Prior to the time when Jesus visited the Nephites after His resurrection in Jerusalem, the believers in Christ had a disagreement among themselves concerning different points of doctrine, including the proper way to perform baptism. When Jesus came before them He chastised them for their contention. After instructing them on the proper way to baptize someone He said, “And according as I have commanded you thus shall ye baptize. And there shall be no [more] disputations among you, as there have hitherto been; neither shall there be [any more] disputations among you concerning the points of my doctrine, as there have hitherto been. 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. Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away. Behold, verily, verily, I say unto you, I will declare unto you my doctrine” (3 Nephi 11:28-31).
Apparently, the arguments the Nephites were having over points of doctrine were not just exercises in stimulating intellectual thought but were contentious and bitter battles fought over differences of opinion. Jesus said that this sort of behavior was not of God but rather came from the devil, whose purpose was to stir “up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.” In this way he sought to divide and destroy the church of God.
Jesus then chose twelve faithful men whom he referred to as “disciples” and placed them in charge of teaching their people the correct principles of the gospel. Among these twelve men was Nephi, the son of Nephi, who was the son of Helaman. Nephi was also the chief prophet among the people and the keeper of the sacred records. Then, for the next three days Jesus went on to “expound all things unto them (the Nephites), both great and small… he did expound all things, even from the beginning until the time that he should come [again] in his glory” (3 Nephi 26:1,3). And when He had done this He ascended to heaven.
A little while later the twelve Nephite disciples gathered together and prayed fervently to God, and as they did “Jesus came and stood in the midst of them, and said unto them: What will ye that I shall give unto you? And they said unto him: Lord, we will that thou wouldst tell us the name whereby we shall call this church; for there are disputations among the people concerning this matter” (3 Nephi 27:2-3).
The reason why the disciples of Christ were praying was to get an answer as to what name they should call the church which Christ had established among them during His three day visit. And the reason why this was important for the twelve to know was because the people were disputing this subject with one another.
It is interesting to note that just a few days earlier that Jesus Christ Himself, who had appeared to them in His full glory, had just chastised these very people for disputing about doctrine and had specifically commanded them not to engage in such behavior any more. Yet, not withstanding this command, they almost immediately began arguing with one another over doctrine again. We can almost imagine the frustration Jesus must have felt and can almost hear Him saying, “What do I have to do to get these people to listen to me? I couldn’t have explained this principle more plainly to them and yet they still don’t get it.”
But now the situation was even worse, because this time even the twelve disciples didn’t know what to tell the people. In other words, even the great Nephi wasn’t sure of the answer to this argument. When Jesus answered the twelve His irritation at the Nephites was apparent. “And the Lord said unto them: Verily, verily, I say unto you, why is it that the people should murmur and dispute because of this thing? Have they not read the scriptures?” (3 Nephi 27:4-5)
This was a mild rebuke, not only to the Nephites but also to the twelve as well. In effect, the Lord was saying to them, “Why are these people disputing about this and why can’t you answer them? Have you not read the scriptures? If you had you would know the answer to their question and there would be no murmurings among you on this matter.”
Jesus then proceeded to answer their question with a series of questions, such as, “Who’s name is it that you take upon yourself when you are baptized? By whose name will you be called at the last day? In whose name do you pray to the Father? Whenever you do something, in whose name do you do it? Whose gospel have you received?” The obvious answer to all of these questions is: Jesus Christ.
When Jesus was among them He had spent considerable time explaining how He would someday gather the scattered house of Israel together (chapters 20-25) and the purpose of doing this was so “they shall be brought to the knowledge of the Lord their God” (3 Nephi 20:13) in order that “they shall believe in me, that I am Jesus Christ” (3 Nephi 20:31). The Lord God of Israel was that God who spoke to Moses and Jesus told the Nephites that He was that God (3 Nephi 20:23). He further told the Nephites that it would be their writings that would be instrumental in bringing this knowledge to the house of Israel at the time when He would gather them together (3 Nephi 21:5). Yet, after all of that explanation, the Nephites were engaged in a debate about what to call the name of the Church that Christ had established among them. And apparently the twelve disciples were just as confused on this matter as were the rest of the believers!
The frustration Christ felt over this question is seen in the way He answered their prayer. To Him, the answer was so patently obvious that their question should never have been asked in the first place, and yet they still asked it because they didn’t know the answer, even after Jesus had spent three days explaining all things to them as plainly as He could.
As we read what Jesus told them in answer to their prayer, we can almost hear Him saying, “If everything you do is done in the name of Jesus Christ and it will be your writings that will bring the other lost tribes of Israel to a knowledge of Me, then what do you think you should call My church?” Then He gave them the absurdly obvious answer when He said, “therefore ye shall call the church in my name. [For] how be it my church [except] it be called in my name?” (3 Nephi 27:7).
This must have been an embarrassing moment for these twelve disciples, however Jesus not only gave them important instructions, but His answer has also taught us several important lessons as well.
One thing we learn is that God answers prayers, even if they may be silly or foolish. And the reason He does is because He cares about us. There have been many stories told of a child who has lost a toy, who has prayed to find it and was guided to where it was hidden. There are some people in the Church who have gained a testimony of its truthfulness who nonetheless continually seek for assurance because their faith is weak and, in most cases, the Lord continually answers their prayers. When the twelve Nephite disciples humbled themselves and prayed fervently to the Lord for something that was so obvious that they shouldn’t have had to ask it in the first place, God still answered their prayer. What we see, over and over again, is that God loves us despite our immaturity, ignorance, and weaknesses and that He will always be there for us when we call upon Him.
Another principle we learn is how hard it is sometimes to see even the most obvious things, and this applies to nearly all of us. Of all people, Nephi should have known what to call the church, but apparently he didn’t. From our vantage point in history, with the answer book in front of us, we might wonder how Nephi could have been so confused on this subject, but sometimes we still have trouble understanding spiritual things even with the answer book in front of us.
The apostle Paul explained, “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). From our earthly perspective it is difficult to fully comprehend the things of God, because, as Paul explained, it’s as though we are walking through life wearing dark glasses (1 Cor. 13:12). Because of our environment we tend to see things through worldly eyes rather than from a heavenly perspective and, as a result, we have trouble seeing things that otherwise would be obvious to us.
And prophets are not immune from this condition, as Nephi found out. We often think that prophets are all-knowing and all-wise but without God’s discerning Spirit they can be just as much in the dark as the rest of us. And that’s the condition the twelve Nephite disciples found themselves in as they struggled to bring unity and harmony to the church.
The Psalmist wrote, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105). For whatever reason, the Twelve Nephite disciples were confused about this point of doctrine, but they knew enough to go to the source of light. When people rely on their own wisdom to get them through a confusing situation instead of seeking God’s counsel, direction, and help then they are left with other choice than to walk in darkness.
Another thing we learn is how much God dislikes disputes, especially when it concerns His gospel. Members of His church are under commandment not to argue about doctrine. There are those in other churches who feel that arguing with people who don’t believe as they do is pleasing to the Lord, but the Lord made it plain that nothing could be farther from the truth. The apostle Paul stressed the idea of unity in the Church and avoiding contention among members of the church in several of his letters, apparently because it was a problem they likewise had. Yet, despite all of the scriptures to the contrary, Christians too often disregard this commandment as though it was never given.
And, unfortunately, disputing points of doctrine happens even within the LDS Church between member and non-members. We have been commanded to study the scriptures, and yet sometimes the result of that study can lead us to have an opinion about things that differ from others. Whereas there is nothing inherently wrong with this, the problem we need to guard against is becoming so convinced in the rightness of our own position that we begin arguing with those who disagree with us.
What may start out as a discussion of gospel principles between two or more knowledgeable members of the Church sometimes turns into a hostile debate as each person tries to convince the other how wrong their ideas are. And the tendency for this to happen comes quite naturally. Yet, the Lord has made it abundantly clear to both the Nephites and to us that He is very much displeased with those who break this commandment and that such people are following the ways of the devil rather than that of Christ.
Another thing the Lord taught His disciples was that the answer to most of our questions can be found in the scriptures. Yet, when we read God’s word, we must do so with a desire to correctly understand them. Since man has a hard time understanding the things of God, it takes God’s Spirit to help us properly discern the meaning of the scriptures. The reason why there were contentions among the Nephites was because “they did err, having not understood the scriptures” (3 Nephi 1:24). That’s why, when Jesus was among them, He continually quoted from the scriptures and commanded that they study them (3 Nephi 20:11; 23:1,5), not just read them. More than that, “Jesus had expounded all the scriptures in one, which they had written, [and] he commanded them that they should teach the things which he had expounded unto them” (3 Nephi 23:14).
When Jesus quoted scripture to the Nephites He also took the time to explain how they were all related to one another and then commanded the Nephites to teach these things to one another. Yet, it was because they did not seek the Spirit of the Lord when they read the scriptures, as the twelve disciples had done, that they still questioned what they should call the name of the church.
Still another thing we learn from this incident is that Christ is alive and directly in control of His Church. Today, most Christian churches behave as though God died 2,000 years ago, or at least lost His voice, and left only His word as contained in the Bible to guide us. As a result, there are tens of thousands of different religious beliefs being taught, with each faith contending with the other over points of doctrine and each one depending on their own wisdom to understand the ways of God. Even though Christ has ascended into heaven, He still gives personal guidance to members of His Church so that when we have a question we are not left to ourselves to wonder what we should do. It was God’s personal intervention that kept the ancient Nephite saints from being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine that caused dissention and confusion in the church and He is still personally involved in doing that for us today.
Which leads us to yet another lesson we can learn from this episode in Nephite history. When there is a problem in the Church, the Lord will provide the answer to those whom He has placed in charge. As individual members of Christ’s church, all of us are entitled to our own revelation, but that revelation doesn’t carry the authority to settle any debate. A person may receive the same revelation that the President of the Church receives, but they do not have the authority to decree that other members of the Church should follow that revelation. Only the leadership of the Church can make such a pronouncement.
To illustrate this point, let’s presume there were some Nephites who strongly believed that they should call their church by Christ’s name. Even so, their opinion would have been no more valid than anyone else. As a result, the arguing would have continued. But when the twelve came before the Church and gave them the word of the Lord that had been given to them, then all arguments became mute. At that point any one who disagreed with the twelve would have been arguing with God rather than with a fellow member of the Church.
Likewise, there are good members of the Church today who have strong feelings about various points of doctrine. Many even quote the words of living prophets as evidence that what they believe is correct. And then, based on that strong conviction, they find themselves seeking to correct others who disagree with them. However, it doesn’t matter whether they are right or wrong because they have no authority to settle the debate. What they believe is their own personal opinion but it is not binding on anyone. Only the presiding leadership of the Church has the right to declare what is doctrine and what isn’t. Therefore it is useless and even destructive for anyone to engage in a contentious debate over something they have no authority to settle.
The value of reading the scriptures is that it helps us with the problems we face in our own life and times. That’s because human nature is the same no matter what century or place we may find ourselves in. As such, we all share common experiences and tend to make common mistakes. By reading the scriptures we have an opportunity to see the mistakes others have made and thereby learn how to avoid making those same mistakes ourselves. And one of the mistakes commonly made in every generation is to argue over points of doctrine. The scriptures not only show us why this is wrong, but more importantly what we can do so that “there shall be no disputations among you.”