Community Disciplines: Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, Part 3

On innumerable occasions a whole Christian community has been shattered because it has lived on the basis of a wishful image. Certainly serious Christians who are put in a community for the first time will often bring with them a very definite image of what Christian communal life should be, and they will be anxious to realize it. But God’s grace quickly frustrates all such dreams. … Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.

(p. 35-36). Wiser words have never been penned. We imagine that our churches will be previews of heaven itself, and so when people start acting like, you know, people, we get frustrated. We get angry. Life in God’s household should be much more pleasant! God should make things easy!

But the easy path is inevitably the wrong path. The beauty of life in the Kingdom is not that life together is easy but that (a) life together is wonderful and (b) we have the tools we need to live together. It’s like marriage — hard work but hard work that will be richly and gloriously rewarded.

Those who romanticize marriage as the easy life of “soul mates” find themselves quickly and painfully divorced as they realize that their spouse is actually hard to live with, prone to disagreement, and just as stubborn as they are. Rather than do the hard work of sorting through their differences and learning how to build a marriage, they give up.

Just so, in church, rather than pay the price necessary to get along, we leave. We divorce our congregations and friends we’ve had for decades, the parents of children we’ve helped raise, because getting along is hard.

Little do we realize that the process of learning to get along, to work it out, to submit and sacrifice for those we love is the process that transforms us into the image of Jesus. To leave in frustration is to give up on becoming like our Savior! It’s to frustrate the work of the Spirit, who is using our brothers and sisters to remove our rough edges and round us into the image of God Almighty.

But we’d rather leave, be “pure,” and not suffer the price of being re-molded by the hand of God.

God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly. They stand adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the community. They act as if they have to create the Christian community, as if their visionary ideal binds the people together. Whatever does not go their way, they call a failure. When their idealized image is shattered, they see the community breaking into pieces. So they first become accusers of other Christians in the community, then accusers of God, and finally the desperate accusers of themselves.

(p. 36). Sound familiar? This is story of countless failed marriages and failed congregations. An ideal community doesn’t come easily. Even when it’s achieved, it’s destroyed as new members are added and the difficult re-shaping process has to be begun anew.

We’d rather cleave our congregations into compartments of self-contained agreement, refusing all who don’t agree on every point, making life so easy — and so very different from true Christianity.

Jesus chose 12 apostles — and he picked men who were hard to work with. He chose a publican — a hated collaborator with the Romans, a zealot — sworn to vengeance against Roman collaborators, and even disciples who, after spending years with Jesus, begged for permission to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans. He chose Thomas, who doubted the resurrection. He chose Peter, who denied him three times. He even chose Judas, who betrayed him.

Why? Of the thousands of Jews in Galilee, why not pick some disciples who were better students, quicker studies, and easier to get along with? He was GOD! Why not form better disciples from the rocks on the ground? Why pick men so broken, so flawed, so obtuse, even idiotic, so … like us?

No one promised that discipleship would be an easy process. Jesus spent three years and was surely beside himself with frustration at times! But rather than running off those who didn’t get it on the first, second, and third try, he patiently stuck with them — because he could see what they could become. He saw their potential. He realized that those who are easily brought into compliance are sometimes easily brought out of compliance. He needed stubborn men. He needed men who’d obtusely wade into great dangers purely on faith, oblivious to the risks. He needed to take their most frustrating characteristics and turn them into virtues.

But when we discuss disciple-making at church, we want the members who easily go to their closets and pray by themselves just because we ask. Good. But we fail to realize that the stubborn, headstrong members may well be the ones who, when re-shaped by the Spirit, will take the gospel to dangerous lands. The passion that resists our efforts may well one day be the passion that converts a nation.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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6 Responses to Community Disciplines: Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, Part 3

  1. Adam says:

    So here is my struggle. I have an image of Christian community- one that I feel is from God. I think I am being truthful when I say that I have been “honest, earnest, and sacrificial” in trying to bring it about. I also realize that it isn’t happening.

    So, the struggle is in trying to stay true to a Godly image with neither devolving into what Bonhoffer describes (demanding, adament, reproachful, etc), nor following a path of detachment. Because let me tell you (as if you don’t know) – it hurts. And carrying pain is hard. It gets old.

    So how do we stay true, carrying the burden of pain, not hiding the pain, but not using the pain as an avenue towards escape or reproach? Particularly when others will simply view the pain as condemnation even where no condemnation exists?

  2. Jay Guin says:


    First, when I read your comment, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” was playing on iTunes, which is just too cool. The song fits very well. She struggles with the same question: the romanticized ideal of love vs. the hard reality of love. Her conclusion: “I really don’t know life at all.” Christians have, I think, a better answer, but that’s a good place to start.

    I think the path to success is indirect. Somewhere in there is a moment of realizing “I can’t do this. I have to give it over to God.” That’s not the end but the true beginning.

    When we give it to God, then we realize that we’re not accountable for results but for faithfulness. We do the right thing no matter what. And that means God may give success in dramatically unexpected ways or times. Or God may choose to redeem the mess we’ve made of things. Or God may take it away and give us something else we didn’t even ask for. But we don’t tell God how to solve the problem. Our role is faithfulness.

    I’ve had the great pleasure of spending a few hours this weekend with a couple who’ve successfully struggled through a failed marriage to create — by God’s power — an incredible marriage. How did they do it? Well, first they failed. Then they plugged away, barely surviving, but committing themselves body and soul to being faithful to God and therefore to each other. And then — slowly and painfully — God reshaped them and their marriage — and now they’re in a place most of us can only dream of.

    Indeed, they’re pretty close to the romanticized, unreal, soul-mate kind of marriage couples dream of. But they got there by going through hell — with God beside them all along.

    So that may not answer your question at all, but at least you had some good background music along the way. And I’ll buy your lunch to discuss it more detail. I’m in the mood for 6 dollar burger.

  3. I get the struggle, Adam. More often than we think, I believe the Spirit gives us insight into what He is doing in the church, what Jesus’ intentions are for us as a community. I have seen much of this and have been disappointed in my lack of capacity to bring it about. I am discovering that, counter-intuitively, selling out to that vision never seems to bring it to pass. I think this may be because God’s priority is to reconcile men to himself, and then to create in us the character of Jesus. The progress of the latter brings about the kinds of community which God desires for us. We cannot merely tip our caps to the personal transformation and then set our hearts on the corporate transformation. The latter springs from the former.

    “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood, and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” –Antoine de Saint-Exupery

  4. Matt Lee says:

    I don’t know whether this is appropriate or not, but as you refer to Roman 14 a lot in your writings I thought I’d let you know about it. Tonight our minister, Brother Jim Hays, preached and amazing lesson on Romans 14 (thru 15:7). The audio is available at this link if you or anyone else is interested in listening:

    I’ve really appreciated what you’ve had to say after finding your blog just a few weeks ago. Thanks for all you do.

  5. eric says:

    This reminds me of something C.S Lewis wrote. We see a miracle when Jesus turned water to wine in an instant, but we somehow miss the miracle of God turning the rain and dirt and a seed over time into a vine that produces grapes that people pick and crush and ferment and so on. God has been changing us since there was an us over life times. I know there are the Saul to Paul miracles, though it seems most people are like me. It seems like it’s taking forever to remake me. I have hope in community where others are still working on it and still being worked on.

  6. Todd Collier says:

    Adam, I live where you live. We have this God given dream for the Kingdom and yet at every turn we find heartache and frustration – sometimes because of our own weaknesses, sometimes because of the brokenness or stubbornness of others. The only comfort is in knowing that all God’s servants in every place and time have felt the same pain – except for Jonah and that guy was just freaking weird.

    I get so much comfort from the Scriptures – the prophets are a litany of successful failures. Paul displays a good bit of our feelings – “Everybody has deserted me…” Even Jesus felt the sting of rejection. But our God is a god Who credits those who try and leave it all on the battlefield as being victors.

    At the end of the day we are successful if from calloused knees and broken hearts we can simply say “I am innocent of the blood of all men.”

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