Over the past several months, I’ve been slowly working my way through Mark Scherer’s three-volume The Journey of a People, the most recent quasi-official history of Community of Christ. The first volume was interesting, since it covered an era of Mormon history that I’m familiar with from a perspective that I’m not familiar with. I found the second volume a bit harder to get through—some individual sections were fascinating, but it seemed to lack an overall throughline or narrative. I’m currently working my way through the third volume, though, and I think it might be my favorite. It’s fascinating to watch The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints become Community of Christ, and I’ve thought to myself several times that as happy as I am to be part of the latter, I don’t think I would have ever joined the former, even though they’re simply the same institution at two different points of history.
Of course, a lot of that has to do with the RLDS Church’s slow-but-steady decision beginning in the 1960s to engage in critical self-evaluation and begin shedding its more fundamentalist views. In 1967, this went so far as having the top RLDS authorities sit down with professors at a nearby Methodist seminary for semi-formal classes, the first of Scherer describes as “dealing principally with the history of the New Testament Church.” One conversation during this class was so important that I feel like I’ve heard it referred to several times during the relatively short time I’ve been consuming Community of Christ media. In the first day of meetings, Paul Jones (one of the seminary professors) turned to Wallace Smith, the prophet-president of the RLDS church, and asked a question that had been on his mind. Here’s how Scherer describes the encounter:
Jones mustered courage and directed himself to W. Wallace Smith. “If our mutual studies of Christianity and the RLDS Church were to discovere that there was a discrepancy between what Jesus taught and what Joseph Smith taught, which would you accept?”
The story goes that there was a significant pause while everyone turned to look at Smith (who, of course, was Joseph Smith, Jr.’s grandson) to see how he would respond. Scherer continues:
Jones recalled that all eyes stared at the prophet, who took a long breath, did not falter, but said with poise: “We would have to go with Jesus.” There was a great sigh of relief. W. Wallace’s answer became the foundation for their work together from that point on.
I recently listened to a podcast (sorry for awkward link, but Y Religion doesn’t seem to have individual episode pages) where two BYU religion professors dismissed this question as a false dichotomy. For orthodox Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith, Jr. is (at least mostly) a mouthpiece for Jesus, so Joseph’s teachings should (at least mostly) be understood as Jesus’s teachings. Having been an orthodox Latter-day Saint for most of my life, I have some sympathy for this view; however, I think this response also misses the point and the value of such a question. To dismiss this question as a false dichotomy takes for granted that Joseph Smith, Jr. (or successors Brigham Young, David McKay, or Russell Nelson) could never deviate in any significant way from what Jesus would want him to teach. To refuse to ask the question “are the current teachings of the leader(s) of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in harmony with the teachings of Jesus?” is to argue for a certain amount of prophetic infallibility. While Latter-day Saint leaders insist that prophets aren’t infallible, it’s really hard for them to come up with concrete examples that prove that point.
By contrast, Wallace Smith’s willingness to consider that what his grandfather (or successors, his father and half-brothers) taught might not be in harmony with what Jesus taught was a critical step that allowed RLDS church leadership to reconsider what it believed. It was an important step away from fundamentalism that gave church leaders and church members greater permission to think about what it means to be part of the RLDS church—and, eventually, to become Community of Christ. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that without this moment, there couldn’t have been the decision to begin ordaining women in the 1980s or to ordain LGBTQ individuals (at least in the U.S.) in the 2010s. Of course, to the orthodox Latter-day Saint, this is probably compelling evidence for the need to hold to prophetic infallibilty, but as much as I deeply, deeply love Mormonism, its fundamentalist instincts are getting less and less tenable—and causing more and more harm.
However, there is a problem with all of this, and that’s that as helpful and productive as Jones’s question to Smith was, I think it misses an important point—one that could (and has!) just as easily lead to fundamentalist thinking. The truth is that we don’t really have access to “what Jesus taught”—only to a series of indirect records. Even if we limit ourselves to the Christian canon (thereby setting aside apocryphal gospels, etc.), the authoritative records are four, sometimes-contradictory records that were written decades after the actual ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. As John Barton writes in his excellent A History of the Bible:
Modern Christians probably do not spend much time reflecting on this issue. Long familiarity with the Gospels prevents prople from noticing just how strange it is to have divergent official versions of the life and sayings of the founder of Christianity, and even atheist critics of the faith seldom batten onto this problem. Historically the diversity is what we should expect, given that the stories and sayings in the Gospels circulated orally over a long period before being written down; but it is remarkable that the Church decided to canonize all four versions and not to attempt to reconcile them.
Furthermore, American readers of the New Testament typically read it in English rather than the original Greek; but Barton points out elsewhere in his book that the “original Greek” of the New Testament is not the original language of Jesus’s sayings:
With the exception of the odd phrase such as talitha kumi, we do not possess any of the saying of Jesus in the Aramaic he would have spoken himself, but only in Greek translation. This ought to be seen as a problem if one is appealing, as to a ruling, to anything he is recorded as saying, since we can never press the exact wording — it may have been distorted in the translation. It is very common for Christians to argue from the exact wording of Jesus’ sayings, for example on subjects such as divorce, while forgetting that he uttered them in a language different from that in which we have them in the New Testament. This is also true of a sentence over which much ink, and indeed blood, has been spilled in Christian history, the words, ‘This is my body’ at the Last Supper. Christians have argued about the meaning of “is” — but in the original Aramaic there will have been no verb in the sentence, since in Semitic languages such sentences have simply the pronoun and noun (“This my body” or “My body this”).
All of this doesn’t even get into the question of Paul as an interpreter of Jesus’s teachings, but it’s enough to get my point across. As helpful as I think it is to ask the question of whether Joseph’s teachings might differ from Jesus’s teachings, the truth is that our understanding of Jesus’s teachings is filtered through several layers. If we want to ask this question, we need to make sure not to assign a fundamentalist importance to Jesus’s teachings as recorded in the Bible that only reproduces the problem that this question is valuable for challenging. I don’t know that Jones himself had a fundamentalist view of “Jesus’s teachings,” but there are many Christians (especially American Christians) that do.
In an address to the Mormon History Association in 2004, then-prophet-president W. Grant McMurray made a comment to a largely Latter-day Saint (or Latter-day Saint-adjacent) audience that
By being receptive to new revelation [a core tenet of the Smith-Rigdon Restoration movement], we run the risk of replacing a stifling biblical fundamentalism commonly found in our society with one of our own only somewhat expanded variety.
In the same way, in challenging a “somewhat expanded” fundamentalism by urging a return to the Bible as the ultimate authoritative text, we run the risk of merely adopting a narrower fundamentalism, not challenging fundamentalism at all. Again, I doubt that this was Jones’s intention, and it certainly hasn’t been the intention of Scherer or the other Community of Christ figures whom I’ve heard repeat this story. Again, I think this particular story is a key moment in Community of Christ history and a valuable one to use to ask about fundamentalism. However, it’s always rubbed me the wrong way when we tell the story without filling in some of the details. In my view, the value of this story is in asking ourselves whether God is calling us to something that asks us to depart from our tradition—whether that tradition is found in “what Joseph taught” or “what Jesus [allegedly] taught.” Putting Christ at the center of Christian faith is a good and understandable framework for that, but considering how much harm has been done in the world by the idea of putting Jesus first, I think we owe it to ourselves to take this story beyond a simple “Jesus supersedes Joseph” to ask the next question about what we really mean by that.
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