“Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves…They act as if they have to create the Christian community, as if their visionary ideal binds the people together. Whatever does not go their way they call a failure.” [Italics mine]. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), pages 10 - 11.
This is hard to read, harder to live. As I wrote in the previous post, this is not a “one and done” proposition; this is a working out of our salvation together, trusting that it is God who works in us to will and do His good pleasure. When I see this in others it is only because I see it in myself; I look back on my life and with pain see it in my attitudes and actions. And yet, and yet, it is an exercise in discernment and in mutual submission; and it is a challenge to negotiate the inherent tension in Bonhoeffer’s observation. While I find this section of Life Together beautifully challenging and deeply convicting, Bonhoeffer does not appear to address the ongoing challenge that most of have in this area – how do we live with the tension of the ideal versus the reality? How do we distinguish between the two? How do we maintain unity in koinonia as a diverse body?
I would love to know whether Bonhoeffer was self-critical in this area, for there are times in his writings when he distinguishes between his own thinking and that of other professing Christians. Such writing is natural and warranted in our quest to “rightly divide the word of truth”; perhaps our challenge is to rightly divide the word of truth without dividing the body of Christ. When we speak or write to distinguish practices and doctrines within the body of Christ do we write or speak with a sensitivity toward preserving the unity of the Spirit in the bond peace?
Unfortunately, we often divide the body of Christ when attempting to rightly divide the word of truth; we are like children playing with adult swords – we hurt people and we are often too dumb to know the pain we’ve caused – we ignore the pain because we think we’re right. After all, the other person wouldn’t be in pain if he’d just realize he is wrong and I’m right.
Bonhoeffer’s warning about forcing ideals on our life together as opposed to living in the reality of Jesus Christ in His people is strident and relentless, he writes (page 10), “God hates this wishful dreaming…” Unless we’ve experienced the shattering of a congregation we may wonder why Bonhoeffer devotes such time and energy to the subject, but if we have walked among the ruins of a people then perhaps we can appreciate why he identifies this ever-present danger in the body of Christ. Beyond the local church, we need only to look at the attitudes of denominations and traditions toward each other to know that the tyranny of idealization is global as well as local.
Paul asks the Corinthians, “Has Christ been divided?” “So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you…and you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.” The Corinthians were acting like they didn’t have what they had. They had everything in Jesus, the reality was Jesus; but they were acting like they didn’t have everything in Jesus and they therefore gravitated around the “ideals” represented in Paul or Apollos or Cephas and in doing so they were carving up the body of Christ. To the adherents of Paul the rest were failures, to the adherents of Apollos the rest were failures, to the adherents of Cephas the rest were failures. Aren’t we glad this attitude was confined to the First Century?
How I wish that Bonhoeffer’s Life Together was required reading in seminary. This dynamic of substituting our ideals for the reality of who Christ is in us and who we are in Christ (which is reality) is always a danger in koinonia – and to know the danger, to talk about it, to work through it, to acknowledge its threat, to know that we all carry the virus – can help protect our life together in Jesus Christ and strengthen our witness to the world.