When things get interesting in discussions with Mormons, when points are being put enthusiastically and just as enthusiastically challenged it is common for a Mormon to back off declaring imperiously "I don't want to argue with you. Contention is of the devil." What is he talking about? Is it true that contention is of the devil? I put this question to a Mormon and he responded with the following verses:
Pro 18:6 A fool's lips enter into contention, and his mouth calleth for strokes.
3 Nephi 11:29 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.
Mosiah 2:32 But, O my people, beware lest there shall arise a contentions among you, and ye list to obey the evil spirit, which was spoken of by my father Mosiah.
Of course, the last two verses are from the Book of Mormon but it is good to know them since they form the basis of the Mormon contention that contention is of the devil. In any case I think they have a point although they make it badly. But what do we do about biblical verses like these?
Philippians 1:27-28: "Whatever happens, conduct yourself in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you."
Jude 3: "Dear friends, although I was eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of God into a licence for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only sovereign and Lord."
My Mormon correspondent came back with the following:
“Are you not mixing up the meanings? You asked about contentions NOT contending. There is a BIG difference.”
Is he right in his contention that there is a big difference? I asked him to please explain the difference between contending and contention, sticking to the rules of plain English. He responded with the following dictionary definitions of “contend” and “contentious”. He then gave me an exhaustive dictionary definition for “contend”, “contention” and “contentious.”
This raises the first problem with the typical Mormon, i.e. a confusion of words. The original question revolved around “contend” and contention”. The word “contentious” did not enter into the discussion until he introduced it, and it is true that “contentious” carries a different, more negative, overtone than the other two words. And by now this must seem like a pointless and pedantic exercise, a quarrel over nuances and semantics – contentious in fact. There is a very important lesson here however and travelling just a little further with me will, I believe, prove helpful.
Let us first look at the dictionary definitions of the words whose meaning and application is in contention:
Contend, as in “to contend for the faith” (Jude 3) is a verb. It defines an action, described in the dictionary as “to strive: to struggle in emulation or in opposition: to dispute or debate (against, for, with, about): to urge one’s course – verb transitive to maintain in dispute (that) [such and such is the case].” One might be said to contend for a political or philosophical, as well as a religious viewpoint. One might also contend for a particular solution to a problem, to maintain the status quo or to make radical changes.
The word “strive” in the above definition bears closer consideration since it is not uncommon for Mormons to be urged by their leaders to “strive to live their faith”. If contention is of the devil then this injunction to strive comes into question.
Contention, as in “contention is of the devil” (3 Nephi 11:29) is a noun. It derives from “contend” and describes the process of one or more contending for, against, about something. The dictionary describes “a violent straining after an object: strife: debate: a position argued for.” In other words, if you are contending for the faith then you are entering into contention.
Contentious, as in someone having a contentious spirit or something being a contentious issue is an adjective. It modifies or describes a noun, in this instance describing the character of the person or persons contending or the nature of the matter in dispute or under contention. It is the former application that gives “contention” its negative connotation. It is used to describe someone who is contentious for the sake it. The dictionary describes someone who is “quarrelsome, given to dispute”, i.e. “he will pick an argument with anyone”, but it also describes “[something] relating to, or in dispute”, i.e. “the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as an historical document is a contentious issue”. In other words it is in question or in contention.
Having established terms we need to ask how we know which meaning is being applied when the Bible or the Book of Mormon refers to contending and contention. Context goes a long way in helping us of course, and it does seem clear that the verses in the Book of Mormon quoted above carry a negative meaning, i.e. refer to someone being contentious, quarrelsome etc. The problem comes when a Mormon insists that “contention is of the devil” in a situation in which what is truly happening is that he is contending for his faith and you for yours. That is when the Christian might be forgiven for scratching their head and wondering what is going on. Which understanding of “contention” is meant, and how can someone who is simply contending for the faith be charged with contentiousness? How can a Christian answer this - let’s be honest - smug use of the term which, if unanswered, gives the Mormon the moral high ground?
Revelation or Interpretation?
One of the contentions of Mormonism is that direct revelation has superseded the laborious and unreliable method of translating and “interpreting” from ancient manuscripts the meaning of Scripture. All that bother of understanding the nuances and shades of meaning in ancient languages is no longer necessary since there is a living prophet who can tell us exactly what God means when he says a thing. However, the reverse is actually the case because in answering the charge of being contentious it helps to understand what Scripture means in its original language and context, something a Mormon cannot do with the Book of Mormon.
To understand what is meant in Jude 3 for example, where believers are told to “earnestly contend for the faith”, we need only look up the original translated “contend for”, and discover that the Greek epago¯nizomai is properly understood to mean “to struggle for, earnestly contend for” (Strongs).
In Philippians 1:27-28 we discover “contending as one man for the faith” NIV, or “striving together for the faith of the gospel” KJV which both translate the Greek sunathleo¯ meaning “to wrestle in company with, that is, (figuratively) to seek jointly: - labour with, strive together for” (Strongs).
Both the above references carry a clear and positive meaning.
In Proverbs 18:6, however, we find the Hebrew ri^yb rib which means “a contest (personal or legal): - + adversary, cause, chiding, contend (-tion), controversy, multitude [from the margin], pleading, strife, strive (-ing), suit” the negative connotation being clear from the meaning of the word used.
This exercise brings greater clarity to our understanding of Scripture. Unfortunately, Mormons are not able to conduct the same experiment with the Book of Mormon and are thrown back on the various dictionary meanings of the word “contend” and its derivatives to choose from and only context to guide us. The context does help but the real problem arises because, not understanding the variety of words used to describe “contention” in Scripture, not having access to “Reformed Egyptian”, the Mormon is left to apply whatever meaning suits his or her circumstances.
The Evangelical believer, with access to trustworthy sources, texts and guides, can be confident in arriving at an accurate understanding while the Mormon has to deal with the vagaries of the English language and ends up adopting whatever convention prevails amongst his peers and, of course, whatever proves convenient when he can’t give a straight answer to a straight question.
Contention, then, is not of the devil, indeed we are urged to “contend for the faith”. Perhaps if Mormons had a higher view of Scripture they wouldn’t make such a fundamental error when contending for their faith. Maybe they would be better prepared to enter into robust discussion instead of hiding behind “nice” arguments based on unverifiable texts and misapplied definitions. They might even learn something – they might progress?