“Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
I am re-reading “Life Together” by the early 20th century pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer for my cohort studying spiritual community and its role in the spiritual formation of its members. (Side note for those who care: I own the HarperSanFrancisco edition from 1954, translated by John W. Doberstein.)
I read this book several times in college and remember elements of the book (e.g., what this Protestant has to say about the practice of confession). However, in my early 20s, the book mostly felt irrelevant; I just didn’t get it.
How things have changed! Fifteen years later, five years into my vocation, this little book is kicking my pastoral hiney! In the very first chapter, Bonhoeffer challenges our image of Christian community as an ideal rather than a divine reality. And the divine reality is far from ideal. In fact, Bonhoeffer argues that only when our dreams and hopes about Christian community are shattered are we able to receive and live into the kind of community God builds in Jesus Christ.
This community built in Christ is messy, imperfect, not based on any human expectations. Rather than trying to shape the community according to our “wish dreams,” we practice gratitude, thanking God for what is and for who we are becoming in Christ. Bonhoeffer has no patience for complainers, and he is particularly hard on pastors:
“A pastor should not complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men. When a person becomes alienated from a Christian community in which he has been placed and begins to raise complaints about it, he had better examine himself first to see whether the trouble is not due to his wish dream that should be shattered by God; and if this be the case, let him thank God for leading him into this predicament.”
I’m both convicted and troubled by the strength of Bonhoeffer’s words. In my context, which is relatively healthy, it’s a good word to take care not to accuse the congregation before God. Sometimes we need our illusions thrown to the ground in order to embrace what is.
However, I have pastor colleagues who I deeply respect trying to lead toxic communities, and it has not only shattered illusions but broken their spirits. Often these communities accuse the pastor, not only before God but to one another. I do stand in judgment and accusation before God against these churches. Is complaining about what is hurting us always unhealthy or unhelpful? Could these words from Bonhoeffer increase feelings of guilt for pastors struggling or who have been accused? How do we let his words convict us without breaking us?
One possible answer: Much research has been done about the importance of clergy participating in colleague groups – safe places to learn and grow with other clergy. Could these mini spiritual communities also be a safe place for confession? A place for clergy to complain or accuse and then also be challenged to examine how they may contribute to the messiness of the community? How might this mini practice of community shape the congregations in which these pastors serve?
- If you’re a pastor, when have you been tempted to be your congregation’s accuser? Is complaining about the community in which you’re planted always bad?
- If you’re a member of a Christian community (like a congregation) but not a pastor, how have you been tempted to accuse your community? When your illusions about a community have been shattered, what have you done in response?
Have you ever experienced being in a community (like a congregation or small group) that survived a season of disillusionment? How did you move beyond your disappointed expectations? What was the result?
Rachel Young is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.