Community of Grace

In a memorable moment of Stephen Robinson’s Believing Christ, he relates his wife Janet’s intense burnout under the pressure of all she had to do. Famously, Robinson answers this situation with the parable of the bicycle. The result is a theory of grace according to which we do what we can (which isn’t much) and Christ makes up the rest. If we feel despair, it’s because we don’t take Jesus at his word: we believe in Christ without believing Christ. [1]

Robinson’s book has had the effect of making Mormons not as entirely allergic to the concept of grace as we had been back when we were eager to differentiate ourselves from “born again” Christians. Even so, I don’t think that grace has led us home just yet. Part of the issue, I want to suggest, is that we tend to conceive of salvation in individualistic terms, notwithstanding the strong family orientation of our theology. To get to heaven we have to read the Book of Mormon every day, by ourselves and in our families (and if we don’t have a family, we are to acquire one tout de suite); we have to hold family prayer, family scripture study, and family home evening; we have to do our home and visiting teaching with a diligence extending beyond the required monthly visit; we must actively seek opportunities to share the gospel with nonmembers, while making time to fellowship less-active members in our area; we are to worship in the temple regularly, performing ordinances for deceased ancestors whom we have diligently searched out, even if we are sixth-generation Mormons with faithful BIC ancestors whose work has nevertheless been vicariously performed at least a dozen times, just to make sure, and whose non-BIC ancestors are in much the same boat; on top of all this, we must serve in time-intensive Church callings, all without detracting from precious family time. Nobody else can do this stuff for us. Grandma’s extraordinary commitment to family history work in no way lets you off the hook, and so on ad infinitum.

Even if there is the occasional nod to the reality that nobody can reasonably do all of this stuff at the same time, talks that focus on any discrete element of it tend to emphasize that element’s importance to our salvation and call us to do better. Which is all well and good, except that the cumulative effect can be paralyzing guilt, as it was for Janet Robinson. And then, of course, we feel guilty for not actually believing Christ, and if we sort of hope that he might be able to make up for last month’s dismal home teaching numbers, we’re less hopeful that he can compensate for our basic failure to believe.

Now, I’m going to argue, contra Robinson, that believing in Christ is actually the way out of this dilemma, except that, Inigo Montoya-style, those words don’t mean what you think they mean. (If you want some guarantor that what I’m doing counts as Mormon theology, I’m hoping that a Princess Bride allusion will serve the turn.)

Let’s start from the end and work back to the beginning. The thing to remember about Christ is that it isn’t a name, but a title: Jesus the Messiah. We’re accustomed to thinking about the Messiah as an individual, but it’s not quite that simple. Consider the Fourth Servant Song in Isaiah 52:13-52:12, which we, along with other Christians, read as being so transparently about Jesus that it’s hard for us to see any other way of reading it. As I’ve argued elsewhere (with plenty of outside scholarship to support the position), the literal, surface reading of the Song is about corporate Israel and its role in saving all of God’s children. When Jesus fulfills this role, he acts both as an individual and as the collective body of Israel.

Which leads me to in. I’m becoming increasingly persuaded (with some help from N. T. Wright) that Paul’s New Testament writings don’t show much if any interest in individual salvation. [2] It’s not so much that individuals are uninvolved as it is that a strong communitarian bent is what gives the entire concept of salvation its shape. The thing for an individual to do, in Wright’s terms, is to become a “Messiah-person,” which is to say a participant in the messianic community.

The difference I’m getting at appears in a key LDS misreading of Paul, in 1 Cor. 3:16: “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” (KJV). The common LDS interpretation of this verse leads to the idea that our bodies are temples of the Holy Ghost, and that therefore we ought to treat our bodies accordingly, by keeping the Word of Wisdom, dressing modestly, and so on. The problem with this reading is that the “you” is plural, not singular: Paul is not addressing individuals, but the collective body of the church. That is, the small group of Corinthian saints meeting in somebody’s house are supposed to be a Temple in which God’s presence can dwell no less than it did in the Jerusalem Temple the Babylonians destroyed.

The collective metaphor becomes stronger later in 1 Corinthians. (Recall that the major problem Paul is addressing in the Corinthian church is schism; see 1:10.) In chapters 12-14, Paul lays out his metaphor of the body of Christ—the metaphor that gives us the idea that we are “members” of the Church. Jesus is—or at least should be—resurrected in us, and the way that resurrection gets actualized is through our exercise of whatever spiritual gift we happen to possess, animated by love. (It’s vital that the great hymn to love in chapter 13 appears sandwiched in the middle of this body-of-Christ discussion of spiritual gifts.)

So, the point is for us to be in Christ, which is to say fully engaged in the messianic community. It’s the community that will be saved (by literally being Jesus, the perfect human to Adam and Eve’s fallen ones, finally able to realize the inherent goodness of God’s creation), and our ticket to salvation as individuals is through the community. (Indeed, there’s much in LDS theology to support the idea of communal salvation: see, for instance, D&C 128:18, which contains the memorable sentence “For we without them cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect,” in the context of a “welding link” that needs to connect the entire human family.)

Believing, then, doesn’t mean accepting Jesus’s atonement as a propositional fact, or becoming the mystical equivalent of the Little Engine that Could (“I think I believe, I think I believe, I think I believe…”). Rather, it’s faithfulness to messianic community. We believe in Christ by taking the sacrament seriously: with his name upon us (collectively), we work together to enact the new creation that Paul says is all that matters (see Galatians 6:15; the point comes across more clearly in the NRSV), which is the restoration of the earth and its human stewards.

Putting the pieces together, believing in Christ means being anxiously engaged in the collective work of kingdom-building, using whatever our particular gifts happen to be. The advantage of being in a community is that not everybody has to have every gift. If someone is passionate about family history and has a knack for finding those people nobody else can, she is building the kingdom. If someone finds sharing the gospel with everyone around to be natural and normal, he is building the kingdom. Maybe it’s okay that the first person has less time for missionary work, and the second isn’t particularly involved in family history. Maybe that’s what the baptismal injunction to bear one another’s burdens really means. Maybe the grace of being in Christ is that the community, rather than the individual, becomes responsible for accomplishing all that must be done. After all, at its most basic, being in the messianic community means becoming Christ in the world, enacting the new creation through his power. That’s more than any of us can hope to do alone, but together, in Christ, we can hope (against hope, as Paul says) that it’s possible.

This isn’t to say that our participation in the kingdom should never stretch us, or make us uncomfortable. As Paul’s letters attest (especially those to the Corinthians and the Galatians), making messianic community a reality isn’t easy. Human nature tends to get in the way, and if charity (the pure love of Christ) is the only way such a community can even cohere, there’s a reason that Mormon treats it as a gift for which we have to pray “with all the energy of heart.” We have to learn, in and through the grace of communal life, to love our fellow-laborers, and everything else is really just a means to that end. As Paul says twice in Romans 13:8-10, love is the fulfilling of the law.

So, I’m not suggesting that we (as a community) cease doing family history, missionary work, visiting teaching, or anything else. These things are important, and our reasons for doing them are sound. What I am suggesting is that we stop (either deliberately or inadvertently) piling on guilt about them. We need, collectively, to work out ways of talking about and engaging in these activities that make our (varied according to our gifts) participation in them alive in the spirit rather than dead in the letter. We need, when talking about them, to figure out how to do the kind of “speaking the truth in love” that Paul brings up in a glorious passage in Ephesians that, once again, evokes the different roles that people can play in the body of Christ (pastors, evangelists, etc.), working toward the greater goal of “unity in the faith” and “increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.” Can we honor the work of the people who are good at a particular task without putting down those who aren’t, but who are contributing to the kingdom in other ways? Can we talk to each other in ways that stir up the love, for Christ and for each other, without which none of this is possible? I think we can, with and in Christ. The grace of it is amazing.

What better example of unity in diversity than these harmonies?

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQbjQMaeaIA]

Notes

[1] On the odds that someone hasn’t heard the parable of the bicycle before, here’s the gist: Robinson’s young daughter sees a bicycle she wants in the shop. He can’t really afford to get it for her, so he tells her to save her money. Some time later, she comes to him with 61 cents and reports her diligent efforts at saving. He’s moved with compassion and buys her the bike. The argument is that God is like the father in the story, and we are like the children who bring our 61 cents, upon which a merciful God makes up the rest. For the experience of Robinson’s wife, Janet, see Stephen E. Robinson,  Believing Christ: The Parable of the Bicycle and Other Good News (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1992), 14-17. The parable of the bicycle appears on pp. 30-34.

[2] The communal quality of salvation is one of the central arguments of N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013). E.g, this summary statement on p. 565: “In fact, as we saw, the ekklesia, in its unity and holiness, was itself the central worldview-marker, the loadbearing symbol, generating its own necessary and organically appropriate praxis in worship, prayer, scripture reading and (what came to be called) the sacraments.” The only thing more significant than the ekklesia, according to Wright, is the question of who God is in the first place. I hardly need say that reading Paul in this way goes quite against the grain of much post-Reformation interpretation.

Comments

  1. PassTheChips says:

    The parable of the bicycle (and Robinson’s book as a whole) was a great step forward for everyday Mormons to start thinking about grace and its central role in Christianity. However, the parable is fundamentally flawed. The price of the bicycle should have been infinite. Christ doesn’t make up the difference. He makes up all. Infinity minus 61 cents is still infinity.

  2. (1) You are correct that 1 Cor 3:16 uses the plural “you” and compares the temple to the community/body of Christ as a whole. A few chapters later, however, Paul compares the temple to our individual bodies – this is the source of the common ‘body is a temple’ doctrine and seems to be a correct reading of Paul’s intentions. Unfortunately we routinely cite 1 Cor 3:16 when we ought to be citing 1 Cor 6:18-19.

    (2) I would suggest that Robinson’s book has done more to confuse our understanding of grace than anything else. For whatever headway he makes in the first chapters encouraging us to rely on Christ, he spends the rest of the book backpedaling towards performance-based salvation. He seems to believe that the greater our works, the less we have need of grace – a perverse proposition.

  3. the other Marie says:

    Thank you! So well put. I’ve been piecing together a similar theory over the past several years, but with only a fraction of the scriptural evidence you’ve gathered here. I had hoped in the handful of times I shared my thoughts in church that I wasn’t assuming too much from too little evidence. I’m comfortable as a loner so it’s not an idea that naturally resonates with me–the messiness of connecting with people and the uncertainty of relying on them often feels more daunting than trying to do everything myself–but I really do think it’s correct. We are saved together, or not at all. Unity achieved through the spiritual gift of love is so important to God–even more important than law keeping?

  4. 1) Yes, you’re right about 1 Cor. 6:18-19. Putting the two together, though, I like the idea of a Temple composed of Temples. That’s pretty cool.

    2) That’s kind of what I’m getting at in the post. Robinson’s right to emphasize grace, but the entire framework is wrong, so the resulting concept of grace doesn’t quite work.

  5. Long time lurker piping up to say thanks! I loved this perspective.

  6. Marie: according to Paul, unity achieved through the spiritual gift of love _is_ law-keeping.

  7. This is really great, Jason, thank you, and amen.

    I’m not a fan of the bicycle, even though I appreciate what Robinson was doing and has done for our community, mostly because penal substitution.

  8. Jason, your post left me thinking many new thoughts–thank you! I love the idea of experiencing a “lived-grace” through our fellow saints–each making up the difference for another, based on our unique best that we can offer.

  9. Thanks, Corinna. I’ll just add that it’s _in Christ_ that we make up the difference for each other.

  10. the other Marie says:

    Jason: Paul says it, but Mormons generally don’t believe that he means that love alone can fulfil all of *our* laws–we think he means Mosaic laws. I don’t think most Mormons could imagine a perfectly unified and grace-drenched community that somehow had imperfect visiting teaching stats or less-than-amazing conversion numbers or merely average temple attendance or families not traced back at least four generations–because when we do speak about grace we call it an “enabling power” more than anything, so if we have enough of it we’ll be superhuman and capable of doing all this stuff perfectly or nearly perfectly (whether individually or as a community)–thus using grace to escape the need for grace. I think that’s what many people on the ground are hearing, even if that’s not what our leaders are intending.

    Though I have a special fascination with the concept of grace, I feel anxious applying it it a new situation like this, even when I think it’s correct to do so. I’m grateful we’re talking about it more–even just using the word more often in our meetings makes me feel more alive and hopeful and motivated.

  11. Marie: your perception of the situation on the ground seems very accurate to me. It’s a situation that groans for grace.

  12. it's a series of tubes says:

    This is a great, great post. Thank you for sharing these thoughts. Much to consider here.

  13. Clark Goble says:

    I confess I’ve long been in the camp that Mormon thought has long been perfused with the idea of grace but that due to tensions with Evangelicals and especially Calvinists we’ve been loath to use the language of grace. Especially since given the traditional Luther styled approach to Paul it’s so easy to end up with people thinking the doctrine is cheap grace. i.e. the idea that so long as you believe intellectually in Christ that he makes up everything you do with no effort on your part.

    While there’s no doubt “checklist Mormons” are a problem, I remain convinced it’s a problem that’s overstated. Clearly there’s no problem with lengthening our stride or trying to accomplish great things. What I worry about with this recalculation is that we neglect that whole idea that we can do more. It’s easy to get placated into a kind of laziness. As big as a problem as those who get paralyzed with guilt for not doing enough is the bigger problem of people frankly not doing enough. Especially in terms of helping others. I suspect materialism is a much bigger worry in say Utah.

    The idea that we’re collectively saved has a long pedigree in Mormon thought and is arguably the whole basis behind our notions of temple work. We’re trying to build a Zion community. That’s front and center in nearly everything Joseph does and arguably everything Brigham does as well. Their practical problem was always not necessarily being too good at it. And arguably the free rider problem was a bigger problem than most want to admit in various structural ways of living communitarian principles.

  14. Clark
    While there are always free riders, in my experience, most of those you would classify as such are simply overwhelmed. We are weaker and more confused than we want to let on. We’re afraid of the stigma attached when we can’t “measure up”. Don’t be so hasty to judge and criticize us for not doing enough.

  15. Jason–I found this post interesting and subtle and morally appealing. I have a question about your final paragraph. You write that you are “not suggesting that we cease doing family history, missionary work,” etc. But it seems to me that in light of your post, the “we” is now ambiguous between “we-as-individuals” and “we-as-community”. I take your referent here to be “we-as-individuals”, since one would not have otherwise inferred that “we-as-community” should cease doing family history, etc etc. So I take the proposal to be: “We-as-individuals” should keep doing all of the same things–we should just not feel guilty if we-as-indivdiduals don’t do them. But here are my questions:
    (1) Won’t our reasons to do them double as reasons to feel bad about not doing them, should we actually not do them?
    (2) If the foregoing parts of the post are right, won’t our reasons for doing any one of family history, missionary work, etc., depend on our particular spiritual gifts? If so, won’t those reasons be variable between persons? But if that is so, then how will generalizations like those in the final paragraph turn out to be true?

  16. This post really resonates with me – thank you! I love the idea that “we” as a collective can use our individual talents to strengthen the body of Christ and fill in where others feel inadequate. Getting away from the proverbial checklist and focusing on what makes us better followers at Christ (and I think that these things can change with individual circumstance and seasons of life), is what implementing grace in our lives is really about.

  17. Ryan: thanks for the thoughtful response. I mean those instances of “we” to be collective, not individual, and I’ve revised the post in a way that should resolve the ambiguity. The first two sentences of your #2 read the OP correctly, and the answer to your final question is that we, collectively, work out how to talk about the things that need to be done in ways that call effectively to the people gifted in those areas without burdening those who don’t particularly feel the call with guilt. Say I’m not much good at math–a subject of, I hope, indisputable value. Can we talk about math in ways that make the people with a natural aptitude for it pursue it with heart and soul for the good of the body as a whole without making the English majors feel guilty? And can we accept the offering of an engineer who has designed some marvelously helpful new thing without having to nag her about finally getting around to reading Moby Dick? (The categories are too simplistic, but I hope you’ll take my point.)

  18. This is truly the loveliest thing I have read in a long time. Thanks so much for sharing it with us.
    JA Benson

  19. lastlemming says:

    This “collective salvation” being referenced is better known as exaltation. Russell Nelson has been making this point recently (see https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2008/04/salvation-and-exaltation?lang=eng):

    In God’s eternal plan, salvation is an individual matter; exaltation is a family matter.

    Nelson wants to label the collective as “the family”, but since there’s really only one family, I think he is actually talking about the same thing as the OP. The role of grace is clearest in the context of individual salvation. I haven’t thought about it much in the context of exaltation. To the extent that the exalted collective consists of saved individuals, grace is critical to exaltation, but beyond that, I’m not sure.

  20. This “collective salvation” being referenced is better known as exaltation.

    Just so. I’m suggesting, though, that the collective process of exaltation unleashes a grace that radically reorients what Nelson would call individual salvation. I quite agree with your point that there’s really only one family—and that fact opens up new occasions for hope. Individuals who want to be saved just have to figure out how to be part of the family.

  21. Good article and good comments. I don’t understand why everyone’s throwing Stephen Robinson under the bus, though. I think his doctrine has been a bit mischaracterized here, especially in the comments. He didn’t tackle the individual vs community aspect as specifically as you did, but he did get into it in his second book, where he talks about the definition of faith/faithful as a team/community thing (backup goalie on a winning soccer team). But regardless, I don’t think this “community” element of grace is a completely different framework, anyway. What you’re saying is more like a small tweak of the same exact concept Robinson blazed the trail for 20 years ago. Have respect for your elders. :)

  22. Nice post. I still recommend Robinson in spite of his flaws (which I think are relatively minor), because he’s very readable, a good introduction, and a great antidote to legalistic/perfectionist views.

  23. I just literally caught myself letting out a big sigh of relief! Thanks Jason and fellow commenters.

  24. Clark Goble says:

    Shawn, when I was mentioning free riders I was talking about the 19th century attempts at implementing a practical communitarian lifestyle. There are inherently problems with communitarian ideals. It sounds great to say that those with the most talent should do the most and everything gets shared equally. But when some don’t contribute yet get all the benefits human nature is such that people become resentful and those who can start to do less than they can. Typically innovation and progress is lost assuming the system manages to stay in place at all.

  25. Great post. It reminded me of Joseph Smith’s March 10, 1844 sermon on the spirits of Elias and Elijah. In that sermon he equates the spirit of Elias as a preparatory spirit, preparing us like a stone is chiseled and ground prior to placement in a building. The preparatory ordinances (e.g., baptism, endowment) are part of that spirit of Elias.

    He then compares the spirit of Elijah as the mortar or cement that seals the now prepared stone into the building. This he equates to having one’s calling and election made sure, sealing us into the family of God. Once we (the stone) have been prepared and then sealed (with mortar) into the now complete temple of God, God can come visit His finished temple.

    It seems to me this sermon can be viewed as an individual journey (preparation, sealing, personal ministration of Christ) as well as a community one (group preparation through charity, love, etc.; community sealing and becoming Zion; Christ comes to His Zion).

  26. That’s really insightful, Cody. Thanks!