Community Disciplines: Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, Part 6

Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our community is in Jesus Christ alone, the more calmly we will learn to think about our community and pray and hope for it.

(p. 38). This is an incredibly powerful observation. We tend to think that unity and community are ideals for which we must strive. In reality, unity and community are accomplished facts — accomplished by the blood of Jesus — and our place is simply to recognize the reality of it.

(Eph 4:1-3 ESV) I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,  2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,  3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Unity is to be maintained, not created. God has already united the household of faith. We just need to accept the reality of God’s gracious work among us.

Bonhoeffer distinguishes between spiritual and self-centered love. It’s not that Christian love is not emotional, but that it is driven by the Spirit and formed by the Word. Self-centered love, a love that comes from the flesh, is about getting and taking.

Self-centered love loves the other for the sake of itself; spiritual love loves the other for the sake of Christ. That is why self-centered love seeks direct contact with other persons. It loves them, not as free persons, but as those whom it binds to itself. It wants to do everything it can to win and conquer; it puts pressure on the other person. It desires to be irresistible, to dominate.

(p. 42). Self-centered love is about winning, about getting one’s own way. Those who love this way love those who can be controlled. Those who love this way want a church in which only others are called to submit. Rather than placing themselves on the altar, they demand that others place themselves on the altar to win their love.

You can tell the difference by looking at who has to be sacrificed to please that sort of love. It’s always someone else.

Of course, in the Churches of Christ these fights are usually couched in doctrinal terms. If I want my style of music and not yours, then rather than directly demanding that you burn yourself up on an altar to me — which would make me and my taste into an idol — I claim that God only approves my style of music or that my style of music is the only one that evidences true love for others because it’s the only style that evidences love for me.

But ultimately, when we think in terms of sacrifice, we see that I’m demanding that others sacrifice for me and that I’m unwilling to make any sacrifice for others. And in so doing, I claim the place of Jesus — indeed, I claim to be higher than Jesus himself, who was, after all, willing to sacrifice himself. I make myself an idol.

The sign of true, Christian love is a keen, close-to-the-surface awareness of the cost of what is being asked and willingness to sacrifice self to relieve the suffering of others. If I beg for newer forms of music for the sake of lost, all the while well aware of the pain that request imposes on others, agonizing over the choice between failing to bring in the lost and hurting my beloved brothers and sisters, then I’m on the right path. If I long ago surrendered my own taste in music because I’d rather give pleasure to the younger, the older, or the newer members, then I’m on the right path. After all, I can’t ask for a sacrifice that I’m unwilling to make myself.

Bonhoeffer wisely says,

Emotional, self-centered love cannot tolerate the dissolution of a community that has become false, even for the sake of genuine community. And such self-centered love cannot love an enemy, that is to say, one who seriously and stubbornly resists it.

(p. 43). Again, we can test true love versus selfish love by how it reacts to resistance. Does it meet resistance with slander? Gossip? Viciousness? Or does it meet resistance with patience, gentleness, and love?

You see, the love that comes from the Spirit uses the tactics of the Spirit —

(Gal 5:22b-23a ESV) love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control

But the love that comes from selfishness uses the tactics of the flesh —

(Gal 5:20b-21a ESV) enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy

It’s not complicated. It’s not just about maturity or immaturity. After all, if I begin with an attitude of submission and sacrifice, if it’s not about me, and so it’s not about my winning, then I have no reason to be a divider or to gossip or slander my brothers.

But if it’s all about me and my taste and my preferences — my insistence that others sacrifice for me — then of course I’ll be the sort of person who will stoop to all sorts of wickedness to get my way — and I’ll even do it in the name of Jesus.

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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9 Responses to Community Disciplines: Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, Part 6

  1. Mike says:

    I am also amazed at Bonhoeffer’s thoughts and statements regarding confession. In his book, Life Together, he says that confessing our sins to God alone will not break the bondage of sin (powerful addictions, etc…) but only when we confess to another human being. Shining light in the darkness of our lives brings freedom from the control and the power that sin has in our lives. Personal experience has also taught me that Bonhoeffer was “dead on” in the power of confessing to community (one another…and it should be a trusted brother/sister). Unity is brought in our own lives when we become free through confession.

  2. David P Himes says:

    Personally, I think this post is at the root of living as Christ. Selfless love v selfish love. In my personal ministry to married couples, it is almost always the point on which struggles hinge.

    Recently, I’ve begun highlighting that loving as Jesus loved is almost always inconvenient — which is in stark contrast with the general direction of our whole culture, since it puts personal convenience among the highest goals of daily living.

  3. Bob Brandon says:

    Putting others ahead of yourself has always been swimming against the current of our own interests.

  4. Skip says:

    Certainly because of the blood of Christ “We are all one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28) but from God’s perspective we should “Make every effort to be united” (Ephesians 4:3). Thus positional unity is achieved but practical unity is a battle as evidenced by the many “OneInJesus” diverse opinions.

  5. laymond says:

    “This is an incredibly powerful observation. We tend to think that unity and community are ideals for which we must strive. In reality, unity and community are accomplished facts — accomplished by the blood of Jesus — and our place is simply to recognize the reality of it.”

    Not very much of what Jesus request of his followers, comes naturally to most people. I believe that is the reason Jesus calls life a cross to bear.

    “Self-centered love loves the other for the sake of itself; ”

    In my observation in the churches I have attended the “self-centered love” seems evident, even in the smaller congregations. They enter the building from a different world, and they sit in a different section. I actually heard one of the more affluent matrons say to another of her class, those people are pushy. speaking of the less affluent who thought it was OK to sit and talk to those who had more of God’s blessing than they. ( as far as I could tell the less affluent was confiding in the more affluent, some of the problems in her life) I could not just mark it up to ignorance and say nothing, so I didn’t. I told the ladies who were upset, “you are right the wrong people are being pushy, you should be trying to push your way into their life, since you are the long time member here. They didn’t seem to get it or care, and many don’t. They don’t mind shaking hands and looking as if they care, just don’t try to invade “my world”.

  6. Knowing who we are in Christ– in this instance, a community, a house, a body– is one of the two fundamental realities upon which all of Christianity is established. The other is knowing just who Jesus Christ is.

    One reason some of our problems are so intractable is that they reflect foundations of our faith which are something less. Often, such improper foundations are quite well-intentioned: a desire to be holy and to eschew sin, an effort to know the will of God, a desire for– as some of my brothers put it– “precision obedience”, that we may find ourselves dead-center in the will of God in any particular action, or an effort to combat and prevent the spread of heresy. But when we have built the house upon such sandy spots rather than upon that singular Cornerstone, the resulting structure constantly wobbles and shifts, and cracks appear in the walls. We find ourselves in a lifetime plastering project, patching these cracks or covering them with wallpaper, while other cracks develop in other spots. Then, unfortunately, we spend a lot of time pointing out the cracks in the house across the street while our neighbor gladly returns the favor.

    Community is one of those things which believers often build on lesser foundations: foundations of doctrinal agreement, of cultural homogeneity, of tradition, of mission, of style. All of these can form the basis for commonality, but none are sufficient to reveal the reality of the community which is the body of Christ.

  7. Jerry says:

    It’s amazing that all of the comments are in agreement for a change. I’ll add my hearty AMEN to all that has been said. Even though it hits home at me.

  8. Chris Pierson says:

    I like the concept that Spirit led community is not something we have to figure out or force or create, but rather something we must learn to walk in or keep step with. It takes the pressure off us to do it all right and invites us all to be pilgrims learning to walk together with/in Him. Much better than they we have to have everything “right” focus that made my early experiences of fellowship very shallow and fearful.

  9. Mike says:

    Quote from the movie, Seven Days in Utopia, “I have a respect for tradition, but a passion for the truth.” My first love is to GOD and then for my fellow man. The selfless love we are called to have for others is so counter culture that it must be truth! The psychological truth of loving myself (love neighbor as self) determines how I love and treat others. Rudeness and inconsiderate behavior toward others reflects how I feel about myself and reveals my lack of loving self. Accepting my self because GOD has accepted me in Christ (Rom. 15:7).

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