In this regular column, Michael Vinson, a master’s graduate of the Divinity School of the University of Cambridge and a frequent devotional speaker at Sunstone symposiums, delves into personal and scholarly aspects of scripture
. . . And I shall bring to light the true points of my doctrine, yea, and the only doctrine which is in me. And this I do that I may establish my gospel, that there may not be so much contention; yea, Satan doth stir up the hearts of the people to contention concerning the points of my doctrine; and in these things they do err, for they do wrest the scriptures and do not understand them. —D&C 10:62–63
One of my earliest experiences in “Bible bashing” came while I was serving as a stake missionary in California and waiting for my own mission call. I had gone out with the elders to visit an investigator, who had invited a surprise visitor—the leading anti-Mormon minister in our little community. Almost immediately, the Reverend and the missionaries began arguing about points of doctrine while I sat there with just a year of Rick’s College religion classes behind me and nothing to add to any arguments. The voices became louder, and I could feel temperatures rising in the room. I am sure the investigator was sorry to be there as well. After nearly an hour of arguing, there was a pause and I finally spoke up. I’ll get to what I said in a moment.
I wish I could say I learned from that experience, but a little scriptural knowledge and a lot of missionary zeal is a dangerous combination, and a year later, while on my mission in Bolivia, I had my own run-in with a minister who had been invited over by our investigator.
As I reflect back on these Bible-bashing experiences, they now seem to me not so different from all other arguments about scriptural meaning and doctrine, including those going on within the Church today. I am thinking especially here of members who have been punished by or threatened with excommunication over theological or doctrinal issues. Instead of bashing over points of scripture—though that can certainly happen in Sunday School—these confrontations take place in the privacy of a stake high council room and are known today as “Church Disciplinary Councils” (though in classic Orwellian double-speak, they were once called “courts of love”). In the Church’s purge of intellectuals in the early 1990s—one that to some extent still continues—one of the main justifications for the excommunications was that these persons’ writings and lectures could contaminate the “pure” doctrine of the Church as taught in classes and meetings. Clearly some Church leaders have felt that doctrinal purity is an issue that should be pressed. Indeed, a recent edition of the Church Handbook of Instructions lists keeping the Church “pure” as adequate reason for excommunication. Teaching “false doctrine” is also mentioned as an excommunicable offense.
But I believe there is something inherently dangerous for the long-term health of religious institutions that perpetrate this point of view. First, because all leaders are human, there is not any earthly institution—”true church” or otherwise—that does not occasionally make mistakes that might be considered doctrinal. For instance, there are few Church leaders today who are willing to still stand up and say that the denial of priesthood blessings to blacks was truly the word and will of the Lord. Nevertheless, before the 1978 priesthood revelation in 1978, some Latter-day Saints were threatened with or received Church discipline for advocating the eradication of racial boundaries.
I am not denying the reality of priesthood revelation but only pointing out that sometimes our surety about Church doctrine and practice is not as sure as we might like. Even if we are confident that this ship belongs to the Lord, men are at the helm and do the steering. Because of the principle of agency, I have to believe that the Lord will pretty much let them steer or take the Church any direction in which they are inclined.
So, how much does Jesus actually care about the purity of the doctrine taught in the Church? On the surface the answer seems straightforward. Of course the Lord cares about the doctrines being taught; why else would the world have needed a restoration of priesthood authority after a long apostasy? But perhaps this answer is not as intuitive as it might first appear.
I believe that part of our obsession with punishing dissident teachings in the modern Church stems from the ancient Christian church practice of emphasizing orthodoxy over orthopraxy. In other words, it was not what you did that made you a Christian in the ancient church (think of Paul eradicating the Jewish dietary laws) as much as what you believed. Leaders of the ancient church fought constantly over doctrine and interpretation, and they often resorted to ostracizing fringe doctrines or teachers.
But one can find an alternative in the Jewish tradition, which emphasizes practice (orthopraxy) over beliefs (orthodoxy). In Judaism, there is a fairly long tradition of disagreement over doctrines (according to the Mishnah, this was true even dating back to the time of Jesus), so that almost every variety of belief or non-belief is tolerated. There is no litmus test, per se, that is administered to Jews every year or two to be sure that they believe the same as everyone else in the congregation. Instead, for most congregations, as long as you observe the practices, regardless of what you actually believe, you are considered a Jew.
This was the religious tradition Jesus was raised in. You could be excommunicated for becoming a tax farmer (part of the Roman tax-collecting bureaucracy) but not for voicing alternative views of scriptural interpretation.
Some of Jesus’s views on how we should treat differing interpretations of doctrine can be seen in the account of Christ’s visit to Book of Mormon peoples: “And there shall be no disputations among you, as there have hitherto been; neither shall there be disputations among you concerning the points of my doctrine, as there have hitherto been” (3 Nephi 11:28). Admittedly, at first glance, this passage lends itself to two different readings. One reading could see Christ’s injunction as a form of “Thou shalt not dispute anymore because this is the official doctrine”—Jesus channeling Elder McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine, as it were.
But in the next verse we read, “For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.” The Nephites had apparently had some extensive doctrinal disagreements, but the Savior was more concerned with how they treated each other than he was with what anyone was teaching.
Jesus seems to be advocating orthopraxy over orthodoxy—preaching against the temptation to impose a particular system in order to regulate spiritual conformity within the church. In other words, Jesus is saying (and this point is repeated in other verses as well) there is no point of doctrine or church teaching that is worth contending, disputing, or arguing about with fellow church members if it interferes with our loving each other. The inverse is true as well. If we truly respect and love each other, we can have those vigorous doctrinal discussions with this caveat: don’t get too carried away with the correctness of your point of view.
So did Jesus correct the doctrine of the Nephites when he appeared to them? Yes, but only after warning them about the dangers of contending over the meaning of scripture. In D&C 10:62-63, the verses I quoted at the beginning of this column, the Lord identifies Satan as the force behind contention over doctrine and the temptation to “wrest the scriptures” and turn them into tools for battle. As much as we might enjoy intellectual dialogue, there is some point at which differences can begin to degenerate into angry disputations. I think the Savior knew that, in the midst of disagreements, we often lose our tempers and are tempted to call each other names. In fact, in the online chat and blog environment this tendency even has a name: “Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogues, “which predicts that the longer an online disagreement continues, the more likely one party will resort to comparing the other to Nazis. If we reach the point of pointing fingers and calling names, whether we are a Church leader judging from one side of the high council table or a member sitting on the other, we have transgressed the Lord’s law of love.
So what did I say to the anti-Mormon minister that evening so long ago when I was an ignorant stake missionary? I told him that even though we disagreed strongly over the meaning of Jesus’ words, I knew the Lord loved him just as much as he loved us, and that I loved him, too. A strong spirit of the Lord’s love came into that room, and just before leaving with the missionaries, the minister took me aside and said that he had felt something in his heart that he had not experienced before, and he asked if he could visit with me later that week. I wish I could tell you I was brave enough to follow through with that visit, but I was too young and scared.
The lesson for me, though, still remains a force whenever I am tempted to dogmatically argue with someone about a Church teaching or interpretation of doctrine. Nothing, it seems, is as important to the Lord as loving our fellowman—even, or especially, Church members whom we may fervently feel to be in doctrinal error.
Star Valley, Wyoming