During our Sunday morning gatherings I am currently in the middle of a series of messages focusing on what it is to be the Church in our day and age. Over the past two weeks we have looked at how the church is to be loved because Jesus loves it, and how being part of the church is not an option, but an integral part of what it means to be saved.
On both occasions I’ve quoted from one of my heroes Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian and participant in the German resistance movement against Nazism. Right from the beginning he was an opponent. Just two days after Hitler was installed as Chancellor he criticised him in a radio broadcast warning Germany against slipping into cult worship of its leader. He was also the first and virtually only person from the church who resisted Hitler’s systematic genocide of the Jews. He died a martyr, executed on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before the prison where he was held captive was liberated.
Bonhoeffer’s short book Life Together is an exploration of Church life written during the time when he taught in an illegal underground seminary outlawed by the Nazis. Because it was written at a time when the German church was by and large caught up in idolatry of Nazism, it has profound insights into church life.
In his book he writes, “Every human idealised image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that genuine community can survive. Those who love their dream of Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.”
In other words, we all have an ideal picture of what we believe our church should be like. But our picture, no matter how well informed by the Bible, will only be our picture not God’s. So before we can begin to fully appreciate what the church should be, we need to have our ideas broken down and shattered. If it is not, Bonhoeffer suggests, we will try and impose our picture of what the church should be like upon our church. All that will do is bring conflict and will end up destroying the very community I’m trying to build.
How many people do you know have left the church or criticise it because it hasn’t lived up to their expectations? My guess it is quite a few. These people, Bonhoeffer says, have a picture of what the Church should look like and their criticism is driven by the church’s failure to fulfil that picture. Yet their frustration and embarrassment is fuelled, not by a failure of the church, but their “idealised image” of the church.
We need to learn from this profound insight. Moving on from disappointment, frustration and embarrassment with the church is not easy and many people never recovered from their “great disillusionment.” As a result they remaining hurt, bitter and estranged. But it doesn’t need to be so.
In his book Bonhoeffer goes on to suggest that if you are frustrated with church and are willing to do something about it, then there is something you can do. The best place to start, he suggests, is to choose to love your brothers and sisters, particularly those causing you the most grief or frustration.
Being part of Jesus’ church is not easy. We are thrust into relationship with real, flesh-and-blood fallen people. Some are gentle, mature and lovable saints, but some are hard to live with, socially awkward, high-maintenance and simply difficult. And I’m talking about myself!
Yet there is a point that we all need to come to where we see that those we are criticising are just as messed up as I am, and that I am just as capable of hurting someone as the next person.
Rather than allowing my frustrations, hurts and criticism rule my thoughts and actions I choose to allow the grace of God and the love of God change me and my attitudes. As someone once said, “I haven’t really understood what it is to be part of God’s family until I’m called to love those members of God’s family that I find most difficult.”
So let’s continue to pray that by his grace God will enable us to be the church he desires us to be and that Jesus died for to enable us to become.
Stephen L Baxter