Gospel Doctrine for the Godless

An ex-Mormon take on LDS Sunday School lessons

NT Lesson 31 (Thessalonians)

“And So Were the Churches Established in the Faith”

Acts 15:36–18:22; 1 and 2 Thessalonians

LDS manual: here


To encourage readers to question fearlessly.


We’re starting to get into Paul’s epistles in this lesson. And there’s some overlap with Paul’s missionary journeys. Those must have been a hoot!

Here’s one where Paul and Barnabas can’t agree on who to take along with them, and — Oh, no! — Barnabas breaks Rule 72!

Acts 15:36 And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the LORD, and see how they do.
15:37 And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark.
15:38 But Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work.
15:39 And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus;

In LDS missions, this is referred to as the first “companionship inventory”.

Then Paul performed an operation on another companion, Timotheus.

Acts 16:1 Then came he to Derbe and Lystra: and, behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timotheus, the son of a certain woman, which was a Jewess, and believed; but his father was a Greek:
16:2 Which was well reported of by the brethren that were at Lystra and Iconium.
16:3 Him would Paul have to go forth with him; and took and circumcised him because of the Jews which were in those quarters: for they knew all that his father was a Greek.

This raises all kinds of questions for me.

  • Was it kind of awkward for Paul to circumcise his companion?
  • Why did Paul feel the need to do that, when the circumcision question had already been settled in the last lesson?
  • This is just an idea here, but couldn’t Paul have simply claimed that Timotheus had been circumcised? Would anyone have tried to check?

I love this next bit. Paul got invited to preach to some Greeks.

Does anyone remember Gene Ray, the Time Cube guy? His website was an especially aggressive brand of crazypants. (Poor guy.) Alas, the Time Cube site is no longer operative, but there was a time where students at MIT invited Gene Ray to a debate. I imagine that was kind of what the Greeks had in mind when they invited Paul.

Acts 17:18 Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.
17:19 And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is?
17:20 For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean.
17:21 (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)
17:22 Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.

Seriously? Says the purveyor of Christianity? Maybe he should have been better versed in thinking things through.

Main ideas for this lesson

Christians and the law

Christians, believing as they do in a divine lawgiver, have always had a troubled relationship with human law. In recent weeks, we’ve all become aware of one Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to do her job. The US Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage was legal in all fifty states, and yet Davis refused to marry gay couples because of her “sincerely-held religious belief” that she knew what God wanted. As a result, she went to jail, but has since been released (to much fanfare from other Christians).

Ask: To what extent is it justifiable for someone to disobey laws they disagree with?

Civil disobedience — in which someone publicly disobeys laws, and then accepts the consequences — can be a dynamic way to protest unjust laws. Davis’s case is quite the reverse, however; she was protesting equal treatment under the law. She (along with the Christian Right) would like to cast her actions as obeying her conscience, but she was really attempting to force others to obey her religious rules. In a secular society where everyone’s religious belief gets treated on equal terms, that’s not okay. She’s trying to keep her job, and refuse to do it, too. This is playing it both ways.

I’m pretty sure that Davis was delighted to go to jail. It plays into a “poor persecuted Christians” narrative that they just love. Christians are a majority, but feeling like the number two dog pumps a bit of adrenaline into Christianity. Keeps it from getting flabby.

And scriptures like this are where they get it from.

Acts 16:22 And the multitude rose up together against them: and the magistrates rent off their clothes, and commanded to beat them.
16:23 And when they had laid many stripes upon them, they cast them into prison, charging the jailor to keep them safely:
16:24 Who, having received such a charge, thrust them into the inner prison, and made their feet fast in the stocks.
16:25 And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them.
16:26 And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one’s bands were loosed.

I suspect that from her cell, Davis must have been thinking about Paul, and waiting for the jail walls to tumble. But they never do, almost like God is imaginary or something.

The Second Coming: Coming soon!

At this point, Christians were getting a bit antsy for the Second Coming. Possibly they’d heard the stories of how Jesus said it was going to happen within the lifetimes of those who were still alive. But now in 52–3 CE, the Christian population was seriously ageing, and no doubt they were starting to wonder what was going on. Quick, Paul! Invent a way of explaining the delay!

Here’s how he hoses down the panic among the Thessalonians.

Idea 1: We already told you that you were going to have to wait.

1 Thessalonians 1:9 For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God;
1:10 And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.

Idea 2: Keep telling each other how great it’s going to be! You’re gonna float up to heaven!

1 Thessalonians 4:16 For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:
4:17 Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
4:18 Wherefore comfort one another with these words.

Idea 3: I can’t tell you exactly when it’s going to be, but it’s going to be when you don’t expect.

1 Thessalonians 5:1 But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you.
5:2 For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.

Idea 4: Everyone else who didn’t believe is going to be so screwed, but you’re going to get a special VIP meeting with Jesus!

2 Thessalonians 1:7 And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels,
1:8 In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ:
1:9 Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power;
1:10 When he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe (because our testimony among you was believed) in that day.

Idea 5: Don’t worry; be happy.
Here’s a bit from the real lesson manual:

If you are using the video presentation “The Second Coming,” show it now. Briefly discuss Elder Packer’s and Elder Maxwell’s counsel about preparing for the Second Coming but not worrying about when it will happen.

Not worrying about when it will happen‽

I don’t know if they’ve actually read what happens in the book of Revelation, but it’s not the kind of thing you’d really want to be all sanguine about. God is going to kill billions of people with fire and hail. And yet, they’re like, eh, don’t worry too much.

How could they take that view? Is it because they teach that “if you are prepared, ye need not fear”? As long as you’re paying, praying, and obeying, you’ll be fine — too bad about those other bastards. You’ll be fine. This — along with the idea of getting to watch poor wretched sinners enduring an eternity of isolation from your own comfy spot in heaven — is just another example of how the capacity for compassion among gospel believers is profoundly and frighteningly depleted.

A couple of years after his first epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul is still having to hose the idea down.

2 Thessalonians 2:1 Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him,
2:2 That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.

Translation: “Calm down, you guys! Don’t even listen if you get a letter from us.” Which is a bit tricky, because this is a letter from us. Nobody said this stuff had to make sense.

The whole last-days idea is especially relevant today, when a whole heap of Mormons are listening to someone named Julie Rowe. She and her acolytes are teaching that the End is coming in September 2015.

Sales of emergency supplies increase in Utah as some speculate end of September brings ‘Doomsday’
SALT LAKE CITY — Catastrophe could strike by the end of this month. Yes, that’s right. Doomsday is scheduled for approximately September 28th, at least according to some in Utah.
A combination of a Blood Moon, the Hebrew calendar and a few other beliefs make the month of September look pretty bleak for state residents and unusually profitable for some businesses.

Well, they’re going to have to walk that back before long.

How dumb do you have to be before you fall for this stuff? I’m not that old, but I’ve lived through something like 42 apocalypses already. How could people not have heard of at least a few of these? Are their skeptical skills entirely void?

I think I know the answer.

Activity for those who are browsing their phone during church: Check this site — it tells you how many apocalypses you’ve lived through.

Fifty-seven! I must be more durable than I’d thought.

Without deceit or trickery

From the real lesson manual

Have class members read 1 Thessalonians 2:2–3. Point out that Paul said the gospel should be taught with boldness and without deceit or trickery. Elder James E. Talmage added that we should boldly teach the truth without criticizing or attacking other people’s beliefs.

These are noble ideas. Does the church follow them?

Ask: Does the church teach without deceit or trickery?

  • When someone taks the missionary lessons, they are taught a bit of what they’re in for. But much is left out. Are investigators taught about
  • temple garments?
  • polygamy (including its expected return in the last days)?
  • the full story of Joseph Smith’s sexual abuse of minors?
  • the full story of Joseph Smith’s history of treasure-seeking?

Are missionaries encouraged to teach the full story? With rare exceptions, missionaries themselves do not even know the full story. Which is why we’ll never see door approaches like this:

Without all the information, investigators can’t make an informed decision. They’re encouraged to join anyway. Church members justify these lies of omission by saying “milk before meat”, baptising them anyway, and then hoping that the investment fallacy kicks in by the time they find out the whole story. This is deception.

But then the question of honesty in evangelism is kind of moot anyway. Paul notes that God himself causes people to believe lies. So that they can be damned.

2 Thessalonians 2:7 For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.
2:8 And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming:
2:9 Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders,
2:10 And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.
2:11 And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie:
2:12 That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
2:13 But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth:

Thanks, God!

Ask: Does the church criticise or attack other beliefs?

Not only did Joseph Smith teach that God told him all other religions were corrupt, but later leaders continued this teaching.

John Taylor said . . .
We talk about Christianity, but it is a perfect pack of nonsens . . . Myself and hundreds of the Elders around me have seen its pomp, parade, and glory; and what is it? It is a sounding brass and a tinkling symbol; it is as corrupt as hell; and the Devil could not invent a better engine to spread his work than the Christianity of the nineteenth century,” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 6, 1858, p. 167).

Not only that, but theres also been a heap of confused teaching about “the great and abominable church”.

1 Nephi 14:10 And he said unto me: Behold there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil; wherefore, whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God belongeth to that great church which is the mother of abominations; and she is the whore of all the earth.

The church has always been less than forthcoming in teaching its history, and it is critical of other faiths. It does not obey its own teaching on this issue.

Additional lesson ideas

There are a few other things we get from Thessalonians.


I’m glad that Mormons don’t ostracise their ex-members — as a matter of policy, that is. (In practice, I never see my LDS friends anymore.)

If Mormons wanted to practice ostracism as a method of information control, they would have to look no farther than these scriptures:

2 Thessalonians 3:6 Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.
2 Thessalonians 3:14 If any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed.

Wow, that started early! It seems ex-members have always been trouble. And it makes sense that we’re dangerous; we know about the organisation, and we’re not afraid to say what we know.


Our world is facing a difficult situation. Technology helps us do more, but it also renders a lot of jobs redundant. As robots learn to do more in the way of manufacturing, building, and even driving, there will be fewer and fewer jobs for people. That might be all right in some ways — it’s no longer necessary for absolutely everyone to hold down a job for the system to function — but it does mean that a lot of people will be displaced and living in poverty.

Accordingly, the time will come when we need to figure out a new relationship with work. I like the idea of a guaranteed minimum income. Everyone gets enough money to live on, even if they do nothing. If they do choose to work, then they’ll make more. Parenting? Caring for someone who’s sick? Between jobs? You won’t be destitute. You won’t have to take a job you hate, just to live. And if we need teachers, nurses, and servers, we’re going to have to pay them properly, or else they won’t bother. (And people who take jobs as marketers, advertisers, and multi-level marketers when they don’t have to will be exposed for the soulless creeps that they are.)

That’s my idea, anyway, and there’s some evidence that it works.

Between 1974 and 1979, the Canadian government tested the idea of a basic income guarantee (BIG) across an entire town, giving people enough money to survive in a way that no other place in North America has before or since. For those four years—until the project was cancelled and its findings packed away—the town’s poorest residents were given monthly checks that supplemented what modest earnings they had and rewarded them for working more. And for that time, it seemed that the effects of poverty began to melt away. Doctor and hospital visits declined, mental health appeared to improve, and more teenagers completed high school.

But if this idea ever does get traction, we can expect some pushback from Christians, who will cite this scripture:

2 Thessalonians 3:10 For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.

In general, it’s good to work and not be lazy. In practice, there are some good reasons to change the way we think about work, and we need to realise that the idea of a job for everyone is no longer necessary, or indeed even possible.

Best Bible verse

And now I’d like to come to one of my favourite Bible verses.

1 Thessalonians 5:21 Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.

The sense of prove here is to try. Try all the ideas out without fear, and if something is good — by which I would mean ‘verified by evidence’ — then hold onto it.

It was a major turning point for me when I realised that, if there were a god, and it were the god of truth, then he wouldn’t be concerned with me simply defending my preconceived ideas. He’d want me to know what was true and well-supported by evidence. I wouldn’t have to be afraid of running across some factual information that destroyed my belief. If a fact destroyed my belief, then that belief ought to be destroyed. I held to this thought by J. Reuben Clark:

Well, that was the beginning of the end for the church. Having lost the desire to defend the church, and having gained the desire to see it for what it was, I soon saw it for what it was: a vacuous, counterfactual system that lied to people and billed them for the pleasure. It damaged those who believed in it most.

No wonder the view of Boyd K. Packer came to prevail:

I’d like to encourage readers to learn about our world by fearless inquiry. Examine ideas ruthlessly, and keep the good ones. That’s a pretty compact summary of the scientific method.

1 Comment

  1. Re: "without deceit or trickery" — How about non-members who allow their child to get baptized, and even support them in their conversion? How forthcoming is the church about the good chance that those parents will be excluded from their child's wedding?

    Family. Isn't it about… time? Thanks for another lesson, Daniel. I was getting antsy.

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