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!