We Should Argue More at Church


I don’t mean this as some kind of Swiftian modest proposal. I’m completely serious about it. Maybe it’s my background as an attorney, but I believe that disagreement—that the airing of conflicting viewpoints—helps us discover truth. And Truth. I mean, we don’t know everything yet; that’s literally an article of our faith.

And it’s not just a matter of finding truth (or Truth). We don’t have to fully think through our beliefs when we just assert them, especially if everybody nods in assent. Assertion is easy, and allows us to be lazy in constructing our beliefs. When we have to defend our assertions, we see the weaknesses, the places we need to study more, the places we need to look for further revelation. Putting our ideas into the stream of discourse helps us improve and increase our understanding.

But wait, you may be saying, it’s un-Mormon-like to argue at church.[fn1] Or: Church is supposed to be a safe place, where we can nurture faith, not tear it down.

To which I reply:

Vocal Disagreement Is Not Un-Mormon-Like (or Otherwise Precluded by Our Beliefs)

There are plenty of reasons to assert this, but let me provide two, one from modern example and one from scripture:

(a) In 2007, when he was called into the First Presidency, Pres. Eyring talked about a meeting with general authorities when he first started as president of Ricks College. As reported in the Deseret News, Pres. Eyring said:

“Here you have the prophets of God, and they are disagreeing in a way you never see in business,” when participants most often defer to the chairman. “I thought revelation would come to them all and they would all see things in the same way. It was not like anything I had ever seen in studying small groups in business.”

After awhile, the men began to find points of agreement, and he believed he’d seen a “miracle in unity” occur. Waiting for then-church President Harold B. Lee to announce a consensus decision, he was startled to hear him table the discussion after noting he felt “someone in the room who is not yet settled.”

So sure, the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency feel a religious or cultural obligation to come to the body of the church in consensus. But they don’t start out with consensus: they stake out differing positions, argue their positions, and gradually find commonalities on which they can eventually base their consensus. In other words,church leaders’ process of finding truth, Truth, or the best answer is the same one I proposed at the beginning of the post.

(b) But what about the Book of Mormon’s warnings against “contention”?

To the extent we think about why step back from arguing at church, I suspect we often base it on these Book of Mormon injunctions.

In fact, ctl-f for “contention” in a text file of the Book of Mormon shows that the word appears 88 times in the text. And it’s not mentioned positively. So what do we do about that?

First thing we do is figure out what “contention” means in the context of the Book of Mormon. Since we don’t have the original text, and since presumably the original text isn’t in a language we have access to, even if we had it, we’re stuck with the English as our primary source. Webster’s 1828 dictionary helps sort out the definition a little, though not entirely: its first definition is

1. Strife; struggle; a violent effort to obtain something, or to resist a person, claim or injury; contest; quarrel.
Multitudes lost their lives in a tumult raised by contention among the partizans of the several colors.

That sounds more serious than your average Sunday School disagreement. But the primary definition isn’t the only one, and the second definition could capture Sunday School argumentation:

2. Strife in words or debate; quarrel; angry contest; controversy.
Avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law. Titus 3.
A fools lips enter into contention. Prov 18.

So while the idea the “contention” is serious enough for multitudes to lose their lives as a result, we’re probably going to want more to go on than just Webster’s.

And we have more: of the 88 uses of “contention,” my ctl-f found the phrase “wars and contentions” 19 times, and “wars, and contentions” shows up another four times; in other words, more than 25 percent of the Book of Mormon’s use of “contention,” it’s paired with war. I’d say that lends additional credence to the primary definition. (It’s probably worth noting that more than one in four uses of contention are paired with war; skimming through, Jacob 3:13 says, the large plates will include the Nephites’ “wars, and their contentions.” That’s not picked up by a ctl-f search, but it is, nonetheless, a pairing of war and contention.)

I mean, I can’t say that this is categorically true, but at the very least, almost every use of the word “contention” in the Book of Mormon deals with an argument that threatens the political and religious structures in place. That is, Book of Mormon “contention” threatens the destabilization of Nephite society. Rarely will our arguments at church carry that much risk or weight.

Church Should Be a Safe Place


“Safe” doesn’t mean “conflict-free,” though. It is perfectly possible to disagree—to argue, even—without being rude and aggressive. Sure, it’s a skill, but it’s a skill worth developing.

It’s worth noting that we don’t have any religious obligation to be polite. That said, to the extent we want to be the body of Christ, that we want to see our neighbors as our sisters and brothers, there’s something to be said for the community-building that social graces—including polite disagreement—have. And frankly, it’s always worth keeping in mind that a soft answer turneth away wrath.

Our church meetings should be a safe place to hash out (faithful) ideas, to discuss, convince, change our minds, and change others’ minds. It should be a place where we can receive revelation, where we can help that revelation come.

The gospel can stand up to scrutiny; we don’t have to worry about its falling down. But if we fail to scrutinize—if we fail to think carefully and deeply about it—we do risk falling down.

[fn1] I’ve had that idea proposed to me on at least a couple occasions, though worded differently.

[fn2] (OTOH, part of the purpose of the church is to help us change and improve, which may not always make it comfortable, though it should still be safe.)


  1. “It’s worth noting that we don’t have any religious obligation to be polite”

    Imma disagree with you there, depending on what you mean by “polite”.

  2. east of the mississippi says:

    Amen to this… let’s get away from the vertical head bobbing that goes on in response to every question asked in gospel doctrine… and get into some real discussion…

  3. Steve, I probably mean something like, Always sel-effacingly nice and agreeable. I certainly think that’s a good cultural and community-building way to approach each other, but our version of politeness seems to me to be deeply rooted in an American Puritan/Victorian ethos. And I don’t think the Gospel is contingent on that ethos, any more than I think organ is the One True accompanying instrument.

  4. It might be the case that a lot of members just aren’t used to or comfortable with having robust, back-and-forth, arguments in classes because of the appearance of contention. There is pressure to be doctrinally politically correct because we have a strong belief that the answers to gospel questions have profound spiritual and potentially salvific significance. Therefore, we don’t seem to have a church language for the kind of agreeing to disagree that we seem to have in conventional political conversations.

  5. Sam: Hear, hear. Particularly your point: “We don’t have to fully think through our beliefs when we just assert them, especially if everybody nods in assent. Assertion is easy, and allows us to be lazy in constructing our beliefs. When we have to defend our assertions, we see the weaknesses, the places we need to study more, the places we need to look…further…”

    In Leonard Arrington’s diary (as quoted in George Prince’s recent book) he commented that he was surprised at how little the apostles and first presidency he interfaced with in his role at the church history department actually knew much about the truth of our “church history.”

    I have a strong proclivity for learning from discussions, disagreements, or counterpoints in others’ “arguments” (in college, business, and church). I have long been extremely disappointed at how few (very often, none) in SS or Elders/HP class would engage me in discussion when I brought up a contrary point or gave a non-conforming answer. I *might* have learned (better, sooner) where I was incorrect. I use the past tense because I no longer attend those classes for that very reason. Can you spell boring and repetitive?

  6. I don’t think this will ever happen. There are too many people in every ward — usually old men who are former ward/stake leaders, but often women who fancy themselves scriptorians because they can read a footnoted JST variant — who simply declare their version of Truth and demand the discussion end there.

  7. I think also to consider is that most members don’t feel capable of putting forward and defending arguments. We can’t all be historians, sciptorians, etc, and it’s hard to judge who really knows what they’re talking about and who is just spouting craziness. Maybe the person who heard something from someone who knows a GA is on to something big that hasn’t gotten around to everyone else.

    On the other hand, I really don’t want anyone to spend time arguing for a flat Earth.

  8. One of my biggest weaknesses is that I’m not quite sure how to phrase a question or answer specifically so as to not *come across* as being intentionally provocative. The inherent problem might be that sometimes I am being intentionally provocative to stimulate interesting conversation but I still want to be generally diplomatic. For example, it’s hard to take the edge off of a question or answer that involves possibly disagreeing with or challenging a general authority quote.

  9. I agree with this but I think it would only work in settings where the class size is limited. I’ve been in wards with small EQs and we were pretty comfortable disagreeing about stuff and debating a little because we knew each other pretty well and knew we weren’t just being rude or superior. My experience in wards with large EQs and large Sunday schools has been it’s a lot harder to feel the comfort level needed to be able to disagree without it being interpreted as an insult.

  10. I’m sure Ardis can tell you more about this, but the church used to sponsor debating clubs. They viewed this as helping members develop skills and knowledge that would make them informed citizens that could help formulate policy.

  11. I know if an instance when a new member of the 12 was asked by a senior member if he was taken back by the candid discussions among the apostles, many forcefully giving their opinions. The newest apostle said he was a little surprised and hoped he would learn from it. The senior apostle then told him, “here, we play hard ball”, and smiled.

  12. I agree and practice this myself. When people see me teaching, they expect a Socratic dialogue. When people see my hand up from the back seat in Sunday School, they know to expect something like “that explanation doesn’t work for me; might we think about it this way?”
    A couple of unordered observations:
    1. I think the comment lines at BCC demonstrate much that is good, and some of the difficulties, with the idea of arguments at church. BCC itself is something of a model for me (mostly in a good way).
    2. Arguing at church is a fairly common suggestion from lawyers, and fairly commonly objected to by non-lawyers.
    3. The (no) ad hominem rule that everybody swears by and too many break, is critical. That’s central to my definition of polite, which I do think we are obligated to.
    4. Agreeing with Ardis (I think–not to explain Ardis but to give credit), the authoritarian thought that “there is an answer and I know it” is prevalent and I think it will take a generation or more to move beyond it. My sense is that it wasn’t always so, but that everyone who grew up under Correlation (1960s until quite recently) got a heavy dose.

  13. Tom Irvine says:

    “I admire men and women who have developed the questing spirit, who are unafraid of new ideas as stepping stones to progress. We should, of course, respect the opinions of others, but we should also be unafraid to dissent – if we are informed. Thoughts and expressions compete in the marketplace of thought, and in that competition truth emerges triumphant. Only error fears freedom of expression.”

    – Apostle Hugh B. Brown, “A Final Testimony,” from An Abundant Life, 1999

  14. orangganjil says:

    I think this concept is great in principle and I agree with you, Sam, despite the fact that I am not a lawyer.

    However, I do not ever see this being practiced beyond very limited situations. Our culture is an authoritarian one and if a discussion/argument occurs about a substantive topic (rather than something quite superficial), an appeal to authority will end the debate. Maybe we could argue here and there about day-to-day implementation of our beliefs, but I don’t see a theological debate lasting long because the authoritarian trump card will inevitably be played. Are you going to argue against The Brethren?

  15. Quotes from General Authorities

    – “We are not argumentative. We do not debate.”
    Gordon B Hinckley Nov 4, 1997 BYU Devo

    – “Contention never was and never will be an ally of progress. Our loyalty will never be measured by our participation in controversy.”
    Marvin J Ashton April 1978

  16. If polite means charitable, then I believe we do have that obligation. We can avoid the contention issue if we (1) recognize that disagreeing and respectfully arguing does not mean “contention” in the scriptural sense, and (2) learn how to disagree and argue without it leading to anger.

    I also think it helps to understand that there’s only a very few things that are really non-negotiable, and the further we get from the things Jesus calls “my gospel” in the Book of Mormon, the more disagreement is okay, and the less knowledge matters. It’s a lot easier to be charitable when you recognize that nobody has a certain answer and that in fact the salvation of the world does not depend on your position being accepted.

  17. In the church, traditionally, conflict = contention. End of discussion.

    But then you study the scriptures, and read of Jesus introducing conflict into many of his sermons, teachings, and interactions. He believed that tension was a critical aspect of growth.

    We have lost this mindset in the culture of the church, and I agree, it need not be this way. Conflict does not = contention.

  18. Ardis FTW.

  19. christiankimball – ” the authoritarian thought that “there is an answer and I know it” is prevalent and I think it will take a generation or more to move beyond it.”

    I can attest that this is not limited to a single generation. Not even more prevalent in a single generation.

    I do wish we’d come up with better arguments than “the old people are in the way; we’ll get nothing done til they die off”

  20. My experience is that most people mostly do poorly at disagreeing agreeably. Particularly on items of import. And that’s equally true in and out of the church.

  21. Though more difficult when I am not the teacher, to a limited degree I have been able to introduce such discussion/disagreement into gospel doctrine classes without it becoming contentious in any sense. The most successful techniques have been (A) not taking ownership of a position, but suggesting that “some people” think X — and asking what do you think about that? and (B) quoting one general authority apparently (or really) contradicting another and asking for discussion. A helps avoid personal bad feelings among the disagreeing group; B can sometimes avoid anyone’s successfully playing the authoritarian trump card. I doubt that disagreement/discussion can become the general mode in adult classes. I have seen too many young, as well as older, former bishops, etc., announcing positions in such an authoritarian tone that it has been impossible to expressly disagree without upsetting them or others more than the discussion, in that context, could possibly be worth.

  22. Frank Pellett: Maybe not one generation, maybe two, but I do believe the authoritarian approach is not inherent in Mormonism and is not forever. What I read and the stories I hear of pre-correlation periods (before 1960, before WWII) suggest more argument, more speculation, less attention to a single or unified voice. And what I see of 21st century LDS teaching seems to be veering away from the authoritarian model. Maybe I’m a glass half-full kind of guy, but in my little window on the Mormon world I see change.

  23. Chadwick says:

    Thanks Sam for this post. I’ve been thinking recently about how “heated” topics can become on the Mormon blogs. I think to some degree we release more anger and frustration than we mean to because we are perhaps letting out all that frustration we couldn’t let out at church, and it becomes a flood gate here. So for that very reason, I would like healthy discussions at church. It can be done, though it would be a LOT of work.

  24. jaxjensen says:

    Totally agree with Sam. How are we to ever reach a point where we are “of one mind” if we don’t ever speak our minds? or influence others to see things our way? Or contemplate a different point of view and change our own thinking?

    If teacher A views things in one way, and Student B sees things another, there is no way to come to “one mind” if they don’t discuss/argue/contemplate the issue separating them. Neither should be expected to just drop their opinion because the other was the first to speak up in class; which is what I often see happen – who ever speaks first wins because everyone will just nod in agreement to any crazy statement to avoid “contention”.

    It is in those cases when I think of the Savior’s saying to either be Yea Yea or Nay Nay, because if you are luke warm He will spew you from his mouth. Figure out what you believe and stand up for it rather than be a useless head bobber who inevitably says something lame like “all things in moderation”

  25. Fleshing out Morgan D’s reference to debates in the Church: Yes, debating was a full-fledged activity for the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association in the early years of the 20th century. It was like sports or musical competitions or drama festivals or speech contests: Young men were taught principles of debate and practiced it in their wards, then moved on to stake competition and on up the levels. Topics for debate were provided by the General Board, and some of the questions were so politically explosive that I would run for cover if anybody raised them in Sunday School today. Yet the young women were expected to — taught to — debate civilly and to inform themselves in order to represent a question. I’d have to look up the exact date, but memory says this practice was ended around the time of World War I, maybe a little later.

    I have some material from John A. Widtsoe who was on the committee to arrange debates and debate questions long before he was an apostle. I sniff a Keepa post coming.

  26. Angela C says:

    Ardis: When I hear things like this from our history, it gives me a mix of hope and despair. Despair at what we’ve lost, but hope that we’ll return to a norm. Growing up in the 70s & 80s, I remember much more intellectual debate taking place. It felt far less correlated.

  27. Our ward recently had discussions in each auxiliary in regards to unity, ie. we have some trump supporters and are trying to create an environment where everyone feels safe at church. The problem is that during these discussions, there was no opportunity for back and forth true expressions of how people were feeling at this time. The discussions would have been even better, if as a ward we allowed ourselves to have some arguments about why people felt passionately either way. We are so worried as a church to share our true feelings about non gospel topics, that we miss out on a lot of opportunities to learn from each other.

  28. Ardis, if a cheer would encourage a Keepa post, here’s one.

  29. Angela C says:

    Ardis: I second the cheer!

  30. “We Should Argue More at Church.”

    No we shouldn’t.

    (On a more serious note, debate used to be a part of the MIA curriculum. This would have been the early 1900s. The MIA general board would send out current events topics–things that were actually controversial at the time–and the youth would choose sides and come up with arguments.)

  31. And I just saw that Ardis already covered that. Please ignore my intrusion as I remember to read all of the comments before venturing into the discussion–even on my phone where the comment box comes up first.

  32. John Mansfield says:

    Well, between 1910 and 1960, school enrollment of American 14- to 17-year-olds increased from 10% to 90% and graduation from 5% to 65%, so the value of the MIA filling in for high school education changed. It would be nice to still have some of that, though, alongside things like stake basketball.

  33. Sam, how deep do you want this to go? How basic? What’s out of bounds? For instance: many Sundays I look across my congregation in all their devotion and Sabbath finery and ask myself what all this means and signifies if the BoM is not historical. Is that a question you’d be comfortable putting out there?

  34. jaxjensen says:

    I think the same thing EVERY week P

  35. Hendrix says:

    It’s not as if the choice is between the BoM being completely historical or being completely fictional. *If* it’s within bounds to believe or argue that aspects of the Biblical creation story, Garden of Eden, global flood, or Tower of Babel are fictional (or perhaps at least ‘truthfully’ symbolic), would it not also be within bounds to believe or argue that the same may be true for some aspects of the BoM?

  36. There’s further support for your point in that we do call each other brothers and sisters. Anyone with siblings can attest that disagreements are the rule and not the exception.

  37. My point, Hendrix: is this something you’d be comfortable discussing/debating at church? Where does this lead?

  38. And FWIW I disagree with you: BoM historical claims are explicit & foundational. How do we talk about this?

  39. Arrington had a problem with your President Eyring quote. One of things he wanted to change in the leadership was the need for 100 percent agreement. “Insistence on unanimity among the Twelve [apostles], which means that the most obstinate member, the one holding out against the rest, wins.”

    I lived through the 60s and 70s, and the need for everyone being in agreement. It took until 1978 to change the Church’s racial policy. The need for 100 percent agreement has kept leaders from making timing decisions. And this has proved to be a problem in the past and present, and will be in the future.

  40. I would absolutely take up historicity. But the way you do it matters. If you take it up as an either/or–historical or not, right or wrong–that’s likely to be divisive and even destructive. If you take it up as a both/and–is there a legitimate way for some of us to take a pure historical record view and others to take an inspired 19th century view, and all of us to worship together?–that’s likely to be a valuable conversation and to keep some people engaged whom I know (by private conversation) are one foot out the door already. It’s like an elephant in the room topic and nobody’s helped by avoiding the elephant.

  41. Hendrix says:

    p: I would personally be comfortable discussing/debating Biblical literalism in Church, but that’s mainly because there seems to be a lot less emotion tied to the Bible than the BoM among church members in general. We don’t hold the Bible in the same esteem that we hold the BoM.

    I think there is a difference between having a discussion/debate over whether or not the Nephites and Lamanites actually existed and whether or not current mainstream church rhetoric about modesty and chastity actually serve the purposes the Church wants them to serve (just as an example).

    My fundamental point though is that while it doesn’t make sense to go far down certain doctrinal rabbit holes (or every rabbit hole just for the sake of it), it also doesn’t make much sense to me to teach or participate in a lesson in such a way that there is universal agreement on everything said and no one actually learns anything. Learning, almost by definition, requires being exposed to new data or interpretations of existing data that augment or conflict with preexisting interpretations. That’s where this seems like it should all lead to me at least.

  42. Can the Church be true in a final sense, i.e., ordinances efficacious in a hypothetical hereafter, if the BoM is not historical? – this would seem to be the ultimate “discussion,” that aforementioned elephant, one for which we, as a body of Saints, are manifestly unprepared. What does this say about us?

  43. Hendrix says:

    That might depend on how true the Doctrine and Covenants would still be if the BoM is not historical. An even deeper question is could the BoM be fictional in some sense while still being a divinely translated legitimate record of ancient people and therefore still being technically true in the sense of how we use the word in church when referring to the BoM. So for example, is it possible that Nephite and Lamanite myth or propaganda could have made it into the plates? Imagine discussing that in church :-D

  44. And Chesterton’s fence strikes again.

    Of course, we have disagreements and out of that tension we sometimes bring one side to the truth, or discover the golden mean. But equally, there are many reasons why the church generally functions different than the apostolic quorum – for one we’re not called to work in close proximity with each other until the day we die.

    All in favor of relief society and priesthood seats arranged by seniority and you can’t move your seat until someone moves or dies?

  45. Honest, thought provoking, or uncomfortable discussions will never be the norm in the LDS church because it would cause too many members to study the history and/or doctrines of the church and ask questions that have some unseemly answers. There have also been too many instances of members being disciplined, ostracized, or essentially shunned by their communities to make church a safe place for anyone that doesn’t toe the company line and keep their mouths shut.

  46. Slip of the fingers: In a comment about organized MIA debating in the early 20th century, I referred to “young women” when I meant “young men.” As far as I’m aware, organized debating was carried on only by the YMMIA. (This wasn’t a deliberate exclusion of women: The YMMIA and YWMIA were two separate organizations responsible for their own agendas and programs. The YWMIA didn’t choose debating as an activity.)

  47. Ah, Hendrix, re: propaganda – so THAT’S what those little FOX- like figures are in the glyphs!

  48. N. W. Clerk says:

    The first comment thread I came across after this one was the one for the Expert Texperts post “On the Muslim Ban.” Several Bloggernacle blog owners who don’t swear at people who disagree with them, instead classify them all as trolls and ban them. College students shut down speakers whose messages they find beyond the pale. “Free speech for me but not for thee.” Senators switch their positions on procedural rules with breakneck speed when their party gains or loses power. The desire for power is not just found among politicians but among all people, and rare is the person who values free speech or open dialogue as a good of the first order rather than as a means to power.

  49. Once, many moons ago, I was visiting in a ward where something about “following our leaders” came up in Sunday school. After a couple of minutes of formulaic agreement, I pushed back. What followed was one of the best Sunday School experiences I’ve ever had. How are we supposed to “discuss” ANYTHING if all we do is bear testimony and agree with each other? “By proving contraries, the truth is made manifest.” Somebody said that once.

  50. Well put, Ann Porter.

    As a corollary I would like to add that the best informational resource the Brethren possess, by far, is … the membership! – our combined learning, experience, inspiration – a living encyclopedia of immense proportions.

  51. Most church members understand, I believe, that vocal disagreement without being acrimonious is acceptable within the church. When it comes to discussions in church classes, I believe the problem lies with the lack of instructors who are skillful enough to ask higher level questions, well read enough to bring fresh concepts to the class, and able to manage a class discussion effectively. As for feeling safe in a church setting, with the efforts on the part of the Church to be more transparent, some people are becoming more accepting. My husband’s High Priest Group is a good example of this. A room full of old baby boomers and ex bishops who are becoming more and more open to an honest discussion of issues. Change takes time.

  52. From President Hinckley’s “Out of Your Experience Here” to the BYU students of 1990: “I hope you will develop a spirit of fellowship, a social ease, the capacity to mix and mingle with people wherever you meet them, of low caste or high caste, recognizing their strengths and powers and capacities and goodness. That facility can be developed on this campus. It can come of the pro and con discussions you have in your classes and that you have as you sit together in small groups talking with one another, even arguing over matters. This is one of the great blessings of university life, to learn to speak together and think together in a kind of challenging environment.

    “A vibrant personality that comes of the capacity to listen and learn, that comes of the ability to contribute without boring, that comes of a talent for mingling and mixing with people in a constructive way is something very precious, indeed, that can come as a part of your life on this campus. The cultivation of such will keep you from the moral traps that catch so many.
    I wish to emphasize that I hope you are so busy studying good books that lead to productive thinking and so pleased with the opportunity that you have to mix with others of your kind and to perhaps verbally scrap and argue together over public issues and matters of broad interest that you have no time to waste on the filth and rot we call pornography.”

  53. ^ I like to think that Hinckley wanted us to “scrap and argue” in all of our education, including a church education. That is, if this is indeed part of what he values about a “spirit of fellowship,” and this same fellowship can be had in church.

  54. Kristine says:

    Ardis, Morgan, it might please you to know (and might not surprise you) to know that the first Young Women’s activity I attended was a formal debate on evolution vs. creationism. I loved that ward…

  55. Old Man says:

    I can understand why many of you would like to see this development, as beneficiaries of higher ed, you would easily dominate the discussion in any church classroom. I’m afraid that when I was in my 20’s I was an arrogant jerk. I ran the table in any EQ meeting, often to my own determinant. My brethren soon expressed frustration. How would we guarantee that every arrogant jerk in the Church was not unleashed by a debate format?

  56. I keep coming back to the “should” in the OP. I think it’s the wrong (auxiliary) verb. Rather, “must” and “will” come to mind. The reason is that the threshold to argumentation is very low and already reached.
    A couple of weeks ago, for the Sunday School lesson that included multiple versions of the first vision, our superficially quite conservative GD class included a teacher and half-a-dozen participants who knew about multiple versions and were tense, uncertain, worried. They came into class with the uncomfortable feeling that there’s a problem they don’t know what to do with. Two or three of us (I’m in this group) came in ready to discuss with more or less interesting approaches and ideas. And at least one came in ready to speak up with “they’ve been lying to you all these years.” That’s dry tinder. Call it discussion, call it argument, call it debate, but something’s going to break out. The old school social contract that fixed us in a predictable call and response is already broken, according to my immediate experience.

  57. rebeccadalmas says:

    Argument, one that is done in good faith and leads to better mutual understanding, without hostility and full of love should be encouraged by any teaching organisation.

    Here’s the rub: does this epistemological method help the organization or does it, in essence, threaten it? If, in the end, the organization cannot stand against logic and reason in good faith, sincere and thorough, including Christlike, argument will be resisted if not completely avoided.

  58. Discussion yes. Argument, no. Discussion implies openness to new ideas, more interest in learning from and listening to each other with respect and civility than in making our point.

    Argument is a power struggle, each trying to make his or her point, upset at the other’s inability or unwillingness to see it or admit it as sufficiently credible. All too often it devolves into wrath, anger and clamor, frustration and fear, pride and insensitivity, self-protection and diminuation of the other. Those who feel that they have “won” the impromptu argument rarely realize the devastation they leave in their wake when they engage in the (to them) thrilling exercise of the debate. They all to often dismiss as a sign of weakness or immaturity the pain suffered by others as they do so, refusing to be willing to take such outcomes into their consideration as they launch into their next debate, because certainly, “if you can’t take the heat, you should get out of the kitchen”.

    Discussion and counseling together in a class or meeting can create unity between persons with differing views allowing those views to exist in peace with each other. My experience, on the other hand, is that classroom argument and debate will inevitably cause people to draw lines of division that the more adept aruguers will be comfortable with because they have been heard and validated in their own eyes, and that will alienate those who do not have those same debating skills.

    We are called, I believe, to be one in spirit, at peace taking time to really listen to each other and raise and make thoughtful, honest, humble questions and comments in order to help ourselves and each other to understand each other’s differing minds and hearts instead of arguing about them. If we are not one in spirit, we are not His.

  59. MB, you have focused on one meaning of the word “argument”. There are others, e.g. “a reason or set of reasons given with the aim of persuading others that an action or idea is right or wrong.” While I don’t know in what sense Sam intended the word, the definition I’ve quoted here is not inconsistent with “discussion and counseling together in a class or meeting.” Too often for me, an attempt at such discussion of various viewpoints is met with an adamant and purportedly authoritative statement intended to shut down discussion. The effort to understand that you call for requires listening to the reasons for a view that differs from one’s own. In this sense of the word, we should definitely argue more at church or there is no hope of understanding, and ultimately no hope of being one in spirit.

  60. JR, your comment points out, quite well, one of the other challenges to healthy discussions in classes, our tendency to use words that we believe are understood by others the way we understand them, but which are understood completely differently. Thanks.
    That is one other reason why listening to understand is so vital to civil discourse.

    But I do think that the focus on “persuading” is a problem even with this definition of arguing. I am more in favor of “inviting and enticing to do good’, inviting them to see what I see, rather than persuading, simply because persuading so often takes the tack of trying to help the other see how stupid, or narrow minded, or foolish their ideas are.
    And that doesn’t work very well if we are also trying to make the forum a place of mutual respect.

    Too often we think only of the “persuading” part of Doctrine and Covenants 121, and fail miserably in the less emotionally energizing but absolutely vital elements of long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, unfeigned love, kindness and pure knowledge. I have a hard time seeing a way to incorporate some of those elements into a definition of argument or debate, but perhaps your definition does. If so, I would be interested in hearing your take on that.

    I agree absolutely that shutting people down with authoritative statements is not good. It is the antithesis of discussion. But believing in the power of persuasion and debate also, in my experience, makes too many people fail to incorporate those above mentioned vital elements that are necessary in order for us to be able to create the kind of zion I think you and I are both are hoping for.

    Yes, teachers and leaders, brothers and sisters must all learn not to stomp on others using the “authoritative voice statment” mode. I agree 100% on that. But my experience is that if I am dealing with stompers, they are never persuadable, but they are mostly enticeable and invitable to one degree or another when one employs the elements listed above, even if only enticeable to let down their barriers and reduce their subconcscious fear a bit. And that’s a valuable thing. In my experience it often leads to progress towards zion that attempts to simply persuade them of the errors of their thoughts or habits do not.

  61. Eric Russell says:

    It can be no coincidence that a group of people who go online to argue about the church with people just happen to believe that we should argue more at church.

    I participate in a online forum for the discussion of the tourism of national parks and historic sites. You might take a guess at their opinions regarding appropriations for the National Park Service.

  62. MB, I mean “argue.” And I used the word deliberately—in many cases, we’ve defined down any disagreement into argument. If, then, we’re comfortable with argument, we’ll be more than comfortable with disagreement.

  63. MB, you have a very limited definition of “persuasion”. It commonly means to induce someone to do/believe something through reasoning. The fact that some people cannot reason without “trying to help the other see how stupid, or narrow minded, or foolish their ideas are” does not seem to be a valid basis for rejecting all efforts to persuade. You’ll find numerous scriptural references to persuading people to come to God, not to rebel against God, to repent, etc. Even with his clarification (12:36pm), I’m still not sure I understand the style of argument Sam has in mind. But it is possible to try to persuade with reason (i.e. argue) without aiming at showing your “opponent” to be stupid, narrow minded, or foolish” and while exhibiting the attitudes with which Section 121 suggests persuasion should be undertaken by priesthood holders. When I have seen the others-are-stupid/narrow minded approach taken in Sunday School classes, it has been done by those announcing adamant, allegedly authoritative positions with a thin veneer of reasoning. Maybe your experience and mine differ.

  64. An argument doesn’t have to end in agreement. In my experience there seldom is a neat wrap up, an everybody happy conclusion. If we’re going to have argument at Church (and I think we should and that it’s inevitable) we also have to allow for the meeting to end without resolution. That may be the most difficult move for Mormon culture.

  65. JR, yes, your experience and mine do differ. That likely may be a regional difference.
    And certainly our own experiences color our choices about how to resolve disagreements.

    Personally, I have found that reasoning (in order to get people to agree that your position may be valid) with people whose sense of self is on the line (and that includes most people involved in a Sunday school discussion of religious belief that is precious to them) may make them stop verbalizing their disagreement, or even voice concessions, but it rarely persuades them to embrace your position or trust your judgment.

    There are other venues where reasoning can work the wonders you seek (courts of law come to mind, so do college classrooms with professors with excellent classroom skills and executive committees where there is a sense of full equality) but my experience is that most people in the world have experienced disagreements where their positions have been coldly ground underfoot by people who are important to them and who like to discuss and argue and are good at it. In order to protect themselves from further similar destructive experiences, some of them have learned to just keep quiet or not care. Others master avoidance of conflict. Others rise in indignation and argue back. And others spout adamant, allegedly authoritative positions to shut the other down and reduce their vulnerability. All of those can be manifestations of frustration and a strong need to protect oneself. We need to recognize them as such and instead of battering against that defensive wall with reasoning or demands that we be heard, open doors that feel safe for them to enter and be heard with compassion and to learn that they can listen without fear. Trust, and a sense of equality and safety on the part of all involved parties, is essential to effective dialogue between parties with different views.

    That trust, equality and safety can be nurtured by one of those individuals in the dialogue incorporating the long-suffering, kindneess, gentleness, meekness, love unfeigned that are required to be combined with the persuasion listed in Doctrine and Covenants 121 that I think you are advocating. I believe that those elements are required of all of us whenever we get “a little authority” and feel the need to direct or correct or be heard by others, whether we feel that sense of authority because of a calling we have, a position in a family, our own sense of being capable of persuading others, our position in a corporate ladder, our age, our label as “the teacher”, our amount of experience or travel in the world, our level of education received, our priesthood ordination, the clarity to ourselves of our own personal revelation etc. etc. I have known men and women who understand the absolute necessity of those elements of long-suffereing, meekness, kindness, love unfeigned, gentleness, pure knowlege, total lack of guile, etc., and the power of their ability to create understanding, facilitate dialogue and open hearts and minds to change is phenomenal. Have you?

    Can you enlighten me on how you envision the incorporation of those qualities into what you are advocating in our classes at church?

  66. MB, I have been struggling with how to respond without writing a book. I don’t know what you think I am advocating for our church classes. Re-read my first comment above. It mentions a couple techniques that can be used to facilitate discussion of various views without challenging anyone’s sense of self. There are others. Not all work well with all individuals or class situations. If you want further discussion of this with me, have one of the permas email me your email address and maybe we’ll have a private discussion of techniques and examples of both success and failure.

    In the meantime, it seems to me that you are bent on making the words “argue,” “persuade,” and “reason” mean “grinding people coldly underfoot.” I have also seen browbeating done in the name of “reasoning.” You are right that “reasoning” in that style generally does not persuade. However, there is nothing necessarily inconsistent between reasoning and persuading on the one hand and long-suffering, meekness, kindness, love unfeigned, and gentleness on the other. At least the following scriptures speak positively about “reasoning,” though I’m not convinced that all of those referred to were always long-suffering, meek, kind or gentle any more than the rest of us (at least some GAs included): Doctrine and Covenants 45:10, 15; 49:4; 50:10-12; 61:13; 66:7; 68:1; 133:57; Luke 24:15; Acts 17:2; 18:4, 14, 19; 24:25; Isaiah 1:18;
    1 Samuel 12:7. What I would like to see in our church classes is a freedom to express a variety of views, and even to advocate for one being more helpful to faithful, Christian living than another, without being judged faithless, stupid, ignorant, proud, or wicked. I would like our people to learn that we can be unified in worship and in efforts to build Zion without having to agree on all scriptural, theological, doctrinal, policy, political, or practical matters. In my view, these things can only be accomplished as we learn to engage in dialogue (your word, but including reasoning and at times persuasion and even arguing, in that sense), with meekness, kindness, etc. as advocated by D&C 121.

  67. JR, I think we are agreeing for the most part, and stumbling over vocabulary due to our differing church experiences. I hear you saying that you are dealing with some people who shut down ideas with which they don’t agree through the use of authoritative statements and a tendency towards dismissiviness of the ideas of others, and you are therefore trying, in response, to create an environment of engaging dialogue where people feel heard and conversation continues. I understand that. I’ve lived in a place where I’ve encountered that shut down method. It’s not pretty.

    I, on the other hand, am coming from a place where some people try to shut down ideas they don’t agree with by actively engaging others in protracted discussions fueled by confidence in their own debating skills and a tendency towards dismissiveness of the ideas others, and therefore I am on high alert to the tenor of the protracted dialogue and the motives of the participants. Or, more lightmindely, I might guess that you are dealing with a situation that includes those who might be unkindly characterized and exaggerated as rameumptum loving Zoramites, and I am coming from experiences where we deal more with a situation that includes what might be unkindly characterized and exaggeratedd as unrepentant Ammonihah lawyers.

    Both situations cause similar sets of problems. If they were fixed by wisely addressing the particular, differing as well as similar errors involved, I believe that the resultant, more faithful Christian situation would, I think, be similar to what you describe in your above post, and we would both enjoy it..

    Thanks for the dialogue.

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