly into qualifications for elders)
Philip H. Towner, in his (2006) New International Commentary on the New Testament, says that “church of the living God” is not the key phrase, but “household” is. “The church” in Paul’s conception here is “a clarification,” a relative clause” for the truth that the universal church, all members of the church, really comprise “the household of the Living God.”
“Pillar” frequently describes the cloud of God’s presence (Exod 13:21-22; 14;24; 33:9; etc.), and stands metaphorically for leaders (Gal 2:9). In this case, where it combines with “foundation” and functions in respect to “the truth” (i.e. “the gospel”; see 2:3), the sense will be that of visible “support” such as the “pillar” lends to a building. The term translated “foundation” also signifies firmness and steadfastness. Together (perhaps in the sense “supporting foundation”) the two terms depict the church in the combative setting of heresy, as existing to provide a powerful and steadfast support for “the truth.”
LT Johnson, a Catholic commentator, works through the various phrases of this selection. First, of the “church of the Living God” here, the “ekklesia,” he notes that “household of God” is the prime metaphor, “not least because Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy are directed to matters of public concern to the ekklesia, not to matters of domestic economy. That this assembly is one gathered by “the living God” is of first importance thematically (4:10, 5:6) and theologically, for it means that the church does not contain or control God, but is only in service to the one who moves always ahead of humans in surprising yet faithful ways.” Note also that the Catholic definition of "church" is not in view at all in that phrase. (Anchor Yale Bible Commentary, "The First and Second Letters to Timothy: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary", Luke Timothy Johnson, p. 231).
The phrase he gives as “a pillar and support for the truth” are the Greek words “stylos kai hedraioma,” which he says are “architectural terms for ‘supports, stays, or pillars.”
The issue for the translator is not the meaning of the terms, but their referent. Are “pillar and support” to be read as in apposition to “church of the living God” or in delayed apposition to “how it is necessary to behave”? Such a delayed appositional phrase [already] appears elsewhere in the letter (1:7). It also makes better sense of the metaphorical point: the community is the oikos, and the members should behave so as to be supports and pillars for it. Such an understanding fits Paul’s other use of stylos for leaders of the Jerusalem community in Gal 2:9. Note also Paul’s use of the adjective hedraios in a plea to his unstable readers in Corinth: “Become steady people (hedraioi ginesthe), not capable of being moved, abounding in the work of the Lord at all times, knowing that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. (1 Cor 15:58). See also the use of stylos with reference to an individual person in Rev 3:12, which functions within the Temple symbolism of that writing.” (231-232)
In his New International Greek Testament Commentary, a commentary series which examines the Greek text, George Knight says it’s not doctrine that’s in view at all, it’s conduct. “So even though building terminology is utilized, since the conduct (of the individuals) in view relates to the interaction of the members of God’s family, modern translations have opted for “household” … The standards of conduct given “are no mere rules of etiquette, they are standards for the house/household that is none other than God’s. They provide directions for conduct in his temple, where he dwells by his Spirit, and they provide directions for relationships among his people.” (180). He says further that “Timothy and the church will conduct their lives appropriately if they remember that they are the home built and owned by God and indwelt by him as the living one, and also remember that they are called on to undergird and hold aloft God’s truth in word and deed.” (182)
Individual members of the household of God “support the truth” by bearing witness to it with their behavior. This is precisely Paul’s exhortation to the church in Romans 12:1-3:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
Paul's illustration of the "church" is first that of a "household." The Vatican usage is wrong. As for the apologist’s comment to which I referred, to suggest that this verse in any way supports the contention that "the church cannot err" is simply misusing this verse, either in total ignorance, or else to the point of dishonesty.
What the verse says is, God’s truth exists; it is the task of the entire church, by its behavior, to lift up the truth of God, to put it on display for the world to see, by their very behavior. The notion that this verse implies some form of “teaching authority” which cannot err is just plain dishonest.
For you Catholics, who are interested in claiming that Christ somehow supernaturally prevents the "teaching office" of the church from erring, stop and think about what that means for a moment. This verse doesn’t even say what you say it says, much less that it means what you say it means.