college travels

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Learning from another German... Dietrich Bonhoeffer this time


Have just finished another Queensland trip with first year College students.  Lots went on as usual, but this time I've especially been reflecting on what I've learnt myself about ministry through the whole experience - both from the tour experience of leading a temporary community for 10 days, and my reading (again!) of Bonhoeffer's Life Together.  

I think in the past I've used the language of 'delegated authority' for Christian leaders - Jesus' as Head delegates authority to leaders.  But I suspect that Bonhoeffer would not use the language of delegation, but instead talk of 'mediation' or something similar.  Our task as leaders is to so order the Christian community so that God's people would be led by Jesus and be free to serve Jesus in response.  I need to 'get out of the way' a lot of the time in order to leave God's people to the care and direction of God.  

Bonhoeffer has a challenging section in his first chapter on the difference between spiritual community and human community.  Here's the summary:

Spiritual Reality Human Reality
Basis of reality the clear manifest Word of God in Jesus Christ the dark turbid (muddy, opaque) urges and desires of the human mind
Basis of community Truth Desire
Essence of the community Light (1 John 1:5, 7) Darkness (Mark 7:21)
Fellowship … of those who are called by Christ … of devout souls
Love The bright love of brotherly service, agape The dark love of good and evil desire, eros
Order Ordered, brotherly service Disordered desire for pleasure
Subjection Humble subjection to the brethren Haughty subjection of the brother to one's own desire
Rule Word of God The man who is furnished with exceptional powers, experience and magical suggestive capacities
Binding By the Word of God Men bind others to themselves
Power, honour, dominion Surrendered to the Holy Spirit Personal power and influence is sought and cultivated
Government By the Spirit By psychological techniques and methods
Service Naïve, unpsychological, unmethodological, helping love is extended towards one's brother Psychological analysis and construction
Simple and humble service Searching, calculating analysis of a stranger


Knowing when Life Together was written makes me think of Hitler as the 'man who is furnished with exceptional powers, experience and magical suggestive capacities' who bind's others to himself.  Yet at the same time I'm very conscious of the potential for my own leadership to be aimed at binding people to myself rather than to Jesus.

Bonhoeffer's big point is that in spiritual community there can be 'no immediate relationship of one to the other.'  That is, the only basis of our relationships with each other is the work of Jesus; our relationships as Christians must be 'mediated' by Christ; we are brought together by Jesus, not by a common piety, or a shared interest, or any other human quality, and certainly not by any human power structure with the human leader at the centre.

Therefore, as a Christian leader 'I must release the other person from every attempt of mine to regulate, coerce, and dominate him with my love… I must leave him his freedom to be Christ's.'  It must mean practically that as leaders we're not looking to direct others to obey my own will, but to allow them to be led by Christ and his Word.  It means we will be more concerned to pray for others rather than looking for how we can become their confidante and helper.

In a slightly confusing passage Bonhoeffer asks whether a spiritual community should set aside any human distinctions like family relations or organisational roles (like Principal, lecturer etc)?  Though we might assume that established roles like this could undermine true spiritual community, Bonhoeffer says quite the opposite – that disregarding family and organisational roles will spell the death of a spiritual community.  Instead, a family (or a Bible college) is (or at least should be?) aware of the limitations of their power – a power to structure an environment that frees people to be led by the Word of God, but not a power to take the place of Jesus and his Word.

That's why short retreats (like the one we've taken College students on) can be dangerous – because we come away and may set aside the role distinctions of Loftus.  We can sustain this sort of community for a short time and not notice the influence of the human element in our community.  But then when we get back home and the role relationships kick back in we can feel that true spiritual community is not possible in everyday life.

As usual I'm left feeling challenged by Bonhoeffer's high standard, tired by the demands that this little book places on every part of my life – but then of course, the challenge isn't set before us by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but by Jesus.  

Our final Bible reading at morning prayer this morning was from Galatians 6 and included the verse:  'So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up' (v9).  That's the challenge then – to trust Jesus; to believe that when he calls us to live life in his Kingdom that there's no part of our lives that don't rightly belong to him and shouldn't rightly come under his authority; to trust that when he calls us to live lives of love that he's not setting us up for a fall; to believe that when he promises us life and joy, life in all its fullness, that he's not lying.  So we urged the students this morning to stay the course, to not give up the fight, to finish the race.  

And so that's my prayer for them, for all of us, and for me and my family.

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