Of Bodies and Temples

I teach Primary, and the theme for this year is “I know the scriptures are true.” As someone who loves the scriptures, and who deeply enjoys discussing them with my eight-and-nine-year-olds, this is a theme I can really get behind. Still, I have some reservations about how the Primary curriculum establishes children’s relationship to the scriptures. In this post I’ll use this month’s Sharing Time scripture to lay out those reservations and to discuss how we might do better.

This month, the designated scripture is 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, slightly redacted to read: “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? … [F]or the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.” I love this scripture. In fact, it’s one of my favorites. The Corinthian saints are having problems with schism (see 1:10), and here Paul uses the beautiful image of the collective church members as a temple, home of God’s Spirit, to invite them to greater unity.

The Sharing Time outline, however, uses this scripture to advance the theme “My Body is a Temple of God.” Simply put, it’s a gross misreading of these verses to put them to that use, which becomes clear when you look at the verbs and pronouns. In Greek, these are all second-person plural, not singular, meaning that the body in question refers to the collective church, not to any individual member. In English, we have the benefit of using a 400-year-old Bible that preserves even older English pronoun use, so we have second-person plural pronouns (“ye”) there, too. (Admittedly, if we used the NRSV, we’d have a translation note informing us that the pronouns are plural, which would enable readers without specialized training to pick up on the detail.)

Beyond admittedly snobbish grammatical concerns, our reading this scripture as though it treated individual bodies ignores the context. These verses occur in a broader discussion of schism, where Paul laments that some of the Corinthians are of Apollos and others of Paul before describing God as the ultimate master-builder and calling on his readers to be wise in their spiritual architecture. His ultimate point, in the end of the chapter, is that we are all Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. These verses, then, call the collective body to unity, and as such they provide an important prelude to his famous image of the body of Christ in chapter 12. By teaching children that this verse has to do with their individual bodies rather than with their participation in the body of Christ, we set them up to stumble when they come to read this chapter in full, when, if we really want them to know the scriptures are true, we should be setting them up to understand what the scriptures actually say.

To be sure, participating in the body of Christ does have implications for how we as individuals inhabit our bodies, which is why Paul takes up that subject in 1 Corinthians 6. In verse 13, he writes that “the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body,” adding in verse 15: “Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid.” This discourse, focused on discouraging the use of our bodies for sexual sin, culminates in verses 19-20: “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? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.”

In those last verses, the pronouns (in Greek and in English) are plural, just like in chapter 3, but the context here makes clear that Paul is talking about church members’ individual bodies, informed by their participation in the greater body of Christ. Anticipating chapter 12, if the body as a whole is to be a temple of the Spirit, we as individuals need to make sure we’re living in ways that allow us to contribute our own spiritual gifts to the whole.

Admittedly, Primary probably isn’t the right place to get into the specifics of Paul’s discourse about fornication. Paul, after all, introduced the idea of milk before meat back in chapter 3. Still, if we used 6:19-20 instead of 3:16-17 (or perhaps with 3:16-17 as background), we could talk about bodies in a way that prepared students to read the full chapter later on and make sense of it. And, instead of addressing topics like the inordinate spiritual danger arising from uncovered six-year-old shoulders, we could talk about how we might glorify God in our bodies, e.g., by using them to serve others.

We could let thoughts about the positive good we might do drive the conversation instead of thoughts of fear and defensiveness. We could think about how our bodies might bring the Spirit to the collectives in which we participate instead of worrying about chasing the Spirit away. Paul does warn the Corinthians, but always with the larger goal of calling them toward a more abundant spiritual life. In my view we spend too much time on the prohibitions and not enough on enriching our collective life in the Spirit. God forbid that our children should believe that rules and prohibitions rather than communal spiritual life are the central purpose of their Church participation! As Paul argues in Romans, the rules do matter, but only if they serve their larger spiritual ends.

It’s banal to say, but Primary children are a significant part of the Church’s future. They, too, are vital members of the body of Christ. We have need of them! It’s in our collective interest to help them cultivate their spiritual gifts, so that we together can be the temple of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them how to have fruitful engagements with scripture that go beyond proof-texting is a key part of that cultivation. Imagine the good that could come from children who feel empowered to contribute, even when they’re young!


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    In “ye are the temple of God,” my footnote to ye (in Footnotes to the NT for LDS) reads: “The plural addresses the saints collectively as the Church.” Not that you needed it, but I just wanted to confirm that yours is the correct reading.

  2. It’d be great if the standard LDS edition of the scriptures contained such a footnote.

  3. Yes, misappropriation of an otherwise beautiful scripture and all that, but HOLY COW!! How did I not know about the Footnotes to the New Testament for LDS books??? I’ve downloaded the PDF’s while I wait for the books to be shipped to me.

  4. I am startled and horrified that at the age of 38, my understanding of 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 was, until now, essentially that of the Sharing Time lesson plan.

  5. HDP (and Kevin): I didn’t know about them, either, until Kevin mentioned them. They’re available here. They look like a great resource!

    Emily U: No shame in that. We all just keep learning!

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks HDP, hope you like them.

  7. Kevin Barney – in the introduction to your Footnotes to the NT for LDS, you mention that “much of the of the need for this book would be obviated if one were simply to read the nt in a good, modern translation.” Can you point me towards your favorite modern translation? Thanks!

  8. This also gets to the use of scripture for personal interpretation, or likening them unto us. LDS are encouraged to do this, which I think is valid, using them as a sort of personal Liahona. But we probably ignore the “ye’s” and other contextual discussions in our teaching to our detriment. The only time in my college career that I had a BYU professor say he was tempted to give me an A+ on a paper was in a BOM class, because he said I, unlike most all of his students, focused on what the text actually said (Jacob 5). I was flattered by what he said but mostly I was impacted by the importance of the text and the context. I noticed this “ye” in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 when reading along with this scripture during a sacrament meeting talk last Sunday and I was thinking along the lines of the plural body of the church. I don’t remember hearing many discussions in GD etc. of the context as you have laid it out here, which really clarifies it. Of course, the speaker used the individual “body” in her interpretation. The Primary isn’t the only example.

  9. Alan T: Kevin can speak for himself, but I like the NRSV (mentioned in the post). One has to be careful of the NIV, particularly with Paul. I have friends who love the REB. The NET is also good, especially for the notes.

    Bro. B.: You’re definitely correct that the “individual body” interpretation isn’t limited to Primary. In my experience it’s the predominant interpretation in both curriculum and general LDS discourse.

  10. Alan, I agree with Jason K.. I like the REB (especially the Old Testament), but for the NT, I like a good study Bible. I was talking with Julie Smith, who prefers (as do I) the HarperCollins Study Bible over the Oxford (but just barely). I also really like the Jewish Annotated New Testament (from Oxford–I think they’re working on a new edition).

  11. PS. I’ve been using Kevin’s footnotes for every New Testament reference for EVERY lesson or talk I’ve given for years. Its awesome and I’m only missing an Old Testament one. (Maybe I should get off my duff and do something about it). Its unfortunate that so few people know about it.

  12. Yes, the Jewish Study Bible is great, and a second edition is indeed underway. I like my 3rd-edition Oxford, but I also refer to HarperCollins frequently.

  13. Jason. The 2d Edition of the Jewish Study has been out for a couple of years (white cover), I’m referring to the Jewish Annotated New Testament.

  14. Right. I meant the JANT. Sorry for the confusion. (The 2nd ed. of the JSB is on the shelf behind me as I type this.)

  15. How did I not know about Kevin’s book?! What a great resource. Thanks!

    I like the readability of English Standard Version (ESV) and have used NRSV in the past. I use NET for the footnotes and text comments. The iPad app for the NET doesn’t let you copy notes, so I use the web interface so I can create comments in Gospel Library and quote bits from the NET notes.

  16. I blogged about this very thing myself a while ago: http://www.wheatandtares.org/12533/body-as-temple/. The passage connects nicely with the idea that the spirit will dwell when 2 or 3 are gathered in the name of Christ:

    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.

    That gathering is what is meant by the body; it’s an assemblage. It’s maddening when we focus on modesty or tattoo or other forms of body shaming and use this scripture as justification.

  17. Amen, Angela!

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    The translations I like are the same as Jason’s. On why the NIV should be used with some caution, see this: https://bycommonconsent.com/2008/10/25/niv/

  19. And, instead of addressing topics like the inordinate spiritual danger arising from uncovered six-year-old shoulders, we could talk about how we might glorify God in our bodies, e.g., by using them to serve others.

    A thousand times yes!

  20. peterllc and Angela C said what I was going to say, so I have nothing to add but amen.

  21. Thank you all for the suggestions on good modern translations of the New Testament. I’ll check these out. I noticed this morning while reading a talk from April Conference that President Uchtdorf used a modern translation to quote James 2:13 (he used the ESV).

  22. Dog Pface says:

    Thank you for pointing this out. I really want to know better. Ironic really that the primary theme more or less in its implementation teaches kids that saying is knowing…..

  23. Clark Goble says:

    Jason, while I completely agree with your exegesis of Paul, I’m a bit more confused about how this makes the Primary use wrong. After all if our bodies are temples in the sense they are part of a larger temple, that doesn’t mean respecting that body is any different. While it’d be more accurate to the text to say “my body is part of a temple” rather than “my body is a temple” I don’t think that changes much about the implications nor lesson.

  24. Clark, it’s in the OP. The problem is that we set children up to miss a central part of what Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians. If we want them to know the scriptures are true, we should teach them how to read and understand what the scriptures actually say.

  25. D Christian Harrison says:

    I love this, Jason. Thank you.

  26. Wrote a Primary talk for my daughter this last Sunday with the given topic, “My body is a temple.” I have the Jewish Annotated New Testament, so I was amused to see the plural reference in chapter 3. Relied on chapter 6 to justify a personal adaptation (the footnotes said both Paul was talking both plural and singular application there). I still took the trajectory of respecting our bodies (eating right, exercising, keeping healthy, getting sleep, washing up, dressing nice on Sunday) as respecting God’s gift and creating a more hospitable environment for the spirit. If I were doing an adult talk, I would have loved to point out the church as a body as the OP and other commenters pointed out. I think King Benjamin’s reference to Christ’s mortal body as a “tabernacle of clay” lends support to the more typical Mormon interpretation of bodies as personal temples, though. Christ’s physical body housed deity, literally.

  27. Clark Goble says:

    OK, I’d got that. I just took you to be making a stronger claim that went beyond how we’re part of the body of Chrsit. But I guess I wasn’t reading you correctly.

    Interestingly I was curious as to when the use started. It seems to have really only become popular in this usage the last 20 years. Prior to that the scripture was still quoted, but more in terms of doing service. The change seems to happen in the mid 90’s in manuals for the youth on the Word of Wisdom. Although perhaps they were in older manuals that just haven’t been digitized. But in terms of talks, there’s a pretty distinct usage difference from before the mid 90’s to the more recent era of the new millennium. It’s really the last 10 years in particular that it’s become very popular.

    Somewhat surprisingly the Student Manual on 1 Corinthians get the usage right. (Not surprisingly I suppose given that’s it’s not proof-texting for a theme)

  28. Referring to the body (individual, physical) as a temple is not unique to Mormons. Many evangelicals also assume that’s what it means.

  29. My body is a temple…to Dionysus.

  30. Beware of maenads…

  31. Once you’ve read The Bacchae, it’s hard not to think of it when reading about Justin Bieber being beset by mobs of adolescent girls, or how Beatles concerts always reeked of urine because of girls peeing themselves with excitement.

  32. Very cool, Jason.

  33. Stupid Euripides corrupts everything.

    (Ok, actually he was a genius.)

  34. Drat! I finally heard about Footnotes to the New Testament for LDS books, and now there is an error on the site. Is there somewhere else I can find them?

    Thank you BCC for shedding light on important topics, and making me think.

  35. Whilst the scriptures encourage us to “liken” them to ourselves, Nephi used that phrase in a very specific context – that of Isaiah’s prophecies, and his re-using them to tell his own story. The scriptures have a wonderful tradition of being used legitimately out of strict context, but I think the danger comes when we take that “likening” and turn it into doctrine. The danger here is not necessarily (or not only) that we create “doctrine” where non previously existed, but that we miss out on what the author (Paul in this case) was trying to say.

  36. Hey, Kevin, Feat Upon the Word is down, for some reason, and I can’t seem to find a place to get a copy of the Footnotes book. Are there alternative places to get it?

  37. Outstanding, Jason. Thanks for explaining this. I also, as a KJV reader (and not a careful one, at that) hadn’t ever gotten this point either.

  38. This is a great point. I love the idea of teaching children (and adults) to understand individual verses as a stepping stone toward appreciating and understanding the scriptures as a continuous whole, not as a compendium of discreet ideas.

    I’m in the Primary too, playing the piano, and having the hardest time with the selection of Praise to the Man as the hymn of the year. This October, you’ll see me on the stand happily accompanying five songs and cringing through the sixth.

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