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Why a Real Church Is Better Than Any Ideal

Written By Gabe Coyle

There are some books you should not just read twice. Some books need to become like good friends. Good friends get together not to “have” something new, but rather, you find their familiarity and wisdom a means of holy “being. Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer is that kind of friend. 

In a world where it’s more in vogue to dislike the church because of her failures to measure up to who she ought to be, Bonhoeffer keeps our eyes set firmly on the only place we can belong: a real church. As someone who died for his confession of faith and saw the community of Jesus to be vibrantly different from the powers of the day, we have a lot to learn from this theological giant. Nowhere has Bonhoeffer been more precise and timeless on genuine church community than in Life Together

Bonhoeffer’s Real Church

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes what a robust Christian community looks like as they grow together in Christlikeness. These insights were refined in 1935 when Bonhoeffer chose to live a “common life in emergency-built houses,” with twenty-five vicars. Out of this experience, Bonhoeffer invites us to “consider a number of directions and precepts that the Scriptures provide us for our life together under the Word.” In my own pastoral vocation, I needed to see afresh through Bonhoeffer’s unapologetic, poetic framing why the church is indeed different from any other institution, and how she is made different through the presence of the Word. 

Not Ideal, But Real

In his opening chapter entitled Community, Bonhoeffer first penetrates our expectations of what life together as Christians is like and what keeps us tethered together. While the Christian lot is to live in a world antagonistic to our faith, it’s one of God’s great graces that we get to live alongside other Christians. While this is indeed a grace, it has never been easy, and Bonhoeffer will not tolerate idealism of any sort. Idealistic visions of the real church community ultimately lead to accusations that the whole community, including God at the center of that community, is a failure. 

Bonhoeffer brilliantly notices the distinction between intent and impact when idealism guides a community. We can be so in love with a dream of a certain kind of community that even though we have all the best intentions in the world, the impact is that we can become “a destroyer” of the real church community in front of us.

I frequently wrestle with idealism in my pastoral vocation. When I read the biblical vision of what the church will be one day in the book of Revelation, I hunger and thirst for the full arrival of that kind of diverse and unified communion now. I know the problem is not in desire but in timing. The real people in front of me have not arrived, and neither have I. The real church today, due to the continuing presence of sin and brokenness which God himself will finally drive out, is less diverse, less healthy, less loving, and less mature than the completed versions of ourselves. This is how it appropriately is in the journey of salvation. To miss this is to misunderstand pastoral ministry, and yet, I confess I frequently fail to love the real in my pining for the ideal. 

Not Merely Human, But Divine

Bonhoeffer then moves to explain how a true Christian community lives and has its being by the power of the Holy Spirit and not by the mere natural desires of humans for community. While all humans desire to have community, when the Spirit creates community it is not merely for others’ sake. If it is merely to meet a need of having others in your life, then this is an idolatry, which will stifle the quality of life and resilience of that community. Whereas when the Spirit creates a community it is for Christ’s sake; this end, and only this end, is where integral, radically inclusive life resides. 

Throughout Life Together, Bonhoeffer expands our categories for the mediatorial role of Christ in how we are shaped as a community. In the pietistic circles in which I grew up and am grateful for, I often heard preaching on the astounding importance of Christ’s vertical mediatorial role between God and humanity, but the mystical avenue in which Christ mediates relationships now with other followers of Jesus challenged me to “speak to Christ about a brother more than to a brother about Christ.” Until recently, I had not recognized the gift—yes, the gift—of how God limits immediate access to another human being. Bonhoeffer paints a picture of Jesus standing between us, shaping how we see, talk, relate, and love one another through him, and so Christ’s grace and patience holds us together. 

Where this appears to be especially potent is in the prominent conversation around spiritual abuse in pastoral circles. So many spiritual leaders are seeking immediate access to others and longing to control, coerce, and manipulate others through force. When I sense this urge in my own life, this has given me a better imaginative frame for submitting my desires for that person to Christ. When Christ stands between us, and we go to him more than to our sister or brother, we relinquish control. We trust the Spirit that called us together in Christ to work with each of us through Christ. 

Not Just Confessional, But Representative

Bonhoeffer does not merely highlight the mediatorial role of Christ between the members of a Christian community, he also highlights how the church community has an important representational role of Christ toward each other. This representational role is exemplified when Bonhoeffer points to the central role of confession in the church. 

Loneliness is a human problem that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Psychologists are continuing to notice alarming trends of depression due to the exclusion of the human community, but the loneliness experienced because of hidden sin is a kind of loneliness rarely mentioned in these studies. When the Spirit creates a community for Christ’s sake, we are called into lifegiving discomfort by confessing our sin to a sister or brother, and here the church represents Christ in a powerful way. 

Bonhoeffer provides ways to make confession concrete with steps for going to a particular person, with a particular sin, and so, we can experience clarity around our assurance and victory, but when we confess to a brother or sister, what I often overlook is how it combats our loneliness. If we confess when we’d rather not due to any number of reasons, we find that we are “never alone again, anywhere.” This is the power of the gospel.  

God Is Here

To be clear, Bonhoeffer is not promoting a mere human community. Rather it is Christ’s presence demonstrated by other followers of Jesus. Bonhoeffer says, “When I go to my brother to confess, I am going to God.” Nothing can make us feel so “utterly alone” like hidden sin, which naturally causes us to hide our full selves from others or our motivations from ourselves, but it is our sisters and brothers who bear with us through Christ, listening to our confessions as Christ, who also declare forgiveness to us in the words of Christ. This is the real church founded and formed by Christ: a church fumbling along in the real world, bearing with one another and confessing to one another in Christ. This is the church we need. This is the church I need, because this is where Christ is.

Being with Bonhoeffer and the Real Church

And so, if you need a book to better understand a lost perspective of the church, if you yourself, have lost interest in the church, if you have been enticed by the ideal church such that you can no longer attend/stand/stomach/imagine a real church, Bonhoeffer’s theological vision and biblical wisdom may be a helpful mentor. Add him as a conversation partner as you enter the new year. You may find a love for the church, and so Christ, afresh. 

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