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C onflict is missional. What we mean is, healthy conflict in the church is a powerful part of our witness of God’s love to the world. After all, Jesus said, “Everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). And what better way to show our love for one another than to treat our sisters and brothers in Christ with love, especially in the midst of conflict when it’s hardest for us to do?

With the divide between political groups widening, the vitriol on social media escalating, and disagreements even in the church deepening, many Christians are asking hard questions about how we should relate to one another in conflict.

What if some of the biggest conflicts in our churches and the broader church are actually opportunities for spiritual growth, discipleship, Christian virtue, and witness? Even more, what if the way we handle our church conflicts is an integral part of God’s mission in the world?

These are the kinds of questions Canadian church members in the Reformed Church in America are exploring through a uniquely Canadian online learning group. The group is led by Chris DeVos from the Colossian Forum and Daniel DeVries, pastor of Drayton Reformed Church in Ontario.

Find out more about the Colossian Forum.

The “Conflict as Spiritual Formation” learning circle was formed after a group of Canadians visited a Colossian Forum conference last year in Holland, Michigan. As its website states, the Colossian Forum serves “as catalysts for healing by transforming divisive topics into opportunities to be deeply formed into the image of Christ.” The organization has done extensive work helping churches navigate difficult conversations with both grace and truth. They have covered biblical creation and evolution as well as human sexuality, and they are now working on material addressing the divided political atmosphere in North American churches.

The reality is that conflict is living among us. And refusal to enter divisive conversations is tantamount to work avoidance. Whether we can agree to re-frame success in difficult conversations in terms of discipleship and Christian virtue—rather than appearing “right” and convincing others to agree with us—is a question for each person in each disagreement. The biblical pair of “grace and truth” proves a perennially difficult odd couple, and we’re reminded again and again that Jesus Christ was the only human “full” of both (John 1:14).

Our task, then, is to follow the leading of the Spirit in the midst of conflict to become more deeply formed into Christ’s image—that is the goal of the “Conflict as Spiritual Formation” learning circle. The group meets once a month by video conference call to share personal stories, listen to one another’s perspectives, learn together, and practice conflict resolution skills as a way of being formed in the image of Christ.

In his article “Practicing the Ministry of Reconciliation,” Colossian Forum president Michael Gulker lays out two practices to help us be formed by Christ through conflict:

First, we must engage conflict itself as an act of worship. This means that as we engage our differences, we must do so with a shared acknowledgement that we are doing it in God’s presence and for God’s glory. We must ask ourselves and our brothers and sisters on the opposite side of the issues whether our exchange glorified God. If not, how must we together lament? Confess? Repent?

Second, we must give up our desperate desire to win at all costs and testify instead that Christ has already won. Thus we’re uniquely free, as followers of Christ, to love each other as Christ loved us. Does this mean we’ve given up on the truth? By no means! Instead, because Christ has already won, we can give up our need to win the argument as a way of displaying that victory. Instead, as image-bearers of the God who laid down his life for us, we can show how the truths of the faith we hold so dear actually make possible a way of being that the world can no longer imagine.

Lord, may it be so. May the way we engage in conflict in our churches be a witness to the world, not only of God’s truth, but also of God’s generous grace. May they know we are Christians by our love for one another.

This article was also published in RCA Today, the Reformed Church in America’s denominational magazine.

Daniel DeVries

Daniel DeVries is pastor of Drayton Reformed Church in Drayton, Ontario. Marijke Strong is regional executive secretary for the Reformed Church in America’s Regional Synod of Canada.