“The existence of any Christian communal life essentially depends on whether or not it succeeds at the right time in promoting the ability to distinguish between a human ideal and God’s reality, between spiritual and emotional community. The life and death of a Christian community is decided by its ability to reach sober clarity on these points as soon as possible. In other words, a life together under the Word will stay healthy only when it does not form itself into a movement, an order, a society, a collegium pietas, but instead understands itself as being part of the one, holy, universal, Christian church, sharing through its deeds and suffering in the hardships and struggles and promise of the whole church.” [Underline mine]. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 19.
Continuing reflecting on this quote from the previous post…
What are the dangers of “a movement, an order, a society, a collegium pietas [holy school]”? Just as individuals struggle against self-centeredness, so do local congregations, as well as congregations linked together as parts of a movement, an order, a denomination. Any self-centeredness moves us away from the centeredness of Christ and the Cross and in so doing also moves us away from the rest of the body of Christ. If love for one another and unity in the Trinity are key elements in our witness to the world (John 13:34 – 35; 17:20-23), then movements and orders and societies and denominations by their nature militate against a united and loving witness because they engender self-focus, self-reference, and self-interest, and self-preservation. We manage to ignore Paul’s concern about “movements” within the Corinthian church, often working to strengthen walls of distinction rather than seeking to attain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Often our identity rests in “doctrinal distinctives” rather than in Christ.
Those who seek to justify the preservation of a movement would do well to work exceptionally hard to preserve the unity “of the one, holy, universal, Christian church” and to inculcate in the “movement” or “tradition” an intentional awareness and engagement with the universal Christian church. Is this attainable? Can it be practiced? The instinct for self-preservation is so strong within us, especially when we have built an organization and bureaucracy that must feed itself, that I don’t know the answer to those questions. At the very least it requires a strong hand on the tiller for the current of fallen humanity drives us away, again and again, from unity in Christ.
One of many dangers of movements, traditions, denominations, societies, and holy schools is that they become their own frameworks of reference, and those within those environments who seek engagement and fellowship with the universal church must work against our natural propensity for self-reference – they must teach themselves and their fellow travelers within their movement to fear self-reference, to fear using their “doctrinal distinctives” or their particular practices as lenses through which to view and accept other Christians – for then we become the “emotional church” that Bonhoeffer’s warns us against, then we superimpose our ideals and desires on others and depart from God’s reality.
Is Bonhoeffer’s vision attainable? The only reason we can answer “yes” is the promise of the Bible, for in the Bible we see us all coming into the unity of the faith, into the knowledge of the Son of God (Ephesians Chapter 4). Can we believe that the Father will answer the prayer of Jesus in John 17? Do we believe? Let us hope that we can believe that the Father will answer the prayer of the Son. And so Bonhoeffer’s vision of life together is not just Bonhoeffer’s vision, but it is the vision of the unseen that is unveiled in the Scriptures. The New Jerusalem is working itself out in and through the body of Christ, no matter how fractured we may appear, no matter how much we may engage in self-destruction.
But not all who return from Babylon rebuild the temple, and I think this is a tragedy. As with the released captives in Haggai – our propensity is to build our own houses and to allow the house of God to lie in ruins. We must fight against our instinct to build our own houses, our own movements, our own reference points, and build the house of God with all of our brothers and sisters who comprise the universal church. We must build even for those who do not care to participate with us, who insist on building their own houses, for (God willing) a time will come when they will run to God’s house, God’s temple, seeking the unity of the body of Christ, the life of the body of Christ, the love of the body of Christ…and then we want to have a home prepared for them just as our Lord Jesus has prepared a home for us.
There are many currents within Christendom opposed to the unity of the church, from ego to economic, the perpetuation of old movements and the birth of new movements imprison and distract from Christ, from one another, and from credible witness. This is why it isn’t unusual to see more dynamic and credible witness and unity when Christians work outside the bounds of societies and movements and traditions than when Christians limit their activities and thinking to within movements and societies.
When we consider that Bonhoeffer wrote within the context of Nazi Germany, with all of the horror associated with that time, perhaps we can appreciate why he wrote what he wrote. Movements within the church within Germany were often more concerned with their own self-preservation than they were with credible witness, obedience to Christ, and the welfare of other Christians. The church outside Germany was also often more concerned with its own interests than with the plight of its brothers and sisters in the darkness of Germany. The church was shackled by its human ideals, by its emotional community (which perpetuated fragmentation) and therefore could not see or live in God’s reality – Bonhoeffer was desperate to communicate God’s reality to God’s people, but for the most part God’s people were not interested in being God’s people, they would rather be the people of a movement, a society, a holy school, or a denomination.
In the dark times in which we live, are we any different?