August 25, 2014

Holding one's tongue, practicing meekness

For other posts in this series on the book Life Together, click a number: 12345, 6, 89.

In chapter 4, Bonhoeffer addresses the topic of ministry within Christian community. He begins by noting an evil that quickly arises in community: a spirit of competitive, self-justifying judgmentalism. It arose early on among Jesus' own disciples: "There arose a reasoning among them, which of them should be the greatest" (Luke 9:46). Because this spirit quickly destroys fellowship, "It is vitally necessary that every Christian community... face this dangerous enemy squarely, and eradicate it (p90). But how? Bonhoeffer suggests several remedies, all related to spiritual disciplines that help us minister (serve) in truly Christ-like ways. We'll cover two of these disciplines this time and more later.

1. The discipline of holding one's tongue


According to Bonhoeffer, an important and effective antidote for the insidious poison of self-justifying judgmentalism is to hold one's tongue: 
....The spirit of self-justification can be overcome only by the Spirit of grace; nevertheless, isolated thoughts of judgment can be curbed and smothered by never allowing them the right to be uttered, except as a confession of sin.... He who holds his tongue in check controls both mind and body (James 3:2ff). Thus it must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him... To speak about a brother covertly is forbidden, even under the cloak of help and good will; for it is precisely in this guise that the spirit of hatred among brothers always creeps in when in it seeking to create mischief" (pp91-92).
Bonhoeffer notes James' related admonition:
Speak no evil one of another brethren, He that speaketh evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law; but if thou judge the law, thou are not a doer of the law, but a judge. There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who are thou that judgest another? (James 4:11-12).
And then he quotes Paul:
Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers" (Ephesians 4:29). 
Bonhoeffer comments:
Where this discipline of the tongue is practiced right from the beginning, each individual will make a matchless discovery. He will be able to cease from constantly scrutinizing the other person, judging him, condemning him, putting him in his particular place where he can gain ascendancy over him and thus doing violence to him as a person. Now he can allow the brother to exist as a completely free person, as God made him to be. His view expands and, to his amazement, for the first time he sees, shining above his brethren, the richness of God's creative glory. God did not make this person as I would have made him. He did not give him to me as a brother for me to dominate and control, but in order that I might find above him the Creator. Now the other person, in the freedom with which he was created, becomes the occasion of joy, whereas before he was only a nuisance and an affliction. God does not will that I should fashion the other person according to the image that seems good to me, that is, in my own image; rather in his very freedom from me God made this person in His image. I can never know beforehand how God's image should appear in others. That image always manifests a completely new and unique form that comes solely from God's free and sovereign creation. To me that sight may seem strange, even ungodly. But God creates every man in the likeness of His Son, the Crucified. After all, even that image certainly looked strange and ungodly to me before I grasped it (p93).  
Rather than looking down on others because they are different, we should rejoice in the diversity that God has placed within our faith community, and make a place for each to serve:
Each member of the community is given his particular place, but this is no longer the place in which he can most successfully assert himself, but the place where he can best perform his service (pp93-94).

2. The discipline of practicing meekness


Leadership and other forms of service within the church is not about position or "the use of domination and force" (p94). Rather it's about serving others with grace, in meekness. To be a true servant of the fellowship requires first learning to think little of oneself. As Paul said, let no man "think of himself more highly than he ought to think" (Romans 12:3). On that point, Bonhoeffer quotes Thomas a Kempis:
This is the highest and most profitable lesson, truly to know and to despise ourselves. To have no opinion of ourselves, and to think always well and highly of others, is great wisdom and perfection.
Bonhoeffer then comments:
Only he who lives by the forgiveness of his sin in Jesus Christ will rightly think little of himself. He will know that his own wisdom reached the end of its tether when Jesus forgave him.... Because the Christian can no longer fancy that he is wise he will also have no high opinion of his own schemes and plans. He will know that it is good for his own will to be broken in the encounter with his neighbor. He will be ready to consider his neighbor's will more important and urgen that his own. What does it matter if our own plans are frustrated? Is it not better to serve our neighbor than to have our own way? (pp94-95).
But if everyone in the community exemplified this attitude of meekness, how would the word of God ever be declared in power? How would authority be administered within the community? These are meaningful questions, and we'll address them next time when we'll continue discussing the topic of ministry in Christian community.

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