Part two in a series of reflections on Life Together. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is not for the faint of heart. But he more than anyone since the early church shows us what church is meant to be.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together during World War II. He was the leader of the Confessing Church—those who would not bow to Nazi propaganda. In the midst of turmoil and suffering, a beautiful community was formed. From its purity and beauty, we see the good that Christian community can and should be. Bonhoeffer is brilliant in that he is both theologian and pastor. His books are deeply reflective of the Bible while also being profoundly practical.
Today with Bonhoeffer as guide, I want to show you how community is essential for transformation. Bonhoeffer’s insights are needed because Christian community can also be a place where Christians are “crushed by love”. This happens more than we like to admit. We hurt one another because we have been trained in the world. To be in a Christ-forming community, we will have to engage one another in a new way.
In Christian community where transformation happens, everyone in the church is our brother or sister. Bonhoeffer writes, “[your] brother is a burden to the Christian, precisely because he is a Christian. For the pagan the other person never becomes a burden at all. He simply sidesteps every burden that others may impose upon him.” In secular life we pick and choose whom we share real, intimate life with. We hang out and make friends with people just like us. Sadly, this is also true in much of the church. This clique-type of behavior is a sure sign that there is growing to do.
The secular world also teaches us to ignore those who bug us or who are not like us. I know many Christians who leave a church because somebody rubs them in the wrong way or because the cost of fellowship is more weight than joy. This decision to flee the burdens of a church is based upon consumerism not Christianity. Consumerism solidifies narcissism. Wherever it is prominent, the life of Christ will be distant, and he will seem weak to fulfill his promises.
It is the different kinds of people, the hard and weighty cost of disagreements, and the wounds and sins of real community that transform us. Christian community kills the consumer and makes disciples. Transformation happens as a person realizes that the burden before him is not a reason to flee but rather a gift from Christ. A gift that if received will transform.
Transformation happens in Christian community when we are our brother’s keeper. Bonhoeffer writes, “Reproof is unavoidable. The practice of [this] discipline in the congregation [must begin] in the smallest circles.” Reproof is correction, rebuke or an admonishment. It is helping another person to see how he or she is wrong. We are often blind to our own faults, inconsistencies and sin. It is Christian community that helps us see. Again, this can be done in a way that crushes. This is why in Galatians Paul tells us that only the spiritual should take on the work of reproof and restoration.
The spiritual are those who are led by Christ and not driven by self-motivation but whose motivation is love. There is another way of reproofing that does great damage. Any interaction that is not grounded in relationship and love of one another is of the flesh. There are no exceptions. I have seen this one attitude—this person needs to be put in his or her place and I am going to help—crush more souls than almost any other act. Everything is about relationships. Everything is about love. Everything is an opportunity to become more like Christ.
When we enter into conflict, share a reproof, or call out sin in another, there is a biblical formula. Love demands that it is shared quietly and privately. No matter the issue. Only if it cannot be resolved between two persons should others be involved. Gossip is a demonic tool. We often do it when we intend not to. It has its own life. Gossip will find others to gossip. You will notice that where gossip exists there is a crowd behind it spreading a disease not a cure. This is the energy of gossip. We must not be a part of it.
In the language of humility and care, we share what we are experiencing and what we see. Be very careful in how it is presented. Always be direct but come with the understanding that the issue might be in you; you might be wrong. This is why judgment must be dealt with carefully. Only the most wise and godly can judge—this is the ability to make a godly decision about the intentions and character of a person. Often we have a log in our own eye that makes it hard to see what is going on. We usually only see in part.
It is important that we do not store up weeks, months and years of problems, sins or conflict. One ‘reproof’ at a time, in relationship, soaked in prayer will make it possible for the other person to hear you. This is the goal: the transformation of the person. There is no other goal in Christian community. Every moment is a moment to show love. Every moment is an invitation to grow in Christ. This truth changes the Christian community from a place of transactions and expectations to one of desiring the best for one another even if it means speaking a hard word.
Transformation in Christian community continues as we truly listen. Bonhoeffer writes, “We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them. Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either.” We have a driven need to be heard but very few of us know how to actually hear another person. The soul aches to be understood but most of us do not know how to honor the soul that speaks the truth within. Listening is one of the great gifts of love. When we take the time to understand another person’s world, the person feels like he or she is part of a family.
The goal of listening is to understand to the point of empathy. This is done when we give up two things: 1) an agenda, 2) being critical. As we listen to understand and give witness to the sacred, the real self begins to emerge in the other person. The one listened to begins to experience real love. He or she is accepted as is. This is one of the great gifts of life. From here trust grows. We dare to be a sinner-saint. This is what love does in community. Bonhoeffer is right. Where there is no listening, very soon we will cease to hear God’s words for our church community.
Finally and ultimately, the Christian community is the place where we meet Christ in one another. Bonhoeffer writes,
Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him…The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the words of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure…And that clarifies the goal of all Christian community: they meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.
I need you and you need me. There is no Christ without community. It is in the taking on of the weighty burdens of others that costs you something, the giving and receiving of reproof, and then the message of salvation that Christ appears among us. We are the people of salvation and grace. We believe that Jesus is among us. We believe that we are all on a journey to become like the glorious Son. We are in community so we can all participate. We are Christ one to another. It is in your brother or sister where Christ takes on flesh.
Christian community is holy. It is set apart as the means by which God is moving on the earth. It is about a body doing what is required to be a transformative community. At first when a church implements this, the community might decline. Many like religion without the cost of discipleship; but over time when love is at the center of a church, it will grow big Christians—disciples that look like Jesus. According to Jesus, nothing else matters. But make no mistake, as Christ flourishes among a community, the world will come. Everyone is seeking love. True Christian community has it on display.