The first rule about disagreements in church is no one talks about disagreements in church. But we should.

There are certain things that you grow up with that you don’t realize are weird until you start really noticing the world around you and see that other families don’t do those things your family does. Take one of my friends, for instance, who didn’t realize until well into his twenties that most kids don’t necessarily grow up playing poker and drinking Baileys with their grandparents and their grandparents friends, or another who didn’t realize until adulthood that it wasn’t normal for children to get stiches every few months because of frequent climbing accidents around her house, yard, and neighborhood.

In my family we were raised to argue. (I don’t mean fight, my parents didn’t have any patience for that even though heaven knows we still did it plenty.) I mean we love delving. We can sit and argue for hours. We were raised to have lots of opinions and all of them strong. (My brother-in-law would be happy to tell you about the time he came over and listened in horrified fascination as my brothers argued passionately for three hours about the definition of soil. None of them are soil experts.) I always thought this was normal until one day my sister had some friends over for dinner. After dinner it was commonplace for everyone to sit around the table and talk, discuss, and argue, sometimes for hours. One day as we were doing this one of my sister’s friends whispered, “It’s true.” Apparently he had heard from another friend about our behavior and couldn’t believe it. (I naturally felt sorry for him and the obviously boring family dinners he had to sit through.) My parents deeply value education, and it was taken for granted that an essential part of education is argumentation. Education, in our home, was a deeply uncomfortable and very exciting endeavor.

My parents didn’t teach us that we shouldn’t disagree with people in church. It’s just one of those things that you grow up understanding you shouldn’t do. You would hear or see how people who disagreed with the standard narrative were talked about or treated and you knew you didn’t want to be that person. Church was not a place for questions, church was a place for answers.

Our daughter, who is a little firebrand, has always sought to use her words to bring attention to the marginalized, and is not always the most popular person in the church room. This last week she came home from seminary and said, “Mom, we don’t know how to disagree in church.” I asked her what she meant and she talked about how in all of her regular school classes the students would often have discussions where they disagreed with each other, were even expected to disagree. When topics like BLM, Covid, Confederate statues, and so on come up in regular classes the teachers and students expect that people will disagree and there will be discussion of those disagreements. But in church, she noted, people don’t know what to do if there are disagreements, and generally if one crops up there will be deep discomfort, and it will be quickly glossed over.

This is such an important observation, because generally a relationship where there are never any disagreements is deeply unhealthy. It means someone is not allowed to express, is somehow punished for expressing, their feelings if they are divergent from others in the relationship. It’s a sign somebody is being steamrolled. The suppression of divergence is contrary to the freedom created by the gospel’s focus on truth. Joseph taught that the way truth is made manifest is by proving contraries. This is kind of a weird statement at first. So often our idea of truth is that is that it is made manifest by proving it’s opposite wrong. In this black and white way of conceptualizing truth there are only right and wrong answers. So, if we have the right answer, anyone who disagrees with us is wrong. They must be corrected or ignored. But the way you find truth, according to Joseph, is by seeing the truth in opposites. In fact, it is when we stop seeing the truth in opposites that we become creedal and fixed, things that are abominations to God. In other words, church lessons work most effectively when there is robust discussion of divergent thinking and different perspectives. That is how we learn truth. It is when we start learning to think beyond the limits of our expectations and experiences that we begin to be able to learn. Truth is not a collection of facts to keep us complacent, it is a living spirit that helps us to grow—and we don’t grow when we are comfortable.

This isn’t to say that church should be a brawl, or that we should fight with each other in order to learn something. But church should be a place where different voices, experiences, and ideas are valued, or at the very least respectfully considered and engaged with. It should be a place where differences are acknowledged and openly discussed. Think of the how boldly we would engage with the world if we knew we belonged to a group that would not marginalize us just because we think differently. Think of how daringly we would employ the audacious teachings of Christ if we had confidence that our experience doing so would be taken seriously and utilized by our community. This might seem like a pipe dream. Tribalism is stronger than ever, and heaven knows it’s ugly head is reared in the church. But here’s the thing that I have found. People are uncomfortable to express differences as long as no one speaks up in support of those who express them. In other words, the fear often comes from lack of advocacy. No one wants to stand alone. No one wants to be the person who gets held up as a cautionary tale to others. But when there is someone, even just one person, to support them, who is willing to publicly back them and express gratitude for them and their perspective, with a sincere willingness to listen to and benefit from them, it creates courage in others who also long to speak. As soon as people see they will not stand alone they are much more willing to speak out, and we are all the richer for it. Happily, tragically, it actually doesn’t take that much effort for an ally to help curb repressive behavior, and the effects are powerful and far reaching.

We don’t have to wait for our ward or stake to jump on board to create this kind of environment. The good new is we can be that one person. We can do it today. We can be intentional in our discourse and listening. One example that my husband and I frequently use, particularly when in a leadership capacity, comes from Israeli government’s use of what is referred to as the 10th man rule—if there are 9 people in a room and they all agree, it is the responsibility of the 10th to defend the opposite view. This concept provides one deliberate way of creating healthy communities that will take important possibilities into consideration that they wouldn’t otherwise. We need to act deliberately to fight agreement entitlement. We need to create systems as well as attitudes that support variance. It takes work and attention, but this is possible. We can make comments that address how we have benefitted from someone who made us think differently. We can make sure we are able to repeat another person’s argument back to them in a way they agree with before we jump in and presume to correct them. We can be willing to lovingly and unapologetically express our own struggles and divergent thinking. These are the kinds of things everyone can do. It is within the reach of every individual in the church to do something constructive for the sake of bringing added life and vigor into the Body of Christ through creative discourse. Because regardless of the reasons for this problem, we are each the solution.

25 comments for “The first rule about disagreements in church is no one talks about disagreements in church. But we should.

  1. I think that when “Joseph taught that the way truth is made manifest is by proving contraries” he was hinting at Philippians 4:12 where Paul is talking about the natural tug and pull that happens between different aspects of life, and how the ideal isn’t to find some middle ground, but how to still be faithful in all of those situations.

  2. Absolutely, Mary. I think I’ve given several talks on this over the past few years. I’ve seen problems show up way too much.

  3. FWIW, while I love and agree with the idea behind the saying “truth is made manifest is by proving contraries,” I’m somewhat skeptical that Joseph actually taught it. If I’m reading things correctly, the comment actually comes from a document that was published in B. H. Roberts’ History of the Church — and it seems to come from a list of items, with “by proving contraries” and “truth made manifest” as two separate items on the list.

    Anyone else looked at this?

  4. On the subject of “proving contraries”, there is an original document contemporary to Joseph Smith. Israel Rupp published a book in the 1840s that was a collection of essays on religions where he had people who actually belonged to the religions write the essays. The Church’s section was an updated version of the Wentworth Letter. He sent Joseph Smith a copy, and there is a thank-you note that was written in return (in W.W. Phelps’s hand) in June 1844. The relevant section is as follows:

    “The design, is good: the propriety, the wisdom of letting every sect tell its own story; and the elegant manner in which the work appears, have filled my breast with encomiums of upon it, wishing you God’s speed. Although all is not gold that shines, any more than every religions creed is not sanctioned with the so eternally sure word of prophesy, satisfying, all doubt— with “Thus saith the Lord, yet, by p[r]oving contrarreties, truth is made manifest,” and a wise man can search out the “old paths,” wherein righteous men held communion with Jehovah, and were exalted. ” (“Letter to Israel Daniel Rupp, 5 June 1844,” p. [1], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 22, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letter-to-israel-daniel-rupp-5-june-1844/1)

    So, the quote is a little off–it’s proving contrarreties (contrarieties, or opposite positions) rather than proving contraries–but not far off in meaning. JS seems to be saying that even though other religions are false, looking at all these different points of view lets people find the truth (i.e., the true religion that communicates directly with Jehovah) through comparing them. It still fits well with what Mary is saying here, though–we need to look at or discuss opposing points of view in order to sift through them and find truth.

    There’s also this examination of the quote that is useful: http://valsederholm.blogspot.com/2014/12/joseph-smiths-letter-to-israel-daniel.html.

  5. On the post more generally, thank you for this, Mary. It’s something that I think about and have seen often enough in personal experience. My piano teacher (and a friend of mine) was in my ward when I was growing up, and he was viewed as the weird Democrat who was always trying to tell the class that scriptures meant something different in their original context than what the class discussion was getting out of the texts. Everyone would just role their eyes and move on from his comments as fast as possible. He eventually began to be called as ward librarian or Primary pianist to keep him out of Sunday School discussions as much as possible (particularly when his brother was the ward’s bishop). To some degree, I’ve come to relate to him and what he was saying more often than not and wonder if I’ll eventually end up filling a similar role in how I’m viewed in my ward.

  6. Thank you, Chad. This helps my skepticism about the phrase substantially. I’ll look at that letter, and see if its similar to the one in the History of the Church.

  7. “Brother Eyring seems to think that disagreement is healthy if those participating are dedicated to the pursuit of truth.”

    I agree. That “if” is a key word. I am fearful both of (1) dogmatism from what some call the right; and (2) itching ears from what some call the left. But really, I hear both from both. I always hope for building and strengthening faith as a key motivator for all participants in discussions in church environments.

  8. “Mom, we don’t know how to disagree in church.” YES! We equate “argument” with “contention” and that’s “of the devil.” (NB: contention in the Book of Mormon has strong connections to violence and bloodshed iirc, not merely “disagreement.”)

    That said, I want to point out the double-edged dangers of the 10th man idea. What do we take as non-negotiables, and how do we identify those? If nine people agree that murder is wrong, should the 10th defend it? If nine people think the Book of Mormon is historical, should the 10th take the opposite position? If nine people think Jesus is the divine son of God and savior, should the 10th take (quite literally) the devil’s advocate position? What about a worldwide flood? Immigration? Gay sealings? Voting Democrat? Or Socialist? Or Trump?
    (Take those all as rhetorical questions.)

    Excellent post.

  9. Ben, you bring up an important question. I don’t know that it’s necessary to have to question every group-held assumption in every instance. If nothing else it’s just not always practical. (That being said I do think that it is important to seriously question our assumptions on occasion. But then I like a good respectful argument :)) I recognize that I may be extreme in my desire for argumentation, but as a woman I have been in so many situations where a group of men made a decision that was “obviously” the right thing to do without ever asking women their thoughts, even though women would be impacted. One example that comes immediately to mind was one area we were in where the stake decided that you could only take the sacrament if you were sitting in the chapel. These men had likely never had to sit with young children in sacrament meeting, had to care for a nursing baby, or had to get a bunch of kids ready for church on time while their spouse was in meetings every Sunday. According to them the only possible reason why anyone would be in the hall during sacrament was because of poor planning. For weeks the stake presidency had to go around to the wards explaining to the members why their struggle with this rule was misplaced and was for their own good until finally they rescinded it. In the end it took far more time, recourses, and energy to not listen to divergent opinions than it would have taken to listen in the first place.

  10. That’s an interesting possibility. I think there are a number of ways that this quote can be considered, and all of them are important in regards to being able capable of changing and adapting, whether to circumstances or information.

  11. I do actually think that some argument – or rather, conflict – is necessary for a healthy relationship. This is with the caveat that those arguing are trying to come to a conclusion that satisfies both parties, or in which the truth is manifest and understanding increases.
    Contention, on the other hand, I have heard described as building a wall between you and the world. If someone is contentious, they’re so fixated on their own view that they can see nothing else; no other possibility can ever breach that wall they’ve built.
    Therefore, I think that when we describe Zion as a community that is ‘of one heart and one mind’, that community didn’t just suddenly happen; it became what it was through healthy conflict with a goal in mind – namely, becoming a Zion society. We can disagree about ways and means, but if we all want to get there and are willing to have uncomfortable conversations about *how* we get there, that can only be a good thing.

  12. So great to see you writing publicly again, Mary! And your daughter had such a great point about the difference in a class where disagreement is expected vs a class at church where disagreement is too uncomfortable to confront. I’ve encountered this dynamic a time or two ;) It is hard to be the 10th person too often, but it is so important to engage in discussion and disagreement at church.

  13. You had me at using integrating Fight Club into the title of your post WHILE talking about Conflict! So meta!
    Great ideas Mary. The idea that arguments, discussions, expression of divergent opinions is necessary for truth finding really resonated with me. A dear friend and colleague Dr. Robert Gleave shared this story from John Taylor about Joseph Smith teaching regarding the need for and expectation for disagreement, passionate divergence of opinions, and the acceptance of differing perspectives within the Kingdom of God in seeking truth. If fact he expected it:
    Brother Joseph, after a while, asked,“Well, Brother Taylor, have you got that constitution prepared?”“No, sir.”“What is the reason?” “Because we cannot write it; we cannot agree upon the constitution.”“Well,” said Joseph,“I knew you could not. Ye are my constitution—as Twelve Apos- tles—ye are the living oracles.” That is what he meant. “The word of the Lord shall proceed from you, and that, too, in keeping with the circumstances and conditions of the people, and you shall have the inspiration of Almighty God given to you to give counsel suited to them.”
    Now, what about the written word? Shall we ignore it? Shall we pass it by as a thing of no value to us whatever? Or shall we retain it, read it, and commit it to memory, and above all things become possessed of the spirit un- derlying the written word. . . . You take this revelation, for instance, pertaining to the glories of the celestial, terres- trial, and telestial worlds, and let many individuals read it carefully and seek to mature ideas that come to their mind in connection with this revelation. You ask these individuals their opinion upon this, that, and the other
    passage, and I guarantee to tell you that there will be a vast variety of ideas upon that written word, a vast dif- ference in conception. And now, mind you, while these individuals may be more or less possessed of the spirit of the Almighty, yet is it not possible that a man might err even upon the written word? Ask yourself the ques- tion. Is it not possible that you and I may place a wrong construction upon the revelations of Almighty God? Do brethren vary in opinion belonging to the same quorum, to the same organization, vary in their opinion upon points of doctrine? Why, yes; and they vary very largely and very widely, and in some instances I have found that one individual is the very antipodes of another, so far apart are they in their ideas. Does that change the spirit of revelation? Not by any means. What is the reason of this diversity of thought and opinion and construction? Simply the fact that we have not grasped the real truth underlying the revelation. And yet these men are good men, useful men, men full of zeal and intelligence, and full of faith in God. The sick may be healed under their hands, the power of God may be manifested in them, and yet they may err in judgment in trying to conceive the proper and correct idea upon points of doctrine which God himself has revealed. You come to the principle of baptism, however, and there is no question about that. And why? . . . Simply because we all partake of it, we all experience it, we all pass through it. When you come to grasp the eternal things that God, to a certain extent, has revealed in order to give us some light upon things per- taining to eternity, that is another thing. You and I have not passed through it, and consequently we must reach out to gain a conception, and according to our capacity to conceive, so are we satisfied in our mind. We talk upon this subject, on that subject, and we shall find our brother varying from us in ideas, and yet he is a good brother. When you and I have passed through death, when we have had our bodies called forth from the tomb, when our spirits shall become united with these tabernacles, when you and I shall be celestialized we will know something about celestial glory, it will not be merely conjecture. We will understand by actual experience, and there will be no difference of opinion whatever. (pp. 22–24)
    – Taylor, J. E. (1894). The sacrament of the Lord’s supper. In B. H. Stuy (Ed.), Collected Discourses Delivered by President Wilford Wood- ruff, His Two Counselors, the Twelve Apostles, and Others. (Vol. 5, pp. 20–26). Sandy, Utah: B.H.S. Publishing.

  14. Awesome post Mary. For various reasons, in the last few years I have become the “weird” one in my ward similar to Chad Nielsen’s piano teacher. It was uncomfortable at first, but as other members came up to me privately and commented on how they wanted to say something similar but were afraid to it emboldened me. I agree there is a strong hesitancy to bring up anything contrary to what the teacher or leader says for fear of being seen as “contentious” or “unfaithful”.

    As others have noted, the 10th man concept can be taken too far, and in church one should not try to derail the lesson just because some minor fact or issue was overlooked by the teacher. But the principle is a good one, groupthink is real, and especially when mixed with, at times, too much reverence for authority, it can become painful to those on the margins, or in scriptural terms “the one” that isn’t with the other 99. Christ spent most of his time comforting the marginalized of his day, he didn’t back down from disagreements.

  15. I understand the concept fully, but where does one draw the line? And who gets to draw the line? I have been in wards where spirited debate was the rule but a consensus never achieved and the point of the lesson(s) never realized. In class situations a really good instructor can guide those discussions and still get his or her point across. Really good instructors are rare. Really good leaders are also rare. Really good people are not rare. What we have to do is to learn how to debate without causing contention, which is tough to do and takes a lot of self education.

  16. Glenn, all these things are issues to be sure. No matter how we approach lessons we have to make decisions about where to draw lines and who gets to draw them. There is no question but that this is a messy process with lots of potential for frustration and failure as we go along the learning curve, but if we expect that and accept it as part of the revelation process I absolutely believe it can work together for our good.

  17. Mary, History teaches us that there has been debate among leaders of the church from its inception. It is when that debate spills out in public with acrimony that damage is done to the institution. And that is my main concern, i.e. that the debate be healthy. That depends upon the motives and methods of the people involved. Some times the motives have not been pure and other times the motives may have been pure but the methods were unwise. The most healthy of the debates seem to be those that actually garner the least amount of attention and the details of which are only discovered some time after the fact.

    When engaging in any type of debate, I feel it is best to first have a clear idea of what a person hopes to achieve in a debate and how best to realize those goals in a debate, i.e. how best to influence others to agree with my position while remaining open to modifying my ideas based upon input from other people engaging in the debate. At the same time, refraining from attacking any of the others in the debate for their ideas or attacking the ideas of others is essential in a healthy debate. I believe that using logic and reason to attempt to show how the idea of another person is not correct or maybe could be made better is more productive. Most people do not react well when they are attacked for espousing a particular idea or when the idea itself is attacked. I have seen evidences of all of those things as I browse the different isles that make up the Mormon Archipelago.

    Of course, human nature being what it is, there will be those on either side of a point of contention who will be dogmatic and anyone else is only “right” if they agree with the Dogmatic. And, if you do not agree with everything I have said, you are just wrong. (Insert “Grin” emoji here.)

    Glenn

  18. …On Earth As It Is In Heaven, is Our Lord’s exemplary prayer.

    Members are to live as near to the order of Heaven as possible.

    Disagreement shows we’re not yet able to abide a Zion as Enoch’s people could, where Saints are of one heart and one mind, or have the mind of Christ, even the same understanding of the Gospel.

    The children of God are at all different spiritual levels. It takes faith to learn the Gospel from the scriptures, to seek God in understanding His word – there’s an arrogance to feeling His word is open for debate/discussion. His word stands supreme. He is the master communicator and will teach any who pay the price to know Him – including giving up one’s closely held ideals.

    Be aware that Babylon teaches the management of the creature and to debate the doctrines of Heaven like any other social issue would not giving the word of God the reverence it deserves. Babylon has no place in Zion, as the premarital life attests. And while Babylon is in The Church of Jesus Christ we can never hope to attain a Zion.

    Also there’s shortsightedness in sharing/debating points of disagreement. People aren’t considering the negative impact on other’s testimonies. Similarly the negative impact on investigators and visitors at our chapels. A love of others would encourage keeping these things between a member and their God, with answers to be sought via study and prayer. (the scriptures are full of examples of what God thinks about people who skew others’ understanding of God and His Gospel).

    At the end of the day debate other things as much as you want, because those things aren’t eternal. But we are not to debate The Gospel of Jesus Christ, for it is to be reverenced.

  19. Hi Mary This is an excellent post. There should definitely be a place in church for different opinions (disagreements). Its all a question of how they are handled. One of our adult Sunday School Teachers creates an atmosphere where all opinions are welcome. When someone expresses an alternative opinion to the established view he never makes a person feel uncomfortable. I like the following quote and scriptures which indicate to me that free expression should be acceptable in the church classroom.

    The Lord explains that reasoning together develops understanding.
    D&C 50:9-12: “And now come, saith the Lord by the Spirit, unto the elders of his church, and let us reason together that ye may understand. Let us reason even as a man reasoneth one with another face to face. Now when a man reasoneth he is understood of man, because he reasoneth as a man; even so will I the Lord, reason with you that you may understand.

    How can we be accountable unless we are free to express our personal belief:

    D&C 101:78: “That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the Day of Judgment.”

    We can only truly exist by being ourselves in what we think and belief

    D&C 90:30: “All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.

    I love the words of Apostle Hugh B. Brown who served in the First Presidency from 1961-1970. They are very pertinent to this discussion.

    “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.”

    “Both science and religion beget humility. Scientists and teachers of religion disagree among themselves on theological and other subjects. Even in our own church men and women take issue with one another and contend for their own interpretations. This free exchange of ideas is not to be deplored as long as men and women remain humble and teachable. Neither fear of consequence or any kind of coercion should ever be used to secure uniformity of thought in the church. People should express their problems and opinions and be unafraid to think without fear of ill consequences.”

    “We should be dauntless in our pursuit of truth and resist all demands for unthinking conformity. No one would have us become mere tape recorders of other people’s thoughts. We should be modest and teachable and seek to know the truth by study and faith. There have been times when progress was halted by thought control. Tolerance and truth demand that all be heard and that competing ideas be tested against each other so that the best, which might not always be our own, can prevail. Knowledge is the most complete and dependable when all points of view are heard…..” The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown: An Abundant Life, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, 1988, pg. 135-140

    Malcolm

  20. Even the Lord allows reasoning

    D&C 50:9-12: “And now come, saith the Lord by the Spirit, unto the elders of his church, and let us reason together that ye may understand. Let us reason even as a man reasoneth one with another face to face. Now when a man reasoneth he is understood of man, because he reasoneth as a man; even so will I the Lord, reason with you that you may understand. Wherefore, I the Lord ask you this question…”

    Malcolm

  21. Excellent Post

    I think the following comments by Apostle Hugh B Brown are pertinent:

    “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.”
    “Both science and religion beget humility. Scientists and teachers of religion disagree among themselves on theological and other subjects. Even in our own church men and women take issue with one another and contend for their own interpretations. This free exchange of ideas is not to be deplored as long as men and women remain humble and teachable. Neither fear of consequence or any kind of coercion should ever be used to secure uniformity of thought in the church. People should express their problems and opinions and be unafraid to think without fear of ill consequences.”
    “We should be dauntless in our pursuit of truth and resist all demands for unthinking conformity. No one would have us become mere tape recorders of other people’s thoughts. We should be modest and teachable and seek to know the truth by study and faith. There have been times when progress was halted by thought control. Tolerance and truth demand that all be heard and that competing ideas be tested against each other so that the best, which might not always be our own, can prevail. Knowledge is the most complete and dependable when all points of view are hear…….The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown: An Abundant Life, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, 1988, pg. 135-140

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