Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 16

“In the spiritual community the Word of God alone rules; in the emotional community the individual who is equipped with exceptional powers, experience, and magical, suggestive abilities rules along with the Word…In the one, all power, honor, and rule are surrendered to the Holy Spirit; in the other, power and personal spheres of influence are sought and cultivated.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 14.

If I were Bonhoeffer’s editor I’d suggest he strike the phrase “rules along with the Word” because either the Holy Spirit is ruling in Christ through the Word or He is not; and in the scenario which Bonhoeffer describes, one in which an individual(s) with exceptional powers is ruling, that person typically attempts to force the Word into a mold of his own image.

My sense is that the best we can hope for is an awareness of our propensity to gravitate toward the “emotional” leadership which Bonhoeffer describes above and to fear it – realizing that mutual submission to Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Word, and to each other is critical if we are to overcome the soul-driven/natural-driven desire for control. This desire for control is not limited to those who are the most visible, we all (I suppose) have it, and we can manifest it by identifying with those who are the most visible just as we can manifest it by insisting that we control spheres of our individual lives. The centurion of the Gospel recognized Jesus as a “man under authority” just as the centurion was a “man under authority” – this is why he knew that Jesus only needed to “say the word” and his servant would be healed – those “under authority” have true authority.

This is an “already not yet” proposition – Christ alone is Lord, that is the “already”; yet we are still learning how to submit to Him and to each other in Him, that is the “not yet”.

What would Bonhoeffer think were he to view the North American church today with its personality cults? (How sad that we have exported this toxin to other cultures). What would he think were he to read much of the “leadership” material produced by the professing church? We turn Christ’s words to Paul on their head, “My strength is made perfect in weakness…my grace is sufficient for you.” That is not the leadership we teach in the professing church, that is not the stuff of church growth, that is not media friendly.

Bonhoeffer’s “emotional community” feeds off our gravitational desires that exert a constant pull toward selfishness and away from the Cross of Christ and our shared life in the Christ of the Cross. Mutual submission to Christ and His Word, through the enabling of the Holy Spirit, create a corrective protection against succumbing to our natural desire to control others. It is easier to ignore Bonhoeffer’s warning about this propensity of the emotional community – otherwise we have to not only allow the Cross to work within us as individuals, we also must ask what this means in the life of congregations and denominations and movements…and in asking we must be prepared for answers that require radical change and submission to the Word of God.  

I cannot pretend to know why Bonhoeffer included this discussion of leadership and submission in Life Together, other than it is true. However, the historical context is one in which I can envision Bonhoeffer realizing that the emotional community cannot survive persecution because neither its leadership nor its thinking nor its soul is rooted in the Word of God, the Holy Spirit, and submission to Jesus Christ as Lord. The emotional community is, among other things, a community that lives life vicariously through its leaders – as go the leaders so go the communities. The communities do not have life or thinking or experience apart from its leaders – the communities are dependent on its leaders in distinction to being dependent on Christ and His Word and the Holy Spirit.

Wisdom in life together is knowing that most of us have the emotional propensity that Bonhoeffer describes and that we need each other desperately to ensure that life together is found in mutual submission to one another and in the submission of the church to Christ and His Word. Just as workers outside in excessive heat need to look out for one another for signs of heat stroke and dehydration, so in life together we have the privilege of helping one another overcome our selfishness and desire for control.

“…make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves…Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus…” (Philippians Chapter Two).

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