[The follow was written by DeeAnn Cheatham, a volunteer with FairMormon.]
Occasionally statements arise asserting that Mormons are not allowed to ask questions. Some go even further by contending that certain people were excommunicated or might face discipline simply for “asking questions.” This is puzzling, because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded by a young man precisely because he asked questions. Additionally, Church leaders teach that asking questions often leads to revelation and is part of the learning process.
While there may indeed be instances where church policy has not been followed, it is clear that LDS church policy allows members the freedom to question. Even questions where the intent is not to find answers but instead to challenge church doctrine or leaders are not grounds for church discipline unless the questioner becomes public and sustained in their advocacy. Below are some statements from church leaders that substantiate this point.
From a First Presidency Statement this past June:
We understand from time to time church members will have questions about church doctrine, history or practice. Members are always free to ask such questions and earnestly seek greater understanding. We feel special concern, however, for members who distance themselves from church doctrine or practice and, by advocacy, encourage others to follow them.
Simply asking questions has never constituted apostasy. Apostasy is repeatedly acting in clear, open and deliberate public opposition to the church or its faithful leaders, or persisting, after receiving counsel, in teaching false doctrine. (June 28, 2014, First Presidency Statement)
Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a current apostle in the LDS church stated:
We have the concept of apostasy. It is grounds for Church discipline…
Apostasy, being rare, has to be carefully defined. We have three definitions of apostasy: one is open, public and repeated opposition to the Church or its leaders. Open, public, repeated opposition to the Church or its leaders — I’ll come back to that in a moment. A second one is to teach as doctrine something that is not Church doctrine after one has been advised by appropriate authority that that’s false doctrine. In other words, just teaching false doctrine is not apostasy, but [it is] teaching persistently after you’ve been warned. For example, if one were to teach that the Lord requires you to practice plural marriage in this day, it would be apostasy. And the third point would be to affiliate and belong to apostate sects, such as those that preach or practice polygamy.
So, we go back to the first cause of apostasy — open, public and repeated opposition to the Church and its leaders. That does not include searching for a middle ground. It doesn’t include worrying over a doctrine. It doesn’t include not believing a particular doctrine. None of those are apostasy. None of those are the basis of Church discipline. But when a person comes out publicly and opposes the Church, such as by saying, “I do not think anyone should follow the leaders of the Church in their missionary program, calling these young people to go out and preach the gospel,” or whatever the particular issue of the day. And when you go out and begin to “thump the tub” and try to gather opposition and organize opposition and pronounce and preach against the Church — that can be a basis for Church discipline. [http://newsroom.lds.org/article/elder-oaks-interview-transcript-from-pbs-documentary]
Clearly, apostasy is going much further than simply “asking questions.” But even if “questioning” doesn’t lead to church discipline, are church members discouraged from asking questions?
During the most recent General Conference we receive this counsel from Apostle Russell M. Ballard:
…having questions and experiencing doubts are not incongruent with dedicated discipleship. Recently, the Council of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles stated: “We understand that from time to time Church members will have questions about Church doctrine, history, or practice. Members are always free to ask such questions and earnestly seek greater understanding.’
Remember, Joseph Smith himself had questions that began the Restoration. He was a seeker and, like Abraham, found the answers to life’s most important questions.
The important questions focus on what matters most—Heavenly Father’s plan and the Savior’s Atonement. Our search should lead us to become kind, gentle, loving, forgiving, patient, and dedicated disciples. We must be willing, as Paul taught, to “bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” [Elder Russell M. Ballard, “Stay in the Boat and Hold On!” October 2014 General Conference]
Pres. Dieter Uchtdorf, a member of the First Presidency of the church , affirmed:
In this Church that honors personal agency so strongly, that was restored by a young man who asked questions and sought answers, we respect those who honestly search for truth. It may break our hearts when their journey takes them away from the Church we love and the truth we have found, but we honor their right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience, just as we claim that privilege for ourselves [Pres. Dieter Uchtdorf, “Come, Join With Us,” October 2013 General Conference].
Later in the same talk he stated:
It’s natural to have questions—the acorn of honest inquiry has often sprouted and matured into a great oak of understanding. There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions. One of the purposes of the Church is to nurture and cultivate the seed of faith—even in the sometimes sandy soil of doubt and uncertainty. Faith is to hope for things which are not seen but which are true.
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters—my dear friends—please, first doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith. We must never allow doubt to hold us prisoner and keep us from the divine love, peace, and gifts that come through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Elder Holland, also an Apostle, counseled in the April 2014 General Conference:
Last observation: When doubt or difficulty come, do not be afraid to ask for help. If we want it as humbly and honestly as this father did, we can get it. The scriptures phrase such earnest desire as being of “real intent,” pursued “with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God.” I testify that in response to that kind of importuning, God will send help from both sides of the veil to strengthen our belief [Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “Lord, I Believe,” April 2013 General Conference].
And in the 2003 October General Conference, President James E. Faust, then a member of the First Presidency stated:
This morning I would like to bear a humble testimony to those who have personal struggles and doubts concerning the divine mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Many of us are at times like the father who asked the Savior to heal his child with the “dumb spirit.” The father of the child cried out, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” To all those with lingering doubts and questions, there are ways to help your unbelief. In the process of accepting and rejecting information in the search for light, truth, and knowledge, almost everyone has—at one time or another—some private questions. That is part of the learning process [Pres. James ‘E. Faust, “Lord, I Believe; Help Thou My Unbelief”, October 2003 General Conference].
The prophet Joseph Smith received these revelations, encouraging us to ask questions:
“If thou shalt ask, thou shalt receive revelation upon revelation, knowledge upon knowledge, that thou mayest know the mysteries and peaceable things—that which bringeth joy, that which bringeth life eternal.” (D & C 42:61)
“Verily, verily, I say unto thee, blessed art thou for what thou hast done; for thou hast inquired of me, and behold, as often as thou hast inquired thou hast received instruction of my Spirit. If it had not been so, thou wouldst not have come to the place where thou art at this time.” (D & C 6:14)
One can easily see from these quotations, that rather than trying to control or squelch questions, LDS church leaders believe that sincere questioning can lead to answers and revelation.
Finding answers requires faith. While Heavenly Father may not come down and give explicit explanation for all of one’s questions, He can and will guide us in our search for answers. The key to receiving such guidance is to ask in faith, and then exercise that faith by acting on it. Wavering rarely, if ever, leads to answers from God. One must commit to the Lord, take the leap of faith and live the gospel. There are no shortcuts. Alma taught us in Alma 32 to “awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.” (Alma 32:27)
Elder David A. Bednar counseled:
Please notice the requirement to ask in faith, which I understand to mean the necessity to not only express but to do, the dual obligation to both plead and to perform, the requirement to communicate and to act [Elder David A Bednar, “Ask in Faith,” April 2008 General Conference].
Elder Scott also reminds that we must try our faith to receive answers.
Faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith” (Ether 12:6). Thus, every time you try your faith—that is, act in worthiness on an impression—you will receive the confirming evidence of the Spirit. As you walk to the boundary of your understanding into the twilight of uncertainty, exercising faith, you will be led to find solutions you would not obtain otherwise. With even your strongest faith, God will not always reward you immediately according to your desires. Rather, God will respond with what in His eternal plan is best for you, when it will yield the greatest advantage. Be thankful that sometimes God lets you struggle for a long time before that answer comes. That causes your faith to increase and your character to grow [Elder Richard G. Scott, “The Sustaining Power of Faith in Times of Uncertainty and Testing,” April 2003 General Conference].
Even when asking questions, one may not receive or find answers to all of them. It is wise to focus first on the most important questions–Does God exist? Will He speak to me? Was Jesus his son? Was Joseph Smith a prophet?” Having received affirmative answers to these questions, it is easier to be patient and move forward with confidence when another question does not result in an immediate response.
Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have allowed and even encouraged its members to ask questions. If one truly wants an answer from God, then the key is “ask in faith, nothing wavering.” (James 1:5–6) Of course, not everyone wants or expects an answer and may even be disingenuous in their intentions. But simply asking questions is not grounds for church discipline or censure, and never has been.
If anyone claims that they were disciplined “just for asking questions,” you can be certain there is more to the story.