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.)