I debated for years. Is this really the church I want to attend? The preachers are uneducated, the songs are old, the outreach is weak, and the faith of many seems nominal. Yet, I stayed. I stayed because I felt the hand of God keeping me there. But I stayed with part of my heart guarded. I stayed with a cynical eye on my brothers and sisters in the church. I stayed with my pride and I brought my accusations about my church before God.
In America, we have this privilege and this curse: we have a smorgasbord of churches to choose from to suit our taste. As a result, we often do not value community as a treasure, but rather approach it as consumers — always shopping, never satisfied. And if we stay, we often stay as I did: cynical, a bit removed, always seeing the faults of the person next to us on the pew.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from a very different world as he wrestled with the reality of Nazi Germany and the precious gift of brotherhood in an underground seminary. He saw Christian community for what it is — a precious gift — a gift not to be taken for granted (17).
The “curse” and the “promise” of Christian life is that “Christendom is a scattered people, scattered like seed ‘into all the kingdoms of the earth’ (18). Thus “visible fellowship is a blessing” not a right (18). And many believers live without it and yearn for it.
Yet we often have this community and totally take it for granted. Instead of receiving it as a gift from God, as it comes, we long for something God has not given us — some form of community that fits our own ideal. Bonhoeffer warns of trying to form our ‘ideal community,’ even though it is natural to desire such. He says that Christians often come to Christian community with a “wish dream” of what it should look like (26).
“But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams” (26). He writes, “we must be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves” (27). “God hates visionary dreaming,” he writes, for “it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious” (27). The dreamer sets himself up as “judge” and “accuser of his brethren” (28). Ironically, at that point, he takes on the role of the devil (the Accuser) against his own community.
Accusation versus intercession
Too often, I have found myself moving from discontent, to cynicism, to accusation within my own church. This chapter has convicted me deeply. Bonhoeffer writes that Christian fellowship is created and graciously given by God. We only receive it as a gift. We step into a communal life that God has already formed. “We enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients” (28). He continues, “If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed… then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow” (29). He challenges us to be intercessors, not accusers. When we have legitimate concerns about the depth and faith of our community, we can intercede on behalf of our brothers, rather than standing against them in accusation.
The true vision of Christian community
Christian community is distinct because it is built by Christ and through Christ. It is “community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ” (21). We only truly know our brothers through Christ. Without Christ, “the way is blocked by our own ego” (23). But in Christ, we learn to love; we can only extend to our brother what God has extended to us — mercy, forgiveness, grace. (25). And “The more genuine and deeper our community becomes… the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us” (26). Christian community is not perfect, because it is formed of broken human beings. But it is a gracious gift. As we come as thankful recipients and not demanders, we can begin to receive the gift as it truly is — a brotherhood in Christ and through Christ.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community. 1954. Fortress Press. 2015.