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How to Argue: A Biblical Guide to Conflict Engagement

Instead of seeing all the conflict in our culture as a threat of division, what if we were able to receive it as a God-given opportunity for discipleship and even witness?

In this culture of polarization, we have been given, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:19, the ministry of reconciliation. And there is nothing more hopeful, relevant, or beautiful in our polarized age than the gospel of reconciliation. This moment, with all of its division, is our moment to display the beauty of the gospel. This is our opportunity—but we are often missing our opportunity.

The Church’s Brand Problem

The church has a pretty awful brand problem. By “brand problem” I mean something on the surface that has its hooks into something deep. It’s not everything about who we are, but it’s important; it’s telling us something we need to pay attention to.

Right now, the church is largely mimicking the wider culture. In a culture of authenticity, that just makes us a cliché. Worse than that, as we mimic this divisive culture, we are also proclaiming the Prince of Peace. That makes us a hypocritical cliché. And worse yet, we’re often ripping apart the body of Christ because of our political ideologies. This makes us hypocritical, idolatrous, and cliché.

Now that’s not all we are. Surely there is much beauty and wisdom and glory in the church—Christ’s body—but that’s not what the world is seeing. And our brand problem is quantifiable based on our shrinking market share. If the current trends continue, by the year 2050, thirty to forty-five million people will have left the faith, never to return. Those are my kids and yours.

We tend to think that all the heated arguments filling the news and our pews, be it climate change, immigration, or collusion or no collusion, are primarily about getting the right information. But they’re not. They are about formation. We have not been formed into the kind of people that can engage conflict constructively—as an opportunity to enact the ministry of reconciliation to which we’ve been called. We, the church, might be right, but we’re rarely beautiful.

Why Christians Are Bad at Conflict

So why is it that we’re so bad at conflict? How have we become so malformed, so far from a people embodying a ministry of reconciliation? When it comes to engaging conflict, we engage like the rest of the culture. In our culture, when people think of conflict, they usually think of violent, terrible explosions, disasters, and damage. There’s nothing good about conflict. It is to be feared and avoided unless it’s clear we have a path to overwhelming victory. This is what we see on the news constantly.

It’s not something that stays safely in Washington, D.C., either. It infiltrates our denominations, our congregations, and often our own families. I’m guessing that everyone reading this has someone they care deeply about, but who they are afraid to talk to because they’re afraid of an explosion, of alienation, of damage.

So, what are those formative practices, the practices we’ve unwittingly taken on from the wider culture, that are malforming us?

First of all, when we’re about to engage a divisive issue, even, and perhaps especially, with other Christians, we begin not as fellow Christians but as Democrats or Republicans. We walk into that conversation with our primary identity determined by our political loyalty.

Second, we are being trained by the media to believe that the only way to relate to “the other” is to be over against them. Right now, our political parties are not a people unified through their shared and passionate vision of a good and beautiful common life. Rather, parties are unified by being passionately against the other party and its loathsome leaders. For instance, in the last major election, did you vote passionately for your party and its vision? Or did you vote against, and in reaction to, your fear and dislike of the other side? Our politics are to live over against those who disagree with our politics.

Third, our daily practices of devotion and meditation are not on the Word of God but on the words of our newsfeeds. And our newsfeeds are telling us that those on the other side are either terribly ill-informed, stupid, or just plain evil. This means that when we engage them, we are in it to win it, because everything’s at stake!

Fourth, we measure our success based on whether or not our person is in office or on the Supreme Court.

This is the world’s mode of engagement. And it’s ugly. We can do better.

This is an abridged version of this article. To read more, subscribe to the print edition of Christian Educators Journal.

Michael Gulker is president of The Colossian Forum, an organization based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, whose mission is to equip leaders to transform cultural conflicts into opportunities for spiritual growth. For more information about The Colossian Forum and, specifically, The Colossian Way of approaching conflict, visit their website at colossianforum.org.