22 August 2019

Loving the church: lessons from Bonhoeffer

It is not always easy to love our fellow Christians. After all, they sometimes say things that we find embarrassing and embrace causes that we find repugnant. Their political opinions are hopelessly atavistic or thoughtlessly progressive. They believe the world will end tomorrow and think they can hasten the coming apocalypse. They think they will save their country and bring godliness to everyone. They make all Christians look foolish by their missteps, and we–their betters surely?–are reluctant to associate with them for fear of losing respectability.

How many of us have experienced this for ourselves? I freely admit that I have, and it’s a side of me that I quite dislike. In my youth I developed a burning passion for social justice, for helping the poor and oppressed and for ending the economic structures that hold them in their grip. This produced in me an anger towards anyone else in the church who was less aware of these issues than I. Of course, this included most of my fellow Christians who were busy making a living, raising families and giving time and financial resources to their church and other communities. At least temporarily, my attitude made it difficult for me to sit in church and to listen to sermons that failed to touch on what I had come to believe was so important to a genuine faith. Had someone attempted openly to correct me and thereby coax even a little humility into me, I doubt I would have listened.

This attitude softened considerably in my mid to late twenties, and by the time I reached thirty, I came to recognize that I had succumbed to an unhealthy pride. What precipitated this turning point? A reading of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, a book he wrote while leading an underground seminary in Finkenwalde (now part of Szczecin, Poland) for training pastors in the Confessing Church. While the seminary endured for only two short years before the Gestapo closed it in 1937, Bonhoeffer’s little book has become a classic in the years since its posthumous publication.

When I read Life Together, three things in particular stood out for me, prompting in me a change in heart.

First, Bonhoeffer emphasizes the role of the Psalms in worship. I had grown up in a congregation that sang metrical psalms from the 1912 Psalter, but when I was eleven we moved to another church that specialized in more recent revival hymns, with the psalms playing very little role. I had rediscovered the praying of Psalms in my early twenties when I came into contact with the ancient Daily Office, or the Liturgy of the Hours. Bonhoeffer emphasized that the “Psalter is the vicarious prayer of Christ for his Church” and “the great school of prayer.” We dare not leave the Psalms out of our worship.

Second, the author endorses the practice of unison congregational singing that calls attention, not to the singers themselves, but to the Word that is being sung. And then this: “There are some destroyers of unison singing in the fellowship that must be rigorously eliminated . . . . There is the solo voice that goes swaggering, swelling, blaring, and tremulant from a full chest and drowns out everything else to the glory of its own fine organ.” Ouch! From the time my voice had changed in my teens, I discovered that God had given me a solo-quality baritone voice, which I regularly employed during the “special music” slot in our church’s worship service. After reading Bonhoeffer’s words, I had an attack of conscience, and since then I have focussed more on congregational singing, especially sung psalmody, than on choosing music to put my ostensibly splendid larynx on public display.

Third and finally, Bonhoeffer has hard words for anyone who desires to improve the church and to form it into something more worthy of his own love. Here is where I felt most convicted of my own fault. “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal, but a divine reality.” So often a community has collapsed because it was rooted in something as flimsy as a “wish dream”–someone’s notion of what community ought to look like.

Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be every so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly.

But . . . but . . . what about the prophets? What about Isaiah and Jeremiah, and Amos and Micah and so many others who recalled the people of God back to obedience? Were they not seeking change? In my youth I had aspired to this prophetic role, but my motives were misguided. Above all I had failed to love the community I had hoped to change.

Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for what he has done for us. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by His call, by His forgiveness, and His promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what He does give us daily.

It is by no means easy to accept God’s gifts when we think we deserve better. God has placed us in communities whose flaws we share. He has called us to love the community, not for what we might like it to become, but because its members are as much recipients of his grace as we are. Working for change is not wrong, but we must first of all change ourselves, abandon our pride and “wish dreams,” and learn to love the people God has given us.

Cross posted at Kuyperian Commentary

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