Life Together: Ministry

This is the fourth in a series, taking an in-depth look at Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic, Life Together (CommunityThe day with others, The Day Alone, Confession & Communion).

Bonhoeffer opens this chapter with a stark warning; we can destroy Christian community. One of the ways true Christian fellowship can be broken is through self-justification which Bonhoeffer links back to the disciples arguing over who was the greatest in Luke 9:46. Whenever we compare, contrast and set ourselves up over someone else, Christian fellowship comes under attack.

Bonhoeffer, rightly, sees that much of the damage can be avoided if we learn how to speak well of others and to hold our tongue if we can’t manage that and that, intriguingly, the beginning of love for another is to learn how to speak or not speak. In other words when our posture and attitude is to build up and not tear down (with words, thoughts and deeds) then we put ourselves in a position to actually love someone.

Bonhoeffer then begins to talk of the value of every member of the fellowship, which is not particularly newsworthy in Christian theology. Christians have been talking about the value of every member finding it’s pace and role since Paul wrote about the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-27). However in the context of 1930s Germany, Bonhoeffer’s articulation of the Christian creed pushes back hard against the prevailing creed of the Nazis.

Every Christian community must realize that not only do the weak need the strong, but also that the strong cannot exist without the weak. The elimination of the weak is the death of the fellowship.”(p.72)

There it is in black and white. The National Socialists are anti-Christian, killing community as they eliminate the weak, the stranger, the alien. They are not building a strong society but a weaker one. Powerful and prophetic stuff.

Next we need to discover humility or, as Bonhoeffer calls it, meekness. Bonhoeffer talks in terms of thinking little of oneself, but in reality is calling for an honest appraisal of sin and that we should all consider ourselves to be the chief of sinners.

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. (p.74)

If we are humble then we should be prepared to offer to others the ministry of listening.

Just as love to God begins with listening to his Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. (p.75)

Listening moves us to help. Christian community is continually built by small acts of kindness and service, ‘there is a multitude of these things wherever people live together’. Yet our own sense of importance can hinder our service of others:

We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and cancelling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions…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. (p.76)

We are called to bear one another and bear with another, to support, to love through frustration and pain. Too many churches fail and split because we fail in the ministry of bearing other people.

Only when we in humility, listen, serve and bear our brothers and sisters can we speak the Word of God to them. This is not preaching but sharing gospel truths with one another. Bonhoeffer recognises this is harder than it should be;

What a difficult thing it often is to utter the name of Jesus Christ in the presence even of a brother! (p.81)

This is a difficult thing for many becomes often God’s Word is a reproof and a rebuke to others, which is why it so important that all the other ministries have also been done so that we know that the one bringing us God’s Word loves us through listening, serving, bearing and all done in the humility we see.

We speak to one another on the basis of the help we both need. We admonish one another to go the way that Christ bids us to go. We warn one another against the disobedience that is our common destruction. We are gentle and we are severe with one another, for we know both God’s kindness and God’s severity. Why should we be afraid of one another, since both of us have only God to fear? (p.82)

Bonhoeffer insists that courage to offer correction and reproof is a must:

Reproof is unavoidable. God’s Word demands it when a brother falls into open sin. The practice of discipline in the congregation begins in the smallest circles. Where defection from God’s Word in doctrine or life imperils the family fellowship and with it the whole congregation, the word of admonition and rebuke must be ventured. Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin. (p.83)

And because Bonhoeffer sees that church discipline sometimes calls for breaking of fellowship, he finally tackles the question of spiritual authority. He would have no time for the celebrity pastor or the conference bios that speak of all the achievements of man and rejects the idea that leadership should be founded on ‘worldly charm’ or the ‘brilliant attributes of a spiritual personality’.

Instead what he looks for ‘is a simple, faithful man, sound in faith and life, who rightly discharges his duties to the Church. His authority lies in the exercise of his ministry. In the man himself there is nothing to admire.’

Here are words well worth heeding:

The Church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren. Not in the former but in the latter is the lack. The Church will place its confidence only in the simple servant of the Word of Jesus Christ because it knows that then it will be guided, not according to human wisdom and human conceit, but by the Word of the Good Shepherd.

The question of trust, which is so closely related to that of authority, is determined by the faithfulness with which a man serves Jesus Christ, never by the extraordinary talents which he possesses. Pastoral authority can be attained only by the servant of Jesus who seeks no power of his own, who himself is a brother among brothers submitted to the authority of the Word. (p.85)

Amen.

2 thoughts on “Life Together: Ministry”

  1. Andy_in_Germany says:

    Having met several self-justifying pastors I can see where Bonhoeffer is coming from: as I said before, it is a problem here.

    BTW; the work for ‘Humility’ and ‘Meekness’ in German is the same: both are translated ‘Demut’ or ‘Demutigkeit’. the meaning it carries is, however more ‘meek’ than ‘humble’.

    I’ve been told that when dealing with an abusive employer (who is part of our local church fellowship) I should be ‘Demutig’ because he’s the boss and I’m not.

    I asked if the person meant ‘Meek’ or ‘Humble’: if I’m meek, then I withdraw and simply accept the situation. If I’m humble, I stand with a knowledge of who I am in Christ, and can look my (fellow beloved child of God) in the eye and decide what I think God wants me to accept, and what not. There is a big difference, but unfortunately, and possibly significantly, it doesn’t come over in German.

    1. Phil Whittall says:

      Language is fascinating in how it shapes and is shaped by cultures that have or don’t have words that exist elsewhere. Perhaps you should just quote Bonhoeffer at him and see what happens.

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