“When pastors lose faith in a Christian community in which they have been placed and begin to make accusations against it, they had better examine themselves first to see whether the underlying problem is not their own idealized image, which should be shattered by God.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 12.
Continuing our reflection on this quote from the previous post in this series:
Bonhoeffer counsels that if pastors find that they have constructed an idealized image of the church which should be “shattered by God” that pastors ought to thank God for leading them into the situation. “But if they find that it is not true, let them nevertheless guard against ever becoming an accuser of those whom God has gathered together…let such pastors…make intercession for those charged to their care.” Yet, it is one thing to be an “accuser” and another thing to call God’s people to obey all that Jesus has commanded us (Matthew 28:20). Paul’s ongoing charge to Timothy included, “Preach the word. Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching,” (2 Timothy 4:2).
What might it look like if we view the reality of the church in Christ (the nature of the church) while at the same time working through our collective obedience in our life together? How might pastoral ministry hold this in tension? How might we as brothers and sisters think about this and live this?
While we see answers to these questions on page after page of Scripture, I will choose one passage for us to consider; 1 Corinthians 1:1 – 11 (NASB):
"Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother,
To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you."
Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth is an extensive corrective; there are problems on earth in the Corinthians' life together; there are not just problems, there is sin. Paul’s corrective letter is not a result of Paul’s mistaken ideal of the church, any more than the letter of Revelation, and the seven letters to individual churches contained in Revelation, was the result of Christ’s mistaken ideal of His church. A helpful question in life together is, “When I see a discrepancy in the church, am I seeing a discrepancy between our present life and my ideal of what this life should be, or is the discrepancy between the Word of God and life as we are living it?” I don’t know if we can always answer this question, but I think it is helpful if we ask it before the Lord Jesus and before our brothers and sisters. I think Paul could answer this question when he wrote the Corinthians, and we see in 1 Corinthians Chapter Seven that he distinguished between matters of righteousness and holiness, and domestic matters in which we have liberty; perhaps he had an ideal of what could be the best for many of his readers in their historical context – and so he wrote, “But to the rest I, not the Lord, say…”(7:12).
Paul begins this corrective letter by calling his readers saints, those who are sanctified, in everything they have been enriched in Christ, they are not lacking in any gift, and Christ will confirm them to the end blameless. It is only after Paul has affirmed and confirmed the reality of who the Corinthians are in Christ and who Christ is in the Corinthians that he begins his extensive corrective by addressing the divisions within the Corinthian church. First Paul confirms the reality of the church in Christ and the reality of Christ in the church; then he calls the church to submit to Christ and to the Word of Christ through the obedience of repentance.
The obedience of repentance is a recognition of who Jesus Christ is and an acknowledgment of who the church is in Jesus Christ – because the church is rooted in the heavens it must be a repenting church on earth, for repentance moves us in the direction of our heavenly roots. Repentance is (in part) us proclaiming, “Not this way of the world on earth that leads downward, but that Way in Christ which leads upward.”
We are not called to be conformed to our ideals of ekklesia and koinonia, but rather to Jesus Christ.