Recently I was asked to fill in as Gospel Doctrine teacher. I thoroughly enjoy the opportunity/challenge of helping people gain another lens through which to view the scriptures (ancient and/or modern) since everytime I see people have that moment of enlightenment when they gain new insight into the scriptures, gospel, etc. (something that I would argue is an observable phenomenon), I feel that I get to re-live the moments of enlightenment in my own life. This process of learning, teaching, learning, teaching, etc. is by far and away the place where I feel my strongest personal connection to the gospel, the church, and God and thus rarely pass on such an opportunity. My lesson went very well and a great majority of the class were thrilled to gain some insight into the context of verses that are so often repeated that they have nearly become proverbial:
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30).
I attempted to put some context to these verses by examining questions like: What is a gospel? Who wrote the gospels and when? Why did each evangelist write their particular gospel? Does this change how we read the gospel accounts? More particular to the verses in Matthew, I focused on the radical nature of what Matthew’s Jesus is saying. These verses, along with much of the material leading up to them, are very subversive in that they are calling into question the ever-present powers of the Roman Empire. For example, when Jesus asks the crowd what they were going into the wilderness to see in speaking of John the Baptist, he does so by means of 3 questions (2 of which are rhetorical). Q: What did you go into the wilderness to see? A reed shaking in the wind? (obviously not). Q2: What did you go into the wilderness to see? Someone clothed in soft robes? (obviously not). No, Jesus proclaims, you went to see a prophet (Matt 11:7-9). These strategic questions further a narrative in Matthew that works to call into question the Roman authorities. A reed was a symbol of the Herodian dynasty and only royalty would have been able to afford the luxury of soft garments, but a prophet, and particularly a prophet like John is filled by true power and part of the real kingdom, in fact he is the fore-runner to the legitimate kingdom, that of God’s kingdom. This contrast between the Emperor’s Kingdom and God’s Kingdom continues as Jesus thanks God for hiding the great things that Jesus has accomplished from the “wise and intelligent” and revealing them to “children” (Matt 11:25; my translation of what KJV translates as “wise and prudent” and “babes”). In other words, the truths that count are not given to the elites (those that think they are wise) but to those with no social status (children). The language of “Father” and “Son” in vv 25-27 has double meaning in that these are imperial terms that were used to speak of the Emperor and/or the Roman pantheon of gods. Finally in vv 28-30, Jesus speaks of giving “rest” to those that are oppressed with heavy burdens. “Rest” is often used in the OT as descriptor for relief from slavery and/or from the acts of oppressive regimes. For Jesus to invite people to take his yoke, a term that often denotes slavery in the OT, is a poignant (as well as multi-faceted) metaphor. In effect, Jesus tells this group that unlike the tyrannical suffocating yoke of Rome, my yoke is kind/good/easy, and my burden/load is light/insignificant/small. This message of Jesus as presented by Matthew certainly did not “stick to the (Roman) manual.” The class was especially successful due to the diversity of well thought out questions and comments from the class. Though I obviously can’t speak for everyone in the class, (from my perspective) everyone seemed to enjoy the lesson from their respective contexts and and I would say that a feeling (which I choose to interpret as the spirit of God) was indeed present as instructor and students learned together, “underst[oo]d one another, and both [were] edified and rejoice[d] together” (D&C 50:22).
However, it was a meeting right after the block not more than an hour later that has me pondering (and thus blogging). As part of my calling in my home ward, I have been asked to chat with the Sunday School (SS) President from time to time to gauge the state of the SS overall. During the course of our chat this individual (who I no doubt believe is well intentioned) expressed that he thought the SS was doing well but that he had concerns that some of our teachers were not “sticking to the manual” and teaching “pure doctrine.” Interestingly, not more than an hour earlier he had lauded my lesson that while having used the prescribed scriptures (or at least a portion of them), and having made a conscious effort to center the main message around the “Purpose” section in the manual (“To help class members understand that as we take the Savior’s yoke upon us and do his will, we will find the peace and joy that he has promised”), certainly did not use the manual as the sole source for the insights, thoughts, and ideas expressed. This discourse of “pure” or “true” doctrine is a prevalent idea throughout much LDS thought and yet people seem to (un?)consciously look the other way when insights are brought into SS (or any other LDS classroom setting) that are “not in the manual.” I am left with the question of whether or not it is even possible to “stick to the manual.” Literally taken, this would seem to suggest that we do nothing but read word-for-word what is written in the manual to the class, but more times than not, this “reading from the manual word-for-word” is viewed as the product of those that either forgot they were supposed to teach or failed to prepare. So what is a teacher in the church to do? What does it mean to “stick to the manual?” Can a teacher “stick to the manual” and still bring in her/his particular point of view? For those who seek to uphold a strict “to the manual” approach, how and/or when (or is it?) appropriate to use sources other than the manual and/or the standard works? Does our own brain, thoughts, opinions, and/or notions count as an unapproved source? Finally, even if we only read from the manual/standard works, are we not interpreting these sources as we read them? I obviously have my own ideas/answers (that I admit without reservation are flawed) to these questions but I pose them to a larger audience in an attempt to try and better understand where my fellow sisters and brothers are coming from in their attempt to expound only true doctrine. If Jesus taught SS today, would he “stick to the manual?”
 Many (if not most) of my insights into Matthew and negotiating the Roman Empire are taken from the highly recommended works of Warren Carter. See his Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations (Harrisburg: PA: Trinity Press International, 2001). See also his work on John’s gospel, John and Empire: Initial Explorations (New York: T&T Clark, 2008).
45 Replies to “Would Jesus “Stick to the Manual”?”
I believe this post puts into sharp focus a situation that will become urgent sooner rather than later. With scholarly information increasingly available to everyone, the correlated manuals seem boring at best and out right incorrect at times at worst. I certainly don’t envy any GD, RS, or PH teacher in this day and age. Some of the ideas behind this post played out in our RS lesson just yesterday. The teacher was discussing the W of W and added some statistics she had discovered concerning Rx drug abuse and the propensity of our culture to reach for a pill. Apparently one of the sisters didn’t think the teacher was handling this topic with enough sensitivity and ripped her a new one reminding the teacher to just “stick to the manual”. Holy Hannah! I thought our poor, sweet RS Pres. was going to pass out. I certainly don’t know what the answer is, but from the aspects of historicity to how literally we should interpret scripture, this is a salient issue. Great post.
Sadly, gospel doctrine class and its official manual have become something of a joke. I hate to be so blunt and unfeeling but I gain very little spiritual nourishment from that class anymore. What does it mean when someone says “pure doctrine”?
We had a lively discussion in Elders’ Quorum yesterday on the Word of Wisdom. During our discussion (which was animated) we spoke of energy drinks, caffeine vs. sugar, and explaining why we don’t advocate for the positives instead of the negatives. The gospel principles manual had the following statement:
“We must obey the Word of Wisdom to be worthy to enter the temple. If we do not obey the Word of Wisdom, the Lord’s Spirit may not dwell with us.”
Since I had just taken the missionaries to dinner the night before where they feasted upon steak and chicken outside in the beautiful Florida spring evening, I made the comment that the missionaries are not worthy to enter the Temple and would most likely be impaired in teaching the Restored Gospel this week since they violated the WoW. I was being sarcastic and truthful at the same time. I was attempting to point out the stupidity of the second part of the sentence about the Spirit not being with us which was likely composed by a Church bureaucrat.
Noah drank, Moses drank and ate meat unsparingly, Brigham Young chewed tobacco, and Brother Joseph marched through Nauvoo with a cigar. They had wine and tobacco in the upper room at Carthage the night before the martyrdom. Even the Saviour made wine out of water. Does that mean all those men did not have the Spirit with them?
The manuals can really be idiotic.
I think the concern the GAs have is that too much speculation has occurred in the past, and that too many members today get their “doctrine” from Mormon Doctrine than they do from the scriptures.
We still have too many classes where the teacher insists that the earth is only 6000 years old. Or that there was a curse of Cain on black people.
It is an entirely different thing to help members understand things from the ancient worldview, as one perspective in understanding the doctrine. And It is yet another thing to replace doctrine with teachings that may/may not be correct. Or the teacher that insists on focusing on signs of the times, or whether the Pearly Gates swing or slide open.
I teach the Book of Mormon adult education class (basically Institute for older members), and often discuss the archaeological concepts or ancient beliefs involved. This is not teaching doctrine, but gives a backdrop for teaching doctrine, or reaffirming truths of the Gospel. If I can briefly discuss the discovery of Nahom, then I can expand their understanding of what is going on in the desert and Lehi’s trail.
I would agree with your post. However, there is nothing to prevent the Church correlation department from including information on the historical context, archaeological concepts, and ancient belief/worldview within our learning materials. If the brethren are concerned over speculation then be pro-active in addressing the common myths and mis-perceptions within the manuals. Make it more enjoyable and more in-depth. Update the manuals (including seminary manuals) more than once every two decades. We have plenty of faithful scholars and learned theologians within our ranks.
Did you ask this individual for specific examples of “not sticking to the manual” or teaching “pure doctrine” so that you could better get a sense of what was meant? I’m curious whether you sought to raise some of these questions with that individual.
Like Rameumption I think the problem is that all too often you get a person who goes all speculative. I suspect readers here would love it if the “extra” material was scholarly stuff like one reads here. I suspect they wouldn’t like it nearly as much if the “extra” material was say stuff the teacher picked up from Glenn Beck. There is often an assumption that all that’s being kept out by these directives are the accurate scholarly stuff. My sense is that most of what is being kept out is more fringe material with each person’s gospel hobby.
Having had to sit through some questionable lessons on the Word of Wisdom already tied to silly pseudoscience and the like I think it’d get worse and not better with too much leeway. (And let’s be honest – these are directions. It’s not like all teachers follow the directions)
Honestly in my opinion the best lessons are those who take two or three central ideas and manage to convey it on a practical and motivational ground via personal experiences. I just don’t think Sunday School is all about conveying some basic facts. The teachers who teach it that way usually end up with poor classes. That’s what you should be doing in your personal study. And that’s the real problem: people expecting Sunday School to be a substitute for personal scripture study.
BTW – regarding sticking to the lesson and Jesus. It is interesting how much of the Sermon on the Mount likely parallels what we might say was mainstream Judaic teaching at the time. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that in such large teaching situations Jesus did stick to the equivalent of the manual at the time?
Put an other way, I think context matters.
While I work in the Young Men’s program, I am the designated sub for any of our four Gospel Doctrine teachers (you’d think they’d cover for each other, but I’m glad to do it). I love teaching the gospel and I use the manual and follow pretty closely at least as a structure. That doesn’t stop me from what I think the Lord wants us to do, seek knowledge through the Spirit and testify of truth. I dig into the footnotes. I ponder the scriptures in the lesson. I use the quotes from GA’s because they are usually so powerful. I learn each time I do this and I intentionally challenge myself and the class to think about what the scriptures and manual are saying in a different and deeper sense. It seems to work for me.
Some that know my politics and personal views think I’m some kind of crazy radical. I think I’m quite orthodox and moderate even if passionate about it as I avoid and reject so many of the false doctrines and practices that are in our Mormon culture and even considered mainstream. That’s actually the kind of radical I think the Savior was in His ministry. If I’m wrong, I’m sure He’ll straighten it out with me one day.
I hope you do not think that you were not “sticking to the manual” enough. Bringing cultural, historical, scientific, etc. insight into the scriptures being studied is a central part of what Sunday School is. Besides being relevant to the topic of the day, the extra background info supports some of the central themes that the manual emphasizes.
Articles doing just what you did used to be a regular feature of the Ensign, but seem to be less common over the past few years. The best place to find this info now is in the footnotes of GA conference talks. Go look up the study that Elder Oaks, Nelson, etc. have cited.
A thought from a bishopric perspective: putting pressure on teachers to stick to current church-approved materials gives us a larger pool of people to call teachers from. If teachers have more leeway, there are fewer people we can trust as teachers. As it is, people are frequently released from GD because they can’t keep their politics etc. out of their lessons.
“Sticking to the manual”, i think, doesn’t mean covering only what’s printed in the manual. There’s a weird and hazy cultural line there somewhere, and it’s hard to figure out where it is—but i suspect that if you’d pulled out a commentary of some sort and read from it you’d’ve been accused of not sticking to the manual, but say the same thing from your own head (even if it ultimately came from the same commentary) and folks just chalk it up to inspiration.
As if inspiration can’t come from commentaries—but that’s at least largely a different issue.
I’ve had to spend time to correct outright false teachings that my children have been taught. I’ve also sat in classes where the teacher taught their own thoughts as doctrine. I have no problem with a teacher who discusses their thoughts, but I feel they need to introduce them as such. E.g. my children were taught (in early-morning seminary no less) that the lost 10 tribes are what we think of as UFOs. If that’s your personal speculation, present it as such, so we know to snicker at you. But PLEASE, there are servel people in every class (including my HP group) who aren’t ready for solid food. I have no problem with “some scholars think…” I want sources. As the plaque on my wall at work says “In God we trust, all others must bring data.”
This is how a guy from the Ensign interprets it:
“Do not substitute outside materials, however interesting they may be. Although some additional materials may add to the lesson, the manual cautions: “Stay true to the scriptures and the words in the book. As appropriate, use personal experiences and articles from Church magazines to supplement the lessons.” There is a difference between supplementing material and substituting material. Appropriate supplemental materials include the scriptures, Church magazines, and uplifting personal experiences (see D&C 42:12–13).”
So supplementing is good, but substituting is bad.
“Sticking to the manual” seems a lot like Elder Packer’s “unwritten order of things.” It’s a purposefully ambiguous concept that allows someone to cry foul when they feel like a line has been crossed.
It’s ironic that you mention Jesus and if he would “stick to the manual.” Isn’t this particular section (Matt 11:28-30) a repudiation of the yoke of the Pharisees, and has little to do with the Romans? I don’t get an indication that Jesus was an usurper of the Romans. In fact that’s one of the charges the scribes and Pharisees make against him to try and get the Romans to get him out of the way. Jesus had, to this point, been strongly repudiating the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees.
As far as my use of the manual in my class, I check it to make sure I cover what they think I should cover for the class, but I also check with several commentaries to gain a better understanding of the context of the scriptures. I find that works very very well.
I think sticking to the purposes of the manual is a good thing in general, notwithstanding some drastic exceptions. Last fall I was asked to substitute in Gospel Doctrine on the day we were talking about the Psalms. It was the overwhelming opinion of the manual that class members understand that not only did the Psalms prophesy about Jesus, but that the Psalms which didn’t were okay to ignore.
I confess I didn’t teach that. I focused on the emotional feelings toward God in the Psalms and how similar those feelings were to our own hymns. I taught about the connection that when early Christians recognized events in Jesus’ life as parallels with some Psalm material, they would have recognized Jesus as David’s successor and the Messiah they had waited for. I realize some of those points are not without their own problems, but I just couldn’t teach about prophesies of Jesus in the Psalms when their own context was itself as edifying lesson for Gospel Doctrine.
“And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine: For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” – Matthew 7:28-29
But we know how Jesus taught: not as the scribes.
How did the scribes teach? They appealed to the scriptures, and the “traditions of the elders”. They used the scriptures as proof texts, as well as considering historical context and tradition. They tried mightily not to appear to express personal opinion or testimony, but backed up every assertion with some sort of scriptural, historical, or traditional reference.
Jesus, on the other hand, taught from his own personal authority. His teachings superseded tradition, and the scriptures themselves. A good example in the “sermon on the mount” is the section in which he repeatedly uses the form “you have heard it said by them of old time… but I say…”
It seems to me it would be pretty much impossible to teach that way in Sunday School. We are more in the position of the scribes than of Jesus.
That sort of bold declaration from authority is seldom heard even in General Conference or “letters from the Brethren” which are occasionally received and read over the pulpit.
There is a particular direction of our current curriculum, compared to the past. When we were teaching ‘scripture blocks’ a teacher was on their own to find a lesson plan and make that lesson plan work. All too often, I sat and listened to a scripture block taught, and then the teacher would say, does anyone have any comments about that? Now we are teaching principles of the gospel, with some scriptural proof texting to support those principles. It’s a different style of teaching, and one, that I think can be better than mere scripture block when done appropriately.
One thing I keep trying to change in every ward I’m in is this very topic… Stick to the Manual…. OK… What is the manual designed to do.. Well, it is written at an 8th grade level? Why? so it can be translated around the world. Already, if we’re sticking to the manual like glue, we’re back in 8th grade… It is up to Teachers in the Church to take this material and make it meaningful for their individual classes. Think of the current Missionary Program, we have a basic set of principles and guidelines, but the missionaries are to adapt it to each family, this is no different that what our SS lessons should be.
When I taught GD, Every lesson contained, a very basic presentation of the Principles of the lesson, and a very high level (stretch) – but the majority of the lesson concentrated on what I could consider the majority of the class needs, or somewhere in the middle between the basic and the stretch. The end goal of the lesson was to make sure the principle was taught well, that testimony was shared by myself, and multiple members of the class, and that we were all a little more committed to live that principle better.
This didn’t stop me from doing 2 things… providing feedback to the curriculum department – I prefer that if we are studying the Book of Mormon this year, and the Doctrine and Covenants next year, that we study the scriptures. If we are studying the principles, with an inkling of scripture, let’s say that so everyone is clear. It is currently confusing… also, the 2nd thing is that I prefer the old way. I want to learn the scriptures, context, scholarship, etc…
Jesus pretty much gave a big middle-finger to the manual during his day.
When I teach GD, I stick to the scriptures. Well…I also bring in Aristotle, Rousseau, and Kant. After all…that is what Thomas Aquinas or Lowell Bennion would have done it.
Things would be a lot easier if SLC would just send the lessons on a DVD to pop in the TV. It could include instructions to stop the player for a moment for periodic profound questions like, “How has knowing the first principles and ordinances of the gospel blessed your life?” If the correct answers are given, the instructor can turn the DVD player back on. This would safe a huge amount of instruction preparation time and assure that the level of teaching throughout the Church would be identical.
Be careful what you wish for. I would not be surprised if Church correlation ended up doing just that.
I stick to the manual like I stick to the trail when I’m hiking. I generally follow it because it takes me where I want to go and I won’t get lost, but that doesn’t mean I won’t take a moment to step to the side to enjoy a beautiful view or take a picture that will help me better remember the trip. Bringing in other uplifting and informative material can enhance a lesson and invite the Spirit while not losing track of the purpose of the manual.
I ask in all seriousness and with respect – What do you consider to be the purpose of the manual? To teach Gospel Doctrine or the emphasize Gospel Principles?
Well, if doctrine is understood to be simply something that is taught, and principle is understood as the underlying law, I think the purpose is to teach doctrine. That is, to provide the information that the hierarchy of the church wants to be broadly understood throughout its membership. I agree with your earlier comment that this should be greatly expanded and revised much more often than it has and is lacking depth. I think the teacher’s job is to use the Spirit to get at the principles and that often requires bringing in different perspectives.
Caveat – I’m probably out of my league in discussing these things on this site, which is why I usually just lurk.
Thanks for your comments everyone:
(1) Don’t know Mo – Thank you for sharing. I haven’t seen anything play out mid-class in the recent years (prob because of LDS fear of disagreement about the gospel), but wow! Nothing like a little discomfort to bring the issue to the forefront 🙂
(2) Michael – yes, manuals can be challenging as you say, but I’m not sure we share this concern for the exact same reasons. Concerning “Noah drank, Moses drank and ate meat unsparingly, Brigham Young chewed tobacco, and Brother Joseph marched through Nauvoo with a cigar. They had wine and tobacco in the upper room at Carthage the night before the martyrdom. Even the Saviour made wine out of water. Does that mean all those men did not have the Spirit with them?”
I think that the assumption that gospel principles/doctrines/teachings/whatever NEVER change is at the heart of the problem. Maybe it is that some things have not changed in the history of religious thought or even Mormonism (though I am hard pressed to think of any), but certainly a better idea that “the gospel” was different for Jesus or Joseph Smith than it is currently is an important lens for LDS to be aware of. History happens. Thus, I don’t have a problem with the manual teaching that non-adherence to the WoW can lead to a loss of spirit, it’s the anachronistic examples that are often used to show why that is. (btw: why would you take the spirit away from the missionaries? shame on you :))
(3) Rameumpton – I think we have a lot to agree on here. I really do sympathize with the GAs and how tough it must be to try and provide a manual that reaches the largest amount of people possible using volunteer teachers. Yes, I think much of correlation is in direct response to the speculative theology (by LDS leaders even) of earlier times in Mormonism. I like your approach of providing information more related to the historical context of scripture (you mention archaeology and ancient religious worldviews). Even though points (or rather interpretations/reconstructions of points) of history, archaeology, etc may or may not be “correct,” you are at least dealing with evidence. This is far different (and better IMHO) than providing speculative theological insights from any myriad of books published by GAs in the decades past (though would the idea be that GA statements are less speculative today because they are contemporary?). The difficulty is that in my experience stuff like WC Skousen’s thousand years series stuff seems to accepted by many as a good source to gain insight into historical context (this is a cultural problem and not a manual problem admittedly). But since manuals lack any historical context, people don’t have much choice but to turn to what their parents told them was “biblical scholarship.” Will we see a day when the manuals provide at least some information about what we’re dealing with? I hope so. Thanks for your comments!
Wrote the above comment without looking at comment #4 (my apologies Michael)
(5) Aquinas – Great question and I really should have tried to flush out a better answer from this individual than I did (what can you do in a 5 minute chat 🙂 though that’s no excuse). His response to “what is pure doctrine?” was “what is in the scriptures and in the manual.” His examples of not sticking to the manual were a few times when the instructor brought in a source that was not mentioned in the manual. These are vague (and circular) answers to tough questions and I would do well to follow up on this and seek more information. Thanks for the nudge!
(6) Clark – Yes “extra” material can be a problem, but certainly not always. I think grouping what biblical scholars have said about the texts we are studying with the views of Glenn Beck has it’s problems to say the least. Yes, of course I would be happier to see scholarly info in SS as opposed to Glenn Beck stuff, but that is because we are supposed to be learning about the scriptures and even though Beck claims to be an expert on the bible (and everything else in world) he simply is not. So, while I agree that the call to stick to the manual is used to keep all sorts of stuff out of SS (which makes sense to me w/ your Beck example), why would you want to completely eliminate sources that help to illuminate the historical background of scripture in an attempt to better understand them? Can academics not inform our faith? our sense of the scriptures being “motivating” and/or “practical” as you say? Concerning comment 7, the title was more of a rhetorical device than a literal historical question. I’ll leave it to those that know more about all thing NT to comment if they wish though I would say that it would be tough to make an equivalency argument for any sort of manual in the Judaisms of the first century. And yes “context matters.” That is one of the major problems I see in scripture interpretation among LDS. Thanks for your comments!
(8) Grant – sounds like you are having a great time teaching; glad to hear it. What do you mean by “in a different and deeper sense”? The terminology of “deep doctrine” gets a lot of airtime but I’m not sure what this means. Forgive me if that’s not the “deep” you were intending.
(9) el oso – “I hope you do not think that you were not “sticking to the manual” enough.”
I don’t 🙂
“Bringing cultural, historical, scientific, etc. insight into the scriptures being studied is a central part of what Sunday School is.”
I agree that this is at least *one of* the central parts of SS, but is that a wide spread opinion/belief among LDS and LDS leaders?
(10) 1st counselor – Fair enough, though if we put more emphasis on the type of scripture study we engaged in as a people perhaps we would have a larger (and more informed) pool to choose from. Thanks for you perspective!
(11) David B – so… use all the “outside” sources you want, but just present them as your own. Done 🙂
(12) wonderdog – “I have no problem with “some scholars think…” I want sources.” Me too!!
10 tribes and UFOs!?! everyone knows that the 10 tribes live at the North Pole, sheeesh!
(13) mapman – “So supplementing is good, but substituting is bad.” Well, maybe, depends on what is being taught. I appreciate the Ensign quote but I’m not sure it clears up the problem. What does “Stay true to the scriptures and the words in the book” mean?
(14) DLewis – except that as I recall Pres. Packer was talking about things that were not necessarily spelled out in detail. The example my YM leader used growing up was that it was not necessary to have a commandment forbidding the consumption of motor oil. “Sticking to the manual” or teaching “*pure* doctrine” seems to imply an exactness that is not ambiguous of difficult to figure out.
(15) Dan – As in my comment to Clark, I’m sure someone that knows more about the NT than I could answer better. Off the top of my head though I would say that while Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus certainly takes issue w several Pharisaic interpretations (it seems to be one of the themes that keeps popping up in Mt’s gospel), they are not mentioned in this particular episode. The refs to yokes, bondage, rest, oppression, “son of god,” etc all seem to make make more sense w ref to Roman imperial practice. While they could be metaphorical for how certain teachings functioned, there does not seem to be anything in this particular section that would point directly to the Pharisee’s teachings.
Sounds like our approaches to lesson prep are fairly similar 🙂
(16) aliquis – Yes! I ran into the same issue when I taught the one(!) week we had on Pss. The Psalter provides a great opportunity to show the several (if not numerous) attitudes towards God that are represented in scripture. Thanks for sharing!
(17) Matthew – I appreciate your sentiment, but I don’t know if Mt is presenting the scribes as utilizing the scriptures and Jesus as superseding the scriptures. In the example you give of the SotM, I see Jesus as interpreting the scriptures rather than throwing them out or completely going off of his own ideas. I think Mt’s point is that Jesus is a far better interpreter of the scriptures than the scribes (who are supposed to be the best). See points 5 and 10 here: http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2011/03/ten-tidbits-about-the-sermon-on-the-mount/
Thanks for your comments!!
(18) zionsuburb – I agree for the most part, particularly with “It is up to Teachers in the Church to take this material and make it meaningful for their individual classes.” Thanks!!
(19) Chris H – No such thing as too wide of a canon 🙂
(20 and 21) DavidH and Michael – We already have that. It’s called Stake Priesthood Training Meeting 🙂
(22) Jacob S – Thank you for the metaphor. I think the way I “keep to the manual” is by trying to emphasize the “Purpose” statement of the lesson (even if it sometimes occurs during the last 2 minutes of the class :))
(24) Jacob S – “I think the teacher’s job is to use the Spirit to get at the principles and that often requires bringing in different perspectives.” Would another way to state this be that a teacher should utilize a variety of sources of information to better understand a particular section of scripture all the while keeping the needs of the class in mind?
Thank you everyone for your comments!!!
by “deeper and different sense” what I meant was more genuinely and deeply out of my soul unlike a lot of the superficial stuff we often hear in lessons – even from the intellectuals. I don’t mean “odd or strange” doctrines or knowledge, but Faith, Repentance, Baptism (and other ordinances), the Holy Spirit and Enduring with Faith, Hope, and Charity to the very end. When I share and testify of those from the depths of my being, hopefully with the Spirit, it’s like laying my heart out as the table centerpiece or visual aid for all to see.
But if you follow chronologically, as we’re doing this year, Jesus’ theme has been strongly anti-scribe, and anti-Pharisees. He’s hardly mentioned the Romans at all. I just checked Talmage, and he speaks only briefly on those verses and nothing about the Romans. Adam Clarke writes:
And this has been Jesus’ theme to this point. His whole Sermon on the Mount was a repudiation of Pharisaical teachings.
Thanks for your interest. Perhaps there are a few methodological differences in our approaches to these verses. A few that seem to be surfacing are: (1) you seem to be working under the assumption of a harmonized gospel that blends the views of the evangelists into one narrative. I take this as your approach based on your statement – “But if you follow chronologically, as we’re doing this year…” – which seems to imply that you are looking at the life of Jesus as laid out in the SS manual (“we’re doing this year”). That you are relying on sources like Elder Talmage and Adam Clarke (both of whom adhere to a harmonized view of the gospels), also seems to suggest your approach. While I think harmonization of the gospels can be fruitful, In the OP (and in the vast majority of my thinking about Jesus’ story) I am more concerned with Matthew’s particular view of Jesus in this case. (2) I am unable to discern your view concerning this particular methodological approach, but I just want to throw it out there that I am not trying to establish THE ONE correct interpretation of Mt 11:28-30. Best guess is as close as I think we can get to what these words meant to their audience. You may feel the same, but I thought I would state that as the position I’m coming from. And as far as interpretation goes, I think there is a lot (perhaps more) to be said about the reader of the text than the text itself.
OK, that being said, let me give this another shot. It seems like the big question we are looking at here is who is the “all” in “all ye that are heavy laden.” A common answer among many of the Patristic writers was that it referred to all who were burdened by sin. This may work w the ones who are weighed down but not so much for the ones laboring (by sin?). By far, the most common interpretation (a la Clarke) of Mt 11:28 has been to see the “all” as those weighed down by strict Pharisaic observance of the Law. Interpreters often use (Matthew’s) Jesus’ description of Pharisaic teachings in Mt 23:4 as “heavy” to make their case. Several problems seem to arise with this view: (1) Mt’s tradition does not seem to see the Law as a burden, (2) Pharisees are not mentioned in ch. 11 and there are no obvious clues to make us think they are the subject in mind, (3) Mt’s Jesus, far from speaking against too strict of an adherence to the law (or abolishing it), typically interprets the law as to demand more from its followers than that of the scribes’ or the Pharisees’ interpretations (see Mt 5:17-20, 21-48).
A reference to Roman oppression seems to fit the context much better here on several accounts: (1) contemporary sources describe the extreme social inequality which Mt’s community would have been living under (Antioch perhaps?) (see e.g. Plutarch, Mor. 58d, 100d), (2) we can see Mt’s political commentary in other parts of his gospel that use similar language: a few, but by no means all, examples: -a- in Mt 6:28 the lilies that don’t labor (the same word used in Mt 11:28, “all ye that labor”) is contrasted with Solomon. The narrative in 1 Kgs 4-5 recounts Solomon’s exploitations of the people through forced labor (4:6; 5:29-32), tributes (5:27-28), unjust taxing (4:7-28), building projects (chs 6-7), etc. This is what the lilies of the field do not have to do. “Labor” is connected with Imperial power. -b- the word rest used in “I will give you rest” is a common LXX word. It can mean rest from death, rest from work, or rest on the Sabbath, but none of these seems to work (no pun intended) here. The one possibility is “rest from work” but in the situation this would likely lead to nothing more than starvation. The most common usage of “rest” in the LXX, and what seems appropriate here, denotes a “rest” or deliverance from oppressive political situations. E.g. God gives “rest” when the Canaanites and their land have been occupied (Deut 3:20; 12:9-10; 25:19; Josh 1:3, 15; 11:23; 21:44). [please note that while I wish these were my original ideas they are not :). See footnote to OP].
Sometimes it seems that we can become so used to looking at the gospels (or any of the scriptures for that matter) as *only* theological documents that we forget that they are written in a particular socio-economic context and that that context “shows through.” It also seems that interpretations of this text (Mt 11:28-30) have had a tough time moving outside the stereotypes of legalistic, rule-consummed Pharisees. A reading such as the one proposed here (via Carter) seems to help on both accounts.
Thanks again for your interaction Dan!!
Thanks for the clarification though I am “deeply” disappointed that by “deep” doctrine you didn’t have Kolob in mind 🙂
Let me, for the sake of discussion, push you a bit more on this, not that I think your approach is inherently wrong, I’m just interested.
What is your filter for what is “superficial stuff?” Is your definition of what “pure” doctrine is something akin to your examples: “Faith, Repentance, Baptism (and other ordinances), the Holy Spirit and Enduring with Faith, Hope, and Charity to the very end.”?
As you know, each of these words/concepts are unbelievably loaded with theological implications and possibilities. I’m not much of a theologian but I do appreciate you pointing to the real and actual complexity of terms that we often play pretty loose and fast with. But, what do we do when verses or chapters in scripture don’t seem to be necessarily concerned with one of the theological principles that LDS see as “basic” (faith, repentance, etc…)? Do we make a principle fit the scriptures (what I think the manuals often do, though I understand the reasoning behind it)? or, do we try and read the scriptures on their own terms (something I’d like to see more of though I realize the necessity for application, and “no” I don’t see these as mutually exclusive)?
Thanks again for your comments!!!
His initial question contains a logical flaw since it assumes sticking to the manual and teaching pure doctrine are the same. They aren’t. It’s wrong to make those two activities synonymous with each other.
I should add, I wouldn’t say that teaching the scriptures and teaching pure doctrine are the synonymous either.
The rub is that one cannot have moments of ‘pure doctrine’ without some filler. Even if a teacher is expressing pure doctrine, there must be student engagement or else everyone tunes out. And then, what’s the point? Is the whole purpose of Sunday School for the teacher to express truth or for class members to open their hearts and minds?
I think a valuable barometer of ‘appropriateness’ is that little purpose statement included at the front of each lesson, mentioned in the OP.
Superficiality to me is basically insincerity. I want it to be real. And related to that, I don’t want to base my beliefs on false information (or be responsible for that with anyone else). That’s why I remain skeptical of so much I hear at church. I simply choose to respect but not to believe all the stuff I hear. (I reject the “Faith Promoting Rumor Syndrome” – no offense to your obviously ironic blog name).
I certainly think some doctrines are more important than others, even in the scriptures. (3 Nephi 27 being much more important that D&C 89 for instance). And I try to bring things back to the essence of the Gospel whenever I can. Any doctrine leads back to faith and repentance and many lead forward to ordinances of salvation and exaltation and certainly “enduring.” And I do agree that there are lots of subtleties and nuances even in basic principles that can take you very deep (when I mean deep, I mean deep into my soul or that of others – I suppose you could call that subjective or emotionally manipulative but I try to make it getting in tune with the Spirit). We do have an opportunity to study outside the manual and the scriptures, and any extra knowledge on language, history, etc. is good for perspective in closing in on truth. And it may help us to get someone’s attention to think about what is most important in a new way to encourage them to think and do something that draws them closer to God. That can be very deep. But I always try to tie it in to the outline of the manual and to respect the level of knowledge and spirituality of the members of the class when asked to teach in a church setting. I mean, it comes down to the fact that someone with priesthood authority has trusted the teacher with a forum as an authorized messenger from the Father. And I try to respect that. The gospel has to work for the ignorant as well as the learned and we need to help all to progress.
Here’s an example- I had real concern once when I was asked to sub for the Book of Mormon lesson on government in Alma. I happen to be a Democrat in a very, very red “tea party” state (Utah, in case you were wondering) and I’d love to influence people towards my views. That’s only human. I’m also an attorney for the federal government. (That’s three strikes against me in most wards.) So what did I do? I stuck pretty close to the lesson and the scriptures about “the voice of the people”. I ended with “We the people” and responsibility to the Lord and each other for our governance and handed out copies of the US Constitution I got from a Senator’s office. I did not mention politics but I hope I moved people an inch towards the truth of those closing remarks and away from political dogmas (like “states’ rights” and “Skousenism” – sorry, see my blog).
And I do strongly believe that basic principles are everything. As Kiekegaard said, Faith should be “a task for a whole lifetime.” I’m still working on it.
On the other hand, the manuals serve the entire church, not just hoity-toity intellectuals. A new convert recently called to teach Gospel Doctrine may feel lost without the steady control the manual keeps on the content of the lesson. It is my guess that the people who formulate church curriculum intend primarily to support and only secondarily or tertiarily to control.
Who are you calling hoity-toity?
I hope you don’t mind this slight tangent from your OP. It is on the subject, but slightly off. 🙂
Far be it for me to limit the extent of what Jesus was trying to teach his people, but he hadn’t at any other point, spoken out against Roman rule, has he? It seems somewhat off that this is the only time Jesus threw a barb against Roman oppression, and in an obscure fashion to boot. No doubt he was well aware of the Romans, but I cannot recall when he railed against them. His consistent enemy were the Pharisees and scribes. Matthew himself notes that Jesus tried to differentiate himself from them, and not the Romans, by noting that the people who heard Jesus thought he spoke with authority, and not as the scribes. In fact, Matthew doesn’t even use the word “Roman” (at least if the search engine on the church’s website is accurate) anywhere in his whole gospel. If Matthew were projecting that Jesus was attempting to fit in with the insurrection camp of the Israelis (which I don’t think he did), then surely he would have said something more than an obscure reference.
The only reason I bring up the chronological order to the events is because they add context. Matthew’s account is not in an accurate order. For instance, he puts the Sermon on the Mount far earlier than the calling of the Apostles, even though the calling of the Apostles occurred well before the Sermon on the Mount. If we go just by Matthew’s account, we’d misunderstand what Jesus did. This isn’t to discount Matthew. He had a reason why he ordered the events the way he did. But if we’re to understand how and why Jesus did what he did, we need to go chronologically. We’re told, line upon line, precept upon precept. If we do not go chronologically, we lose out on that progress.
I have to disagree. There are plenty of cultural groups in which the norm for arrangement of a narrative is chronological, but that’s not a universal by any means. You’re simply showing your cultural background by stating that chronological is best.
And what’s so great, anyway, about chronological ordering compared to, say, topical relationships, or an ordering by importance, or foregrounding background information, or whatever else one finds throughout the world?
(And that’s not to mention that an absolute chronological harmony of the gospels isn’t really possible, so it’s not like we can tell for sure what the chronological order of everything is, anyway.)
“Matthew’s account is not in an accurate order.”
On what basis can you say that? One of the other gospels? 🙂
It’s a cultural assumption that good historiography maintains chronological order. Of course, it’s useful to do so, but the Gospel authors weren’t necessarily operating under that rule of historiography.
Well, either the Apostles were called before the Sermon on the Mount or not. And of course chronological order is highly important, or could Joseph Smith give someone the priesthood if he himself only gets it years after he gives it out to someone? Would not John the Baptist and then Peter, James, and John have to show up first?
I’m not against topical or even non-chronological studying. I merely pointed out that looking at the accounts chronologically adds more context.
As does non-chronological study.
Basically, you’ve provided a truism—looking at anything in valid way X provides more context than you’d have if you ignored it.
Pretty much. 🙂
Matthew – “That sort of bold declaration from authority is seldom heard even in General Conference or “letters from the Brethren” which are occasionally received and read over the pulpit.”
Yes, one who taught in the manner of the Savior went by the name of Elder McConkie. Too bad that many LDS on the naccle crucify him posthumously via the written word. When once asked what his reference was for such and such a doctrine he preached, he gave himself and the exact date and time he just preached that doctrine as the reference.
Too bad so many refuse to accept many of the things he taught an instead behold the motes in his eye or focus on things which they don’t fully understand as proof of BRM’s inadequacy.
I appreciate this post. I am a teacher as well and rarely do I stick completely to the manual.
I have enjoyed teaching the New Testament this year and have found that the manual is a good guideline to follow, but if you don’t insert things such as video, personal experiences, stories, and games at times, the lessons are not engaging.
When we prepare a lesson, we need to spend time considering the people in our classes. Some are visual learners, some learn kinestheticly, others by reading. Pray during the week as you prepare the lesson and when you open your lesson, let the class know you’ve prayed for them. Tell them the learning experience will be a good one if they keep a silent prayer in their hearts during the lesson and ask them for the Spirit’s guidance.
I’ve found that when I do this, the lessons go very smoothly. Sometimes I stick to the manual. Other times, I don’t completely stick to it, depending on how the Spirit dictates. If you are confident you are following the Spirit and helping the class have a spiritual experience you have no need to worry…even if others tell you otherwise.
Re: the meaning of “rest.” I taught this lesson yesterday at the last minute, and actually taught Matt 12 first, with the two Sabbath controversies. I am baffled by the Sabbath controversies, and largely disappointed with the legal reasoning in them, and unsure how they functioned in early Christian communities.
However, in our discussion of the legal argument that Jesus offers in the healing episode of these sabbath controversies, he suggests that doing “good” is lawful, even if on the Sabbath. And he is working in the plucking grain episode too.
I brought this in to the context of the statement to those who labor that Jesus will give you “rest,” combined with the statement about taking on a yoke, that Jesus envisions the kind of work he is doing, and the kind of work done in his service, as ultimately a lawful kind of Sabbath rest. That the combination of labor/rest is followed immediately by two Sabbath controversies where labor and rest are the issues at stake, it seemed like a good fit to me.
I would like to add a singular thought to this thread.
My wife was called, by a quite prayerful ward leader, to be the Gospel Principles instructor – she felt blindsided. Now, as most know, the GP manual is one of the more basic learning texts published by the Church (teaching straight from GP can seem more like a chore than a duty). Nevertheless, we have been asked to teach and learn from it this year in RS and PH in addition to GP.
My wife was not raised in a home that placed an emphasis upon gospel learning – some of the standards were lazily supported, but a foundation of faith and knowledge was not built beneath her feet. I admire her for holding onto the good she has found throughout her experiences with the gospel.
She is/was not well versed in scripture (in the 5 years we’ve been married, we have been working to remedy that). My wife is a teacher that depends upon the GP manual and its simple resources for understanding and inspiration to fulfill her calling. She frequently worries that her lessons come across as “dumb,” or too simplistic and quite honestly, there may be people who have attended her class and left with such an impression. However, I’m happy to say that as the regular attendees have continued to show up for GP, and as the class size itself has increased, I have yet to see anyone hold my wife’s insecurities against her. I have witnessed the spiritual connection my wife has established with members of her class who receive simple, manual-based teaching. Of course, to the credit of the class and the Lord, my wife has also gained increased knowledge and insight of the gospel and scriptures.
Let me tell you that her calling has been a blessing to her personally and to us as a couple and as parents – even if she has had to fulfill her calling by the book.
I thoroughly enjoy the effort of a teacher who teaches with an expanded (yet purposeful) set of resources, insight and knowledge that extend from a manual lesson. Likewise, I will always appreciate the need (which need is real and prevalent) for both the teacher and student to exchange instruction that sticks to the basic nature and intent of most church manual lessons.