It happens to all of us – especially those new to the Church. There you are minding your own business engaging in some banal small talk in the church foyer with friends and acquaintances when somehow you find yourself buttonholed by Brother Holierthanthou. You know the type – he’s one of those guys who can spout chapter-and-verse at any situation but often leaves you with the impression that he’s a few chapters shy of a Testament. And now he’s got you in a doctrinal headlock about some obscure issue of fundamental importance – say, just for an example, concerning the dietary requirements to be accepted in the Celestial Kingdom. You now learn that if there is one thing all Saints should know it is that the Lord can’t abide a chicken eater. (the chicken is an example, you fill in the blank with whatever subject your doctrinal bully is tripping you on)
In your innocence and inexperience, you likely have felt that you had a good enough understanding of the topic, such as it is. After all, you attended the Gospel Essentials class for a couple years and then moved on to the Gospel Doctrine class. You don’t recall any admonitions about the evils of feathered food in any of those classes. You read the Ensign and occasionally peruse the Church’s websites and don’t recall any warnings there. You don’t have the Word of Wisdom memorized but you are pretty sure it didn’t have any absolute ban on the fowls of the air. Then he proceeds to tell you about some early Church authority that you’ve never heard of who, it happens, was the brother of some very important authority; or maybe he was a little-known and unsung apostle; or, according to your earnest coreligionist, his very own great great great grand aunt was on speaking terms with Joseph Smith and left her handwritten diary. Whatever the source, it was well known in the early days that the Prophet didn’t care for fried chicken. You, in your unlearnedness, might chalk that up to personal preference. But no, this other person in your discussion tells you that your understanding is wrong, and he can prove it. “Don’t you see, chickens are fowls of the ground – not the air! That’s the key!” Brother Holierthanthou has labored long and hard and he knows with a surety that the ban on chicken and all its constituent parts should be doctrine. And you should believe it too!
This is what I think of as doctrinal bullying – one person trying to force his or her own doctrinal beliefs on others even when those beliefs are not Church canon. So, what do you do in this situation? It’s easy…
First, understand that this happens all the time, to just about everyone at some point. Don’t think that it is only you. There are indeed many nuances and wrinkles to the scriptures and even the Gospel, however, you should stop and consider if the issue at hand is really essential. Does it really matter for your own personal salvation? If you have been paying attention for a couple years or more in your Sunday school classes and listening to a few talks at each General Conference and you have not heard about the issue, then it is most likely them and not you. Indeed, let me suggest that whatever the issue, it is NOT central to your eternal salvation.
Second, you need to know what is really going on. What is the motivation for the doctrinal inquisitor? Now, I don’t want to poke fun at all of the folks who come up with these unconventional theories whether it’s about eating chicken, which is just our silly example, or something more topical, like drinking wine at sacrament. Sure, some of these folks are motivated by a desire for personal aggrandizement. They love to think that they are the possessors of secret and arcane knowledge and believe everyone else should acknowledge their wisdom. After all, they put in the time and effort to glean through pages and pages of records and first-hand accounts of the Great Chicken Pox Outbreak of ’93. And just why did Grandma Bojensenson drop that chicken-pot-pie recipe from the West Valley Rotary Club Recipe Book in 1917? Do you think it is mere coincidence that in these latter days conspiring men are trying to feed the world using GMO foods at the same time that we’ve seen an unprecedented expansion in the consumption of the original white meat? It seems Brother Holierthanthou alone has been able to connect the dots across decades of research and his quest has led him to this divine knowledge about the evils of chicken. Repent or join the Colonel and his well-fed ilk in the fiery deep-fried pit of despair! But as we have read, “lo, they have their reward.”
For others, although they apparently spend all their free time lecturing you and anyone else who can’t get away, they are really just talking to themselves. This is because they are actually struggling with their own faith. These people are unable or unwilling to hold fast to the SIMPLE truths of the Gospel. Sister Sanctimony expresses her disdain at every opportunity. She feels that there must be more to it than the simple declarations of faith and the straightforward advice we hear during each General Conference. “Love thy neighbor is a fine sentiment for most people,” she says. “But most people don’t have neighbors like mine.” No, Sister Sanctimony, everyone has neighbors like you, at least at some point in life. Be mindful of the struggle that is likely occurring for these people. We all struggle at times with our testimony even if we react to those travails very differently.
Still others are sincerely convinced that they have some inside track to salvation and simply want to share it with those they care about. Sister __ will pull you aside and gently inform you that her life has been improved by abstaining from chicken (or whatever) “just like Joseph Smith did.” She will not go into laborious detail about how she has acquired this knowledge. Her advice is unlikely to be larded with elaborate conspiracy theories or admonitions about how the current leadership has gone astray due to the Church’s investments in chicken nugget processing facilities out in West Valley. No, her focus is on you and your salvation from the sins occasioned by indulgence in our feathered friends. This person deserves to have her love and kindness repaid in kind – even if you intend to ignore her dietary advice.
But whatever their motivations, you should realize that you CANNOT convince any of these people of the errors of their ways. Arguments over obscure doctrinal points is a fool’s game. They will NEVER come over to your side because of your arguments – rather, only Divine guidance and love unfeigned will bring them back. And whatever you do, do not pretend to usurp the role of the Church’s authorities. Unless you are the Bishop, the Stake President, or sit on the high council, you ought not to concern yourself with matters of discipline. We each have plenty to worry about, including our own mistakes, without dwelling on the errors of another. Our role is not to police the other members and their thoughts on the doctrine.
If you are like me you can engage, my bookshelf probably resembles theirs, but I’m cynical and suspicious by nature so I don’t take anything anyone says without extensive research and followup. But you are probably nicer, kinder, more polite and more nurturing than I. In that case, respond politely to those who would burden you with another dispensation. Thank them for their concern but decline the opportunity to discuss the matter. Extricate yourself gracefully. If you find this a particular problem, set up a “rescue text” from your spouse or one of your friends: “If you see Brother Holierthanthou lecturing me in the hall, send me a text message that you need my help. I will do the same for you.”
For myself, I love researching the Church as well. I enjoy discussing and theorizing the possibilities. I have mountains of old LDS doctrine books and copies of memoirs and diaries. Some of these works are really great and inspiring; but some are just mediocre diarists who postulate all sorts of ideas without proofs, while others are frankly just plain freaky. Mental illness existed then, too. But the important point to remember is that it is not doctrine just because some Mormon wrote it down over 100 years ago. Sometimes, it’s just some one’s grandpa engaging in some literary rambling.