In his chapter on Service Bonhoeffer deals with the complex questions of criticism, judging one another, allowing one another freedom in Christ, and self-justification. I term these questions complex because we live in a time when criticism and judging in any form are often considered wrong and inappropriate; a time when freedom is often considered to be license; and a time when the self has been exalted to the point where self-justification is a way of life.
Many of the New Testament letters deal with correction, pointing out sinful and disobedient behavior among Christians as well as false teaching by pseudo-Christians. Following Jesus is not a “different strokes for different folks” proposition, nor is it a community that subscribes to the maxim, “go along to get along.”
When we find our sole justification in Jesus Christ we can allow others to do the same and we can “stop constantly keeping an eye on others, judging them, condemning them”…we can “allow other Christians to live freely”. This in turn allows us to be among those who see “the richness of God’s creative glory shining over their brothers and sisters (page 71).”
It is one thing for us to seek to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29), but it is quite another thing for us to seek to conform others to our own image of what we think they should be. Bonhoeffer writes, “God did not make others as I would have made them (page 71).”
Our own images may include the way people express themselves, the way they dress and talk, certain doctrinal emphases, social or political positions, tastes in worship expressions and music, their favorite authors or popular teachers – the list could fill many pages. We tend not to tolerate nonconformity to the group, we tend not to give people freedom of expression in Christ, we tend not to listen and understand others. Bonhoeffer writes, “God did not give them [others] to me so that I could dominate and control them…”
And follows with “…but so that I might find the Creator by means of them.” How is my Father expressing Himself through my brother and sister? How can I see Jesus in the members of His Body? Being in relationship with the Body of Christ is sacramental, when I experience koinonia, life together, I partake of Jesus Christ in His people, in His community. In C.S. Lewis’s essay, The Weight of Glory, he recognized that if we saw the divinity in each other, which believers have in Christ, that we may very well fall prostrate – we usually treat one another as men and women, when in fact we are more than that – we are sons and daughters of the living God and the Trinity lives within us. Paul chides the Corinthians that they are carnal and behaving like men (1 Cor. 3:1-4) – do we think and behave like men or do we live as the children of our Father?
Do I respect the work of Christ in my brother? Do I seek to understand and see the reflection of Christ in my brother or do I insist on my brother being conformed to the image I think he should have? Am I the measure of my brother or have I surrendered my own measure and find my justification in Jesus Christ, thereby allowing me to give my brother freedom to reflect the glory of God according to the grace of Christ in him?
How many insights to God’s grace have I missed in my insistence that others be conformed to images other than that of Jesus Christ? How can I seek to avoid this pitfall?
“Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand (Romans 14:4).”
Bonhoeffer writes, “I can never know in advance how God’s image should appear in others” (page 71). This is a good thing for me to remember.