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Being A Witness Is Not Contention

Being A Witness Is Not Contention
The following first appeared in Public Square Magazine and was written by Gregory Smith. It is shared here with permission.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are not very good at fighting―and this is a problem. That’s a provocative claim, and so I’d best explain it. 

There is an old Jewish joke that wherever you have two Jews, you have three opinions and an argument. That’s true for most people at least sometimes—including even for healthy marriages. That’s why a key question that couples’ therapists ask is interestingly not “Is there fighting?” but instead “Are they fighting fair?

Fighting fairly. What exactly does fighting fair look like in a marriage? First of all, such fights are free of personal animus―the dispute is about some matter or circumstance, not fundamentally about the other person. Fair fighting focuses on the matter at hand―it does not dredge up past wrongs, old arguments, or irrelevant side issues.

Fair fighting also avoids attempts at coercion or manipulation, whether emotional, physical, or spiritual. Fair fighting occurs in the proper venue―it is not done at the neighbors’, or during the office Christmas party. It does not seek to drag others into the dispute to take sides. In public, the couple remains “fiercely loyal” to each other.

A marriage without any fights may mean that the couple is not really much of a healthy couple at all―they are just two people who coexist.

What no fighting can signify. No doubt, a lack of conflict is the fruit of much time and spiritual maturity in some cases. Yet more commonly, a marriage without any fights may mean that the couple is not really much of a healthy couple at all―they are just two people who coexist. They try not to get in each other’s way and don’t care enough to fight when they disagree.

More often, though, no fights mean that one partner is in fact not much of a partner at all. Instead, their needs, desires, and whims are allowed to predominate. There are no disagreements because one part of the couple doesn’t feel able―for many possible reasons―to disagree. 

In short, a marriage without fights is usually a marriage in trouble. 

Now, it hardly needs saying that much―perhaps most―fighting in this world is unhealthy and driven by fault and human sin and betrayal on both sides. This is not a call for more fighting, and certainly not a call for violence or abuse. Even the word “fight” may have too much baggage to be useful, so in the tradition of click-baiting hack writers everywhere, I’ll switch now to a more neutral word: conflict.

Unique Latter-day Saints struggles with conflict. Culturally and theologically, Latter-day Saints are conflict-averse. We don’t like it. It makes us uncomfortable and when it happens we generally see it as a spiritual failure.

I think there are several reasons for this tendency. In many ways, they constitute a unique strength of our culture and theology. But as with anything, “our strengths can be our downfall.”

Part of this probably springs from our history as a people, which involves some deep cultural memories of repeated persecution. Those periods of aggression, of course, were always preceded by conflict and disagreement―and I think we are wise enough to know that early Saints were not always entirely innocent. Conflict did not ever serve us well―we were always outnumbered, and with little sympathy from government, religious, or other authorities. We fled our homes repeatedly and eventually had to leave the United States to be safe.

Former or disaffected members of the Church were generally far more dangerous to the safety of the Saints than outsiders were. During some periods of apostasy, members supportive of Church leadership had to flee for their lives from former brothers and sisters in the faith. Once the Saints reached the Salt Lake valley, unity was necessary for physical subsistence. 

In short, avoiding conflict has often kept us alive, and when it has flared up, the result has been painful for our people. 

Theology. There is another potent source of our low-conflict style:  the teachings of Jesus. The New Testament is full of instructions about loving our enemiesturning the other cheekseeking peace, and so forth.

The Book of Mormon, in one sense, is an extended case study of conflict and where it leads. And, one of the first things taught therein by the resurrected Jesus was how to baptize. Immediately thereafter, He forbade contention about such matters, for “he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil.” That’s a pretty robust condemnation of fighting.

A thought experiment. Jesus gave the proper manner of baptism. The Nephites accepted it. Now, let us jump ahead a hundred years or so―maybe to an average day in the Bountiful 127th  Ward of the Zarahemla West stake. Worshipers are gathering for their weekly services. During what passed for a Sunday School lesson, imagine a member who announces that baptism by immersion isn’t necessary, and she condemns those who think otherwise as judgmental and intolerant.

Jesus does not want there to be a dispute about doctrine―not because doctrines are not important, but because they are so important.

Now, what are the members to do? Jesus has commanded that there be no contention. So, are the “traditional” believers just supposed to keep quiet? It takes two to quarrel, after all.

Perhaps one member―call him Gideon―kindly reminds everyone that Jesus had spoken to this very question, and subsequent Nephite leaders agreed. Gideon even turns to scripture and quotes the words of the Lord himself. This is simply not, Gideon concludes, a point upon which there is any ambiguity or confusion.

The dissenting member―call her Isabel―is not to be dissuaded. She insists that the current baptismal method is really an erroneous tradition. Prophets are fallible, she observes, which the Nephite scriptures certainly prove. And insisting on immersion makes things less welcoming to those who don’t like to get wet all over. Requiring priesthood ordination excludes women like her from performing the baptism as well, which doesn’t seem fair at all. Besides, God wouldn’t be so legalistic as to require a simple ceremony, would he?

Gideon replies that none of these points change what Jesus has commanded, or what the Nephite prophets have consistently taught. Isabel becomes more agitated, raises her voice, and calls the group unchristian, poor examples.

By this stage, everyone is uncomfortable. Isabel is clearly not happy. Gideon doesn’t like being the center of attention, and he senses that if he says anything else, she is not going to quietly acquiesce. The other members watching silently are uncomfortable―they came here for unity, community, and worship. Instead, they got a fight over things they hold sacred. Some devoutly wish Isabel had caught the flu and stayed home, while others mutter under their breath that if Gideon would just let her have her say and leave well enough alone, the conflict would be contained.

The class ends awkwardly. Troubled, Gideon seeks out whatever the Nephite equivalent of a bishop is. The bishop does not like conflict either, has had a run-in before with Sister Isabel―she’s quite fierce, you know―and doesn’t fancy a painful (and very probably lengthy) conversation. He also doesn’t want to offend or alienate her―how terrible to drive her inactive over this one event. So he reassures Gideon, cautioning him to “avoid contention,” and the matter ends there.

Back to Jesus’ words. Perhaps this seems fanciful. Would that it were. I have encountered far too many people who have experienced precisely this in their Church meetings. If my unscientific impression is accurate, such events are increasing in number, and the Isabels are becoming more bold and strident.

So, was Gideon guilty of contention? On the surface, he did at least help precipitate a public fight of sorts. The class might have been less tense if he’d just kept quiet.

I think, though, that whatever Jesus meant to communicate―which we will examine shortly―he cannot have meant that Sister Isabel gets to proceed unchecked and uncontradicted.

There are few things easier or more tempting than to give our darker desires or inclinations a spiritual sheen of self-justification.

As Jesus told the Nephites, “there shall be no disputations among you … neither shall there be disputations among you concerning the points of my doctrine, as there have hitherto been.” Jesus does not want there to be a dispute about doctrine―not because doctrines are not important, but because they are so important.

And, to dispute or argue about them (in either the combative or philosophical sense of “argue”) implies that such doctrines come from human sources: by logic, by pressure, by habit, or by convenience. 

But if they are important, we ought to talk about them directly in some way to get at the truth—unless we have another way to be confident we have gotten it right.

This is what Jesus offers. There is to be no dispute about baptism because Jesus has just made it beyond dispute―He has unequivocally spoken.

From this view, Gideon is not at fault at all. It is Sister Isabel who has a problem―for she is doing precisely what Jesus has said must not be done: disputing His revealed doctrines.

So does this mean that Gideon would have been justified in a harangue and scathing denunciation of Isabel? Also, no. After all, Jesus went on to warn that Satan “stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.” “He who hath the spirit of contention,” he declares, “is not of me.”

The key point is clear. If we dispute with anger, then it is likely that we are being acted upon by something other than God. Such have “the spirit of contention,” not the Spirit of God.

As in many cases, then, the same outward act can be either praiseworthy or wicked because of our inner motives and our approach. Gideon could have had the spirit of contention, and been stirred to anger. But neither Isabel nor the class is justified in claiming that just because Gideon expressed his strong disagreement with her claims, he was being contentious and unchristian. Only he can interrogate his conscience about motives.

A caution. Some may be excited that I appear to offer a justification for opposing every opinion expressed in Relief Society or Sunday School with which you disagree. This is to entirely misunderstand me and (far more importantly) Jesus.

There are few things easier or more tempting than to give our darker desires or inclinations a spiritual sheen of self-justification. 

The ancient Saints were not to dispute Jesus’ doctrines precisely because they were revealed so clearly and unequivocally. There are many other matters―likely the vast majority―about which the Church has no such clearly articulated policy or unequivocal doctrine.

Laying aside the endless array of social, political, and moral conflicts in our culture today, there are also a thousand and one gospel hobbiespreoccupations, or one-note doctrinal pianos available: the proper link between some political policy and our faith, the age of the earth, the details of our post-mortal state, stories about the three Nephites, Book of Mormon geography, and so on. All of these subjects are potentially interesting, potentially important depending on context, and often have members or leaders with firmly expressed opinions (not always labeled as ‘opinion’ either!).

We might be tempted to defend our views about all these things as staunchly as Gideon did baptism. But to be clear:  these are decidedly not the sort of issues about which Gideon found himself in dispute with Isabel. Isabel was not urging what might be a minority view among Nephite prophets, or a matter about which there was a great deal of Nephite tradition but no firm scriptural authority. Nor was she expressing a view about which little had been said in Nephite history.

She was, instead, striking at a core tenet of Nephite Christianity. There could be no debate about what the Nephite Church, the Nephite prophets, and the Nephites’ Risen Lord had said on those core matters. Isabel had simply rejected these teachings on her own authority, via her own arguments. And she was starting to dispute them publicly. 

A more modern example. Suppose next Sunday, the teacher in Elders’ quorum says that members of the Church do not really need to believe in the existence of God. He admits that this has been the traditional view, but not everyone raised in the Church has that belief. Many honestly can’t accept that there is a supreme being who answers prayer. Yet this teaching makes such members uncomfortable. It is therefore problematic and even discriminatory. 

If we insist that belief in God is a non-negotiable part of the gospel, this teacher retorts that  saying so will mean excluding many from Church membership who could otherwise benefit. Think how many atheists are out there, who will doubtless be turned off if we are so rigid as to be vocal and firm about this existence of God? 

Jesus would want everyone to join the Church, right? So, insisting on this particular teaching so dogmatically is very unchristian.

He will feel isolated and alone in the one place in which he has a right to be supported and buoyed up as he swims against the world’s tides.

And, by that same token, anyone who resists this idea of an atheist Church of Jesus Christ is guilty of stirring up contention. Why can’t this teacher have his say just like everyone else—and be respected and validated in doing so?

I doubt anyone believes that this should be left unchallenged. Our atheist Elders’ Quorum instructor―like Sister Isabel―is in essence weaponizing the Saints’ discipleship, and attempting to use it against them, judo-style. He knows that we seek to be peaceable, do not like conflict, and value harmony and unity. He will therefore eagerly accuse others of contention and unchristian behavior regardless of how well his opponent is actually behaving. This is a well-worn rhetorical strategy.

He treats disagreement as evidence of perfidy―a common tactic, incidentally, of those who don’t fight fair in marriage. And like those who use such tactics in marital fights, he will vehemently deny it when called on it.

Witnesses of God. To spell out again what should not need to be said: of course, we all need to govern our tongues, bridle our tempers, and seek to never have the spirit of contention or be motivated by self-serving or anger-filled feelings during conflict. This is a given.

We must not, however, allow our witness to be forced into silence, or brow-beaten into acquiescence because of the risk of any such lapses. Remember, fighting fair excludes manipulation or coercion—which labeling someone “contentious” and “unchristian” because they differ certainly is.

Our baptismal covenants oblige us to be “witnesses of God at all times, and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death.” Surely those places include our chapels, and those things include matters of central importance to the gospel. Temple covenants place us under even more explicit and stringent duties.

Like Gideon’s bishop, we may worry a great deal about alienating those with whom we have to express disagreement. We must remember that there are more souls involved than Sister Isabel’s. To remain silent is to obscure our witness, perhaps from those who need it the most—even desperately.

To allow foundational teachings of the Church to be challenged during our worship services is to abandon those who need those teachings. What about a non-member visitor who leaves disappointed because we seem to not have the courage of our convictions, or seem to reject the truths she already understands?

What of the young person who strives to live a difficult commandment despite significant peer pressure, only to be told that the commandment is not really that important after all? One of two things will happen: either the member will be weakened in his desire to obey, or he will feel isolated and alone in the one place in which he has a right to be supported and buoyed up as he swims against the world’s tides.

Those who seek to keep commandments have at times only their Church families in a lonely world, and we betray both our members and the Lord who bought them if we allow Isabels to mislead them for a single moment.

To undermine faith in one area may lead to problems in another that we did not intend. Even to criticize firm policies with which we disagree is to fail to sustain those we covenant to uphold as prophets and apostles. If I can ignore the prophets’ teachings about tattoos, why ought I to listen to them about the law of chastity? 

We must be clear about what the Church teaches, and hearers can then reject or accept it as they please. If we will not teach the truth, the Spirit which converts cannot bear witness. 

Still other members may be so uncomfortable because of uncontested false teaching that they simply choose to withdraw from attendance. (I wager even Gideon had a certain dread as he approached his Church meetings for the next several weeks at least.)

Finally, to allow Isabel’s false teaching to go unchallenged is also to serve her poorly. If she can with impunity undermine foundational, unequivocal teachings of the Church, she will be emboldened in both her personal disobedience and her public advocacy. She may feel confirmed in her view that these principles cannot be true, for look how many good, active, faithful members remain quiet when she undercuts them. We are under covenant to allow her no such illusions. 

What I am not saying. I am not saying that those with such views should not be welcome at Church. Nor am I saying that they should not be members of the Church. It is only their public teaching that is at issue.

Again, I emphasize that the above principles apply only to a narrow subset of that which we might teach or hear at Church. Many matters can and should permit a wide variety of opinions. (If our talks and lessons are focused on matters about which there is legitimate room for the wide divergence of opinion, though, this may suggest we need to refocus our teaching and preaching on Christ and his gospel in its clarity and power.)

Unequivocal teachings. These teachings are easy to identify based on one or more of the following questions:

1. Do the scriptures and modern prophets speak repeatedly and unanimously about it? 

2. Are there official church statements of doctrine or policy about it?

3. Do present-day prophets and apostles preach and write frequently about it?

4. Does it touch on the core doctrines of faith in Christ, repentance, baptism for the remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end?

5. Is it a subject in the temple recommend interview?

Clear examples include:

1. the existence and fatherhood of God;

2. the divinity, Messiahship, and resurrection of Jesus;

3. the genuine restoration of the gospel through Joseph Smith;

4. the necessity and reality of angelically-conferred priesthood authority;

5. the right of modern prophets and apostles to speak for God, give authoritative teachings, and direct the Church;

6. the truth of the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price;

7. the genuine existence of Nephite prophets who literally saw and heard the risen Christ;

8. the necessity of all essential ordinances for salvation;

9. the laws of tithing and offerings;

10. the law of chastity as taught by modern prophets, including The Family—A Proclamation to the World;

11. the sinfulness of abortion with rare exceptions;

12. avoiding gamblingtattoos, and substances forbidden by the Word of Wisdom;

13. avoiding crimes such as murder, rape, abuse, theft, etc.

There can be no legitimate debate about what the Church teaches about any of the above. Neither the most stubborn Isabel nor atheist Elders’ quorum teacher can claim that these teachings are unclear―only that all the prophets, members, and scriptures are wrong, and their own novel alternative views are right.

But this is to dispute doctrine. Doing so is by definition contentious, and forbidden by the Lord among his people.

Conclusion. It is a sad reality that some members are willing to preach against core doctrines of the Church in our worship services. In doing this, they enter into disputation and inevitably cause contention.

Those who seek to keep commandments have at times only their Church families in a lonely world, and we betray both our members and the Lord who bought them if we allow Isabels to mislead them for a single moment.

The contention has, unfortunately, thus started well before we decide whether to open our mouths. The question is not whether disputation or contention will happen―for it already has. We are left only with the choice of how to respond.

We must grapple with how best to act in a way that honors the revealed truths of which we must be witness and avoid harm to other Saints while being as kind and inoffensive as we can.  (Our natural inclination to simply hope it blows over is, I think, usually not a viable option. Speaking out like this tends to become a habit among the discontented).

“We should,” said Elder Quentin L. Cook, ”be willing to compromise and eliminate strife with respect to matters that do not involve righteousness to have peaceful relationships.”  Then he added, “But on conduct related to righteousness and doctrinal imperatives, we need to remain firm and steadfast.”

Members who undercut the Church’s foundational doctrines are not fighting fair. They are choosing a venue for the dispute which is inappropriate―we come to Church to enjoy unity with the Saints, to serve each other, to renew our covenants, to rejoice in the Lord’s gospel, and to have support from those who share our convictions and commitments.

These disputants’ problem is not with you or me—their problem is with the Church, its scriptures, and its leaders. We can alter or change its doctrines no more than they can, even if we wished to. They need to work the matter out with their “spouse,” privately. It is not fighting fair to publicly involve us. Those who seek an audience or allies in their marital quarrels are interested in vindication, not reconciliation.

Likewise, too many Isabels hold forth in classes for youth or children―again, this is wholly inappropriate, a sign of bad faith. Those who dissent from core doctrines give themselves an unfair advantage in confronting youth with their adult experience and authority. To be blunt, they should pick on someone their own size―they should fight fair. Children and youth are brought to classes by their parents with the reasonable expectation that their family’s convictions will be strengthened, not undercut.

Leaders who hold keys have a special duty to restrain false teaching. It is not our place to usurp their role. Not every meeting has such a leader in attendance, however. And, sadly, some leaders do not always measure up to their duty in these cases. In at least a rare few instances of which I am aware, some are actually the Isabels, not the Gideons. We members in the pew can, at least, offer our witness of vital doctrine that is disputed or denounced.

Conflict is hard. Fighting is not fun. We are often not good at it. And it’s possible to  over-correct in both directions.

Without question, we need God’s help to show us how to endure fights without losing our souls.

After acknowledging in our communion that we may encounter these challenges, we must pray to be prepared and guided in the moment of trial. 

Part of that preparation is to refuse to accept the all-too-convenient label of contentious disputer from Isabel. Remember, she actually does not want a fight—instead, like the domineering party in a dysfunctional marriage, she prefers to call the shots with no resistance.

Don’t buy it. Don’t play those mind games. 

Instead, love Isabel and the others listening to what she is saying.  Love them all by speaking up, as the Spirit guides you.  

No matter how they respond, this will always be the right thing to do.

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Matt

Tuesday 9th of August 2022

Wow...this is fantastic. Any way to condense it so that I can share it... no one on Facebook, except for me is going to read this and I think EVERY member needs to read what you shared!