“Come, let us reason together,” He invites the children of Israel. Accordingly, Abraham and Ezra both dared, humbly and apologetically, but still stubbornly, to protest what they considered, in the light of their limited understanding, unkind treatment of some of God’s children. They just could not see why the Lord did or allowed certain things. So He patiently explained the situation to them, and then they understood…God did not hold it against these men that they questioned Him, but loved them for it: it was because they were the friends of men, even at what they thought was the terrible risk of offending Him, that they became friends of God.
– Hugh Nibley, Beyond Politics
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. 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.
– 3 Nephi 11:28-29
Is there room for debate within the Church? On the one hand, we read of great prophets such as Abraham and Moses who, for lack of better word, debated with God about this and that. Moses protested his prophetic value, while Abraham haggled for the lives of Sodom and Gomorrah, clearly protesting what God had in store for the two cities. Enoch wondered aloud to God if He should really be crying, considering He’s so powerful and awe-inspiring. Isaiah told God that maybe He wouldn’t be a great messenger because the people hated him.
Of course in the end God was not persuaded. But the fact is, he didn’t blast them on the spot for insolence either. In this, he shows great mercy, even to the constantly erring and one of the most sympathetically human prophets. Jonah runs away from his missionary call, then preaches repentance after getting swallowed by an aquatic animal. Even after being vomited up (which I can only imagine is not a pleasant experience), he sits on a hill waiting for God to destroy them after they repented! Even then, God does not rain fire upon poor, near-sighted Jonah’s head. Instead, he gives him an object lesson and patiently teaches him again about the mercy of God.
On the other hand, we have a great deal of scripture telling us specifically not to argue. It tears us apart. In this, I can understand, but is there still room not to argue, but to debate, to be loyal to the Kingdom of God, but still use questions and discussion as a means to learn more about the Gospel?
So is there room for debate within our Church? And I don’t mean the shrill, prideful debate wherein you attempt to pummel your opponent into submission with a barrage of facts and twisted scripture or loud, yelling voice. I mean thoughtful, humble debate about the interpretations of the gospel of Christ.
While serving a mission in Oklahoma, I ran into a fair number of Messianic Jews (for some reason, Oklahoma has a ton of them. Go figure). The one thing that impressed me the most about them is their ability to argue without really arguing. They would get together and begin to debate something fierce about the interpretations of the Bible, of various apocrypha, of the Talmud and other rabbinical works. The scholarship found in those small groups was astounding. My companion and I were obviously outclassed as far as scriptural knowledge was concerned, but they would listen intently on what we had to say. Never have I seen people contend about the Book of Mormon so peacefully. And never have I had my arguments dismembered in such a polite manner!
How did we lose this ability to debate and argue the scriptures? Of course, one could argue that this happened at the very inception of Christianity, where the Pharisees and Sadducees were vilified as the bad guys, mostly because they argued all the time, dissecting the commandments into hundreds of subdivisions. Judaism, Paul argued, was horribly fractured and based upon the fallible wisdom of man. Christianity, however, was united and based upon the wisdom of God.
Fair enough. But what has this institutionalized “unity” given us? I remember overhearing a conversation in disbelief at the MTC of a missionary confessing to his companion that until today, he had no idea that Joseph Smith actually talked with God. We joke about the “seminary answers” or the “primary answers”: Read your scriptures, pray, go to church, and when in doubt, usually the answer “Jesus” works. The early prophets of this dispensation envisioned a church of scholars, that if everyone was lay clergy, then everyone knew as much as clergy. Joseph in the School of Prophets worked tirelessly to train his friends in Hebrew and Greek so that they could analyze the scriptural text in its original forms. They debated what the scriptures meant, since at the beginning of the Restoration, they did not have the decades of canon and precedent we enjoy today – they were building the canon.
And Brother Joseph never saw the canon as complete or finished. Why else would one of our Articles of Faith read that we believe in all that God has yet to reveal? Through discussion, the brethren found questions. They found holes and incomplete gaps in the Gospel fed to them by God line upon line, precept upon precept. And instead of glossing over these holes and gaps, trying to pull the edges together to cover them like a really bad comb over, they debated and discussed until their options were exhausted and then turned to the Lord in prayer for the answer. In fact, that’s how a vast majority of the Doctrines and Covenants came to be.
I’m sure this is how the Brethren work today, but lately, for many of the lesser theological questions, especially when it comes to policy, they give us lay membership a lot of leeway. Why? Because God wants us to be an entire nation of prophets, not a nation led by a prophet. Yes, the Prophet has the sole responsibility to enact church-wide revelation or change, edit, or add to the canon. But as members, surely we can emulate the early days of the Church, debating and discussing with the Spirit of God, until we have exhausted all of our mortal mental capacity, and finally turn to God for answers? Instead, we brush over the holes and gaps in our knowledge, and then attempt to cover it with a seminary or Primary answer. What is the doctrine of Heavenly Mother all about? Read your scriptures. How do we deal with the problem of homosexuality being real, and how should we treat them? Pray about it.
I’m not saying there is little value in the seminary or Primary answers. They have great value when it comes to, well, teaching students in seminary and Primary. But when growing to adulthood, the seminary and Primary answers simply are not sufficient. My mission president once told us missionaries that five years after our mission, we shouldn’t be telling missionary stories anymore – we should be telling stories about experiences in the temple or with our families or further study in the scriptures or revelation given to us in prayer six months ago.* Joseph Smith also fully expected our membership to be well versed in our own faith. After all, eventually, he was well versed in his. After years of tutoring from revelation and discussion with his friends, he brought together all of his knowledge into a series of lessons concerning the nature and property of faith. How do you get faith? Seminary and Primary answers galore for this question should you ask this question in a Sunday School class today. But when reading Lectures on Faith, I was surprised to find the initial forms of a Mormon catechism in the back. Rote memorization we decry, yet has been a long tradition in almost all religions (including our own). Surely along with scripture mastery, we could have our young students memorize and recite:
Is it not necessary also, for men to have an idea that God is a being of truth before they can have perfect faith in him? It is; for unless men have this idea they cannot place confidence in his word, and, not being able to place confidence in his word, they could not have faith in him; but believing that he is a God of truth, and that his word cannot fail, their faith can rest in him without doubt.
Surely that’s a more complete answer than “read your scriptures.”
* By telling this story, I’ve completely invalidated my mission president’s advice.