The year is 50 AD, and you’re hanging out in a little town in Greece. Your neighbors often sacrifice animals at temples to keep the gods happy. After they’ve burned the “god’s share” of the meat, the rest gets carted off to the market or offered in a feast. Sacrifices and feasts were often communal events.
You have recently converted to Christianity. When your friends sit down to a meal made from meat sacrificed to Hera and are chattering about the good fortune this sacrifice will bring them… what do you do? Your new faith forbids idol worship. Is eating with them giving a thumbs-up to polytheism and idol worship?
You ask your Christian friends what you should do. You don’t get a clear answer. Some say:
Look, these other gods are just make-believe. It’s not like you’re giving Zeus a high-five by eating a steak. Why treat it differently than other meat? We cannot expect to be friends with the idol worshippers if we refuse to sup with them at all.
Eating that meat is tacit approval of idol worship. What message does it send to the community if we, the followers of the one true God, eat meat offered to false gods? If our beliefs about idols don’t influence our choices, what’s the point?
It’s clear that nobody in the group supports idol worship, but they disagree on what that means in practice. This is a “controversy,” which refers to a point of tension and debate within a community that shares the same foundational beliefs. How do we faithfully adhere to our religious convictions while also navigating a social landscape filled with diverse beliefs? Focus on the greater questions instead.
Focus on the greater questions instead.
For example, we know that sexual relations should be reserved for marriage between a man and a woman. But what should we do when our friends invite us to their same-sex wedding? I’ve heard arguments on both sides:
Attending does not mean you support the wedding. We attend to show support for the loved one, not approval of their choice. There’s nothing sinful or doctrinally substantive about well-wishes and warm congratulations. Refusing to attend puts wedges between us and those we love.
On the other side:
Attending the wedding is a tacit endorsement. If your friend invites you to celebrate their abortion or their departure from the Church, would you attend? Why make an exception for weddings when our doctrine so clearly speaks against such things? What example does this set for our children and other members?
Both groups support Church teachings. But they have very different ideas about what that should mean in this practical context.
Let’s do another. As Latter-day Saints, we believe that gender is eternal and that our gender expression should match with our biological sex. Yet, your male friend asks you to refer to him as a “she.” What do you do? On the one hand, people argue:
Using the preferred pronouns is a basic act of respect and decency. It doesn’t mean you agree with gender theory or that you’re compromising your faith. Respecting the individual and showing love can coexist with maintaining personal religious convictions. This is a kindness issue, not a doctrine issue.
On the other hand, you hear:
Using incongruent pronouns assents to the notion that someone’s gender is whatever they say it is. If our norms around gender are indistinguishable from those who do not share our values, then what good are our beliefs? It may be uncomfortable to speak truth as we know it, but it is not unloving to do so.
I could go on. To what extent should we “eat the meat,” that is, participate in the traditions that flow out of beliefs and practices that contradict doctrines of our own faith?
Let’s explore some principles.
(1) We should discern between greater and lesser controversies.
Not all controversies are the same. We can divide them roughly into “greater controversies” and “lesser controversies.” Greater controversies are those that deal with core doctrine and teaching. “Is The Book of Mormon an ancient text?” would be a greater controversy if there were debate about it within the Church. “Where in the Americas did The Book of Mormon take place?” would be a lesser controversy.
Here’s a table that depicts some others that fall into each bucket.
|Greater Controversies||Lesser Controversies|
|Is marriage only between a man and a woman?||Is it ever appropriate to attend same-sex weddings?|
|Is gender an eternal characteristic that matches biological sex?||Is it ever appropriate to use preferred pronouns for transgender individuals?|
|Is the body a temple that should be treated with reverence?||Are there ever exceptions to the norm against tattoos?|
|Is modesty in dress and grooming a divinely inspired principle?||Are bikinis ever appropriate as swimwear?|
|Is the Sabbath day a holy day, set apart from the rest of the week?||Is it ever appropriate to watch football on Sunday?|
The first question we should ask is, “Is this a greater or lesser controversy?” Questions in the first column are the most important. Augustine of Hippo reportedly wrote: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Widespread disagreement on greater controversies may lead to serious theological divides within the community. Consistent, persistent, and united teachings of the Brethren likely fall into the left-hand column.
(2) We should give space for disagreement on lesser controversies.
When we treat a lesser controversy as a greater one, we stir unnecessary contention. Church leaders today generally steer away from lesser controversies and focus on the greater questions instead. They often invite us to make our own decisions on the lesser controversies, informed by our convictions. This does not mean abject relativism on everything in the right-hand column! Not all answers are equally good or true. But it does mean that it’s up to us to prayerfully extrapolate from true principles.
The early Christians disagreed over eating meat sacrificed to idols or meat that wasn’t kosher (some still embraced Jewish dietary restrictions). Paul’s answer to the question, “Should we eat meat sacrificed to idols?” was straightforward: “We are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do” (1 Corinthians 8:8). Paul further taught:
Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. … Therefore, let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister (Romans 14:3,13).
In other words, on lesser controversies, we should be generous towards those who draw their boundaries a little differently. “In non-essentials, liberty.”
(3) We should hold ourselves to high standards.
If our answers to the lesser controversies are consistently the most permissive answers, are we being diligent in our discipleship or merely floating in the stream of culture? It’s tempting to take all the leash that is given to us—but principle-based discipleship will often lead us to take a stricter personal stand than what official answers may require. The why matters a lot.
The why matters a lot.
Paul, talking to the Corinthians, addressed this head-on: “’I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ’I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive” (1 Corinthians 10:23). If “Does this warrant church discipline?” is our only metric for personal conduct, then we are engaged in rules-based discipleship, not principle-based discipleship. If our convictions don’t inform our choices—if we live indistinguishably from the world—then our convictions might be hollow.
(4) The heart matters when it comes to lesser controversies.
I have argued elsewhere that our intuitions can shift long before our beliefs. In other words, our “moral taste buds” can stop responding to sin before we ever abandon our convictions. We can use someone’s preferred pronouns without abandoning our convictions about gender. But do we sometimes do so because we have? While faithful members can disagree about bikinis, wedding attendance, and pronoun use, those disagreements sometimes reflect beneath-the-surface disagreement on the essentials.
Many things are not sin in and of themselves, but the why matters a lot. We might need to evaluate what our intuitions on the lesser controversies reveal about our core convictions. When we see patterns of permissiveness and worldliness in our own conduct, we should self-reflect whether we are in harmony with divine teaching when it comes to the essentials. I have also seen people refuse to use preferred pronouns because of contempt for the person rather than mere convictions about gender. Check your heart.
When Paul addressed the question of meat sacrificed to idols, the first thing he did was reiterate the principles: “So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that ‘An idol is nothing at all in the world’ and that ‘There is no God but one’” (1 Corinthians 8:4). If our hearts are not aligned with divine principles, even “within bound” answers to the lesser controversies will reflect a heart out of harmony with divine truth.
(5) Context matters when it comes to lesser controversies.
Paul’s position on eating meat sacrificed to idols was between always and never. Basically, context matters. For example, he said, “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience” (1 Corinthians 10:25). In addition, “If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience.” In other words, don’t fret about whether the meat on the plate was sacrificed to an idol.
But, he continued, “[I]f someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience” (1 Corinthians 10:28-29). I don’t think Paul is saying, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” I think he’s saying, “If the person says, ‘Partake of this meat to celebrate with us the idol’s watchful protection,’ partaking of the meat now has moral freight.”
In other words, if eating the meat won’t be mistaken for assent to idolatry, it’s not really a big deal. But if it will, then it might convey an unwillingness to stand by our convictions. The same is likely true of pronouns or wedding attendance. This is why we should ensure our convictions are public and known—it allows us more freedom to make different, context-based choices without sending the wrong message.
(6) Sometimes, we should abstain for the sake of others.
Sometimes those new or young in the faith need to see us abstain to strengthen their intuitions and support their convictions. Paul is fairly direct on this:
Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? (1 Corinthians 8:9-10).
He continues, “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall” (1 Corinthians 8:13). In other words, if seeing me eat meat sacrificed to idols leads others to be casual in their discipleship, I have wronged them with my carelessness. “It is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble” (Romans 14:20). We should ensure that our conduct invites others towards greater conviction and more consecrated discipleship. This principle cuts both ways. If refusing to use someone’s preferred pronouns, for example, will result in them walking out the door of the church, it may be prudent to use them. But if using them reinforces a youth’s gender dysphoria, this can also contribute to their fall.
One person socially transitioned but then spent a few months alone in the wilderness and subsequently detransitioned. This person said something to this effect: “The rocks didn’t use my pronouns, and I could not maintain the fiction without constant affirmation.” Sometimes we do individuals harm by reinforcing their misunderstandings about gender. In the right context and spirit, sometimes the greatest kindness is to gently remind someone who they are.
(7) We should respect those with a more punctilious conscience.
Some of us have more scruples than others. I never did homework on the Sabbath, while my roommates often did. Neither is it inherently a violation of Church teachings. Paul explained, “Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Romans 14:6). But further, “whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat” (Romans 14:23). Sometimes the greatest kindness is to gently remind someone who they are.
Sometimes the greatest kindness is to gently remind someone who they are.
I had the lead in the high school junior play. … My character carried a hip flask full of water that he swigged from as if it were an alcoholic beverage that helped him get from moment to moment. … Just before going on stage for performance number six, I was greeted by a solemn prop crew. They had my flask. Their message to me was approximately this:
“Terry, we want you to know everything is all right now. But someone wanted to pull a prank on you, and they had filled the flask with gin. They were laughing about it and told us to watch what happened when you took a swig on stage. We were horrified and immediately said. ‘But Terry doesn’t believe in drinking. He’s a Mormon.’ (The pranksters stopped laughing.) They didn’t know what your beliefs were until we told them. They apologized. We have rinsed this out about ten times. It is okay.”
We should respect those who object to these new and recent social trends, even if we do not. If they are trying to apply divine truth the best they know how, we should rally and help them do so, just as Terry Olsen’s friends helped him live his beliefs. We should foster a culture of mutual reverence for conscience. As Paul taught:
The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall (Romans 14:3-4).
In conclusion, let us follow Paul’s counsel: “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food,” or pronouns, or any other lesser controversy.