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Responding to Those Who Disagree

To hear a January 2013 Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast on this topic, click Discussing Religious Differences 

By Eric Johnson

The following was originally printed in the March-April 2009 edition of Mormonism Researched. The original headline was “Mormon apostle encourages silence, not dialogue, with perceived ‘accusers.’” To request a free subscription, please visit here

For many years, the term “anti-Mormon” has been used by Latter-day Saints to describe almost anyone who disagrees with their beliefs. In fact, this moniker has been used to taint whatever a Christian might say about truth and the differences between Mormonism and biblical Christianity.

With that as a background, consider a talk that was given by Apostle Robert D. Hales in the October 2008 general conference titled “Christian Courage: The Price of Discipleship” (Ensign, Nov. 2008, pp. 72-75). He was responding to a question posed by a “bright, faithful young Latter-day Saint” woman who asked, “Why doesn’t the Church defend itself more actively when accusations are made against it?”

Apostle Hales said that there is a temptation to “want to respond aggressively—to ‘put up our dukes.’ But these are important opportunities to step back, pray, and follow the Savior’s example….When we respond to our accusers as the Savior did, we not only become more Christlike, we invite others to feel His love and follow Him as well” (p. 72).

To prove his point, the Mormon apostle ends up demonizing those who share their faith with Latter-day Saints (even those who do so in love) when he said:

“Some people mistakenly think responses such as silence, meekness, forgiveness, and bearing humble testimony are passive or weak. But to ‘love [our] enemies, bless them that curse [us], do good to them that hate [us], and pray for them which despitefully use [us], and persecute [us] (Matthew 5:44) takes faith, strength, and, most of all, Christian courage.”

He later added:

“When we do not retaliate—when we turn the other cheek and resist feelings of anger—we too stand with the Savior. We show forth His love, which is the only power that can subdue the adversary…”

By using such a broad paintbrush in his ad hominem attack, Apostle Hales does not even have the courtesy to define what he means by adversary. It appears he classifies anyone who disagrees with Mormonism as an “enemy,” a “curser,” a “hater,” and a “persecutor.” In fact, he claims that such people “have been influenced by misinformation and prejudice—who are ‘kept from the truth because they know not where to find it’ (D&C 123:12)” (p. 73).

Utilizing the saying from 3 Nephi 11:29 that contention is from the Devil, Apostle Hales makes it appear that any “debate” with those holding different views is wrong. He writes:

“Surely our Heavenly Father is saddened—and the devil laughs—when we contentiously debate doctrinal differences with our Christian neighbors” (p. 72).

Then, equating “Christian courage” with silence, Apostle Hales provides examples from the lives of Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith, Jr. as men who met their foes meekly. The only response (besides silence) that is recommended is “the most powerful answer” Mormons can give: their “heartfelt testimonies.”

Instead of giving “courageous” advice, however, Apostle Hales encourages members to be cowardly. Because his definitions are sloppy, anyone who heard Apostle Hales’ speech (or reads his words in the Ensign) is led to believe that any type of doctrinal discussion is wrong.  Providing a Mormon testimony—of course, this is something that every Mormon holds on to with pride—is the catch-all response that he says every Mormon should make. In essence, facts don’t seem to be as important as “knowing” that Joseph Smith was a true prophet and that Thomas Monson is God’s prophet for today. In essence, he says that holding on to one’s testimony is more important than attempting to define truth from the perspective of God and His Word. Yet is this a loving response? Is it biblical? I don’t think so for three important reasons.

First, Christians have been commanded to give answers for their beliefs as long as it is done with a gentle and respectful attitude (1 Peter 3:15-16).  When we dialogue about doctrines, we are trying to determine whose idea is better. The goal is to discover and cling to the teaching that is based on truth; truth-seekers should be willing to let others attack their ideas as long as basic civility is maintained. As Christian apologist Greg Koukl has put it, “Be egalitarian regarding persons. Be elitist regarding ideas.”

In other words, respect the person who disagrees while fully exposing a faulty idea, using logic and good reasoning. In return, the same courtesy should be given to those who disagree with us, so we should not get offended when someone attempts to show the fault in our beliefs.

Second, Christians have clear biblical examples from the lives of Jesus and Paul that a mere testimony is insufficient to respond to disagreement, especially if the “testimony” is not based on truth and reality. Jesus often used arguments to prove His authority. For example, notice what He said in John 10:25, 37-38: “I told you, and ye believed not: the works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness of me… If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not. But if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works: that ye may know, and believe, that the Father is in me, and I in him.”

When Jesus said that He wanted the religious leaders to look at His works to determine if His words were true, He was giving a logical argument. Paul also used logic regularly. In fact, he gave a very convincing sermon at Mars Hill (Acts 17) when he explained the importance of knowing the identity of the “unknown God.” Jesus and Paul are our examples for making sure ideas conform to logical reality. To accept a counterfeit gospel by turning a blind eye to truth is condemned since it leads to destruction (Matt. 7:15; Gal. 1:8-9).

Third, Christians understand that the most unloving thing they can do is hide truth under a bushel. If Christians really believe that those who don’t come into a relationship with God in this life are headed toward a Christless eternity, shouldn’t they actively desire to share their faith? Just as Mormon missionaries endlessly knock on doors in their pursuit to share the LDS gospel with others, so do Christians “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” Paul adds in 2 Cor. 10:5 that “we demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God…” (NIV). As earlier stated, we need to be egalitarian regarding persons and elitist regarding ideas. If Apostle Hales understood that most Christians have a motive quite similar to his missionaries, then perhaps he would have done more to encourage dialogue rather than silence.

While many Mormons might see Apostle Hales’ advice in his talk as loving and tolerant, his views are contrary to the Bible and end up creating a people who hold on to their beliefs in a blind fashion while overlooking the fact that their faith contains no foundation in truth. It would have been better if this Mormon leader had instructed his people to study their scriptures and be ready to give an answer to everyone. Anything less is not courageous.

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