Righteous Dissent?

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 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 as 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?

16 Replies to “Righteous Dissent?”

  1. I wonder about something you wrote: “Paul’s proposal was so revolutionary that many considered it blasphemous to suggest….” I can readily see that many would have viewed it that way, but do we have actual accounts and how they “played out”?

    I have no good answers to your questions: I realize that anything I say today is influenced by what I know about what happened. That said, I think I would have seen Paul’s position as far more strident than James’. James wasn’t denying the Gospel to Gentiles, he was just asking that they follow “the rules”—like insisting that deacons in Nigeria wear white shirts and ties to pass the sacrament (obviously not entirely the same, but you get my point). This was not, at least as far as I can tell, the equivalent of the priesthood ban, where some members were accepted only partially.

  2. BrianJ, you raise a great point about the question of blasphemy, and I am being somewhat ambiguous about Paul’s two different arguments. Paul is suggesting, in my reading, that not only can Gentiles join the Kingdom of God, but that this signals that Jews must also alter their practices such as table fellowship in order to accommodate this change. Thus, while one could see James as accepting Gentiles into the church perhaps even on Paul’s terms, they disagreed with respect to whether or not Jews should have to give up ritual purity laws in order to treat them equally. While the suggestion that Paul might argue that Jews should give up parts of the Law has become a point of debate in the New Perspective, I see his reaction to Peter as evidence that Paul wanted Jews to change their behavior. Thus, the blasphemous teaching of Paul is not just that Gentiles can be a part of Israel, but that in order for this to happen Jews have to give up parts of the law.

    We do have some evidence from Jewish-Christian literature that Paul was said to be the “apostle of the devil.” There were factions that rejected Pauline teaching as heretical for the first three or four centuries.

  3. TT, I saw your point on blasphemy and Paul’s position exactly as you re-describe it in #4. That’s why I said Paul’s position is strident: he says that Jews have to stop…well, being Jews. I’m less certain on James’ position. Was he willing to let Gentiles into the Church if they didn’t circumcise, etc.? I was under the impression that he insisted on Mosaic law for all members (Jew and Gentile, all alike); if so, then in some ways his position is less divisive than Paul’s.

    “Paul was said to be the “apostle of the devil.”” Is that still a position within the Church? Restoration of all things…

  4. I think there may have been issues with the manner in which Paul presented his dispute. It seems there was a bloggernacle post in the last year or two that cited Elder Holland’s remarks (in the PBS documentary?) in relation to the priesthood ban and discussed Elder Holland’s behavior as a model for “faithful dissention”. Moreover, aside from the policy adopted as a result of the dispute, we really don’t know anything about the fallout of Peter and Paul’s confrontation and how it affected the members who were present or the church as a whole.

    As to the dispute itself, a few thoughts:

    1) Paul’s remarks strike me as being addressed to Peter, not to the Jewish church membership at large. I think it’s a stretch to use Galatians 2, alone, in order to claim that Paul was demanding that the Jewish members of the church abandon their dietary laws. Certainly Paul is clear that the Law of Moses is of no further benefit. But elsewhere in the NT, Paul seems to take a tolerant view of those church members who still find it necessary to observe the law—see, e.g., Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 9:20-22.
    2) In trying to have it both ways, Peter was basically fostering disunity within the Church. It is sometimes necessary for a church leader to take an unpopular stance. But by appearing to embrace, at separate times, both the Judaizing faction and the Gentiles within the Church, Peter was basically giving ammunition to both sides and ennabling the debate to continue.
    3) Peter’s conduct, together with his position, apparently led other Jews (and some leaders, like Barnabas) who had abandoned kosher laws to start observing them again (Galatians 2:13). This suggests that Peter had inadvertently planted seeds of doubt in their minds as to whether Christ, alone, were truly capable of saving them independently of the Mosaic law (Romans 14:23). So actually, to the extent that it was necessary to bouy up the faith of those present, Paul’s public rebuke might have been proper after all.

  5. I should clarify my sub-point 1) by appending the phrase “provided that their faith in Christ was still being nurtured.”

  6. 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.

    Except that this sort of thing happened all the time through much of LDS history. And, reportedly, during contemporary history as well. The GAs just (perhaps wisely) keep it more inhouse. (i.e. the Oaks/Packer conflict suggested by the “bear” comment by Elder Oaks)

    Put an other way I don’t quite see how it calls into question authority. If anything it explains why the brethren seek unanimity in the quorum and when there isn’t the doctrines are more suspect.

  7. BrianJ,
    I think that your point persuades me that both views would be considered strident by their opponents. I certainly agree that the implication of Paul’s view is the erasure of Judaism.

    My main interest here is really in how to interpret Paul’s rejection of authority, rather than the substance of his disagreement. I think that you present a plausible reading of the events, and certainly one that has lots of supporters. My one objection would be that Paul is telling the story of his dispute with Peter to the Galatians, not to Peter. What is the story meant to persuade his readers to think? The problem is related to lots of larger questions, like what is the background of the Galatians, and what exactly were the Judaizing missionaries up to? Part of the problem is that kosher laws don’t seem to be on the agenda in the rest of the letter.

    I am not aware of the Oaks/Packer/bear story. Care to share it?

    I don’t quite see how it calls into question authority. If anything it explains why the brethren seek unanimity in the quorum and when there isn’t the doctrines are more suspect.

    I don’t think that this description applies here in a way to get out of the problem that Paul’s actions create. First, Paul is not a member of the leaders of the church, but a rogue missionary. Second, if there were disagreement about this doctrine, the result is not that it is downplayed and more suspect, but that Paul makes it more of an issue.
    While I agree that your description of current church practice is correct, as well as the more open disagreements of the past, I am not sure why you don’t think that this constitutes a rejection of Peter’s and James’ authority.

  8. You raise a good question. We know leaders are fallible, and we know the Lord even allows persons in positions of leadership to make mistakes even in their leadership capacities. So what is our obligation? To the Holy Ghost, or to leaders we have raised our hand to sustain? Was I wrong to disobey my mission President in one particular instance when he asked me to do something I did not feel was right? When is dissent righteous by divine inspiration and when is it simply our lack of humility and/or failure to keep a cool head about us? It’s an excellent question, and a dangerous one since it has led to the excommunication of many whom church leaders judged to be apostate?

    Nevertheless, I think it is problematic to use Paul’s apparant “dispute” with James as an example of righteous dissent, given how little Paul tells us about it in four verses of Galatians. All we know is that Paul apparently reprimanded Peter for becoming squeamish about eating with Gentiles at the influence of emissaries allegedly from James. First of all, the kind of conciliation and submission to authority spoken of in Gal. 2:1-10 in which Paul seems to go to Jerusalem for the express purpose of seeking approval of Jerusalem leaders, which he describes as recognized “pillars.” He even makes a stark contrast between the acknowledged leaders, including Peter, James, and John, and the false brethren, to whom he claims not to have submitted. These are actions highly uncharacteristic of a “rogue missionary” (unless you consider McCain a “maverick” Republican) and the characterization Paul as such is to read too much in to Gal. 2:11-14, as is the attribution of a whole faction of judaizing Christians to James’ leadership. It is also not reason enough to doubt the historicity of Luke’s narrative in Acts 15 concerning the ultimate resolution of this disagreement, especially since Luke’s account seems to be in complete harmony with the tone of Gal. 2:1-10.

    Other than this passage, we have no record of James ever demanding that Gentile Christians observe the Torah. It is more likely that these Judaizing teachers only claimed to have come from James, or rather spoke their own opinions without his authorization. This is certainly implied in Acts 15:24. Paul himself describes other instances where apostolic authority may have been falsely cited (2 Thess. 2:2). But even if James did object to Gentiles refusing to keep the Law, this would not have been a problem before the Jerusalem Council, since there is no indication that Paul’s Antioch dispute happened after the Jerusalem council. In other words, the New Testament offers no significant evidence that the dispute did not happen in a way similar to disputes among the brethren in our day, quietly (until Paul opened up about it) and resulting in unification. Luke-Acts is admittedly programmatic to this effect, but does that necessarily undermine its historicity? What if the Apostles really were unified when all was said and done?

  9. I think that latter-day revelation gives insight into what was going on behind the scenes anciently.

    D&C 64:5 And the keys of the mysteries of the kingdom shall not be taken from my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., through the means I have appointed, while he liveth, inasmuch as he obeyeth mine ordinances.
    6 There are those who have sought occasion against him without cause;
    7 Nevertheless, he has sinned; but verily I say unto you, I, the Lord, aforgive sins unto those who confess their sins before me and ask forgiveness, who have not sinned unto death.
    8 My disciples, in days of old, sought aoccasion against one another and forgave not one another in their hearts; and for this bevil they were cafflicted and sorely chastened.
    9 Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin.
    10 I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.
    11 And ye ought to say in your hearts—let God judge between me and thee, and reward thee according to thy deeds.
    12 And him that repenteth not of his sins, and confesseth them not, ye shall bring before the church, and do with him as the scripture saith unto you, either by commandment or by revelation.
    13 And this ye shall do that God may be glorified—not because ye forgive not, having not compassion, but that ye may be justified in the eyes of the law, that ye may not offend him who is your lawgiver—
    14 Verily I say, for this cause ye shall do these things.

    Paul definately crossed the line when he publicly called Peter a hypocrite and he should not have been voicing his discontent via epistle. If Paul had received revelation that the Gentiles did not need to observe Jewish law, he should have waited for the head of the church to announce the policy change. There may be times when the leaders are told that now is not the time to implement policy.

  10. Floyd – But what if the dsipute happened after Peter receieved the revelation that it was okay to eat with Gentiles? Wouldn’t Paul have simply been reminding Peter to adhere to his previously receieved revelation?

  11. Assuming your take on the Paul-Peter affair in light of section 64 were correct–an assumption I do not necessarily accept–why couldn’t it be revealed that the Lord told the authorities that now is not the time to implement policy?

  12. Thanks all for the engagement on this issue, especially to our new commenters!
    Floyd, I am glad that you chose to grapple with the problem with this episode and take a stand that Paul was in the wrong! While your reading of D&C is interesting here, I think that I agree with Walt that the burden is actually to prove that there was another revelation from Peter that contradicted that of Paul’s, suggesting that they should wait to change the policy. The issue is that in Paul’s view, it was the event of Jesus’ death that changed things, and was not something that was just a policy.

  13. Modern day prophets and apostles don’t have this problem, thanks to modern technology. They all use the same fax machine connected to God. So much simpler!

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