Messianic Family

As I’ve been making my way—very slowly—through N. T. Wright’s massive Paul and the Faithfulness of God, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between Paul’s argument in the Epistle to the Romans and LDS family theology. Romans has been important to me for a long time, to the point that it (along with Paul’s related writings about the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians) has become pretty central to my own witness of how and why Jesus matters, not only cosmically, but personally. 

Until recently, I’ve thought that Paul’s major message to Latter-day Saints has to do with reframing our strong cultural emphasis on obedience. I still think that, but now it seems to me that Paul’s argument also goes to the heart of the recent LDS emphasis on the centrality of the family, defined in terms of heterosexual marriage. [fn1]

As I read Paul, he is after the same goal at which LDS sealing theology aims: the union of the entire human family as a fulfillment of the divine promise that Abraham would be a father of many nations. But it seems to me that Paul and Mormons diverge in the means by which they expect these ends to be accomplished. For Paul, Torah observance is insufficient to the Abrahamic promise, because it holds out salvation only to one nation, not many (and that nation in any case proved unable to secure salvation through Torah). Thus, he argues in Romans 2 (following Deuteronomy and Jeremiah) that what really matters is the circumcision (a metonymy for Torah observance) of the heart. In Romans 4 he argues, using Abraham himself as the example, that such heart-observance is possible even for people who neither have the Torah nor keep it in the obvious external ways (e.g., again, circumcision).

All of this is possible because Jesus, as the covenantal embodiment of Israel, both suffered its failure on the cross and inaugurated a new creation in the resurrection. People who hear the call of the cross through the Spirit become participants in the new creation, as manifest through their faithful heart-observance, which makes possible an Abrahamic family composed of many nations, one that does not require that its members tick the boxes of Torah observance, to include circumcision and dietary laws. (See Galatians 2, where Paul gets mad at Peter for refusing to dine with gentiles in the presence of the Jerusalem Christians; the issue is that such observance creates second-class citizens in the body of Christ, and Paul will not tolerate that.)

Mormons, by contrast with the Pauline approach, insist that membership in the celestial family requires temple ordinances and cannot be achieved by any other means. Hence the urgency of family history and temple work—a topic that the anecdotal evidence of conversations with friends suggests is receiving some new church-wide emphasis. People who don’t accept temple ordinances will end up in one of the other kingdoms, which, to hear the way we talk about it at church, seems like a consolation prize for the also-ran. [fn2]

I submit, therefore, that the observance of temple ordinances functions for Mormons very much like the way that Torah functions for Paul, which includes the problems with Torah observance that Paul points out. If the Torah, for Paul, reveals our sin in our inability to keep it, so too do temple ordinances reveal their inadequacy to the desired ends, in the way that they seem to leave single and divorced people in the lurch, to say nothing of LGBTQ+ people. That is, there can’t be any union of the whole human family without these people, and their way in seems unclear, given the norms we’ve laid out.

Granted, we have repeated promises that no opportunity will be withheld from a faithful person, and we tend to understand these promises as guaranteeing that everyone will eventually get the coveted temple marriage. Perhaps, though, we could read these promises in a more Pauline way, such that what matters is the faith and not the particular way in which God answers that faith. After all, faith, for Paul, need not result in external Torah observance.

Part of the issue, then, is what “faith” means in the first place. I don’t think that Wright ever put it exactly this way, but he seems, in his vast chapter on justification, to understand faith as being faithful to the work of the Holy Spirit in you. That definition makes eminent sense to me, both as a reader of Paul and as a person invested in following Jesus. That said, it makes for unpredictable outcomes: to step outside Paul for a moment, the Spirit blows where it lists. At the same time, the whole body of Christ metaphor is premised on other people having the Spirit guide them in ways that make no sense to us; otherwise, why would the eye say to the hand, “I have no need of you”?

At the heart of everything is love (charity, in the Latinate preference of the KJV). Love, it seems to me, means accepting the work of the Spirit in others when it’s not only different from the way that the Spirit works in us, but maybe even different from the way we think that the Spirit works at all.

This kind of acceptance is hard. If growing into the Abrahamic family cannot happen without it, there’s a further ironic twist, which is that family is sometimes an outright obstacle to it. I thought of this when I listened recently to an episode of NPR’s Invisibilia that focuses on a couple of uncomfortable disconnects: between the American propensity to want to fix things and the intractability of mental illness, and between the deep emotional investments that family members have for each other and the way that strangers seem better equipped to give mentally ill people the kind of love they need.

The episode talks about a Belgian town called Geel that has a centuries-old tradition of families inviting mentally ill people to live in their homes, often for decades. These families practice a kind of radical acceptance, in that they are not attempting to “cure” these boarders. This acceptance doesn’t mean that all problems magically disappear. Still, it can ameliorate them in various ways, whether by reconceptualizing what constitutes a problem worth worrying about—like the woman who realized that her boarder just needed to tear the buttons off his shirt every day to be happy—or by the way that acceptance over time gives people the space they need to work through some of their issues. (Jean Vanier’s L’Arche communities also practice this kind of acceptance: instead of trying to cure or contain the disabled, you just live with them and learn how to celebrate life together. It’s a beautiful vision.)

Here’s the catch, though: the very people who were able to have mentally ill boarders live with them for decades at a time struggled to show similar acceptance to family members with mental health issues. Their relationship was too close, and that got in the way. Sometimes, family bonds give the people involved the strength they need to get through hard things, but sometimes family bonds are hindrances rather than helps. Sometimes it’s important, as President Hinckley taught, not to be the weak link in the chain of your generations, by maintaining the good traditions and ties established by your forebears. But sometimes, when the chains of your generations feel more like those that burdened Jacob Marley in Dickens’s story, you need to be the weak link, the one to break cycles of abuse or harm. Being that weak link requires strength, and it requires enough faith to hear and heed the Spirit blowing through your heart. Sometimes, the people who help you see that in yourself will come from outside your family, and they’ll be crucial to nurturing that work of the Spirit in you.

Just as Paul in Romans is urgent in his refusal to reject Torah (the epistle is only supersessionist if you ignore chapters 9-11, and not even then), I’m not arguing here that LDS family theology is bad in any unqualified way. All I’m saying is that whatever part it has to contribute to the building of Zion is not enough. It’s just not sufficient to the task. If we’re going to get to Zion, in which we finally learn to live together as the great family promised to Abraham, sometimes that’ll come from wrestling to love the people in our families, but part of it will come, too, from both being and loving the mentally ill boarders, where the good comes out of being (to appropriate a signature phrase from 1 Corinthians 7) family as if not family. That, for Paul, is what being the messianic family is all about. [fn3]

I love the story of the road to Emmaus, in which two of Jesus’ disciples did not recognize the resurrected Lord. As Ronan observed, this means that any stranger we meet could be Jesus. Maybe our path toward becoming a Zion family means learning to love each other not as the family we know and recognize, but as strangers, because perhaps only thus can we become strangers no more.


[fn1] Yes, I get the irony of citing Romans in a post aimed at exposing the limits of LDS family theology, given that Romans 1 provides a favorite passage for people intent on showing the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality. The thing is, though, that Paul’s comment in that passage depends on upholding Roman conceptions of masculinity, whose consequences for women are, I suspect, repugnant even to most conservative Mormons. They are, in any case, at odds with the Family Proclamation, which says that men and women should be equal partners in their marriages and parenting obligations—a notion that would horrify any proponent of Roman masculinity. In other words, if there’s a legitimate theological basis for excluding LGBTQ+ folks as such from LDS family theology, it isn’t in Romans 1. Of course, asserting the relevance of Romans to LDS theology assumes, without much evidence to support it, that Mormons actually care what’s in Romans.

[fn2] I think that Bruce R. McConkie was wrong to oppose the idea of progression between kingdoms. YMMV.

[fn3] Giorgio Agamben’s book The Time That Remains contains an excellent exposition of the as-if-not idea in relation to the messianic. It’s complicated, but worth it.


  1. Melanie1262 says:

    I, too, was moved by that episode of Invisibilia last year! What struck me from the podcast was how trying to “fix” people–or show them a “better way” to be or do something–is another form of control, and most often adds to their shame and guilt. And it is primarily those with whom we have a shared identity (i.e., family, fellow church members) that we feel entitled to fix. Often it is easier to be more accepting and tolerant of “strangers.” Listening to this made me weep because I recognized how I had inadvertently contributed to my children’s shame, guilt, perfectionism, etc. by trying to “fix” them. For a few days I despaired over this recognition. Then I went to my adult children, called them on the phone, invited them to listen to the podcast, shared with them the epiphany I had had, and asked them for forgiveness. Their response was gracious, which is what Romans is mostly about–receiving and giving Grace.

    Have you read Adam Miller’s “Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan”? Miller says,
    “This new life in Christ crosses all the old boundary lines. God’s grace is offered freely to
    both insiders and outsiders. Anyone willing to meet God’s promised grace with faith and
    trust of their own will find guilt, fear, and anger washed away. Without waiting for us to make
    the first move, God’s grace is already working to gather and seal the whole human family as
    joint-heirs with Christ.”

    I love your conception of the Abrahamic family and the Pauline approach. Thanks for your post :)

  2. I love to see that kind of grace at work; thanks for sharing! And I have read Adam Miller’s book, which I think does a decent job of making Paul’s argument in the epistle accessible to modern readers.

  3. Jason, I greatly appreciate this. As often happens, you take ideas that I’ve mulled over for years and magnify and beautifully express them. If you weren’t so engrossed in Paul’s letters and Wright’s work (I have at least _opened_ my copy) you might also refer to Peter’s vision described in Acts 10.

    Your lens seems to be focused on the sealing ordinance and theology, especially as it might affect “single, divorced . . . and LGBTQ+ people.” I would suggest that the analysis holds for temple ordinances more generally. It is easily observed that a current temple recommend and “endowed” status function as Torah observance in the modern Church. Any adult member who stands outside, who is not conforming in that way, is a second class part of the community. Some would say steerage class, because we sometimes treat strangers, i.e., never-members, better than members who are not current temple participants. I’m a little restive about the “mental illness” model but it fits in too many ways.

  4. I agree about the endowment. As for the mental illness model, I think I understand your reservation, but I’m personally hesitant to regard the mentally ill or disabled as “other.” Not only do I share a common humanity with them, but neither am I willing to claim myself as fully mentally healthy or abled. Too much evidence to the contrary…

  5. Cody Hatch says:

    Jason, thank you for sharing a beautiful post. That book took me over a year to finish (it’s huge and dense, though I felt that Wright got at times repetitive) and provided a lot of food for thought. Good luck on the journey. I’d also recommend reading Larry Hurtado’s rebuttal to the book (he and several other scholars are releasing collection of their papers as the rebuttal).

    Paul is my favorite and I definitely prefer his view of the family of God to that of the LDS Church. It makes so much more sense to me than the legalistic framework we employ. It’s more hopeful and inclusive. Can you imagine what a change in perspective that must have been for Paul, a former zealous Pharisee? It is all the more powerful coming from him.

  6. Thanks, Cody. I’ll keep an eye out for the Hurtado volume. And I’ve yet to read a book this long that didn’t need a good editor to cut it down (except maybe for War and Peace, but I haven’t read that for 20 years).

  7. J. Stapley says:

    I’m compelled by WW’s description of the sealed human family: “there will be few if any” who ultimately won’t be included.

  8. Lot’s to ponder, Jason. Any ordinances, while divinely instituted, are performed here in the world and are a part of a broken and fallen world, so they must be redeemed by grace before they can fulfill their purpose. I think even the least theologically adventurous members recognize that—if nothing else, by saying that all the sticky issues (divorces & remarriages, but also the inability to do ordinances for those for which there are insufficient records) will have to be worked out by the Lord in the millennium or thereafter. I’m reminded of the comments in the Book of Mormon about keeping the Law of Moses, but doing so looking forward to Christ.

    Commandments, ordinances, laws, are there to point us to the grace of Christ. One of the ways they do that is by exposing our inability to achieve salvation by complying with them. Another way they might do that is by exposing their inability, or at least their inability according to our current understanding of them, to achieve salvation. In either case, they help us see that no matter what, even if we did everything perfectly, we can’t get to salvation or to exaltation without throwing ourselves completely at Christ’s mercy.

  9. Me too, J. The question is how, and although I don’t think we can expect to see that fully in the present, it still becomes us to bring as much of the justice to come into the present as we can.

  10. Enjoyed your comments JKC. I am a little troubled by the mental illness model held up. It may be correct but I wonder if it is the ultimate good we should seek for those suffering. My personal experience with the mentally ill is that the damage they do to families is too great to accept without both attempting to increase our knowledge and skills in seeking better treatment and hopefully a cure. Radical acceptance is insufficient. And yes, strangers do often handle the situations better, but why wouldn’t they? It is not their families being destroyed, their financial well-being shredded, their reputations tarnished by the delusions and lies told by the mentally ill.
    And isn’t the concept of the righteous being moved to a higher kingdom where they no longer have to be affected by the damage done by wickedness, one where the sinner is not even allowed to visit, the way that God chooses to spend his eternity. He may love all his children, but he will not allow the ill-behaved to live with him.

  11. Jason: Regarding mental illness, three problems I see:

    1. Mental illness is a broad brush, that includes at one end quite a variety of ‘differences’ that I would prefer to include in our general sense of normal, including myself (even if there are things we can do that will make life more fulfilling and happy for the individual), and at the other extreme difficulties that threaten any reasonable functioning and even the life of the individual and those around them. I suffer from anxiety which resulted in a sleepless night last night. My friend will very likely kill himself if he goes off his medication. A world of difference.

    2. Mental illness is “othered” in our society. Kudos to you for resisting, personally. But any use of a mental illness model needs to take into account the audience, many of whom will hear and react to an “othering” sense. And in fact I think you mean to use that sense, in a challenge sort of way.

    3. In Mormon culture in particular, it is my opinion that homosexual orientation is too often viewed as a mental illness, and that different non-standard not-with-the-program spiritual experiences are interpreted as mental illness. Aren’t we supposed to all get the same answer to the same question? Isn’t the celestial kingdom just for people who think like us?

    In short, I think the mental illness model is perceptive — hits us where it hurts — but fraught. Easily misunderstood. Too quick.

  12. Walter: I think that your points about the damage that mental illness can wreak on families is well taken. If you listen to the episode, there are some poignant stories about this. It seems that sometimes redeeming the family situation requires means beyond the family, which is all I’m really saying here.

    As for the multiple kingdoms, I think it’s important to bear in mind that they’re all kingdoms of glory, so wickedness per se may not be the distinguishing factor. Besides, the progression between kingdoms idea suggests that people can learn and grow even in the eternities. Personally, I can’t reconcile the idea of a God who wants to be cordoned off from some of us with a God who, in the form of Jesus, descended below all things and embraced the breadth and depth of human abjection on the cross.

  13. Could there not be in part a matter of preferences that separate the kingdoms? If say, entering a certain kimgdom meant taking on certain obligations which you’d rather not, would not then a kingdom without those requiments seem like a better choice?

  14. Definitely, Sophia. Some of us were wondering the other day if the three kingdoms aren’t just a kind of metonymy for “many mansions.”

  15. Same sex attraction is a temporary mortal experience. Its caused sometimes by vaccines (mercury aluminum), mercury fillings in the mom, or the junk in junk food.
    You literally cannot have ssa in a perfect body.
    So the issue of ssa is first and foremost an issue of toxicity (bom calls it pollutions)
    There are no pollutions in heaven.

  16. Nice theory, Corbin, but you have zero credible evidence for any of it. I mean, clearly those Greeks had issues with vaccinations and eating too many Doritos. (Read Plato’s Symposium lately?) And the Book of Mormon nowhere refers to homosexuality. These are the sort of ad hoc justifications that kept the priesthood and temple ban alive. No thank you.

  17. “Same sex attraction is a temporary mortal experience. Its caused sometimes by vaccines (mercury aluminum), mercury fillings in the mom, or the junk in junk food.
    You literally cannot have ssa in a perfect body.”

    Same sex attraction may well turn out to be solely a mortal thing. It is just as likely that it is not, or that it will persist in eternity to the same degree that hetero attraction may persist in eternity. I don’t know. But I do not believe that it is caused by vaccines, fillings, or junk food. In any case, that certainly isn’t doctrinal.

  18. Another thing Torah and LDS temple observance had/have in common is the unequal participation of women. For those of us who’ve developed anyphylaxis to the patriarchy baked into temple liturgy, I hope God will accept faith in place of external temple observance. If not, well, the Terrestrial Kingdom is probably a pretty nice place. I’d rather live there limited but safe than exist in the Celestial Kingdom dependent on a constant supply of epi-pens.

  19. I hear you, Emily.

  20. I don’t want to go to heaven if there is no junk food.

  21. A heaven with Diet Coke would exclude 90% of my friends, so yeah.

  22. Jason, after reading your comment: “Walter: I think that your points about the damage that mental illness can wreak on families is well taken. If you listen to the episode, there are some poignant stories about this. It seems that sometimes redeeming the family situation requires means beyond the family, which is all I’m really saying here,” I think I’m on the same page with you regarding that issue. There are things strangers and friends can do that family cannot, not only in the case of mental illness, but also with addicted family members, and those adult children without any significant mental illness other that still wanting to live at home as dependents.
    All of this makes me wonder at Jesus comments regarding family, “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matt. 10:37-38)

  23. Cody and Jason, There are more than one response to the book (in fact nearly every one of the 4 volumes in Wright’s series have had response volumes. I think the one you’re talking about is called God and the Faithfulness of Paul. Its edited by Christopher Heilig, J. Thomas Hewitt and Michael F. Bird. It was originally published by Mohr Siebeck (expensive), but is now in a much more affordable edition from Fortress Press. It has an essay by Hurtado, but a whole lot more, including a response from Wright himself.

    I also recommend Exile: A Conversation with N.T. Wright edited by James M. Scott (just hit my desk today in fact). It addresses Wright’s theory about the exile of Israel. I will continue to ponder the OP and either agree or disagree (mostly in my own mind), but I applaud our beginning interactions with thinkers like Tom Wright, who is prolific as well as profound.

  24. Thanks, Terry. I’m glad for this expanding bibliography, which I may get to after all the books currently swelling up behind a certain 1500-page dam :)

  25. I doubt that Paul was trying to throw out all Laws, which you see to be arguing. Let everybody in Heaven, it’s all good.

  26. I really like this post, Jason, particularly this insight: “Love, it seems to me, means accepting the work of the Spirit in others when it’s not only different from the way that the Spirit works in us, but maybe even different from the way we think that the Spirit works at all.”

    This is a bit of a stretch, but the point you mention from the Invisibilia podcast about strangers being able to provide better support to mentally ill people than family reminded me of a point I’ve seen repeatedly made on a job advice blog I’ve been reading. The point is that strangers make better co-workers/bosses than do friends and family (although it’s typically not put quite that way). I wonder if there isn’t a similarity between the situations. When you’re someone’s employee but also their relative, when they evaluate your job performance, does the family relationship leak in too? Along the same lines, I wonder if a therapist wouldn’t have a difficult time evaluating a family member because of the family relationship leaking in.

    Anyway, great post. Lots to think about. Thank you for writing it!

  27. jader3rd: you missed the paragraph that explicitly counters your reading.

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