By Frances Lee Menlove
RECENTLY, BLOGGERS, PODCASTERS, and newspapers—even the New York Times—have been taking note of prominent figures being excommunicated from the Mormon Church, of the debate around the ordination of women, and the acceptance and inclusion of our lesbian, gay, and transgender sisters and brothers. The big disputes of today seem to revolve around the question “Who is in and who is out?”
The Apostle Paul has great wisdom for us in these fierce theological times, deep Christian wisdom embedded in a powerful metaphor.
Scholars tell us that Paul’s authentic letters are the earliest witness of Jesus in the New Testament. Paul’s letter known to us today as I Corinthians was written in the late 50s, well before the four Gospels, meaning that Paul didn’t have any Christian scriptures—no New Testament.
Paul was, by profession, an itinerant tentmaker. He traveled extensively throughout the Mediterranean helping to set up new communities of Jesus followers. They weren’t yet called Christians. They were followers of the Way. The name Christian came later and was originally uttered as an insult, a term of degradation. Christianity was a developing tradition.
Paul is also our earliest New Testament witness of how the original Jesus communities functioned. We know that they were egalitarian: his letters are addressed to the entire gathering, not just the leaders. He reminds these fledgling communities of the radical nature of Jesus’s message, that the three longest standing divisions among humans—race, class, and gender—are now erased, obliterated, healed. With baptism we are no longer bond or free, Greek or Jew, male or female.
However, we also know from Paul’s letters that these followers didn’t always behave. Such was the case in Corinth where there was bickering and name-calling, arguments about who was loyal to whom, how gatherings should be run, about whether followers of the Way could eat meat used in sacrifices to the pagan gods, about protocols for speaking in tongues. Paul’s missionary gig was a tough one.
But Paul’s troubles have become a blessing for us today. Because of his letters, we know that the very first followers were not perfect, freeing us from the temptation to idealize those early communities. Best of all, we have Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians on how to think about dissent, what to do when dissent breaks out, and how to behave in Community. Paul’s letter can help us navigate today’s divisive issues around males-only priesthood, seemingly unshakable patriarchy, gender identity, and social media. Around who’s in and who’s out.
As we look back through history, we can see how difficult it can be to abandon old certainties in the face of compelling new evidence. Galileo encountered great pushback when he explained that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. (How would his opponents have reacted if they had tried to grasp a universe containing not just billions of stars, but billions of galaxies?) And we are not immune to being a part of this pushback. New findings are telling us that gender is more complex than a simple binary of male and female, challenging our traditional notions of human identity and behavior. Those things we once thought of as universal and absolute can turn out to be historically contingent. With these new scientific understandings come new moral insights. Failure to adjust to them diminishes our collective humanity.
For example, we have a younger generation of Mormon women mystified and pained by the sexism embedded in the LDS organizational flow chart. We have LGBT members and their families mystified about how, despite our constant preaching of family values, we break up theirs with our divisive words and political actions. People are hurting.
We cringe at the Christian defense of slavery during colonial times and the ardent fight against universal suffrage in our grandparent’s time. We repudiate the theology I learned in my high school seminary classes about why blacks couldn’t hold the priesthood and never would. We roll our eyes at Ezra Taft Benson’s labeling of the civil rights movement as a communist plot and Martin Luther King, Jr. as a communist dupe. Fortunately, Christian values finally trumped the prohibition against blacks holding the priesthood and attending the temple, and opened the way for people of different ethnicities to marry each other.1
Christianity has survived many ways of expressing and practicing faith—as has the LDS Church. Divisiveness is nothing new. God works through imperfect instruments. We must remember the great danger of canonizing our own culturally contingent history, our own incomplete understandings. The Bible displays this sort of critical thinking in its stories: the role of its prophets was to critique their culture and its commonly accepted notions—even its hierarchy. Hebrew prophets were free to love their tradition and criticize it. The gospel is unfinished: Joseph Smith understood that. We are all commissioned to enrich it with new scientific, ethical, narrative, theological, and personal understandings—introducing them into the lived experience of Church members.
NOW IS THE moment I have been building up to. Here is Paul’s pastoral metaphor, written to the divided community in Corinth. It’s familiar, so I have chosen a modern scholar’s translation hoping that the contemporary language will make it easier for us to really hear what he’s saying.
Just as the body has many parts and all of the parts, even though there are many of them, are still parts of one body, so is the body of the Anointed. For we were all baptized by the same power of God into one body, whether we were Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, and we were all invited to imbibe the same divine power.
The body does not consist of only one part, but of many. If the foot were to say, “Because I’m not a hand, I’m not part of the body,” that’s no reason to suppose that it’s not part of the body, is it? And if the ear were to say, “Because I am not an eye, I am not part of the body,” that’s no reason for thinking it isn’t part of the body, is it? If the whole body consisted of an eye, how would it hear? And if the whole were an ear, how would it be able to smell anything?
But in fact God has put each of the parts in the body to accomplish what God intended. If everything consisted of just one part, there would be no body, would there? But the fact is, although there are many parts, there is one body. It’s just not possible for the eye to say to the hand, “I have no need of you;” or for the head to say to the feet, “I have no use for you.”
But in many respects the parts of the body that seem to be less important are the most necessary, and the parts of the body that we think are undignified we treat with more respect, and we clothe our private parts with a greater degree of propriety than our more presentable parts require. But God unified the body by giving the inferior part greater value, so that there would be no division in the body, but that the parts would care about each other. If one part is in pain, all parts suffer; if one part is honored, all parts celebrate. (I Corinthians 12:12–27)2
Can we hear that? “If one part is in pain, all parts suffer; if one part is honored, all parts celebrate.”
In a national referendum, Ireland recently legalized gay marriage. This is what an independent Irish newspaper said about that vote. Can you hear echoes of Paul’s metaphor in it?
Let’s be clear why the Yes campaign won this victory: It was about the stories. The Irish are a storytelling people, and gay-marriage supporters brought us heart-wrenching narratives of exclusion, fear, loneliness and unhappiness. We heard from mothers anguished for their gay children, and children pleading for recognition for gay parents. By talking and listening to each other, we have come together to sweep away a long-standing injustice.3
Mormons are storytellers too. More and more, we are hearing these same stories of shaming and stigmatizing, of the obliterating pain that comes from being told you are not all right the way you were born. We are hearing about lives crumbling under fear and secrecy, about families sundered, and even about suicides. “If one part is in pain, all parts suffer,” said Paul. What if we started to foster different stories, recognizing publicly and often that LGBT people are full members of the human family and our congregations? It is a matter of dignity and respect. If one part is honored, all parts celebrate.
Paul reminds us that we are only a part of the body: in order to function, we need grace from the other parts, and they need grace from us. His metaphor celebrates diversity and differences, bringing them together in mutual concern.
Paul preached a gospel that breaks down barriers and welcomes the outsider. In this he was following Jesus, who apparently didn’t know that the function of religion is to define insiders and outsiders. Jesus indiscriminately opened the door to sinners, lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, women, and children. There were no insiders or outsiders; there was only love for the stranger and prayer for the enemy. (He did, however, get a little testy sometimes with the religious leaders of his day.)
Applying these ideas to our current situation, I ask:
- Can we Latter-day Saints remember our amazing capacity to be wrong?
- Can we create space for critical questions to be examined, remembering that God does not need to be defended against knowledge arising from any source?
- Can we remember that a founding tenet of Mormonism is that it searches out and encompasses all truth?
- Can we recognize the importance of welcoming and integrating all the parts of our Church body?
Differences can exist without collapsing community. In fact, they are essential to its health.
DURING WORLD WAR II, an American solider was killed in a battle in rural France. Not wanting to leave his body on the battlefield, his army buddies carried their dead comrade to a church with a small cemetery surrounded by a white fence. They told the priest they wanted to give him a church burial and asked if they could use his cemetery. “I’m sorry,” the priest replied, “only baptized members of our faith can be buried in this holy ground.” As the dejected soldiers turned around and started to walk away, the priest called after them: “There is a place outside the fence that is suitable for a burial. I’ll show it to you.”
The weary soldiers dug the grave, buried their friend outside the fence, said a brief prayer, and then hurried back to their unit. A few days later, they learned that their unit was moving, so they returned to the gravesite to say a final goodbye. But when they searched the area in back of the fence, they couldn’t find the gravesite. Alarmed, they spotted the priest near the church and explained the disappearance. The priest smiled and took them to their friend’s gravesite, which was now inside the fence. “Did you dig the grave up and move it?” the puzzled soldiers asked. “No,” said the priest. “After you left last night, I couldn’t sleep, so I went outside early this morning and I moved the fence.”4
The final one-liner from Paul; a thought to carry with us:
“And now faith, hope and love abide, these three: and the greatest of these is love.”
—I Corinthians 13:13 (NRSV)
- And it’s not just our religious leaders who work under misconceptions; industrial and technological leaders are fallible, too. In 1943, Thomas Watson, the chairman of IBM, said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” In 1977, Ken Olsen, the chairman of and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation suggested: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Robert Strohmeyer, “The Seven Worst Tech Predictions of All Time,” TechHive, 31 December 2008, http://www.techhive.com/article/155984/worst_tech_predictions.html.
- Arthur J. Dewey, et al, The Authentic Letters of Paul, A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning (Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2010), 97–98.
- The Week, 5 June 2015, 15.
- Adapted from Mike Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).