Paul and Authority

Jana Reiss had up an interesting post last week where she suggested Mormons don’t know what to do with Paul as an apostle. In particular she claimed, “it’s discomfiting to realize that Paul’s apostleship was entirely of the self-proclaimed, charismatic variety.” I’d take some exception to this. A few brief thoughts.

First, after Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) Jesus in vision says, “now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” He goes to Ananias. He preaches after that, but it’s interesting that he’s not independent but has to go elsewhere to be healed and directed. That’s prior to his rise to leadership, but it strongly goes against the view of Paul as independent. Throughout his epistles and Acts we find him interacting with leadership.

After he’d been preaching for a little bit he goes to Jerusalem to try and meet the Apostles. While most were afraid of him, Barnabas introduces him to the Apostles and he stays with them. Again, hardly independent.

The usual appeal for independent authority is Galatians 1. “But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus.” However he continues, “I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles–only James, the Lord’s brother.”

First off one can certainly preach without authority – everyone who shares the gospel with others does that. However it is significant that he did go to meet with the Apostles even if he only saw Peter and James, the two main figures in the Church. I’d make a distinction between having authority and merely sharing the gospel. One can and should always be doing the latter regardless of authority. However Paul’s significant role seems not tied to that. His letters are not significant as a kind of independent authority. Taking Galatians 1:1 as that seems wrong. We know that he regularly consulted with the Apostles. We know that Paul gave the “gift of God” to Timothy through the laying on of hands. (1 Tim 4:14, 2 Tim 1:6) We know Paul goes to consult with Peter and the Apostles over doctrine. (Acts 15:1-2) We know that he says that “I am ordained a preacher, and an apostle.” (1 Tim 2:7)

It’s certainly true that in the early Palestinian Church apostle was a broader term than how we think of it in terms of priesthood office. That’s true in the early restored Church as well. However I don’t think it follows that Paul is somehow independent of the 12. I don’t think it’s clear if Paul was a member of the 12. I suspect he wasn’t but we don’t know. The counter argument is in scriptures like Romans 11:13 where he talks of magnifying his office and the afore mentioned 1 Tim 4:14. However while I think it clear he was ordained to something it’s not clear if it’s the 12.

11 comments for “Paul and Authority

  1. I think the bigger issue is that New Testament leadership structures look very different than the modern church and I think many rank and file members would be surprised by that.

  2. There’s definitely some differences but it’s also worth noting that everything starts falling apart after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. So you only have about 40 years. But you have first Peter in charge and then by many appearances James, the brother of Jesus, taking his place for a while. After both of them are dead things fall apart. You have new people being called to the 12. You have three of the 12 with apparently more authority/prestige. First Peter, James and John and then later Peter, James the brother of Jesus, and John. You have seventy. There’s a debate over whether Bishops are appointed by 12/70 or are popularly elected but I think a strong case can be made for appointment and acceptance via common consent.

    So where’s the big difference in leadership structure? I’m not saying there aren’t differences but I think people are either exaggerating the differences or overplaying the evidence.

  3. I always like to turn these arguments around when dealing with spotty historical records that were never intended to serve as complete documentary evidence of anything. If the leadership structure and concept of priesthood authority in the early church were similar to ours now in most essential respects, how would the NT record look different? If Paul was an apostle or 70 who was ordained as we think of it now and served at the pleasure of the head apostle or quorum of the church, how would the NT record be different?

  4. I have long seen Paul as a convert who had to consult the apostles, who later shaped the dominant narrative behind it and made it into a widespread movement. I don’t think that there is much in common with the early Christian church and the LDS church structure. Largely because it spread all over the place very quickly, it is was very difficult to have a central authority. Even after Christianity merged with governments, its heads and leading spokespeople have never been united and have largely operated independently. Thanks to Paul it became much easier to become a Christian. Early apostles seemed to have wanted Gentile converts to go through the motions of Judaism first before becoming a Christian. Paul helped bring in Gentiles to the movement at a much faster pace. In fact, it was arguably because of Gentiles that the NT was compiled and created into what it is today.

  5. Clark, Owen,

    First, confession on my part, not an NT scholar I just play one in the comments section sometimes. But I have read quite a bit of NT scholarship and there is certainly a variety of opinion on what role the Q12 and what their relationship to Paul was. If the only point of this blog post is to argue “Paul had some respect for Peter and might not be AS independent as Riess argues in her blog post” I think that is a case you can make. I do NOT think you can make a case that early Christians priesthood structure looked anything like the current LDS Church.

    Frankly, I do not know why anyone would want to do that. The LDS Church priesthood structure didn’t even look like the LDS church priesthood structure 100 years ago, or 150 years ago, or 185 years ago or 189 years ago. Part of why I don’t think the “early church had a lot in common with our church” narrative won’t work is, even assuming we have found structural nirvana now, what does that say for Joseph Smith? The Q12 did not take the dominant role they have today until BY. Even then they didn’t truly take their role until post correlation.

    Rather than invest in a shaky foundation, why not just change the missionary lessons to reflect that the structure of God’s church changes with revelation? Besides, I thought we believed the bedrock of the church was revelation? Not some brittle structure that never changes over time.

  6. You can’t make the case that it looks ANYTHING like the ancient church? I think Clark has already made that case (a central authority of 12 apostles and a transfer of authority by the laying on of hands is surely SOMETHING that the two have in common).

    For my part, I have a hunch that Paul was called to the 12, but I have no further evidence than its plausibility and my own feelings.

  7. JasonB, again I recognize there’s a fair bit of debate over early Christian structure – particularly post 70 AD. However again I think we have to be clear about what structures we’re talking about.

    1. Was Peter (and later James the brother of Jesus) leaders in the early Church largely directing practice. Yes.
    2. Were loses to the 12 initially made up. Yes.
    3. Was there a group of 12 apostles with a status different and higher than Bishops. Yes.
    4. Was there a secondary group of 70 sometimes also called apostles. Yes.
    5. Were there people set apart by the laying on of hands. Yes.

    So I don’t deny there may well have been differences but most people who say our structure is the same as the ancient Church largely mean those elements. If you think that wrong, please be specific about which elements you disagree with.

    Now once we move beyond that things get murkier but even there I think we can make a strong case that a purported structure is plausibly in the early Church even if we don’t know for sure. i.e. compatible with the evidence. That’s where I think you are going.

    1. That Apostles had an ecclesiastical authority over Bishops and not just Peter (or later James)
    2. That Bishops were appointed and then accepted by common consent and not elected by the local congregation.
    3. That baptism required authorization.
    4. That there was higher knowledge (gnosis) not taught openly but not heretical. i.e. not just what the gnostics taught
    5. That there was baptism for the dead again done by authority

    I’d be the first to admit that these elements are more controversial. It’s not my point that they aren’t controversial merely that they can’t be ruled out.

    Now there are differences. I think the Didiche clearly gives a sacrament prayer quite different from the Nephite prayer we use. I think that baptism by sprinkling arose out practical allowances for baptism due to living in a desert without a lot of water. (Again outlined in the Didiche)

    There’s also things that aren’t quite clear but that I tend to accept. For instance I tend to think that James the brother of Jesus replaced Peter as head of the Church until his own death. I think that the leadership of the formal 12 ended at James death even if a few apostles survived longer. I don’t think the secret teachings (temple and knowledge of the heavens) were passed along and what we find among the gnostics is corrupt versions of it. Those are all harder to establish and certainly controversial. But I think the broad structure of the Church is pretty defensible for the period 30 AD up until a little after the destruction of the temple. (James is usually taken to have died either in 64 AD or 69 AD – before the temple and Peter in 64 AD)

    To the question of whether Paul was made either a 70 or one of the 12, there I’m more mixed. I just don’t know. I doubt he was one of the 12 but I could easily be wrong. There certainly are arguments for that but it seems much more debatable.

    So I think our conceptions of authority and teaching as well as apostasy pretty much mean the Church as we understand it didn’t survive in a full fashion long. We get Churches started, are still trying to work out the kinks and then the destruction of the temple and associated Roman treatment throws a wrench in everything.

  8. The Roman destruction of the temple was much greater than just the temple, but rather a war where up to 1.2 million Jews were slaughtered by the Romans. I’ve never considered the impact that would have on the early church.

    Think what would happen now to church authority and growth if Christians everywhere were being killed over. Many Latter-day Saints would stand by and fight with their Christian brethren and virtually all church work would stop as various cities were either destroyed or cut off. The apostasy is much easier to imagine when you consider all the understandable regional false doctrines creeping in over time mingled with the total destruction of Jerusalem and many other cities.

  9. Josephus claims 1.1 million killed but there are pretty good reasons to be skeptical of that figure. Most scholars think less than that were even living in the region. And only about half of those were Jewish.

    Worth noting that while the temple had burned, it hadn’t been razed. The real total destruction of Jerusalem and recreation into Aelia Capitolina came after the Bar Kokhba revolt about 60 years later. That’s when the total Diaspora happens.

    There’s a late tradition that the Christian leaders in Jerusalem had a revelation to flee to Pella prior to the Romans surrounding Jerusalem. It’s heavily debated by scholars whether that is a trustworthy tradition.

    None of that is to deny a heavy effect on early Christianity. I’d go so far as to argue that it transformed early Christianity making it more gentile friendly since now most of the differences from Judaism were gone.

  10. Paul is an “apostle” in a different sense than Peter and the remaining 12. Paul is merely an apostle in the sense of “one sent” — and that is the meaning of the Greek work apostolos. However, Paul was not a member of the 12 apostle. He did not have the authority that they had in the early church. Frankly, he had no authority to write for the Church as a whole. His (genuine) letters should be seen as missionary epistles to those whom he taught to give loving direction, not as a statement of the early Christian community that was led by the 12 on a general basis and by James the brother of the Lord as a local leader specifically in Jerusalem (James was something like what we would not recognize as an Area Authority or perhaps Stake President in Jerusalem).

  11. Clark, thanks for this post. I find these kind of discussions fascinating and appreciate your perspective. A couple of follow up questions:

    “We know that he [Paul] regularly consulted with the Apostles.” One of the things that struck me this year in CFM was just how much time Acts covers (30-40 years) compared to the Gospels (Mark 1 year, John 3). I’m only aware of maybe 3 times Paul consulted with apostles in those decades: before his first missionary journey (ca. 40), during the Jerusalem council (ca. 50), and before his arrest (ca. 60). Is there evidence of more interaction that I am missing?

    “there’s a fair bit of debate over early Christian structure – particularly post 70 AD.” What do you make of the consensus that the Gospels (and therefore Acts) were written after this time? Does that influence how you weigh information from Acts vs Galatians?

    “2. Were loses to the 12 initially made up. Yes.” Is there a tradition beyond Judas’ replacement? You seem to suggest a couple different times that James the brother of Jesus became an apostle, not just an elder in the early Jerusalem Christian community. Is there evidence of that, or are you reading between the lines?

    I was also surprised this time through Acts to see that it’s really only Peter and John from the 12 that do anything post-resurrection. Is there evidence that the 12 acted as a body beyond Acts 2 and the Day of Pentecost?

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