“The extemporaneous prayer at the close of daily worship normally will be said of the head of the house. But in any case it is best that it always be said by the same person.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 42.
Bonhoeffer envisions those sharing life together gathering at the end of the day for prayer led by the “head of the house.” When he uses this term he is not thinking, in this context, of the head of a natural family but rather of the head of a communal family – perhaps of the head of a clandestine seminary or clandestine church.
I think that it is appropriate for the head of a natural family to lead prayers, but I wonder about having the same person always leading prayers within a fellowship – I’m not sure that this is healthy, nor do I think it is healthy, within the setting of a fellowship, for one person to be viewed as the “head of the house”; I think this is particularly true in nontraditional settings – which is likely the setting that Bonhoeffer envisions.
My above concern is rooted in two areas; the first is a desire to see the Body of Christ function as a body, as His Body, and only Jesus Christ can be the head of His Body. The more people who participate in leadership the better because it facilitates spiritual growth and encourages others – only Jesus Christ should be the center of our life together, not anyone else…no matter how deeply that person may love and care for the People of God.
My second concern, especially in non-traditional settings, is that it is too easy for one person to exert control over others and for others to uncritically acquiesce in the agenda of a leader – there is more easily a lack of accountability in non-traditional settings than in traditional – or at least I like to think so. Even as I write this I am reminded of many examples of a lack of accountability in traditional settings and of dictatorial behavior of leaders and groups of leaders in traditional settings – so pardon me for thinking out loud. In any event, when one person is viewed as the “head of the house” in other than a natural-family context the door is open for abuse – what may begin as well-meaning leadership may be transformed into religious dictatorship. I write from experience.
Bonhoeffer points out that those in life together must pray for each other and also that whoever is going to lead community prayer must “share in the daily life of the community and must know the cares and needs, the joys and thanksgivings, the requests and hopes of the others,” (pages 43 – 44). Here is a challenge for all of us: Are we sharing life together so that we know these things about one another? If we don’t spend time with one another how can we know these things? If our leaders don’t spend time with others how can they know these things? If leadership only spends time with those in leadership how can leadership know the people?
Those leading in community prayer are “not to confuse their own hearts with the heart of the community,” (page 44). Life together means life with one another to the point that our hearts are joined in Christ as one – as Paul writes, “they are knit together in love.” But we can only know the heart of the community as we know the hearts in the community. How can we express the heart of the community in prayer? This is a function of the priesthood of all believers; it is something not only for spoken communal prayer, it is also something for our prayer closets – in our individual communion with God we are called to express not only ourselves but our community, those with whom we share life together.
Am I, today, able to pray the heart of the community?