On pages 79 and 80 Bonhoeffer quotes Galatians 6:1, “My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.”
Then Bonhoeffer follows with, “As Christ bore with us and accepted us as sinners, so we in his community may bear with sinners and accept them into the community of Jesus Christ through the forgiveness of sins. We may suffer the sins of one another; we do not need to judge…Because each individual’s sin burdens the whole community and indicts it, the community of faith rejoices amid all the pain inflicted on it by the sin of the other and, in spite of the burden placed on it, rejoices in being deemed worthy of bearing with and forgiving sin.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 80.
As I indicated in my previous post, I would love the opportunity to talk with Bonhoeffer about the paragraphs on pages 79 and 80 that address sin and forgiveness. As I also indicted, I believe these things can only be worked out through life together in submission to the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. If I take Bonhoeffer at face value I think this section is confusing and raises questions; the questions it raises are good ones and do not lend themselves to closure, but since there no closure in much of koinonia, in life together, perhaps this will encourage us in our relationships, thinking, and dialogue.
Yes, the church is to welcome sinners and accept them into the community through forgiveness of sins, which entails Biblical repentance, a turning to follow Jesus Christ, a change of mind, a change of life. On page 79 Bonhoeffer writes, “Not despising sinners, but being privileged to bear with them, means not having to give them up for lost, being able to accept them and able to preserve community with them through forgiveness.” [Italics mine]. Since “community” in this context means life together we have a problem. The problem is a result of Bonhoeffer not being clear in his terminology, or in his theology, or in not having the time and space to clearly write what he means.
Acknowledging that we are a people on mission and that we are to share the Gospel and bring others to Jesus Christ, it goes without saying that we are to bring people into the community of the people of God through repentance and the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ. We are not to despise sinners, we are not to despise people who do not yet know Jesus Christ, and we are to bear with them – knowing that outside of Jesus Christ we ourselves are capable of anything and everything. But the very fact that we use the term “community” means that there is distinction and definition setting the church, the people of God, apart from the world and the present age. The marks of distinction include following Jesus Christ in obedience to His Word and living in accountable relationships with those who call Him Lord; if there is no distinction there is no community.
Here we see a problem when we use Biblical terminology incorrectly, and how its use cuts across our thinking in myriad ways; to be in the koinonia of Christ is to be, by His grace and life, a saint living with saints – it is not to continue in death, and it is not to continue in disobedience as a way of life. So when Bonhoeffer uses the term “sinners” in these pages it is as if there is no distinction between saint and sinner; if that is the case then there can be no community in the Biblical sense for to live as the world is to live in the world is to be indiscernible from the world. If we remove our buildings and if we remove our denominational names do we look any different than the world? Do we call ourselves Christians or does the world call us Christians? “The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” – better the world should distinguish us than we wear name tags.
I am aware that some readers will disagree with me; and others may be quick to read into my writing some type of Christian “perfectionism” which I do not intend – we are not perfect in our daily lives but Jesus Christ is and those who follow Him usually do sin, and I heartily agree with Bonhoeffer on being agents of forgiveness to one another in our life together, as I will explore in future posts.
When Bonhoeffer writes “we do not need to judge” what does he mean? Surely he does not mean we are not to identify sin and call it what it is, otherwise what is the point of quoting Galatians 6:1? If he means “judge” in the sense of thinking we ought to eternally condemn a person who is mired in sin – well then, he is reminding us of something we ought to practice. Furthermore, within the community of faith brothers and sisters who have repented and are following Jesus often need a word of assurance so that they can stand against the Accuser of the Brethren – when the enemy attacks one of us he attacks all of us.
I just don’t know about the community of faith rejoicing “amid all the pain inflicted on it by the sin of the other.” I don’t see this in the Bible and I don’t see it in the Cross. I do see the community rejoicing “in being deemed worthy of bearing with and forgiving sin” – but the former and the latter ought to be distinguished. When Paul writes instructions about how to treat sin and how to relate to brothers involved in egregious sin, his “voice” is not one of rejoicing in the pain inflicted on the church by the sin, but rather one of firm teaching and discipline that is designed to lead such brothers to confession and repudiation of sin and restoration in life together. Paul’s instructions extend so far as to treat an unrepentant brother as an unbeliever and to withdraw fellowship from him in order that he might be, at the appropriate time, restored to koinonia.
Bonhoeffer’s own actions, with regard to elements in the German church, indicate that he used discernment in his relationships with professing Christians and that he did not treat all professing Christians the same – for the German church was not the true church, though the true church could be found within the German church. This observation is not necessarily directly linked to the subject at hand for I think Bonhoeffer was thinking in a different context when writing Life Together, but nevertheless it may have some merit in thinking about how we relate to other professing Christians when our own society and church are descending into the abyss. Bonhoeffer “judged” when deciding who to associate with and who to refuse fellowship – he realized that associating with others in “Christian” fellowship and ministry meant, explicitly or implicitly, endorsing those others. Bonhoeffer believed that there should be no ambiguity in his witness and therefore no ambiguity within his associations. Many within and without Germany did not understand his position and thought him impractical – in the aftermath of the war at least some came to appreciate his sacrificial life.
Returning to Life Together, Bonhoeffer is right in speaking of the pain that sin causes the Christian community, for if we are “one body” then disease in one member affects all members. Just because we cannot see the disease doesn’t mean it isn’t there; just because we can’t see the egregious and persistent sins of members doesn’t mean it isn’t affecting the body of Christ. Our obedience is critical to our relationships and to the greater body of Christ – we may be able to hide our sin, but we can’t isolate the effect of our sin, we cannot build a firewall between ourselves and others. There is no sin that only hurts the individual, all sin affects the community of faith. Persistent and egregious sin and rebellion is akin to a soldier abandoning his post and fraternizing with the enemy – our faithfulness matters, our obedience matters. If we love one another we will lay down our lives for each other just as Jesus laid down His life for us (1 John 3:16); we will be obedient to our Father and Lord Jesus…if not for our own sake, for the sake of our brothers and sisters.