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SACRED GEOMETRY

by Rev. Phil Thrailkill

A pastoral and doctrinal reflection on I Timothy 1:3-20

Mrs. Burchís eighth-grade geometry course gave me headaches. There is one simple lesson I remember; to have a circle you need a center and a circumference. A center alone is not a circle, only a point of reference. A circumference must also be set in your protractor to create a circle.

This simple analogy helps us understand that to be a church requires a fixed point and an outer boundary. The center point is what God has revealed in Jesus Christ. Paul put it clearly in I Timothy 1:15, "The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that ĎChrist Jesus came into the world to save sinners.í" That is the evangelistic center, and when we forget it or put anything else in its place we become something less and something different than the church of Jesus Christ. We exist for the worship of the God who has come to save us sinners in Jesus Christ and to embody that message in the world.

But a church also has to have an outer boundary, a limit to distinguish what is in from what is out in terms of belief and behavior. Without such a boundary we cannot say in any corporate sense what is Christian and what is not. If Jesus is just one of many saviors, then he is not the full and final revelation of the one true God; and if that is so then the center is vacated and the missionary endeavor gutted. And if in our day the church no longer has a clear word about sexual morality and marriage as a union of one man and woman under God, then a key boundary has also shifted. Belief and behavior go together; ideas have consequences. Some in our day want to evacuate the center to include more people (universalism), while others work at the edges to change the boundaries to include more people (permissive sexual ethics). Both must be resisted. Our center is Jesus Christ, and our boundaries are our canonical doctrines and their moral implications. Both must be tended to and protected, which is precisely the charge the Apostle Paul gave to his personal representative Timothy. He was to rebuke false teachers within the church and remind people that it is trust in Jesus Christ that saves and not speculations about Jewish law. Timothy was to tend the center and monitor the circumference. This is the primary work of a pastor. A healthy church passionately points to Jesus Christ as the savior of sinners and keeps its doctrinal and moral boundaries in good shape. This is the only way to be a people of honest and powerful love, and as Paul stated in verse 5, "the aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith."

It is tempting to ignore the current Methodist mess and hope someone else will clean it up. That was not an option Paul gave Timothy, "Even as I urged you when I was going to Macedonia remain at Ephesus that you may charge certain persons not to teach a different doctrineÖ" (v.3) Pastoral stability is a virtue; pastoral courage means that you donít run when tough work is to be done. The church at Ephesus had been invaded by a theological virus, and Timothy as the resident spiritual physician was to cure it. Would that our bishops as a body were as clear about the center and boundaries of the faith. Romancing the leaders of the Jesus Seminar and skillfully undermining the judicial process to protect the guilty would not commend them to the Apostle Paul.

The list Paul brings before Timothy in vv.9-10 is roughly ordered around the Ten Commandments. It starts with sins against God and then moves on to the evil people inflict on one another. There are six categories arranged in three pairs, "lawless and disobedient, ungodly and sinners, unholy and profane." They cover the concerns of the first four commandments, but it is the rest of the list dealing with the second table of the decalogue that deserves special comment.

God desires a sacred bond between the generations, and it is most often stated in the form that runs upward from children to parents, "Honor your father and your mother." But in a day of rampant abortions the flip side must be emphasized, "Honor your son and your daughter" by not killing them because the government gives permission and liberal theology offers moral cover under the rubric of choice. When I think of the millions of men who have paid for abortions and thus abandoned both the mother and child I fear for them. Some of the most memorable pastoral experiences I have had are when women and men bow their heads, claim their guilt and confess, "Lord Jesus, forgive me for killing my child." The very mercy of heaven floods the room.

Further down the list is this pair of words, "Immoral persons, sodomites." This is Paulís spin on the seventh commandment against adultery. He takes it as a commentary on Godís desire for human sexuality. Chastity in singleness and fidelity in marriage is the biblical standard. Sex apart from marriage is fornication, and same sex unions are a step further away from Godís created order for male and female. God loves playboys and party girls, gays and lesbians. But both are misusing their bodies and scalding their consciences. With each new escapade they forfeit more and more of the capacity for a one flesh, heterosexual union of holy marriage that has the sticking power to last across a lifetime (Michael McClymond, "Chastity: the last sexual perversion," Theology Today, July 2000, vol. 57, No. 2, 217-231). Much divorce is rooted in a history of promiscuity.

The vice list ends in vv.10b-11 with a generalizing summary, "and whatever else is contrary to sound (healthy) doctrine, in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted." The idea of sound doctrine is that it makes us sound, of healthy doctrine that it makes us thrive. Christian truth is not something imposed; it is a statement of the way things are with God and the kingdom and a map for the intellectual and moral adventure of becoming whole persons in Jesus Christ. It is a sacred trust from God to be guarded and applied anew.

At the center of his personal testimony in v.15 Paul makes a generalized theological statement. He prefaces it with a solemn introduction that claims truth and universality, "The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance." Then he summarized the whole of the Christian message in an easily remembered slogan, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners."

There is a branch of Christian theology known as apologetics that has to do with the reasoned defense of the faith and serves as the academic department for the work of evangelism. Some come to faith through the route of reason. Their intellectual objections are met, and they then believe. But for every one who comes this way, dozens more come because of what we have come to call a personal testimony. There is something transparent and naive about such a story that is disarming. Retelling his own faith story made Paul so thankful that he burst out in a doxology: v.17, "To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen." Testimonies of conversion stir praise and gratitude in the church. They bring us back to the personal center of faith, Jesus Christ.

Paul was sending Timothy into the battle of his life, and it was a conflict within the Ephesian church which had become infested with false teachers: v.18. "This charge I commit to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophetic utterances which pointed to you, that inspired by them you may wage the good warfare." This is not the demonization of ones opponents as if they were the problem but the recognition that behind the battle of ideas in the church are invisible spiritual forces which are trying to distract and corrupt the church and its apostolic faith. Weaken our commitment that truth can indeed be found and clearly stated. He had observed Paul; now was his turn, "This charge I commit to you, Timothy, my sonÖ."

In his commentary on these verses French Arrington gives an insight, "More often than we know, religious error has its roots in moral rather than in intellectual causes" (Maintaining the Foundations: A Study of 1Timothy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1982, 52). We intend to change our behavior, so we change our beliefs. Hymenaeus and Alexander did not first reject faith but conscience: v.19b, "By rejecting conscience (first), certain persons have made a shipwreck of their faith." If you do what you know is wrong long enough it will corrode and corrupt whatever true faith you once had so that you are as lost and helpless as a shipwreck. This is why clear teaching on biblical sexual morality is so important in our day.

Behind Paulís counsel to Timothy are a number of unpopular presuppositions, the first being that church is not optional. It is a community of spiritual protection and offers an invisible shield against evil. To be tossed outside the church is to be tossed into the realm where Satan has freer reign to harass and harm. So to ask, "Are you faithful to a local church?" is not so much an institutional question as a profoundly spiritual one with enormous consequences.

The second presupposition is even more offensive to modern egalitarian sensibilities, and that is that the church and its leaders have the right to carry out this kind of discipline. Guess why? What you tolerate, you get more of. Tolerate heresy, and you get more of it. Tolerate immorality, and you get more of it. Tolerate slothful pastoral and episcopal leadership, and you get more of it. To have a circle you need a center and circumference, and when the boundaries are flaunted there ought to be consequences.

The third presupposition is that church discipline is supposed to hurt and then heal, just like the surgeonís scalpel. Thus the final word on these two men is not despair but hope, "whom I have delivered to the Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme." It was to be an educational experience. Sobering, isnít it? Paul had both a higher view of church and of evil than most of us. Wonder whoís right on this one?

Faithful pastoral leadership involves standing at the center and proclaiming Jesus as the Savior of us sinners; it also means patrolling the doctrinal and moral boundaries and keeping them in good repair. Paul modeled and expected both of Timothy. Thank you, Mrs. Burch! You taught me a lot of theology.


I Timothy 1:3-20 (NRSV)

3 I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine, 4 and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith.

5 But the aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith. 6 Some people have deviated from these and turned to meaningless talk, 7 desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions. 8 Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. 9 This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, 10 fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching 11 that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.

12 I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--of whom I am the foremost. 16 But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

18 I am giving you these instructions, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies made earlier about you, so that by following them you may fight the good fight, 19 having faith and a good conscience. By rejecting conscience, certain persons have suffered shipwreck in the faith; 20 among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have turned over to Satan, so that they may learn not to blaspheme.

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