The church is a spiritual reality

For other posts in this series on the book Life Togetherclick a number: 1, 245, 6789.


While writing this series on Bonhoeffer's book, Life Together, I've been reading Strange Glory, a life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh, who provides important historical context. He shows how Bonhoeffer wrestled to grasp the essential nature of the church in the face of what the Nazis were doing to co-opt the German-Lutheran Church into its evil schemes. Sadly, many bishops and pastors cooperated. Theirs was a badly misguided view of the essential nature of the church.

Through his experiences in Nazi Germany and elsewhere (including exposure to the Black-African church in America), Bonhoeffer came to understand that the church is a spiritual, rather than a psychic (human/experiential) reality. He learned that the church is "created...by the Holy Spirit," with its basis being "the clear, manifest Word of God in Jesus Christ." In contrast, the basis of humanly-devised forms of church is "the dark, turbid urges and desires of the human mind" (p31, Life Together).

Of course, that darkness was evident in the actions of the Nazis. But sometimes it takes great darkness for Christ's light to be seen in its full glory (1 John 2:8; 2 Cor. 4:6). According to Bonhoeffer, community of the Spirit is characterized by "the bright love of brotherly service, agape," whereas human community is characterized by eros love, where there is a "disordered desire for pleasure" and the "haughty subjection of a brother to one's own desire." Leaders of such community rely on human powers, such as charisma. But leaders of spiritual community are servants who rely on the Word of God alone (see p32).

It is a sad reality that, in the church, well-intentioned, even devout leaders, sometimes work in ways that dethrone the Spirit and thus the Word of God--bringing into the church "psychological techniques and methods" by which leaders gain for themselves admiration, love and even the fear of those they lead. As a result, "the superior power of one person is consciously or unconsciously misused to influence profoundly and draw into his spell another individual or a whole community." This then results in conversion to the leader rather than conversion to Christ (p33). In such churches, despite momentary appearances to the contrary, there is no true stability, no long-lasting spiritual community, no real life together.

The unfortunate, misguided substitution of psychic/human reality for spiritual reality brings about a church where leaders rely on "human love...directed to the other person for [the leader's] own sake." In contrast, the leader within a truly spiritual community "loves [others] for Christ's sake." In the end, "human love" is mere eros--mere fleshly desire, that has "little regard for truth"--it's a 'love' that can quickly change into hatred and even terrible brutality (p34). In contrast, "spiritual desire" is true agape love that comes from Christ by the Spirit. Such love "does not desire, but serves" (p35), going so far as to love one's enemy as a brother. That sort of love...
Originates neither in the brother nor in the enemy, but in Christ and his Word. Human love can never understand spiritual love, for spiritual love is from above; it is something completely strange, new, and incomprehensible to all earthly love.
Because Christ stands between me and others [as the one Mediator], I dare not desire direct fellowship with them. As only Christ can speak to me in such a way that I may be saved, so others, too, can be saved only by Christ himself. This means that I must release the other person from every attempt of mine to regulate, coerce, and dominate him with my love. The other person needs to retain his independence of me; to be loved for what he is, as one for whom Christ became man, died, and rose again, for whom Christ bought forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Because Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christ's; I must meet him only as the person that he already is in Christ's eyes. This is the meaning of the proposition that we can meet others only through the mediation of Christ. Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become. It takes the life of the other person into his own hands. Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men. 
Therefore, spiritual love proves itself in that everything it says and does commends Christ. It will not seek to move others by all too personal, direct influence, by impure interference in the life of another. It will not take pleasure in pious, human fervor and excitement. It will rather meet the other person with the clear Word of God and be ready to release him alone with this Word for a long time, willing to release him again in order that Christ may deal with him. It will respect the line that has been drawn between him and us by Christ, and it will find full fellowship with him in the Christ who alone binds us together. Thus this spiritual love will speak to Christ about a brother more than to a brother about Christ. It knows that the most direct way to others is always through prayer to Christ, and that love of others is wholly dependent upon the truth in Christ (pp35-37).

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