“What is an appropriate way to respond to unfriendly questions about the Church?” Ensign, Sept. 1986, 58–59
Steve F. Gilliland, bishop and institute director, Long Beach, California. It is quite a responsibility to represent the Church to other people. What if you say the wrong thing? What if you offend them? And there’s always the possibility that they might embarrass or offend you.
As an institute director and a bishop, I’ve been invited many times to answer questions about the Church in university classes and at other churches. My presentation emphasizes the positive aspects of the Church. It’s easy to talk about the fruits of the gospel of Jesus Christ and all that we are trying to do to implement his teachings in this challenging world.
But I always worry about the questions; I cannot predict what direction they will come from. What if someone is hostile? Fortunately, the scriptures give insights that can help us in these situations.
As I have studied them (particularly Alma 30), I’ve discovered some valuable principles that have guided me time and again when facing friendly or antagonistic inquisitors.
1. Listen and clarify. It’s hard to hear clearly what is being said when you’re under attack. I’ve become involved in unnecessary arguments because I was uptight and misperceived what the person was saying. At times we were in full agreement on the issue, but I thought he was saying something he was not.
Make sure you know what the person is saying. Ask clarifying questions, or repeat his question as you understand it, followed by “Is this what you are asking?” Let him know you understand his position, and give him a chance to clarify if necessary.
If a person “smites you on one cheek,” he may expect retaliation—and it may disarm him if you turn your other cheek and listen. He may be more likely to listen to what you have to say if you’ve listened to him first. (See Matt. 7:12.)
2. Suggest corrections to misunderstandings. It may be a temptation to accuse or attack an antagonist, to try to embarrass him or put him down, especially if you feel he is purposely distorting the facts. But your challenge is to love him and to avoid putting him on the defensive.
Explain the facts clearly, as Alma did to Korihor (see Alma 30:32–33), speaking as calmly and firmly as possible. If he berates you with quotes from books not accepted as official Church doctrine, inform him that Latter-day Saints have always been free to speculate, but that the speculations of individuals do not constitute the official position of the Church. I would say at this point, “If you are interested in what the Church teaches, I’ll be glad to explain it to you. I don’t feel responsible for speculations from earlier times. Besides, without the individual available to explain himself, neither you nor I can understand fully what he meant. Do you want to know what the Church teaches?”
Most of the time the person is innocently repeating misinformation. A gentle reply setting the record straight may avoid putting him on the defensive. “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.” (Prov. 15:1.) The First Presidency recently counseled us “to meet the criticisms and attacks upon the Church without resentment and without malice.” (Letter dated 1 Dec. 1983.)
3. Focus on the basics of the gospel. Throwing a person into deep water doesn’t help him learn to swim; it may even give him an aversion to going near the water. Similarly, without a proper foundation in the basic truths of the gospel, a person usually isn’t ready for heavier doctrines. That’s why the Lord counsels us to give people milk before meat. (See D&C 19:22; 1 Cor. 3:2.)
In their efforts to turn people away from the Church, some antagonists focus on doctrinal half-truths, distorting some of our richest and most precious doctrines that people aren’t ready to understand. It is important that we return the discussion to the basics—the simple, yet beautiful truths of the gospel.
Alma demonstrated this principle well. In control of himself and the situation, he moved the discussion with Korihor to the basic belief in God. “Believest thou that there is a God?” he asked. (Alma 30:37.)
Another basic gospel teaching is our belief in modern revelation and living prophets. Almost any question can be returned to that issue: “The real question here is not __________, but whether or not there is modern revelation in the Church today. The scriptures clearly teach the principle of living prophets. [See Amos 3:7; Acts 1:2; Eph. 2:20.] I bear testimony that the Lord does direct the Church today through living prophets and that you can come to know this also. Would you like to know how you can come to know these things?” Another approach may be: “Time will not permit me to give you an answer to that question. Related to it, though, is the more basic question: ______.”
4. Bear testimony. Nothing is more basic to the gospel than our personal testimonies. Alma bore a simple, forthright witness to Korihor: “I know there is a God, and also that Christ shall come.” (Alma 30:39.) If the person is receptive to the truth, the Holy Ghost is able to bear witness to him. The testimony of the Spirit will be the most powerful influence in his conversion. However, if a person is not receptive to the Spirit, all the reasoning in the world won’t touch him.
Many people aren’t ready for conversion, but are curious about what the Church teaches. They deserve to hear the basic truths of the gospel and to have their misconceptions cleared up. But in the process they may challenge you to give some physical or logical proof of the gospel. Although the gospel can be explained logically, it’s not our responsibility to try to prove it or to convince the other person. The only real proof is the witness of the Spirit.
5. Explain that you are not interested in debating or arguing—but in sharing your point of view and listening to his. Alma didn’t get pulled into the trap of trying to prove the gospel. In fact, he turned the tables on Korihor. “What evidence have ye that there is no God … ? Ye have none, save it be your word only.” (Alma 30:40.) If the person is very contentious, a fair question to ask is “Do you just want to argue, or do you want to understand what I believe?”
6. Challenge the person to action. When Korihor persisted in demanding proof, Alma placed the burden of proof where it belonged back on Korihor’s shoulders. If he really wanted to know, he had “the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets[.] The scriptures are laid before thee.” (Alma 30:44.) Our promise to the world is the one Jesus gave: “If any man will do his [God’s] will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God. …
“If ye continue in my word … ye shall know the truth.” (John 7:17; John 8:31–32.) If a person will live the gospel—obey the commandments, study the scriptures, pray—he will have spiritual experiences that will confirm the truthfulness of our message; he will not need to ask for proof.
What if you can’t answer a question you’re asked? Again, Alma demonstrated a proper course of action: “Now these mysteries are not yet fully made known unto me; therefore I shall forebear.” (Alma 37:11.) Say “I don’t know.” People will respect you for your honesty. When I feel there is an answer available, I usually tell them I’ll try to find out what it is.
What if you confuse or offend them? Remember that the Holy Ghost has the power to reach beyond our sometimes clumsy efforts into the heart of anyone who is sincerely seeking the truth.
We are promised that as we study the scripture prayerfully, the inspiration we need “shall be given … in the very hour.” (D&C 84:85.) As we become familiar with the Topical Guide in the LDS edition of the King James Bible, we will discover at our fingertips a gold mine of scriptural references to use in sharing the gospel. And our church classes, such as Sunday School, priesthood meeting, seminary and institute, can also help us become better prepared.
I take comfort in reading a statement of the First Presidency on this issue:
“We remind you that among the blessings of membership in the Church is the gift of the Holy Ghost which is conferred upon each individual at the time of confirmation. This gift will be present with members, as well as leaders, who faithfully live the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“We have confidence that if you will respond with prayer, and in a spirit of humility, then inspiration will attend you.” (Letter dated 1 Dec. 1983.)