What is the proper way to respond in a classroom setting to inquiries about sensational or questionable gospel subjects discussed in the news media, LDS popular press, or non-Church sanctioned symposia?
, former manager of basic curriculum in the Church Curriculum Department.
In the early years of the restored Church, members from a variety of backgrounds and beliefs felt a great anxiety to obtain the word of the Lord on nearly every subject. As they sought answers from the Prophet Joseph Smith, he inquired of the Lord, seeking information and direction. In response, the Lord gave counsel to the Prophet that we can appropriately apply today: “That which cometh from above is sacred, and must be spoken with care, and by constraint of the Spirit” (D&C 63:64).
Some gospel subjects are sacred and should be spoken of not only with care but under proper conditions, in proper places, and, in some cases, by proper priesthood authorities. Regarding some gospel subjects, the Lord has revealed relatively little or has not answered certain related questions. Those with sincere questions the Lord has not yet chosen to answer need to exercise faith, knowing that at an appropriate time answers will be given. Until then, we need to broaden our gospel understanding through faith, study, and obedience.
Alma the Younger taught: “It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God; nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him” (Alma 12:9).
Guided by the Spirit, a discerning gospel teacher can become sensitive to topics that are inappropriate to discuss in a classroom setting, such as: Does the Holy Ghost have a body? If not, when will he get one? Was Jesus married? What is the full sequence of events before and after the Millennium? Who will a child belong to if the parents are divorced and they each remarry? Some subjects require quiet contemplation in an atmosphere of reverence such as the temple. Other subjects, because of their questionable and controversial nature, can detract from the Spirit. Each of us shares the responsibility for being careful about introducing discussion of the sacred or the controversial.
“God has revealed everything necessary for our salvation,” said Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “We should teach and dwell on the things that have been revealed and avoid delving into so-called mysteries. My counsel to teachers in the Church, whether they instruct in wards and stakes, Church institutions of higher learning, institutes of religion, seminaries, or even as parents in their homes, is to base their teachings on the scriptures and the words of latter-day prophets” (Ensign, Nov. 1994, 77).
Controversial subjects are often introduced in the media in order to stimulate interest or evoke response. Responding to controversy—whether originating from the news media, unofficial Church publications, or symposia—can become a serious distraction to a teacher’s commission to teach the gospel.
Entertaining provocative topics may introduce a negative spirit to a classroom setting and replace constructive and edifying instruction and discussion with dissension and contention. The Spirit of the Lord is repelled by contention. It might be well for teachers to ask themselves whether discussion of a particular topic will lead to positive outcome or understanding without provoking controversy.
“As a Church, we encourage gospel scholarship and the search to understand all truth,” said President Gordon B. Hinckley. “Fundamental to our theology is belief in individual freedom of inquiry, thought, and expression. Constructive discussion is a privilege of every Latter-day Saint.
“But it is the greater obligation of every Latter-day Saint to move forward the work of the Lord, to strengthen His kingdom on the earth, to teach faith and build testimony in that which God has brought to pass in this, the dispensation of the fulness of times” (Ensign, Sept. 1985, 5–6).
When an inappropriate question or issue arises, a teacher has the responsibility to respond without giving offense and, at the same time, to be sensitive to the rest of the class. In some cases it may be best to direct the person asking the question to a priesthood leader or some other reliable source. Or a teacher can make arrangements to discuss the question with the class member personally in a more appropriate setting. Even this should be done with care.
When answering questions about principles upon which the Lord has spoken, it is appropriate to say, “Let’s see what the Lord has to say about that topic in the scriptures.” In addition, latter-day prophets have addressed many contemporary issues. General conference addresses are a valuable resource for responding to gospel questions.
Some individuals may bring up controversial topics merely to attract attention or to satisfy passing curiosity. Others may be wrestling with issues affecting their testimonies. Perceiving such cases, a teacher may look for meaningful ways to involve such individuals in class discussions.
In other cases, teachers may find it necessary to privately consult with and express their concern to class members who may be distracting others from the lesson, helping the individuals realize that inappropriate questions or topics prevent teachers from accomplishing their responsibilities.
I recall an incident some years ago when a ward member was greatly troubled over a question he wanted answered. The question, however, dealt with personal issues involving ward members. When the issue was raised during a gospel class, the teacher discreetly made arrangements to talk with the person afterward. The person’s home teachers were asked to make a special visit and, with help from other ward members, helped answer the individual’s questions while avoiding the ill feelings and misunderstandings that could have easily resulted in an open discussion.
A well-prepared and interesting lesson will help prevent most classroom distractions. Learning together about gospel principles should be a joyful experience in which the Lord’s promise may be fulfilled: “Wherefore, he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together” (D&C 50:22).