“Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the common life, is not the one who sins still a person with whom I too stand under the word of Christ? Will not another Christian’s sin be an occasion for me ever anew to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Therefore, will not the very moment of great disillusionment with my brother or sister be incomparably wholesome for me because it so thoroughly teaches me that both of us can never live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and deed that really binds us together, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ? The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 11.
The above should be printed in every church bulletin, stenciled on every church wall, pasted in the front of every hymnal, projected on every video screen, and recited along with the great creeds. We are to forgive others as God in Christ has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:32) and love one another just as Jesus Christ loves us (John 13:34 – 35; Ephesians 5:2). We are to seek the restoration of our brother or sister in a “spirit of gentleness” and to bear one another’s burdens and “thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:1-2).
All too often divisiveness in the church is not initially the result of sin, whether in practice or in teaching, but rather the result of a clash of preferences which nurtures selfishness which in turn produces sins of pride and arrogance and conceit – rather than being “subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (Ephesians 5:21), we seek to subject others to ourselves. If we feared Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords, we would know that He is the only one to whom we collectively are called to subject ourselves…and in subjecting ourselves to Him we subject ourselves to others.
Bonhoeffer calls great disillusionment with others “incomparably wholesome”. This is not only true of the individual, it is also true of the church. If we do not see redemptive relationships modeled in the church how can we expect to see redemptive relationships in marriages, in families, or in friendships?
Sadly, oh so sadly, there is little understanding of the Biblical church within the church, including within vocational ministry. To many professing Christians the functional truth is that the church is no different than any other voluntary association of people. Others associate a particular form of polity with the church. Still others may associate church with a certain set of core beliefs or traditions – the emphasis being on assent to those traditions and beliefs as opposed to living those beliefs. The idea of church being life together is seldom found within professing Christendom, and yet if Christ is our life then our life is not isolated to ourselves as individuals, or as husbands and wives, or as families – our life is the shared life of the entire body of Christ. As Paul writes, “Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread,” (1 Cor. 10:17). We are called to be “perfected into one” (John 17:23) so that we may, as His body, share the life of the Trinity.
“For even as the body is one and has many members…so also is Christ,” (1 Cor. 12:12). This is a reality, not an ideal. “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it,” (1 Cor. 12:27). This is a reality, not an ideal. If I have an injured or diseased member of my physical body I seek to heal it lest my entire body be affected – my first reaction is not amputation or removal. I want to restore my physical member to a healthy relationship with my entire body…that is my first instinct.
Again, so often division in the church is over hurt feelings, misunderstandings, not getting our way – it is seldom over substantive Biblical issues at the congregational level. If we are the body of Christ it should be no surprise to us if different members have different preferences, nor should it be a surprise if members gravitate toward different emphases in teaching and doctrine – all the more reason to keep Jesus Christ and His Cross central to our life together.
The church does not so much need coaching on how to resolve conflict, it needs a Biblical understanding of what it is in Jesus Christ. There is a fundamental failure of understanding and teaching in the professing church as to what the church is in Jesus Christ. Life Together means for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. Life Together means through misunderstanding, through sin and a process of hopeful reconciliation, through hurt feelings, through flare-ups of anger, and in working through our selfishness and fears.
We will continue to reflect on this Bonhoeffer quote in the next post in this series. There is much in it to ponder.