I was surprised the other day while reading the January 2006 issue of the Ensign. There’s an article beginning on page 20 about the fourth LDS prophet, Wilford Woodruff, titled Contending for the Faith. The tag line to this article is, “While contending for the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, President Woodruff taught principles relevant for our lives today.”
My surprise comes from the idea promoted within the article that “contending” is a good thing. Of course, as a Christian I support Jude’s exhortation to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). But Mormonism typically shuns contention as being from the devil himself. The Book of Mormon says, “He that hath the spirit of contention is not of me [saith the Lord], but is of the devil, who is the father of contention…” (3 Nephi 11:29).
Some people might say that contention is argument accompanied by anger. However, LDS Apostle Russell M. Nelson wrote an article for the Ensign titled The Canker of Contention (May 1989) in which he made the claim that conflicting ideas are “the beginning of contention.” This really sums up the usual Mormon-on-the-street understanding of the issue.
An online letter at Contender Ministries illustrates this point. On November 16th 2005 a Mormon wrote, “Argument, no matter what kind, is a form of contention.” Contender Ministries provided a good response to this Latter-day Saint. You might want to take a look.
It’s been my experience that this is how most Mormons understand their Church’s injunction against contention. Typically, when I have a friendly encounter with a Mormon, if we reach a point where he feels at a disadvantage in the discussion he does one of two things. He either drops the topic and proclaims his testimony of the truth of the Church; or he says, “I feel a spirit of contention,” and refuses to continue the conversation. I once asked a Mormon “host” at the Orlando Temple Open House how he determined when a discussion became contentious. His answer: A conversation became contentious whenever someone disagreed with him.
And truly, this is a good definition of contention. My dictionary says “contend” is when someone “asserts something as a position in an argument.” Therefore, any disagreement–no matter how friendly or easy-going–would be contentious and, according to Mormonism, would be “of the devil.” Thus my surprise to read of the LDS praise for Mr. Woodruff ‘s public contention for the LDS faith.