Imagine the Lord tasking you with abridging one thousand years of your nation’s religious history. You approach your assignment standing in the unique position of being able to look back and, by the power of the Holy Ghost, assessing why your people are now facing annihilation and why they have so frequently suffered endless cycles of apostasy and war.
You are writing your book, in part, to save a future generation that will face similar perils. As you dig into the records, armed with prophetic insight, you see a pattern emerge. You perceive a subtle strategy that Satan has employed time and again to destroy the peace, divide the people, stir up anger and destroy lives.
Now, with a sense of purpose and urgency, you begin to write, always with the thought in mind to warn your future readers about Satan’s destructive strategy, ever pleading with them to not miss the point.
What is that point? To avoid the deadly twins: contention and disputation.
I draw attention to the dangers of contention and disputation because often they are the bi-products of gospel hobbies, which, when the proponents begin to promote them, tend to divide the saints. Elder Quentin L. Cook wrote an article on the subject in March 2003. He didn’t mince words: “Another sign of spiritual immaturity and sometimes apostasy is when one focuses on certain gospel principles or pursues gospel hobbies’ with excess zeal. Almost any virtue taken to excess can become a vice.”1
I have seen so much of this.
I have known people who are obsessed with food storage and make it a religion. It’s not good enough that they gather a year’s supply; they store for the extended family and neighbors and even have extra to barter with. Some buy guns and ammunition to guard their stash. Others are prepared to mobilize at a moment’s notice with all sorts of gear so they can flee to tent cities. Many of these people don’t store food and supplies quietly; they sound the alarm and preach their doctrine to anyone who will listen. They are in the know and they feel that others ought to know what they know. Their actions are divisive and pride cements them to their gospel hobbies. If they let them go or modified them, what would they have to talk about and live for?
I am exhausted by the recruiting attempts of catastrophists who seek a following to advance their conspiracy theories and interpretations of the signs of the times. Talk about contention and disputation. Let me tell you something: I’ve written a fair amount about Zion and Babylon, and I feel pretty certain that aligning ourselves with the prophets and living the commandments will keep us safe. There are two elevators: the “Zion” elevator, which is going up, and the “Babylon” elevator, which is going down. If I am riding the Zion elevator, I’m in a safe spot. I’m aware of what is happening on the other elevator, but I am not affected.
Gospel hobbyists often fuel the fire of contention when they feel that they, because of their scholarship, are in possession of exclusive information or that they, because of inside information or revelation, are aware of the real story that the Brethren don’t dare tell us. Elder Cook said, “Some who are not authorized want to speak for the Brethren and imply that their message contains the meat’ the Brethren would teach if they were not constrained to teach only the milk.’ Others want to counsel the Brethren and are critical of all teachings that do not comply with their version of what should be taught.”
I have watched people get worked into a frenzy and solicit disciples over such trivial things as the birthday of Christ and the place of his birth. Did these professed students of the scriptures ever read the Lord’s injunction to be temperate in all things?
And how about those who are fixated on the Word of Wisdom? Here is what Elder Cook says of people in that group.
Certain members have wanted to add substantially to various doctrines. An example might be when one advocates additions to the Word of Wisdom that are not authorized by the Brethren and proselytes others to adopt these interpretations. If we turn a health law or any other principle into a form of religious fanaticism, we are looking beyond the mark. The Lord said regarding important doctrine, “Whosoever declareth more or less than this, the same is not of me” (D&C 10:68) and “That which is more or less than this cometh of evil” (D&C 124:120).
Can you see the common denominator? Good people taking a good thing and obsessing over it until it consumes their lives and pride won’t let it go. Often gospel hobbyists take an ancillary subject and inflate it up so that it appears crucial or urgent. But now how do they feed the beast? They need sympathizers; they need disciples for their sub-religion. Because their gospel hobbies are by nature controversial, they tend to divide the saints from each other with contention and disputation.
Elder Cook called these gospel hobbyists to task because they are “looking beyond the mark” and attempting to gather followers to do the same thing. The Book of Mormon specifically warns against such behavior.
But behold, the Jews were a stiffnecked people; and they despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets, and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desire it. And because they desire it God hath done it, that they may stumble.
Continuing, Elder Cook said, “We are looking beyond the mark when we elevate any one principle, no matter how worthwhile it may be, to a prominence that lessens our commitment to other equally important principles or when we take a position that is contrary to the teachings of the Brethren.”
He prefaced this statement by warning of the prevalence of gospel hobbies and looking beyond the mark.
The wild rush to find the new often tramples on what is true. Today there is a tendency among some of us to look beyond the mark’ rather than to maintain a testimony of gospel basics. We do this when we substitute the philosophies of men for gospel truths, engage in gospel extremism, seek heroic gestures at the expense of daily consecration, or elevate rules over doctrine. Avoiding these behaviors will help us avoid the theological blindness and stumbling that Jacob described.
One of the real dangers of gospel hobbies is evangelizing them, soliciting a following to perpetuate an idea. Worse than evangelizing is merchandizing and profiteering a gospel hobby. How many times have I been approached by LDS authors who want to know how to get on the “fireside circuit.” I can’t believe they could invent such a coarse term.
When I was just starting out as a writer and being asked to speak, I went to my friend, Blaine Yorgason, who gave me the best counsel I had ever received on the subject.
He said, “When I am asked to speak, I assume that the Lord has placed me in that position to teach the gospel. I am not there for myself, but for Him. I never mention my books.” To this day, I have tried to follow that advice.
On the other hand, I know writers who promote themselves or even hire promoters to get on the “circuit” in an effort to advance themselves and sell books about their gospel hobby. If the bishop would let them, they would set up a table and cash register at the back of the chapel. Instead, they hand out business cards with ordering information or take people outside to their car, open the trunk and sell books – on Sunday! I’m not making this up.
There is another gospel hobby that is gaining some recent notoriety, but it has existed for a long time: Book of Mormon geography. Whoa! Talk about contention and disputation.
Like many of you, I am continually pressed to give my opinion about the location of Book of Mormon lands. My response is always the same: “I don’t care.” If Mormon didn’t feel the need to give us more geographical information and if the General Authorities, who are the custodians of the Book of Mormon, haven’t felt the need to make a definitive declaration, then I don’t perceive that the subject should demand much of my attention. But that doesn’t stop their efforts to recruit and bombard me with their “evidence.”
Don’t get me wrong. I am as interested as the next person about Book of Mormon archaeology and geography, which are legitimate, honorable pursuits. But these subjects are ancillary to the purpose of the book, which is to bring people to Christ. Nevertheless, what was once a beautiful subject has now devolved for many enthusiasts into a gospel hobby, and pride, contention and disputation have followed.
At an early age, Joseph Smith encountered gospel hobbyists and learned about the toxic nature of contention and disputation that result. In his sincere quest for truth, he described “a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued-priest contending against priest, and convert against convert; so that all their good feelings for one another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions.”
Contention and disputation are so damning and damaging. Mormon waded through centuries of pride, contentions, disputations, apostasy and warfare when finally, almost like a sigh of relief, he was able to write about the Savior’s appearance. Mormon must have rejoiced when he wrote that Jesus commanded the people to abandon contention and disputation once and for all.
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.
Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away.
Contentions and disputations had always been the common denominators of Nephite decline and misery. Looking across the generations of his children, Nephi prophesied that contention would define his people’s history and eventually cause their downfall: “For behold, I say unto you that I have beheld that many generations shall pass away, and there shall be great wars and contentions among my people.”
Contentions also brought down the Jaredite civilization, and Alma, in his day, commanded the members of the Church “that there should be no contention one with another, but that…their hearts [should be] knit together in unity and in love one towards another.” Later contention nearly destroyed the Nephites after the birth of Christ.
A cursing is pronounced upon those who contend, and prophets have sought to teach unifying principles to avoid the evil of contention. King Benjamin warned,
But, O my people, beware lest there shall arise contentions among you, and ye list to obey the evil spirit…. For behold, there is a wo pronounced upon him who listeth to obey that spirit; for if he listeth to obey him, and remaineth and dieth in his sins, the same drinketh damnation to his own soul; for he receiveth for his wages an everlasting punishment, having transgressed the law of God contrary to his own knowledge.
The phrase “list to obey” means “want to obey.” What a frightening thought! King Benjamin seems to be saying that contention results from the conscious desire to yield to the temptation of making an argument at all costs. We want to contend; we like to dispute a point. And the worst part is that we know better. We know that contentious behavior is wrong, but nevertheless, for the argument’s sake to keep the gospel hobby alive, we vigorously dispute and thereby transgress “the law of God contrary to [our] own knowledge.”
According to King Benjamin, the consequences are serious. Contention draws from God a “wo” upon the contender. A wo is a condition of “calamity, wretchedness, deep distress, misery and grief.” Is a gospel hobby really worth the price of arguing in order to perpetuate it?
Mormon also wrote of the terrible price we pay for contending and disputing with each other. Of the sorry state of the Nephites who had listed to obey the evil spirit and chose to contend, he said they “were much disturbed.” Why? Because “Satan did stir them up…. yea, he did go about spreading rumors and contentions upon all the face of the land, that he might harden the hearts of the people against that which was good and against that which should come…. Satan did get great hold upon the hearts of the people upon all the face of the land.”
Do you see what was happening? Satan had managed to twist “that which was good” and “that which was to come” and turn them into gospel hobbies. In the process, he stirred up he people so that they were much disturbed. Now contending and disputing over interpretations, Satan was able to divide the people and harden their hearts against each other and against the Lord.
Clearly, contention sets in motion a frightening set of circumstances that never turn out well.
No matter how well-intended, if people’s ideas divide the saints from each other and from Christ, if they set themselves up as a light or claim exclusive knowledge, if they compete for disciples, if they turn a gospel hobby into a pseudo-religion and merchandize it, if they preach their doctrine from the pulpit, if they contend and dispute with people of another point-of-view, if they demean them or if their message and actions are in any way divisive or if pride makes them inflexible, I would advise that you flee from them.
When Mormon finally got to write about a people who had managed to rid themselves of contentions and disputations, he began to exult. He had waited so long that he couldn’t help himself. In the first two pages of 4 Nephi, he rejoices four times! “There were no contentions and disputations among them, and every man did deal justly one with another….
And it came to pass that there was no contention among all the people, in all the land….there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people….and there was no contention in all the land.”
And what was the result? “They did walk after the commandments which they had received from their Lord and their God, fasting and praying, and in meeting together oft both to pray and to hear the word of the Lord.” No gospel hobbies! They were one in heart, mind and doctrine.
“And there were no envyings, nor strifes, nor tumults.” Imagine! “And surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God.”
But Mormon’s joy was short-lived. On the very next page of 4 Nephi, things began to unravel: “there began to be among them those who were lifted up in pride….” Suddenly, we hear the bells of Hades start to toll. Had they learned nothing? Contentions and disputations follow pride like night follows day. Then came class distinction and people dividing into factions to pursue their unique take on the gospel and exclusive points of view. From that point forward, Mormon narrates the tragic demise of a people who became extinct because they couldn’t stop arguing with each other over things that didn’t matter.
Is any subject, no matter how intriguing, worth the price of contention and disputation?
Quentin L. Cook, “Looking Beyond the Mark,” Ensign, March 2003.
3 Nephi 11:28-30
See 1 Nephi 9:4; 12:3; 19:4; 2 Nephi 26:2, 32; 28:4; Omni 1:17; Words of Mormon 1:12; Mosiah 9:13; Alma 2:5; 4:9;50:25; 51:9; Helaman 16:22; 3 Nephi 2:11
2 Nephi 26:2
See Ether 11:7
See 3 Nephi 2:11
See Ether 4:8
See Mosiah 29:7
American Heritage Dictionary, s.v. “woe.”
4 Nephi 1:2, 13, 15, 18.
4 Nephi 1:12.
4 Nephi 1:16.
4 Nephi 1:24.
4 Nephi 1:26-29.