John, The Book of Mormon, and Joseph Smith: Part 5-John and Ecclesiology-Joseph Smith’s Struggle.

[Part 4 is here. Part 6 is here.]

You can find the whole series here.

At first glance, John seems agnostic about community structure. But this can’t be an ignorance of the issues. In fact, John does have structure (I mean in terms of pecking order in the church of the early 2nd century). John writes a lot about sheep and shepherd and there is the vine metaphor from the Wisdom Literature. But John seems to want this in terms of individuals. It’s an individualistic Gospel, at least it has much more of that than the other three. Every branch gets life from the Vine. If you don’t get that life, you are cut off. John is full of Jesus encountering people and these are really tests: either the person chooses light, or darkness (there is a lot of Mormonism and especially preaching and rationalization of missionary approach that has support here). John never uses the word “church” in the Gospel (it does appear in the letters). It’s not that John wants to neglect the body. It’s that salvation is very individualistic. However, not in the way that antebellum American Protestantism advertised. It’s Joseph Smith who picks up on this through a liturgical actualization of John’s picture of Jesus offering Eternal Life in the here and now, not just somewhere out in the distance.

In John 10 where he forms the picture of the Good Shepherd, he quotes Jesus as saying, “I know mine, and they know me.” Jesus is the Shepherd, and he calls them (sheep) “by name.” He knows each one by name. When he calls them, each sheep “recognizes” him. They know each other. John plays on this in chapter 20, when Mary Magdalene can’t recognize Jesus’ form, until he calls her by name and she knows without hesitation that it’s Jesus. It’s very personal and that goes for all the sheep. There is a flock, but only one shepherd. And he has other sheep, that he wants to join to that flock. The Book of Mormon has Jesus quoting this passage, not as a passage in John but clearly for the reader or listener who knows John (to say nothing of what “sheep” would mean to ancient Central Americans). The Book of Mormon uses the passage as self reference. They are the other sheep. Jesus tells the Nephite flock that he didn’t explain their presence to the “brethren at Jerusalem,” not a reference to the Jerusalem believers necessarily, but the Jews in general. They are stiffnecked, and you hear a bit of Stephen here. But the Jesus of Third Nephi is very much, at least in this instance, the Jesus of John: he’s commanded by the Father, he is the shepherd. And another interesting thing in 3 Ne 15:22-23, Jesus says his old world listeners thought he was speaking of the Gentiles as other sheep. It’s not likely that this was even permissible as thought in the early church. It’s clearly a Johannine reflection (and an echo of Protestant thought), though John may have questioned Christians outside his community. The Nephite report of Jesus seems to have him be all the personalities of the Gospels at various moments, it’s as though he relays the future written Gospels to the present Nephites, and that is a very Book of Mormon idea, in the sense that I think it speaks to the whole translation project. I’ll come back to that, because I think it’s through John in some respects that we can get a clearer picture of what the Book of Mormon is about as a revealed text. It’s a biblical witness, but it’s not necessarily verification of biblical history.

John shows little if any structure among the believers (and argues against it). They are known to Jesus, they know him. This probably reflects the philosophy of the community John writes for ca. 100AD. As I mentioned, this did not imply Jacksonian individualism. In the first Johannine epistle, there is a condition on the relationship to God, Christ. It’s that you have fellowship with the community. Without that the relationship to Jesus as shepherd is forfeit. In 1 John there has been a split in the Johannine community and the writer speaks to this split in terms of light and darkness again, a metaphor that surfaces prominently in Joseph Smith’s revelations (cf. Doc. and Cov. 88–the darkness is Satan(ic)). But it’s clear that you have to have fellowship with each other to have fellowship with Christ and God. Those that break the community fellowship, break with God (this same idea appears in the rules of consecration in early Mormonism and the language there is Johannine).

When John is being written at the turn of the century, other Christian communities are beginning to stress structure. You see beginnings in Paul well before this. First Corinthians has organization that is expressed in terms of the Spirit. Certain people have certain gifts. There are apostles and prophets, teachers, healers, administrators, evangelists, workers of miracles, etc. The Body of Christ has different members with different roles, each is necessary in Paul’s study (and I think this is registered behind the Ether passage (chap. 12) on weaknesses becoming strengths–in Zion the laborers complement each other like puzzle pieces, weaknesses of one fit strengths in another, to form the image of Christ–Paul clearly subscribes to a hierarchical complementarity typical of the kingship/emperor model of society). In the later Deutero-Paul tradition in Timothy-Titus, there are elders, deacons, etc. In John’s work, there is no reference to this division of labor, supervision, leadership, at all. No reference to apostles, there are prophets, but they are not good folk, (1 John mentions false prophets –there’s never any positive reference to prophets) there is no positive reference to teachers (1 John: you don’t NEED teachers). If there is structure in John’s ideal, it doesn’t seem to play any visible role, it’s not important. The only role John mentions in the Gospel, is “disciple.” That’s the vital essence of the Christian. You follow Jesus, you LOVE him, and you love each other in the community. He doesn’t mention anything else.

Other New Testament and proto-New Testament writers like Ignatius, are clear about the sociology of the church, you need structure to distribute tasks, and judgment to regulate teaching and disagreements, organization and administration. Beyond two or three believers, you need structure. The problems are always the same with structure (cf. Doc. and Cov. 121). The structure starts to acquire its own value. You become as important as the job you have. The pecking order has broader meaning than just assignment. And envy is inevitable. I mentioned that in Corinthians, Paul deals with this in terms of gifts of the Spirit. People that have one, want another. Later in the Pastorals (Timothy, etc.) have criteria related to skill set, disposition, and status. They have a task, but the larger the purview, the more important they become in the eyes of believers, most Latter-day Saints recognize this in how we typically place leaders on a pedestal.

For John’s Gospel, none of this exists. The only important thing is the relationship to Jesus. Eternal life is the promise of Jesus in John, and again, it’s an everyday thing, not something hovering off in the eschaton (in early Mormonism, it’s very effectively seen in the ideas surrounding sealing–though later this is infected with pessimism). The other teachings in the New Testament are different in their view, and that creates a kind of instability. What is the correct model? Obviously, Joseph Smith selected bits of both. He wanted to avoid the pitfalls he experienced with structure, but he needed it. He wanted to appeal to the Eternal Life gift, and he rationalized it through liturgy (a rationalization that partly transformed after his death).

In the Reformation, there are elements that appeal to one side or the other. The mainline Calvinist branches tended toward a more structured model, while some of the Arminian churches list to the egalitarian disciple model (and it’s harder to keep these groups intact). The one side found, and finds, it difficult to keep the belief that the hierarchy doesn’t get between the believer and God. In highly structured faiths like Mormonism or Catholicism, there is often a doubled nervousness. Hierarchies get nervous over notions of believer priesthood, believers get nervous over failures of hierarchical function, policy, doctrine. Joseph Smith fought this out his entire life. The first major shift came six months after the Church of Christ was organized. In August-September of 1830, the egalitarian notion that once appeared in revelations like Doc. and Cov. 8 was tested by the appearance of another seer in Hiram Page. The response was hard and deep and a hierarchy became sharply defined in terms of charism and a value system for preaching (Doc. and Cov. 28). [More on this in the next part.]

Next time: Holy Ghost.


  1. Thanks WVS, for giving me a lot to chew on. I really appreciate that you are taking small enough bites that it is realistic to go through, even if (like me) you aren’t a scholar.

  2. Welcome, poetry.

  3. Cool stuff, WVS!

  4. Thanks, Jason.

  5. Leonard R says:

    Great food for thought. Much to digest, but thanks for the nourishment.

  6. Thanks, Leonard R.

  7. Mostly, thanks. This is a good work and I’m enjoying it.
    And for a comment with more substance, I have mused (I’ve taken to avoiding “ponder”) the structure vs individual puzzle and wonder whether John’s Shepherd model of knowing by name might not be the right balance. That is, sizing the structure so that every individual is known by name. I think this would argue for a Mormon Ward or Branch as the fundamental organizational model.

  8. Lew Scannon says:

    Thanks for this series. Especially for the subtle insights about the Book of Mormon translation. You seem to be on the same page I’ve been moving toward for some time now.

  9. There are a lot things about the Book of Mormon translation that render any comprehensive explanation difficult. I consider this a very modest exploration of ways in which biblical scholarship and Joseph Smith’s revelations may achieve some closure. That won’t be an important goal (or it may even be a negative one) for many believers.

%d bloggers like this: