Challenging Church Leadership

The following is a reprint of a post originally written in Oct 2008.  Something reminded me of it and I decided to share it again.

Paul’s bitter dispute with Peter and James poses a problem for thinking about LDS notions of authority because it puts into tension church authority and moral and doctrinal issues. When true doctrine and church leadership are in conflict, how are we to make a choice between them? When our sense of what is moral conflicts with our leaders’ sense of what is moral, what are we supposed to do? Paul found himself in exactly this situation, and had to make a choice between his own sense of what was right and the views of his leaders who had been commissioned directly by Christ to take care of the church.

In Galatians 1 and 2, Paul describes a fight with Peter in Antioch over the question of eating with the Gentile converts. Peter seemed willing to eat with the Gentiles, though it was a violation of kosher, until certain delegates from James arrived who condemned Peter’s violation of the Law. Paul erupts publicly shaming Peter by calling him a “hypocrite.”

The story gets to the heart of the central issue that divided the early followers of Christ, whether or not Gentiles could be admitted in full fellowship into this community, or whether they had to make the choice to be circumcised and follow the Law. Much of the first half of Acts is focused on this dispute, though Luke’s agenda to portray all factions as coming to harmonious agreement raises questions about the historical reliability of his narrative. Indeed, Paul’s first-hand description of these events as they were occurring offers a more chaotic picture of the high stakes of this debate. His letter to the Galatians represents a desperate attempt to reconvert his readers back to his message of openness toward Gentiles after rival missionaries had convinced them to observe the Law.

What we can gather from Paul’s account of this dispute is that there were strong factions in the church related to James, Jesus’ brother, who rejected the acceptance of Gentiles into the church who did not observe the Torah. At the so-called “Council of Jerusalem,” Paul made his case that Gentiles who chose to follow Christ had been granted the Spirit. Paul appealed to revelation and to the evidence of the faithfulness of the Gentiles. He also developed a reading of scripture that suggested that at some point the Gentiles would be accepted into Israel, and he saw Christ’s death and resurrection as marking the beginning of this new time. The changes in the world that he saw around him caused him to rethink tradition and church practice, turning conservative views upside down, changing the very definition of what it meant to be a follower of God. It is hard to overstate how controversial it would have been to suggest to devout Jews that the Laws that had been revealed on Sinai were no longer applicable in the new times, that God had opened up to include those who had previously been considered unclean to be full participants of his blessings.

James had the stronger arguments of precedent on his side. He could say that from the scriptures and from the beginning of Israel itself, members of Israel covenanted to observe the Torah, including circumcision. Jesus had not taught otherwise, so why should they change? Paul’s proposal was so revolutionary that many considered it blasphemous to suggest that those who did not fit the categories of righteousness laid down in scripture could partake fully in the blessings those scriptures offered. James was the brother of Jesus and a leader of the Jerusalem church. His interpretation of the gospel necessarily carried great weight.

At the Council in Jerusalem, these parties struck a compromise. Basically, there would be two missions, one to the Jews and one to the Gentiles. Peter was the head of the former, and Paul of the latter. These operated in separate realms, except that Paul’s mission to the Gentiles was responsible for raising money for the poorer Jewish churches in Jerusalem. This seemed to work fine and good, except for one major oversight. How were these two bodies supposed to interact? Peter got caught in the middle of this by having table fellowship in Antioch, but then withdrawing on the objections of the more conservative factions.

There are two important things that emerge from Paul’s account that are of interest to Latter-day Saints. First, it should be clear that the authority and organization in the ancient church does not mirror exactly our contemporary model. Paul saw himself as more or less appointed directly by God and no other power, and says that he only sought the advice of the authorities in Jerusalem in order to resolve the tensions his mission produced. Second, Paul’s dispute with these authorities and his ultimately successful attempt to revolutionize the criteria for membership in God’s Kingdom forces us to ask about the nature of his claim. It is the ethical questions that this second observation produces for Latter-day Saints that most interests me.

I think that it is fairly uncontroversial to say that Paul was right in this dispute in the sense that his way of thinking about Christianity was vindicated historically. But, in the midst of this dispute which took decades to work itself out, how would we have evaluated Paul’s ideas? I see a two major options:
1. Paul, though he wasn’t the head of the church, had received personal revelation and attempted to implement it in the church. The leaders of the church were not open to receiving this revelation, so it had to come through Paul. Paul took a moral stand in opposition to the leaders of the church. He suggested that the scriptures and his personal revelation backed up his view and would not alter his views under the pressure of authority. His view was correct, and that was all that was needed.
2. Paul was wrong to step out of the chain of command in the church. Even if he was right, it was his duty to follow the leaders of the church, who had known Christ directly and commissioned by him to run the church! Perhaps eventually the church leaders would have received the revelation for themselves, but it was not Paul’s place to undermine their authority. His subversive actions, public teachings, and disputes with church leaders nearly destroyed the church in its infancy and it was only by luck that it survived.

The second view seems most consistent with contemporary LDS views of authority. Those, who differ with church leaders on moral and interpretive issues, including those that run counter to centuries of tradition, are required to obey their authorities, even if the authorities are wrong. But what if Paul had done this? Can we say with confidence that his understanding of the church would have eventually come to the church leaders in Jerusalem? At what cost along the way? Would the rejection of the Gentiles for decades under the leadership of James have handicapped the church irreparably by limiting the numbers of Gentile converts who established the church across the empire? (Conversely, was the loss of conservative Jewish converts who objected to Christian liberalism an acceptable loss?)

Obviously, as a church today we think that Paul’s rejection of Peter and James was the correct choice, but we are benefited with hindsight. Who would you have sided with in this ancient debate, and why?

Finally, I am forced to wonder how to distinguish between the Pauls of the world, whose moral and doctrinal interpretations run counter to church leaders but are actually the will of God, and those whose opposition to church leaders is wrong. Is the march of history the only reliable guide?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *