In 1 Corinthians 6:19, it says: “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?” As some Mormon youth teachers used to like to say to encourage chastity: “Your body is a temple, and he doesn’t have a recommend!” or as I saw on a tee shirt: “Your body is a temple, not a visitor center.” This scripture is often trotted out in opposition to tattoos or piercings, likening those actions to vandalism of the exterior temple walls. It’s also used to support the Word of Wisdom, and this interpretation isn’t unique to Mormonism. Other faiths use it to enforce modesty, anti-smoking and temperance.
But what if this scripture is not referring to our individual bodies, but the body of saints? Consider this passage from 1 Corinthians 12: 12-14:
For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one abody, whether we be Jews or bGentiles, whether we be cbond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many.
In this passage, “body” clearly refers to the group of worshipers, not to an individual person, and talks about the benefit of having various individuals each with unique spiritual gifts and playing different roles within the church. What follows is a caution not to cast off any members of the church for being unique or seemingly lesser, but to remember that the body of saints need each other, not despite their differences but because of them. Continuing in 1 Corinthians 6: 25-27:
That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same acare one for another. And whether one member asuffer, all the members bsufferwith it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of aChrist, and bmembers in particular.
This also casts the oft-neglected second half of 1 Corinthians 19: 6 in a new light: “ye are not your own.” I recently read a great book (recommended to me by a commenter) called Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by E Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. In the book, the authors talk at length about how our Western values are inconsistent with the values of the culture of those who wrote the Bible. Just coming back to the US from Singapore, this really resonated for me. One of the Western values that commonly causes cultural disconnect is individuality. Eastern cultures, including the ancient culture of the Bible, are based on communitarian or group values.
Roles and obligations rankle our ruggedly individual values as Americans. We don’t want to kiss the ring or take care of our aged and infirm until all our own personal needs are met. And we lack familiarity with want which makes it even harder to see the need for group reliance. The entire American dream is built on the idea of an individual immigrant leaving their group obligations behind in their native country, coming to make a better life in a land of milk & honey where they are free from oppression, free to be individuals, free to pursue their own happiness – individually.
Time and again, living in Asia, I struggled with this concept that people did not see themselves primarily as individuals, peers and equal contributors regardless of titles, willing participants in decision making when decisions would affect them. As one example, according to my local colleagues, Singapore considered staging an “Occupy” protest while I was there (which seemed a bit hypocritical given that it’s an incredibly wealthy country with no natural resources whose wealth was built almost entirely on financial services). The protest received the required government approval to proceed, but as it turned out, nobody showed up. Nobody wanted to go unless it was in a large enough group that they wouldn’t stand out or be noticed. And thus a protest died.
Mormonism is sometimes referred to as an American religion, and even as we strive to become a global church, we often attract those rugged individuals who are willing to break family ties to join because they see this group as the path to more success and happiness for them. So we are attracting individuals who embrace our Western values, even if they come from an Eastern culture. Our stories of pioneers are likewise fairly individualistic, pushing back against the political oppression the saints faced, even leaving the US to do so, although it is also a very communitarian story: trying to live a united order, creating social obligations within dynastic families through plural marriage, and pursuing self-governance (replicating systems that when run by non-Mormons were oppressive). Even our scriptures extol the virtues of the American experiment, further tying Mormonism to American values. As a result, we have an even stronger tendency to conflate American values with God’s values or the “correct” values, despite inconsistencies with non-LDS scripture and known history. The author of the book theorizes that God has neither Western nor Eastern values, but works within whatever society framework exists. So the book is not trying to favor either Western or Eastern values, just to help readers of the Bible see their own assumptions and consider alternate readings.
Which brings us back to the alternate reading of the body as a temple. The word “ye” is clearly plural, and yet we still default to thinking of a group of individuals rather than the community as an entity in and of itself. If we think of the “body” as the community of believers, the meaning of the verse changes radically. The community is the temple. The community is where the Spirit of God dwells. Rather than being about individuals and their bodies, it is about the fact that no one is an island, that we all need each other for the Spirit to come dwell. I am reminded of this scripture that is reiterated in the Doctrine & Covenants:
Matthew 18: 20. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
D&C 6: 32. Verily, verily, I say unto you, as I said unto my disciples, where two or three are gathered together in my name, as touching one thing, behold, there will I be in the midst of them—even so am I in the midst of you.
So if we re-read this scripture in light of this understanding, it is really an admonishment that we drive the spirit away when we don’t value the diversity of the individuals in the group or when we want to chase some members out of the body. The author of the book adds:
“It has become increasingly popular in recent years for believers to call themselves Christ-followers instead of Christians. . . . they don’t want to be associated with the negative, nominal and cultural connotations of the word Christian. Associating with Christ but not his church is a distinction Jesus would never have made.”
Of course, this is something many of us have felt and blogged about: a desire to distance ourselves from the other Mormons or Christians whose culture or values we don’t like. A recent documentary called “Lord, Save Us From Your Followers” addresses the image problem Christianity is facing right not. Of course, as much as some people want to distance themselves from traditional Christians, there are plenty of traditional Christians who want to distance themselves from the progressives or liberals they see as threatening the very fabric and traditions that hold the church together. Considering this scripture in light of “body” referring to those who collectively worship, we should find ways to stick together, to invite the spirit into our diverse group of people who are all seeking in our own ways to follow the teachings of Christ.
We are told to be wise as serpents in detecting enemies, but harmless as doves in our behavior. We are told we are being sent as sheep among wolves, but not instructed to turn on the so-called wolves in the process. We are taught in the parable of the wheat and tares that we can’t know who the wheat are and who the tares are until they are fully mature and it’s time for the final judgment. We run the risk in both directions of not treating the body (of saints) as a temple (wherein the spirit can dwell) when we are spending too much time judging our fellow worshipers as being too sheep-like or too wolf-like. Instead, if we think of ourselves collectively as a body (with all parts being necessary), as part of a temple entity rather than individual temples, maybe we get a better glimpse of what Christianity is supposed to be.
- How do we avoid judging people who are judgmental? What if they are judging us first?
- What are the limits of a big tent church? How big is too big? Where would you put the boundaries? Any who believe? Any who desire to believe? Take everyone at face value?
- Can the group get too big to accommodate the spirit? What if the “body” includes a Martin Harris who needs to withdraw?
- Should we be concerned that we are mostly attracting converts whose cultural values don’t challenge American values too much? As we go into untapped areas of the globe like India and China, do we need to dial down our cultural assumptions?