by Russ Peterson:
Note: This is Part 2 of a multi-part post. Continued from Part 1 here.
Spirit of Contention
The first of these is the spirit of contention. This is among the most frequently misunderstood doctrines in the Church today. Members of the Church often interpret the Savior’s counsel in 3 Nephi 11 to mean that anger and conflict are evil, and that if one is willing to fight for something he is “of the devil.”
On further examination, however, this isn’t what the Savior is saying at all. Let’s take a closer look:
“And according as I have commanded you thus shall ye baptize. 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.The Savior’s doctrine regarding contention has often been misinterpreted as a command to avoid conflict in every circumstance and at all costs. However, it is critical to note the context. The Savior was speaking principally of contention among members of the Church regarding points of doctrine. Conflict cannot give rise to revelation or doctrinal clarity; these are obtained through different means entirely.
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).
There are, however, numerous instances in scripture where righteous men were called to contend against sin and error and/or defend the cause of truth. They entered into conflict and in some cases were rejected because they avoided it. Consider a different take on the scriptural passage whereby the Lord calls Samuel, and Eli instructs him to say, “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth.” That’s where we usually stop, but let’s keep reading:
And the Lord said to Samuel, Behold, I will do a thing in Israel, at which both the ears of every one that heareth it shall tingle.What was Eli’s sin? He knew of his sons’ iniquity but failed to confront and correct them. Why? We can only imagine, but suffice it to say that confrontation requires energy—energy parents are sometimes unwilling to expend. As a young men’s leader I routinely encountered parents who wouldn’t require their sons to attend Sunday meetings because they didn’t want them to grow up resenting the Church. More than once I asked them how often they excused these same sons from mowing the lawn for fear they would resent the grass. When we fail to provide instruction or correction to our children in the name of conflict avoidance, are we failing in the discharge of parental duty?
In that day I will perform against Eli all things which I have spoken concerning his house: when I begin, I will also make an end.
For I have told him that I will judge his house for ever for the iniquity which he knoweth; because his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not (1 Samuel 3:11-13).
In the Book of Mormon, Captain Moroni exemplified the perfect balance between engagement and conflict avoidance. After he had defeated an army of the Lamanites he commanded his men to stop shedding their blood and entreated their leader to peace:
Behold, Zerahemnah, that we do not desire to be men of blood. Ye know that ye are in our hands, yet we do not desire to slay you (Alma 44:1).But when Zerahemnah refused the proffered olive branch, Moroni was unyielding in his determination to conquer, commanding his people to “fall upon them and slay them” (Alma 44:17).
Later on we encounter a verse which articulates Moroni’s proclivities even more clearly:
But behold, this [slaying of Lamanites] was not the desire of Moroni; he did not delight in murder or bloodshed, but he delighted in the saving of his people from destruction (Alma 55:19).Captain Moroni’s example helps us understand the Savior’s counsel in 3 Nephi when he teaches against the “spirit of contention.” Contention is often necessary in a fallen world but, like Captain Moroni, we don’t have to like it. Indeed, the “spirit of contention” is defined not by engagement in conflict, but rather by the pursuit of or desire for the same. Certainly we can engage in conflict when necessary without possessing an appetite for it. Furthermore, when duty sometimes calls us to engage in conflict, failure to do so can constitute sin. It is in this light that we understand the Savior’s declaration:
“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34).Avoiding necessary conflict and invoking 3 Nephi 11 as our reason for doing so is not righteousness; it’s laziness. It calls to mind the Lord’s pronouncement:
“So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16).Unrighteous Dominion
A second major assault on men and masculinity—particularly with regard to the leadership men are called to render on behalf of the Church—stems from the misunderstanding and misapplication of the doctrine of unrighteous dominion. As previously discussed, men have so often failed to exercise power with restraint and to the benefit of humanity that in Western society we have become generally uncomfortable with men exercising authority of any kind. This uncomfortability is particularly evident in the Church, where we see men habitually shrink from confident leadership for fear of exercising unrighteous dominion. Let’s take a closer look at the concept as it’s discussed in scripture. In the Doctrine and Covenants we read:
We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.I have waded through many a priesthood lesson where these verses were interpreted to mean that the only legitimate exercise of leadership by men was “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned” and that to do otherwise was to exercise unrighteous dominion.
Hence many are called, but few are chosen.
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned (D&C 121:39-41).
It is this interpretation that gives rise to the conclusion that anger is always evil and never justified. But in so doing we fail to reckon with the righteous anger of Captain Moroni, Joseph Smith,2 and the Savior Himself—among countless others.
Upon closer examination, the phrase which sets unrighteous dominion apart from other exercises of authority is “by virtue of the priesthood.” That is, a man cannot legitimately claim priesthood as the authority by which he exercises leadership when he does so outside defined parameters of “persuasion, …long-suffering, …gentleness and meekness, and …love unfeigned.” Why not? Because doing so violates the order of heaven observed by God Himself. Even when He is angry with His children, God doesn’t invoke priesthood authority as the reason for his anger. Rather, He references a broken law and the curses and penalties that come because of it. God isn’t some kind of ultimate “He-Man” proclaiming “I have the power!” with lightning and a sword (even though, ironically, He is the only one who could legitimately make such a claim). It’s just not who He is.
Armed with a correct understanding of unrighteous dominion, we can differentiate it from the many legitimate exercises of authority that have nothing to do with priesthood whatsoever. Among these are parental authority, civil and military authority, and authority derived from common sense and guilt.
Let’s briefly consider parental authority, which flows from the commandment to “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Parental authority is not only codified by the 5th commandment; it is common to the entire human race. It is not related to priesthood authority, nor is it really even contingent on parental behavior. The commandment isn’t to “honor thy father and thy mother if they are righteous.” It is to honor them, period.
A man may be harsh or unwise in his exercise of parental authority, but according to the scriptural definition it doesn’t necessarily constitute “unrighteous dominion” unless he invokes his priesthood as the reason for which he expects to be obeyed. Furthermore, there are many situations that call for the kind of forthright correction that could be seen as a father’s duty. Remember that the Lord clearly expected Eli to correct his sons. As with many in modern times, Eli may have wished to avoid contention (or “unrighteous dominion,” as it is sometimes misidentified today), but in so doing Eli committed a far greater sin in withholding the correction that was his fatherly duty. Eli’s softness didn’t magnify his priesthood; it called it into question.
Why is parental authority so often confused with priesthood authority by members of the Church? Perhaps it’s because we have a lay ministry in which men are regularly ordained to the priesthood. But in failing to discern between the two separate sources of authority, we run the risk of holding back with one at the expense of risking offense to the other. Men need not fear that priesthood authority limits the exercise of parental duty; they function in two related but separate domains.
It is beyond our purpose to examine each kind of authority in detail. Suffice it to say that some kinds (e.g., civil authority) derive from the consent of the governed and some (e.g., parental or military authority) derive from hierarchical relationships. Each is necessary in its sphere, and each calls for a different manner by which authority is exercised. When correction is administered—whatever the source of authority—we sometimes mistake the emotion or energy with which it is issued as evidence of “unrighteous dominion.” But, as with the Savior when He took a whip to the moneychangers, unrighteous dominion is defined less by the methods of one in authority and more by his motives. If one’s motives are right, they will usually be reflected by his methods. But even then, we cannot automatically equate anger with unrighteous dominion, lest by so doing we accuse the Savior of sin.
What is the point? Smooth and gentle words may indicate tame behavior, but they aren’t necessarily evidence of righteousness, any more than anger is automatically evidence of wickedness. It’s just not that simple.
(to be continued) ...
2 Reference the Prophet Joseph Smith’s command: “Silence, ye fiends of the infernal pit…” as recorded in http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Richmond_Jail.
Russ Peterson grew up in Idaho Falls, Idaho and is an avid outdoorsman with interests ranging from astronomy to wilderness survival. When not camping or backpacking, Russ is a mental health counselor with interests in gender and suicide prevention. He lives in the Intermountain area and enjoys spending time with his five children. Reach him at rhpeterson <at> gmail dot com.
Image credit: James Jacques Tissot (French painter and illustrator, 1836-1902).