5 Must-Read Statements on the Church

It’s no secret that one of my favorite theologians of all time is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His book Life Together is, in my opinion, the best book written on the nature of true community in the church. It is a must-read for many reasons, but one of the most important is the way that Bonhoeffer directly deals with something all of us face with the church: disillusionment. If you have not experienced disillusionment at some point in your involvement with the church, then you probably have not been that involved. At a time when people struggled with living their faith individually and together, when the church was rent apart by conflicting allegiances and hypocrisy, Bonhoeffer stepped forward to train young pastors to serve Christ’s church.

Here are 5 must-read statements on the Church by Bonhoeffer from Life Together. I hope you find them as challenging and encouraging as I have over the years:

  • “Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves. By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world.” [26-27]
  • “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 ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.” [27]
  • “Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together – the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.” [28]
  • “If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is not great experience, not discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.” [29]
  • “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….Let him pray God for an understanding of his own failure and his particular sin, and pray that he may not wrong his brethren. Let him, in consciousness of his own guilt, make intercession for his brethren.” [29-30]

[These quotations are taken from John W. Doberstein’s classic translation of Life Together. A more recent translation with thorough annotations and a helpful introduction is found in Volume 5 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works.]

The Baffling Church by Carlo Carretto

Crying in Church

How baffling you are, oh, Church, and yet how I love you!

How you have made me suffer, and yet how much I owe you.

I should like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence.

You have given me so much scandal and yet you have made me understand sanctity.

I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity, more compromised, more false, and I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful. How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face, and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms.

No, I cannot free myself from you, because I am you, although not completely.

And were should I go?

From Carlo Carretto, The God Who Comes

Facing Failings in the Character of the Church

Crying in Church

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:2-3)

If, as Paul writes in Ephesians 2, Christ is our peace, who has reconciled us to the Father, then the calling upon us as God’s people is to walk in humility, gentleness, patience, peace, and love with one another. This will happen as we yield to the Holy Spirit, who is the deposit of our salvation and bond of our peace.

Yet you may say, “But, Matt, the church doesn’t look like that. I see pride, fierceness, impatience, discord, and lack of love at times.” I know. I see it too. When we see that in those around us, it should lead us to deeper humility and intercessory prayer on behalf of our local church and the church around the world. It should also lead us into meaningful conversations with others about areas of deficiency from our calling, not in judgment, but in the desire to grow together.

However, if we only see it in everyone else around us, but never in ourselves, it might be good for us to hold these characteristics up against our own lives for consideration. It might be good to ask: “Am I completely humble? Am I gentle? Patient? Am I bearing with others in love? Am I upholding the bond of peace?”

If we answered “yes” to all those questions, then it’s probably time to let the Holy Spirit bring us into a more honest self-assessment. Not any of us will perfectly live out our faith. As Paul says in Romans 3:10, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” This is not an excuse for sin and brokenness, but it is our reality. The revelation of our shortcomings is painful. Yet, that revelation is also a gift from God to push us back to God in repentance from our own sin and turning in greater reliance upon Him for power to walk worthy of our calling.  It is a return to the heart of justifying faith: “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph 2:8-9).

So let the words of the Apostle lead us into the humility of our human inadequacy and the exaltation of God’s superabundant grace in Christ.