Differences among the brethren

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together changed my thinking about Christian community at a fundamental level. You can read what I wrote about it here, here, and here. One of the most important things that Bonhoeffer taught me was that the distinctives that Christians treasure so highly are exactly the things that poison community at its root—because Christians are tempted to treasure those distinctions more highly than they do their bond in Christ with brothers who disagree with them.

I first read Life Together after many years spent in an atmosphere where the highest form of piety was to study, elaborate, and refine the many subtle points of disagreement one had with other Christians, so Bonhoeffer’s assertion hit me like a sledgehammer. But not only was it clear to me that he was right, it explained to me why what I saw as a diligent search for like-mindedness had actually led to progressive alienation from the larger Christian community.

No matter how promising a new relationship looked, no matter how much there was in common at the beginning, some difference would eventually emerge that we didn’t know how do deal with. It never occurred to us that the next step, as Bonhoeffer would have it, was not to eliminate that difference but to transcend it, for the sake of our common bond in Christ.

Easy to grasp, maybe, but very hard to translate into the practical matters of everyday life. Nobody I know is more skilled at this than Dave Black, who moves comfortably among Christians of all stripes without compromising his Dave-ness in any way. I’d been reading Brother Dave’s weblog for a long time before I read Life Together, and Bonhoeffer helped me understand many aspects of Dave’s thinking that until then had simply passed me by. Since then Dave’s writing has given me an ever deeper understanding of the possibilities and responsibilities of Christian community, all of it reinforcing Bonhoeffer’s message.

I was inspired to write this after reading this recent post on Dave’s weblog (scroll down to Thursday, November 20, 5:42am), which taught me something about transcending differences without resolving them:

I woke up at 5:30 this morning with this thought. What does the kingdom look like? It looks just like Jesus. It doesn’t look like you, or me, or anyone else. But the more you and I begin to look like Jesus, the more we begin to look like the kingdom. Our priorities become kingdom priorities. Secondary matters don’t matter so much to us any more.

O, we still have our convictions about home schooling and elder-led congregationalism, etc. But we don’t fuss and fight over them. We take Paul literally: "Let each man be convinced in his own mind." These have become matters of personal conviction to us.

Now, this is no excuse for sloppy thinking. Paul’s word means "be fully convinced." But we can give grace to those with whom we disagree. Grey matters are now grace matters to us. What matters is the kingdom, the scandalous way of Jesus, the Savior who loves losers like us. We pledge allegiance to the cross. We fly the banner of love. And we are — if you can believe this! — even willing to make genuine sacrifices for the sake of this kingdom, a kingdom that transcends culture, tribe, and even nationality (this means no more bumper stickers that say "jesUSAves").

Can I get an Amen?

Amen, Brother Dave.


4 thoughts on “Differences among the brethren

  1. Amazing…I just ordered this book today, before I read your post. I’m very much looking forward to reading it. We have been learning to live this way in a small part in our dear little church, and I am very glad God put us here.

    Life in a real family is full of conflict and reconciliation (hopefully), and the need to be patient and forgiving and learning to live with all sorts of personalities. Why should church be any different?

  2. Oh my goodness, how I needed to hear this today. God has brought me so far in the last year as far as learning what are personal convictions, and not matters of salvation. Yes, if we could all only concentrate on looking like Jesus – how different our world would be!

  3. I agree with the sentiment of this post, but I’m not sure how well that works out in reality. I think it is true that as believers we let way to much minutia get between ourselves and others. The problems come in at where we draw the line, and unfortunately, draw the line we must. Convictions about homeschooling and elder-led congregations are one thing, but what do we do with those whose soteriological views vary from ours in significant ways. I might, as an individual believer, be content to let God sort out the details in the lives of those I believe to have biblically incorrect views on what it means and requires to be a believer, but I would be loathe to condone those beliefs even tacitly by not distinguishing myself from them in some way. Disassociating from those with false doctrine has biblical precedent, our problem is in defining first what is truly doctrine, and secondly, what is false. Unfortunately, as you point out, our first inclination on these matters seems to be to look to the details for ways to seperate, when perhaps separation should be seen as a last resort. Not to be a stick in the mud, but I suspect one reason for the “separate first and ask questions later attitude” so prevalent in our society of believers has to do with the fact that we, even as believers, don’t need each other. I would speculate that if times ever get hard for believers in this country, as in a deliberate persecution of some degree, we’d see a lot less divisiveness than we currently enjoy.

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