“Because Christ has long since acted decisively for other Christians, before I could begin to act, I must allow them the freedom to be Christ’s. They should encounter me only as the persons that they already are for Christ. This is the meaning of the claim that we can encounter others only through the mediation of Christ. Emotional love constructs its own image of other persons, about what they are and what they should become. It takes the life of the other person into its own hands. Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person as seen from the perspective of Jesus Christ. It is the image Jesus Christ has formed and wants to form in all people.” (Italics mine). Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 18.
“Emotional love constructs its own image of other persons, about what they are and what they should become,” these words should serve as a reminder to all of us, but especially to those in teaching, preaching, pastoral care, and in leadership, that it is not our image that should guide us in ministry, but the image of Christ; and that the people we serve are not our people who belong to us but rather Christ’s people who belong to Him.
Too often we strive to superimpose our image, including the image or imprint of a movement or tradition, on others, rather than seek to honor and recognize the image of Jesus Christ in others, rather than discerning how the image of Christ is manifesting itself within the body of Christ and its particular members. We can be more like a cattle round up in which one of our goals is to ensure that everyone is caught and branded – not with the image of Christ but with our own image. We have the propensity not to rest in our relationships, or in our teaching and preaching, until we see the image that we want to see rather than the image of Jesus Christ which He has placed in everyone who calls upon His name. Rather than preach and model submission to Jesus Christ we (overtly or covertly) want others to submit to us – including our movement or our tradition or our latest and greatest and popular Christian idea.
Yet, along with the above warning, we are called to know the image of Christ, to see the image of Christ, and to gravitate toward the image of Christ. We are to engage others not only where they are in Christ in the temporal, but also seek to help their temporal experience mirror eternal reality and to see eternal reality inform temporal experience. Paul writes, “We proclaim Him [Christ], admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me,” (Colossians 1:28-29). In Ephesians 4:13 Paul writes, “…until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” In the Colossians passage we see a focus on the individual member of the body of Christ, in the Ephesians passage Paul focuses on the collective body of Christ – we seek the image and fullness of Christ in each other individually and in all of us collectively.
We need Bonhoeffer’s warning about “emotional love” but we also need to know and seek the image of Christ; just as with paper currency – we recognize the counterfeit by first knowing the legitimate. Questions we can ask ourselves include: “Is it the image of Christ I am seeking to develop in others, or is it my own image or the image of my group, or movement, or particular way of thinking? Do I recognize the work of Christ in others and do I respect that work, even if (especially if!) it is markedly different from my own experience? Am I submitting to Christ in this relationship or seeking to have others submit to me? Am I submitting to others or seeking to have others submit to me? Is it important to me that Jesus Christ is Lord of this relationship?”
The Great Commission includes the commandment to make disciples and teach them to obey all that Jesus Christ has commanded us. The disciples we are to make are to be disciples of Jesus Christ, and the commandments we teach others to obey are His commandments and not ours. On the one hand we must ensure that we are not teaching our own commandments and traditions and movements, and that we are not making our own disciples. But on the other hand we must passionately strive and patiently live to make disciples for Jesus Christ and to clearly teach them to obey all that Jesus has commanded us.