“Only that community which enters into the experience of this great disillusionment [with others] with all its unpleasant and evil appearances begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it…Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that genuine community can survive. Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community…” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 10.
I’ve been guilty of this more than once, and I’ve seen people do it more than once. There are three possible results from having an ideal of Christian community shattered or not realized: 1.The community is destroyed; 2.The community becomes one where conformity is valued above Biblical truth; 3.The community learns from the experience, works through it as a community of brothers and sisters, and grows in Jesus Christ.
While Bonhoeffer does not address this (at least as I recall), the issue of “great disillusionment” is not something that is “one and done”; that is, it isn’t something that a community will likely experience just once, work through it, and then not experience it again. Certainly there can be watershed experiences of “great disillusionment” that tower above lesser disillusionments, but since the community is on pilgrimage and since the community is organic with members coming and going and growing and learning and experimenting; it is natural that idealizations in various forms will present themselves from time to time. A healthy community is like a healthy body, it can tolerate germs that a sick body would succumb to; idealizations brought into a healthy community will often dissipate as a natural course as sisters and brothers prefer one above another and as Jesus Christ remains the head of the body.
There is also a process of discernment in distinguishing an idealization from the fact of community. In other words, it is not always readily apparent what we are dealing with – something may be a legitimate Biblical insight that the community needs to hear; the problem often comes when one insight becomes a substitute for genuine community which Jesus Christ has established and which can be found only in Him.
There are three safeguards (I’m sure there are more) which can guard us against exalting our ideals of community above the community that Christ has established.
The first is that Jesus Christ must always be central, the head of the body from whom we all receive light and life to share with one another; He must always be our message. When anything takes the place of Jesus there are problems.
The second is that we recognize the present unity of the community which Jesus has established. Paul (Ephesians 4:3) writes that we are to “preserve” or “guard” the unity of the Spirit. The unity of the Spirit is the reality, that we are being built together in Christ as a holy temple is a reality – our call is not to attain that reality but to recognize (and as a result live) that reality. This is a reality in Christ that we are to submit to, rather than force others to submit to our ideal of what community should be.
The third is to prefer others above ourselves and to submit ourselves to one another – Christian community is community of mutual appreciation, encouragement, and submission. If we practice mutual submission then we are less likely to attempt to seek to encapsulate others within an ideal and we are more likely to discern any attempt to do so.
Engaged Christians want to grow and they want others to grow. Disciples want to learn and they want to share what they’ve learned. Recognizing that we all have a propensity to want things to be a certain way, and recognizing that we must submit what we “see” and what we want to the Lord of the community and not attempt to force others into the mold of our idealization, will help us preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
The disillusionment that Bonhoeffer is writing about is a fact of life together; better to recognize it, anticipate it, and work through it…than allow it to destroy community.