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Do Reformed folks know how to fight?

Maybe the answer seems immediately obvious – of course we do, we fight all the time! So much, in fact, that schism is one of our chief contributions to the broader history of the Christian church.

But do we know how to fight well? I don’t mean tactically, or strategically. Instead, since I believe everything falls under the Lordship of Jesus, when I say “well,” I mean in a way that’s distinctly Christian.

I’m not so sure about that. I’m a little in the dark about how to fight in a distinctly Christian way. Part of that is due to my temperament; I’m about as conflict-avoidant as you could imagine. If I order the beef dish and the waiter mistakenly brings me fish, I’m eating fish. That’s not always a terrible thing – a little meekness can go a long way to turning down the temperature, or stilling some churning waters. But it’s not a cure-all, either. Sometimes a fight is coming my way no matter what, and a duck or a dodge isn’t going to change that, regardless of how expedient it might initially seem to me. This makes me very uncomfortable.

So, I’d like some help! Shameful schisms aside, there are many things about my tradition that make me proud, too. Not least among them is our ability to produce brilliant, insightful, nuanced theological explorations of all kinds of subjects. I would love it if we could leverage that strength into helping us understand how we ought to fight, when the fight inevitability comes. And I don’t just want an exploration of how to resolve conflict justly, though that’s of course an extremely worthy goal. A “theology of the fight” for the sake of those in the midst of the fight itself – I think that would be a marvelous, much needed thing.

Hollow victories

I suppose we’re not completely lacking guidance when it comes to how to fight. Our denominational structures and our Church Order do a lot to restrain and productively channel our combative impulses. This too is a very good thing. But policies and procedures can feel kind of bloodless and arid, whereas a fight is such a gut-level thing. Seems like we need something similarly gut-level – the kind of theology that shapes the heart – to help turn it toward good ends. Without that, even those good policies and procedures are susceptible to our own will to power, our own desire for victory as we define it.

Thomas Merton once wrote that “conservatives and progressives in the Church are so concerned with total victory over each other that they are more and more closed to each other.” He wrote that about the Catholic Church sometime in the mid-1960s, but he could’ve been describing any number of skirmishes among Reformed folk over the years. It’s a helpful – and pointed – assessment of the way we often fight. We aim to vivisect and vanquish, thinking that’s a kind of victory, thinking that’s the way to see hostilities cease, all the while closing our hearts off to each other as a kind of defensive posture. I have faith that we can do better.

Shaping the struggle

Instead of tearing us apart, how might the intimacy of a fight strengthen the bonds between us? How might acknowledging our shared vulnerabilities shape the struggle? How might the cross-carrying lifestyle we’re each called to give us endurance for a lengthy bout? How might the cross of Christ, which looks to all the world like defeat, shape our understanding of what true victory is? These are only a few of the questions I have, and though I don’t have all the answers, I’d love to explore them some more.

Who wants to strike a study committee?


(Christian Courier)

What do you think?

We really want to know! Let’s explore the great questions in Brian’s guest editorial in future issues of Christian Courier. We invite pastors, armchair theologians, and anyone who has insight here to write 400 words in response. Send that to ac.reiruocnaitsirhc@rotide by August 30 and help us define “the theology of the fight.”

  • Brian Is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

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