When I see the term “ministry,” I picture a pastor standing behind a pulpit, or a deacon visiting the sick and the widows. But that is not the image that Dietrich Bonhoeffer presents in his chapter entitled “Ministry.” Rather, this “ministry” is the ministry that each Christian performs in service to other believers. He writes of “the ministry of holding one’s tongue,” “the ministry of listening,” “the ministry of helpfulness,” “the ministry of bearing,” “the ministry of proclaiming,” and “the ministry of authority.”
The Call to Humility
Every Christian is called to ministry in this sense. However, there is a prerequisite to all of these ministries: a deep humility.
This humility is not natural to us. Rather, “from the first moment when a man meets another person he is looking for a strategic position he can assume over and against that person” (Bonhoeffer 90). Automatically, our approach to one another is not one of humility and service, but one of power dynamics. Our flesh seeks a “self-justification” that we try to gain by judging others and exalting ourselves in position over them (91).
In contrast to this natural stance, we are called to follow in the example of Jesus, who gave up his privilege to become one of us. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).
Humility in My Estimation of Myself
A deep humility is only possible when we really see our own sinfulness. Only in the light of this realization can we come to our brothers and sisters as equals — knowing we are both broken at the foot of the cross. Then, when we speak the Word to one another, “we speak to one another on the basis of the help we both need” (106).
I was challenged by Bonhoeffer’s bold statement: “If my sinfulness appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all” (96, emphasis added). If I don’t see myself as the “chief of sinners,” I am not seeing my sinfulness at all! What a sobering statement. Am I asking God to show me my sinfulness? Am I willing to see my sin and to grieve over it?
But out of this grieving over my own sin, out of this wretchedness, comes the ability and the desire to serve others, because I recognize the depths of God’s mercy toward me. “Once a man has experienced the mercy of God in his life he will henceforth aspire only to serve. The proud throne of the judge no longer lures him; he wants to be down below with the lowly and the needy, because that is where God found him” (94).
Humility Makes Room for God’s Agenda
Finally, humility makes room for God’s agenda. In the section titled “the ministry of helpfulness,” Bonhoeffer calls us to reconsider our own schedules and agendas. So often, we push aside anything that looks like an interruption to our plans. “It is part of the discipline of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform a service and that we do not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God” (99). As God arranges and manages our schedules, and as we begin to truly learn the “discipline of humility,” then we can truly minister to our brothers and sisters.
This is what the church needs: “not …brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren” (109).
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community. 1954. Fortress Press. 2015.