I’m not sure why us Mormons insist that the Church is the same today as it existed anciently. For some reason organizational resemblance has become an evidence of the ‘truthfulness’ of the Church. This seemed to be of particular importance to truth-seekers in Joseph’s day, but I’m not sure why it should remain the hallmark of the ‘one true church.’
The manual lists several characteristics of the ancient church and our modern church. Let’s take them in turn:
The manual draws a parallel between the way that Jesus led his ‘church’ while he was on the earth and how God continued to direct the affairs of the Church after Christ’s death. I don’t want to quibble too much with the idea that Jesus was actively creating some kind of institution during his brief ministry. Let me just say that I think it is a pretty big stretch to try to see in Jesus’ band of followers the same kind of organization that exists in the Church today.
Reading through the New Testament, it becomes clear that these people thought that Christ’s return was immanent. Although we like to try to interpret some of Paul’s letters (or those attributed to him) as foreseeing a ‘falling away’ that needed to come first, it is plain that this wasn’t a generally held belief among ancient Christians (and I would be a little surprised to learn that Paul — or whoever wrote the epistle — interpreted ‘falling away’ in the same way as the popular Mormon reading of 2 Thessalonians 2). So, if God was leading the primitive Church, he or she wasn’t very interested in imparting specifics.
Authority from God
But the manual tells us,
That there might be order in His Church, Jesus gave the greatest responsibility and authority to the Twelve Apostles. He appointed Peter chief Apostle and gave him the keys to seal blessings both on earth and in heaven (see Matthew 16:19). Jesus also ordained other officers with specific duties to perform.
I’ve talked before about Paul. I am persuaded by the accounts of Paul as something of a renegade apostle. He wasn’t a part of the original Twelve, and he was proud of that fact. He seems to openly challenge Peter’s authority, and he is constantly warning the churches that he is said to have established as part of his extensive proselytizing efforts against ‘false brethren’ and ‘false prophets’ and people preaching ‘some other gospel.’ We like to fit these into our own apostasy narrative, but it seems at least plausible that Paul could have been referring to the church in Jerusalem.
The manual tries to tells us that Christ put together the church as a “a carefully organized unit.” However, as Elder Holland recently pointed out in General Conference, the first thing that Jesus’ inner circle did after the Resurrection was return to their former lives. This isn’t the behavior of people who have been installed in the leadership positions of a fitly formed together organization.
Indeed, it makes a lot more sense to me to interpret much of what the New Testament has to say about organizational structures in the Church as post hoc apologia to justify and give scriptural support for a hierarchical organization that was taking on the leadership of the Christ movement.
First principles and ordinances
I talked about covenants and ordinances last time… not much new to say here.
Ordinances performed for the dead
I remember as a missionary really loving 1 Corinthians 15. There it was staring anybody who was willing to look at it in the face. Proof positive that the ancient saints practiced baptism (and of course one can naturally assume other ordinances) for the dead.
I’ll talk more about this later in a dedicated post on temple work for the dead, but I really love the sentiment behind performing ordinances in behalf of those who cannot do them for themselves. However, this passing reference by Paul is pretty thin evidence, and it is not at all obvious that he is endorsing the practice. Apparently there is some more compelling evidence that ancient Christians practiced vicarious ordinances, but this scripture is rather controversial among biblical scholars.
This one is really interesting to me, and it perhaps highlights better than anything else the problems with too much yearning for the ancient order.
Reading accounts of the early days of the Church in Kirtland and Nauvoo, one gets a very different picture than our rather reserved, well-ordered Sunday meetings in the 21st century. Charismatic expressions of faith seemed to be commonplace (or at least not uncommon). People spoke in tongues (and not the ‘I-picked-up-Spanish-slightly-faster-than-I-might-have-otherwise’ kind of tongues, but the full-on ‘pure-Adamic-tongues-of-angels’ kind of tongues). Members of the congregation would prophesy. People would see angels and the heavens opened. It is really difficult for me to imagine any of this happening in my upper-middle class ward, and in those rare moments when someone goes ‘off-script,’ you can almost feel the waves of discomfiture sweep across the congregation.
So if the 21st century incarnation of the Only-True-And-Living-Church is so different from the ‘same’ church in the 19th century, why do we expect or even want there to be a high degree of similarity between the church in ancient times and the church today?
In my posts on scripture, I’ve been trying to make the case that the Mormon outlook gives us a unique position from which to interpret scripture. We know that prophets are human, and in our better moments, we don’t expect perfection from them.
Paul presents some interesting challenges to the modern conceptualization of prophets.
For starters, he doesn’t come from within the establishment of the Church. Paul’s conversion on the way to Damascus is as dramatic as conversions come in scripture. Following the model of many Hebrew and Book of Mormon prophets, Paul is called from outside the established hierarchy, and unless I’m missing something, we don’t have any record of him being formally ordained into the highest councils of the Church. Quite to the contrary on several occasions, he seems to take pride in emphasizing his separateness from the old-guard leadership.
Secondly, Paul is no timid disciple of the Christian movement. He devotes his life to challenging the established order of things. The conflict between Paul and Peter is downplayed in the Mormon reading of the New Testament, but one gets the feeling that Paul had very little respect for those who assumed authority as leaders of the Church. In Galatians, he writes about people–“false brethren”–who had infiltrated his meetings to “spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage.” Later he says of the leadership of the Church (see Galatians 2:6),
But of these who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man’s person:) for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me
Interestingly, the LDS edition to the scriptures does not have any footnotes for this verse. It is never referenced or cross-referenced in the officially sanctioned study materials included with LDS versions of the bible, and it receives only scant mention in the Church’s other publications. The closest thing I could find to a direct discussion of the Jerusalem Council was a 1974 Ensign article that makes passing reference to a “tense incident” between Peter and Paul.
Most of the other references to the disagreement between Paul and Peter go to great lengths to reassure the reader that Paul was submissive to church authorities and was commissioned by Peter to take the gospel to the gentiles. The scriptural accounts, as I read them, make it sound more like Peter finally assented to Paul’s insistence that he be committed the ‘gospel of uncircumcision.’ As Paul writes, the Church fathers in Jerusalem ‘added nothing’ to him.
Paul and Jesus
The biblical scholar, James Tabor recently published a book called Paul and Jesus where he defends the claim that Paul transformed Christianity (see this interview for a rundown of the main argument). Tabor makes the case that Paul essentially wrenched control of the fledgling Christian movement away from James after Peter’s death.
Tabor argues that Paul’s version of Christ was much different from what was developing among the original apostles. One need only contrast the Epistle of James (tucked away at the back of the canonized epistles) against Paul’s more charismatic writings to get a feeling for how things may have been different. In the interview referenced above, Tabor quotes Abraham Heschel as saying that without Paul there would never have been a need for reform Judaism, as that was the general trajectory of the Jesus movement.
Tabor claims that even the Gospels were heavily influenced by Paul’s version of the Jesus message, and Paul himself was less concerned with the traditions that had been developing around Christ’s life than he was with his own visionary experiences (remember, he never was acquainted with the man Jesus). Paul’s Christianity — the version that took hold — was a very different animal than what likely would have developed in his absence.
What if Paul had it wrong?
It was Paul who penned the words “through a glass, darkly.” It seems like we should be permitted to at least pose the question: what assumptions do we take on when we buy into Paul’s version of Jesus?
This is a specific example of a more general phenomenon that I have talked about several times in previous posts. The great religious thinkers in human history have all been reformers. They — sometimes radically — changed the ways that we think about spiritual things (while often claiming to be restoring something that had been lost), and when they were successful, their followers have sought to preserve their legacies by institutionalizing their teachings.
Somewhere in this process things go wrong. The original revelation was flawed. Often, the efforts of followers to preserve and protect the reformer end up twisting the message. Over time, the message of the reformer loses its original potency.
The beautiful thing about Mormonism is that we acknowledge the importance of continued revelation. However, this continued revelation is highly contingent on the receiver. If we are unwilling to question the assumptions that are lumped in with the larger Christian tradition, we risk being stuck with a more limited understanding of God than we might otherwise.
Where might Paul have gone wrong? Have we misunderstood him?