The curriculum of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has its members around the world devoting August, September and October to studying portions of the letters of Christianity’s most indefatigable early missionary.
It’s gratifying to see so much attention paid to Paul, because the old Gospel Doctrine manual breezed through the epistles much too quickly. (One day — just one day! — on Romans?)
But just like the old manual, the new curriculum is far more focused on the “practical Christian living” aspect of the New Testament than it is on actual history or theology.
In part, that’s just what church curriculum does, in an effort to keep things simple and applicable to daily life. But I believe there are particular reasons why the Pauline section is even more historically acontextual (or even downright anti-contextual) than the program’s other sections on the New Testament. And that’s because Latter-day Saints still don’t know quite know what to do with that irascible outsider, Paul.
1. He was an “apostle,” but outside the Twelve.
Latter-day Saints are fine with calling Paul an apostle; that honorific is right there in the King James Version, after all. Dig a little deeper, though, and people’s discomfort begins to show. How could Paul be an apostle when those seats were already filled?
Contemporary Latter-day Saints like their New Testament to resemble in every particular the structure and leadership of their own 21st-century church, so it’s discomfiting to realize that Paul’s apostleship was entirely of the self-proclaimed, charismatic variety. Paul’s leadership self-help bestseller could be broken down into three basic stages. Step One: Have a vision of Jesus. Step Two: Stop persecuting Christians and become one. Step Three: Put yourself in charge of the movement you just joined five minutes ago.
In Latter-day Saint eyes, the first two are fine, and the third is damnable heresy. Why, there are channels of authority! There is an expected chain of command! Paul never even met Jesus, for crying out loud; the Savior was long crucified before Paul came on the scene. Yet the Bible wants us to believe that God chose this aggressive outsider in addition to the Twelve, many of whom had actually walked with Jesus and paid their dues.
Even more troublingly from the correlated perspective, Paul considered other people, including women, to be leaders in the church. He called women his fellow laborers, and named them as deacons and even apostles. Junia in Romans 16 is one hotly contested example. In fact, that whole chapter of Romans is filled with women — and that whole chapter is ignored in the new curriculum, which pragmatically advises that we read Romans 12 to 16 to find “one or two” aspects that can teach us “how Saints should live.”
Well, here’s my take on how we can improve Christian lives, based on those chapters: Let’s go back to including women among the apostles! That would be a start.
2. He had a knockdown fight with Peter, and then wrote about it.
Paul just wasn’t as nice as Latter-day Saints are supposed to be. The curriculum rather endearingly, and repeatedly, glosses over his rough edges.
For example, you could read the entire lesson “Walk in the Spirit” and never get the sense that Paul was exceptionally pissed off when he wrote that letter to the Galatians. Paul was a passionate guy. It’s like those emails you dash off in the heat of the moment but have the good sense to delete before sending so you don’t burn down all your relationships.
Well, Paul sent his. It’s called the Book of Galatians.
N. T. Wright’s biography of Paul gets into the historical context of this really well, but the basic gist is that Peter appears to have reneged on that lovely ideal he had reluctantly espoused in Acts — the part about Jews and Gentiles living in harmony. Succumbing to outside influences, Peter had recommenced observing the old Jewish rule about not sitting at table with the uncircumcised.
And Paul, seeing the train wreck the church was about to become if Jews wouldn’t eat with Gentiles, called Peter out on it, in public, in Antioch. “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.”
Let’s take a moment to digest this. Not only is Paul questioning a major decision of the Christian movement’s most prominent leader, he asserts he’s right to do so because Peter is about to lead the whole church straight to hell. This is not in the Latter-day Saint curriculum, which asks class members to read Chapter 2 but only begins the discussion with Chapter 3.
Paul tells this story in the letter because he sees the Galatian church falling prey to the same kind of message that he rebuked Peter for in the past. It’s like a franchise movie sequel where the plot is eerily similar to the first installment: More folks have come into the church claiming that Jews can’t hang out with Gentiles, and that in fact Gentiles need to keep Jewish law if they want to be part of the Christian church. That included being circumcised. Paul is so furious about having to go through all this again that he indicates in Galatians 5:12 that if these interlopers are so concerned with that particular part of the male anatomy, they may as well cut their own off and have done with it.
The “Come, Follow Me” curriculum picks up with Galatians 5:13.
3. He was really adamant about the grace thing.
A final reason Latter-day Saints don’t know what to do with Paul is because he sounds so uncompromising, so absolute, about grace. Paul wrote that by grace we are saved through faith, and that it’s not the result of works. He also equates the law with death, which seems a bit harsh.
The new curriculum demonstrates the theological evolution the church has been evincing during the past two generations, by which “grace” is no longer something that is the sole province of born-again evangelicals. To give you a sense of the past, Bruce R. McConkie wrote in the 1960s that “grace is granted to men proportionately as they conform to the standards of personal righteousness that are part of the gospel plan.”
Now, there are things in McConkie’s writing that were not mainstream Mormon theology even in the 1960s, but his approach to grace was quite typical, emphasizing that it’s the individual member’s responsibility to “grow in grace” and that the fullness of grace is experienced only by those who keep the commandments.
This conditional approach to grace runs headlong into Paul. Full-on Pauline grace is scary to Latter-day Saints. It sounds lawless and potentially dangerous, like all the traffic lights have been turned off and people have license to drive as recklessly as they please. Is Paul really saying that people don’t need to keep the commandments to be saved? Latter-day Saints like rules. Presbyterians may have popularized the phrase “decently and in order,” but Latter-day Saints have exalted order to an art form.
And actually, Presbyterians didn’t invent the phrase; Paul did (1 Cor. 14:40). That should tell us something. Paul was about balance, for all his bombastic rhetoric. And so, for its part, is the new church curriculum, which tries to have it both ways: neither grace nor works is irrelevant. The Romans lesson for next week emphasizes that keeping the commandments is not what saves us — Christ’s atonement does that — but that through faithful obedience to the commandments we help to open our hearts to receive grace as “an enabling power.”
Maybe Latter-day Saints are figuring out what to do with Paul after all.
Editor’s note • The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.