Ministries of the Word and Authority

For other posts in this series on the book Life Together, click a number: 123456, 7, 9.

The previous post in this series noted Bonhoeffer's call for the practice of meekness as essential to the health of a faith community. He goes on to discuss the related practices of listening to one another (Christians, particularly Christian leaders, too often speak before listening, p97), helping one another, and bearing one another's burdens--including one another's sins though the practice of unconditional forgiveness (p102).

The Ministry of the Word

When these ministries of grace are in place, "the ultimate and highest service can also be rendered, namely, the ministry of the Word of God to others." Because this ministry is often abused within the church, Bonhoeffer gives this warning:
[Speaking the Word is] that unique situation in which one person bears witness in human words to another person, bespeaking the whole consolation of God, the admonition, the kindness, and the severity of God. The speaking of that Word is beset with infinite perils. If it is not accompanied by worthy listening, how can it really be the right word for the other person? If it is contradicted by one's own lack of active helpfulness, how can it be a convincing and sincere word? If it issues, not from a spirit of bearing and forbearing, but from impatience and the desire to force its acceptance how can it be the liberating healing word? (pp103-104)
Ironically, as we listen, serve and bear with one another, few words will likely be needed. Indeed, the discipline of holding one's tongue often is what is needed most. Bonhoeffer comments: "[Having] a profound distrust of everything that is merely verbal often [appropriately] causes a person's word to a brother to be suppressed" (p104). But doing so is hard for preachers, who are professional speakers! It's also hard for those who are inclined to dominate verbally.

The Ministry of Authority

With those thoughts in mind, Bonhoeffer goes on to address the topic of authority within the church. He begins with a quote from Jesus, the living Word of God who bore all the authority of the universe: "Whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister" (Mark 10:43, KJV). He then goes on to make a lengthy and vital comment:
Jesus made authority in the fellowship dependent upon brotherly service. Genuine spiritual authority is to be found only where the ministry of hearing, helping, bearing, and proclaiming is carried out. Every cult of personality that emphasizes the distinguished qualities, virtues, and talents of another person, even thought these be an altogether spiritual nature, is worldly and has no place in the Christian community, indeed, it poisons the Christian community. The desire we so often hear expressed today for "episcopal figures," "p[priestly men," "authoritative personalities" springs frequently enough from a spiritually sick need for the admiration of men, for the establishment of visible human authority, because the genuine authority of service appears to be so unimpressive. There is nothing that so sharply contradicts such a desire as the New Testament itself in its description of a bishop (1 Tim. 3:1ff). One finds there nothing whatsoever with respect to worldly charm and the brilliant attributes of a spiritual personality. The bishop is the simple, faithful man, sound in faith and life, who rightly discharges his duties to the Church. His authority lies in the exercise of his ministry. In the man himself there is nothing to admire.  
...Genuine authority realizes that it can exist only in the service of Him who alone has authority. Genuine authority knows that it is bound in the strictest sense by the saying of Jesus: "One is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren" (Matthew 23:8, KJV). The Church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren... The church will place its confidence only in the simple servant of the Word of Jesus Christ because it knows that then it will be guided, not according to human wisdom and human conceit, but by the word of the Good Shepherd. 
The question of trust, which is so closely related to that of authority, is determined by the faithfulness with which a man serves Jesus Christ, never by the extraordinary talents which he possesses. Pastoral authority can be attained only by the servant of Jesus who seeks no power of his own, who himself is a brother among brothers submitted to the authority of the Word (pp108-109).
 May all of us who bear authority within the body of Christ heed these words of wisdom!