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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.

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