A month ago one of our deacons loaned me the audio version of the book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, the life of the German pastor executed in 1945 for his part in conspiring to assassinate Hitler. This highly acclaimed biography by Eric Metaxas is simply amazing. As a result of listening I acquired a copy of one of Bonhoeffer’s books mentioned in the biography, which I was previously unaware of. It is called Life Together, and is considered by some to be one of the finest treatments of the subject of biblical fellowship in the church. Yesterday, while flying home from the Shepherds’ Conference in Los Angeles, I read the chapter entitled “Community” and was struck by how relevant Bonhoeffer’s comments are for today’s church, which clamors for “community,” but does so in such a way that prideful individualism is exalted.
In the section entitled Not an Ideal, but a Divine Reality the pastoral theologian exposes the spiritual hypocrisy of the so-called Christian who absents himself from the active life of loving accountability in the local church because his church fails to meet up to his expectations. Bonhoeffer accurately exposes this “Christian” as one who loves his “dream of church” (his self-made ideal) instead of humbling himself by choosing the road of selfless love toward fellow sinners in the life of a real church (God’s divine reality). Due to the lack of real Christlike love within him, he chooses the hypocritical life of the demanding “Christian.” By demanding that his church does things his way he chooses the road that is temporarily easier. In doing so, he loses out on the maturing process of love because of refusal to walk the more difficult road of actually living with other believers in Christian unity and humility. As a result, he does more harm than good, which God strongly warns against (1 Cor 3:17). Bonhoeffer says it this way,
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. God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure….Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients.
One massive reason why God’s Word insists that all who claim to be believers in Christ actually live out the reality of submissive fellowship with other Christians in the context of the local family of God is that love is evidence of real life. The command to love one another as proof of genuine faith is abundantly restated (Jn 13:34; Rom 13:8; Gal 5:13; Eph 4:2; 1 Pet 1:22). Additionally, it is impossible to grow in Christlikeness apart from human relationships. Stubborn, prideful “Christians” who refuse to let other people into their lives never mature for two reasons.
First, without being regenerated (born again) by the Holy Spirit there is no power to change, no power to love biblically. Instead, their “love” of others is totally self-centered because they have not been made partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet 1:3). Second, their study, study, and more study leads to the acquisition of biblical knowledge; however, when knowledge is gained outside of the context of loving relationships it only deepens their arrogance (puffs them up, 1 Cor 8:1). Most tragic of all, the arrogance of their “gospel,” which is no gospel at all, inoculates them against the true gospel that alone is the power of God unto salvation (Rom 1:16). These self-deceived “Christians” are ever-learning, but never able to come to saving knowledge of Jesus (2 Tim 3:7; James 1:23-24).
Consequently, one of the clearest marks of a “tare” (Matt 13:38)—an unregenerate member of a Christian community—is that he demands from others that they serve him his way—refusing to truly love others because he is spiritually unable (1 Jn 7-8). Having no genuine spiritual life within himself he must control others, thus creating a false sense of spirituality to replace the bankruptcy that dominates his own heart. This is nothing short of damning Pharisaism. Just as the Pharisees of Jesus’s day hated Him because He possessed what they lacked—the reality of spiritual life—the selfish, demanding tare hates those who possess a love that is so naturally supernatural. This also leaves the moralistic tare frustrated, which results in hatred for true believers instead of love. Hence the biblical warnings to never forsake the assembling of true believers in mutually accountable, serving relationships (Heb 6:4-6; 10:24-26). It is time for us to recognize the church as God’s gracious provision for the “maintenance” of our salvation and sanctification, without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14). It is time to repent of being “demanders” and become “thankful recipients.”
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