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WHILE BONHOEFFER’S CONTEXT OF PERSECUTION IS FAR REMOVED FROM OUR CONTEXT OF SOCIAL DISTANCING AND SELF-ISOLATION, OUR INABILITY TO GATHER PROVIDES US WITH A FRESH LENS TO CONSIDER HIS WORDS.

“It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

As COVID-19 has prevented us from gathering together for worship, I was reminded of Bonhoeffer’s meditations on the value of fellowship.

Bonhoeffer’s classic on Christian community was written during a time when the Confessing Church had been scattered under the Nazi regime. As religious freedom evaporated in Germany, Bonhoeffer trained pastors at an illegal seminary in Finkenwalde. Life Together records many of his thoughts from his time of fellowship there.

While Bonhoeffer’s context of persecution is far removed from our context of social distancing and self-isolation, our inability to gather provides us with a fresh lens to consider his words. 

With that in mind, I invite you to read the excerpts from Life Together below, and I encourage you to read this book in its entirety during these unusual days apart. From these excerpts, following are four precepts. 

1. Every gathering of the local church is a gift of God’s grace.

Bonhoefer writes:

So between the death of Christ and the Last Day it is only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians. It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament.

Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing. They remember, as the Psalmist did, how they went ‘with the multitude . . . to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holyday’ (Ps. 424). (pp19-20)

Whenever we gather together as a church, we receive a gift from our gracious God. Every gathering of the saints provides a taste of the greater reality of heaven, and we look forward to the day when all the saints will be together with our Lord forever.

Consider Hebrews 12:22-24:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Gathering together with our family of faith is a blessing that becomes all the more apparent when the gift is taken away. Let us prize the grace we have been given in our fellowship, and look forward to the day when we can know it again.

2. The scattered look forward with faith.

When we must worship alone, we remember that our union with Christ and our fellowship with the Spirit is not dependent upon our geography. We look to the heavenly fellowship of Hebrews 12:22-24, and know by faith that we worship God with the saints of all the ages.

Those who are unable to enjoy the gift of gathering with brothers and sisters should take heart, for as God gives trials to scattered saints, he refines and reassures his people of their inheritance (1 Pet 1:1-9).

Bonhoeffer writes about those who must worship alone:

But they remain alone in far countries, a scattered seed according to God’s will. Yet what is denied them as an actual experience they seize upon more fervently in faith. Thus the exiled disciple of the Lord, John the Apocalyptist, celebrates in the loneliness of Patmos the heavenly worship with his congregations ‘in the Spirit on the Lord’s day’ (Rev. 1.10). He sees the seven candlesticks, his congregations, the seven stars, the angels of the congregations, and in the midst and above it all the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, in all the splendour of the resurrection. He strengthens and fortifies him by his Word. This is the heavenly fellowship, shared by the exile on the day of his Lord’s resurrection. (p20)

Throughout history, the church’s weekly rhythm has been one of gathering and scattering. We gather on the Lord’s Day to celebrate our risen Lord, and we are scattered throughout the week, carrying the gospel to our workplaces and neighborhoods. We regather the following Lord’s Day, and continue this rhythm of life.

This rhythm of gathering and scattering serves as a parable. As we are scattered during the week, we are reminded that we are in exile. As we are regathered, we are reminded of the future day when all the saints will be gathered to worship the Lord forever.

For as long as the church experiences this prolonged season of being scattered, we must trust the wisdom and will of our Sovereign Lord, and seek all the more to take refuge in his Word. If persecution and suffering does not remove one from the love of God (Rom 8:31-39), neither will social distancing and stay-at-home orders in these days of COVID-19.

3. We experience the love and presence of God through one another in Christ.

Do you feel grief or loneliness in this season? It is right to feel a sense of loss. Two-dimensional fellowship through technology is a gift, as was Paul’s ability to send and receive letters from prison. However, it is innately unsatisfying as we were created to be physically present with one another.

Bonhoeffer elaborates on this as he describes the blessing of physical presence with other believers:

The believer therefore lauds the Creator, the Redeemer, God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for the bodily presence of a brother. The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body; they receive and meet each other as one meets the Lord, in reverence, humility, and joy. They receive each other’s benedictions as the benediction of the Lord Jesus Christ. But if there is so much blessing and joy even in a single encounter of brother with brother, how inexhaustible are the riches that open up for those who by God’s will are privileged to live in the daily fellowship of life with other Christians! (p20)

God’s grace calls us to assemble together to sit under the preaching of the Word, to recognize brothers and sisters through baptism, to confess Christ together at the Lord’s Table, to lift up our voices and sing, and to give and receive ministry within our church family as we are built up to become more like Jesus.

As we assemble together as the body of Christ on the Lord’s Day, we encounter Christ in his Word and in his people. We know the love of Christ through one another as we serve as his hands and feet. Our gatherings are an incredible gift for us to treasure. It is right for us to desire to be face-to-face with each other. Consider the apostles’ great desire to be present with the church (1 Thess 2:18; 3:17, 2 John 12, 3 John 14).

In these days of waiting, many of us will feel the weight of loneliness and the emotions and temptations that accompany feelings of isolation. Let the brokenness of this world lead us to prayer. May we be faithful to pray for one another. May we not be distant with our words, but let us use the communication tools we have to encourage one another.

4. Let us praise God for this grace.

In today’s age of individualism, far too many professing Christians see the gathering of the church as an optional activity, and many others are content with “internet church.” Even for those who are faithful to gather, the weekly blessing of assembling together is easily taken for granted.

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By Gary Thomas

Why Are Christians So Mean?

His answer was up to the task. He said that Christians are mean in proportion to when they value being “right” over being “like Christ.”

It’s not enough to simply believe correct doctrine; as God’s chosen people, we are asked to behave a certain way, particularly as it relates to others: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Col. 3:12-14).

The book of Romans also sets up a high standard for believers, telling us to “be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (12:10), “never be wise in your own sight” (12:16) and keep in mind that “love does no harm to its neighbor” (13:10). No harm. To anyone. So, in our relations with anyone we are to be devoted to their overall welfare, to not be overly confident in our opinion, and to never do anyone any harm. There’s no room here for any “Bible-believing” Christian to be mean.

What a different world this would be if, indeed, we were “devoted” to everyone’s welfare, if we were humble in our own opinions, and committed to not do anyone harm—no gossip, no mean-spirited denunciation, no slander. Doesn’t that sound like a nice world to live in?

The new life of believers envisioned by Paul in Colossians 3 basically prohibits three things: sexual immorality, greed and being mean. Sexual immorality is denounced in many ways and greed with one word: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed” (v. 5).

This denunciation of sexual misconduct is perhaps what the modern church is known for. But in Paul’s way of thinking, we should also be known for not being mean. Being mean is denounced as extensively and vigorously as sexual sin: “But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander and filthy language from your lips” (v. 8).

Put all this together, and Christians aren’t to be involved in any form of sexual abuse, sexual harassment or sexual immorality of any kind, but we are also to shun any aspect of being “mean”: domestic violence, emotional abuse, bosses mistreating subordinates, bullying or ridiculing gays, violent rioting, and social media trolling. Just as the #metoo movement is challenging the notion that “authority” gives someone the right to be predatory, so the Bible teaches us that “right theology” doesn’t give us the right to mistreat others even when we think we are in the “right” and they are in the wrong.

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“The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.”

~. Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together19

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote his classic book, “Life Together”, but most of us know that not everyone in the church will be happy or on board with the direction of the church. Thom Rainer offers wise words below. ~ Bryan

By Thom S. Rainer

In any organization of size, there are likely angry people.

They are unhappy with the organization. They don’t like change. They don’t like the leader.

But here’s the catch: In most organizations, they are a distinct minority. I use the quantifier of ten percent more anecdotally than not, but I would conjecture most organizations, including churches, would have a number close to that.

In churches, I see pastors, again and again, yield to the pressures and criticisms of the ten percent. I get it. I’ve been there and done that. May I suggest some perspectives on this issue? Perspectives are not solutions, but they can help us persevere when the ten percent get really loud.

  • Ten percent can seem like a lot of people. Indeed, if your church has 200 active members, 20 loud critics can seem really loud. Brad Waggoner calls it “the power of negativity.” He says the negative person has a tenfold voice in the organization compared to the neutral and positive people.
  • Realize that the ten percent will take advantage of any forum you give them. They love to speak up in business meetings. They love to be the big voice in listening sessions and surveys. In fact, listening sessions can make the rest of the organization demoralized as the more positive members think the negative people are the norm.
  • The ten percent want you to think there are more of them. They will use phrases like, “Everyone says . . .” or “People are saying . . .” They not only can be negative; they can be downright deceitful.
  • While you want to have open communications, the ten percent will often dominate the rest of the voices in the church. Such is the reason you need to be careful about giving them the platforms and opportunities to spread their negativity.

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I purchased this copy at the Bethel College Bookstore around 1978.

By Andrew Camp

6 Reflections on Community Inspired by Bonhoeffer

My church has recently launched a series on community called Better Together. In conjunction with the sermon series, I, in collaboration with my senior pastor, wrote a small group curriculum to complement the series. I love community, which is why I love small groups. Like many of you, I work hard on our small group system at my church to equip leaders and to help many in my church experience the fullness of community—the good, the bad and the ugly.

However, as I continue to reflect on community and work toward helping others experience community, I constantly find myself drawn back to and challenged by the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his classic work, Life Together. In it, he writes:

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly…. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for what He has done for us. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by His call, by His forgiveness and His promise. (pp. 27-28).

I don’t know about you, but I am constantly tempted to get so caught up in my vision, planning and execution of community, that I rarely stop to seek God’s heart for the community which He has called me to shepherd.

Please do not misunderstand me: I do not believe God wants you or me to be laissez faire when it comes to community either. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 14:33, “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.” Structure and guidelines are good as it relates to community; they can help foster an environment where people feel safe to be vulnerable.

So how do we draw the balance. Here are some preliminary thoughts:

1. Pray for your specific community. Thank God for placing you in that specific community. Don’t repress your frustrations about your community, but in the midst of frustrations, be thankful as much as you are able.

2. Listen to God. Don’t spend so much time in prayer for your community that you miss God’s voice to you regarding your community. Remember that God has already laid the foundation.

3. Spend time listening to your people—not just your leaders, but others as well. Know where they are at and what they need to continue to grow spiritually.

4. Get to know your place. What are the specific challenges your community faces? What is good about your place that helps foster community?

(WW) My first experience as a full-time pastor was in a village which boasted a population of 369. Everyone in our church was thrilled when a couple moved to town and joined the Baptist church. The wife was a dedicated musician and was determined that our little congregation become just like her previous church. She became very frustrated when our attempt at starting children’s choirs never took shape “the way we did it back home.” Our adult choir couldn’t pull off a cantata to her liking. Our deacons didn’t “deac” the way she expected. Our bereavement meals at funeral time weren’t organized correctly.

Doyle SagerLet me hasten to add: This lady loved the Lord deeply and was a tireless worker. She was committed to Christ and wanted to share his love with others. Her problem was that she never came to love the church she had. She only loved an idealized church in her mind.

Yes, our church had many flaws and shortcomings. We needed desperately to become more missional (even though that word wasn’t used back then). Did we need some new blood? Yes. Did we need a fresh set of eyes to see what we could not see? For sure. But we also needed to be loved just as we were.

Personally, I believe all churches (including mine) must courageously abandon outdated practices and attitudes. Congregations must change drastically in order to touch our world with God’s grace. But sometimes, amid all the pulse-taking, evaluations, strategy planning, and critiquing, we forget to love the church we have.

This does not mean we become complacent and resist change. It means we pay attention to the movement of God’s Spirit here and now, in our imperfect and disheveled condition.

The internet has made it possible for anyone to “attend church” virtually, exposing them to incredible music, relevant sermons, and effective outreach methods. Sometimes we are tempted to ask, “Why can’t my church be like that one?”

church window with heart

Image by Dagmar Räder from Pixabay

Yes, we can always learn from others. But at some point, our discontent with where we are breeds a contempt which keeps us from loving the church we have. The late Eugene Peterson said it well in Practice Resurrection: “If we don’t grasp church as Christ’s body, we will always be dissatisfied, impatient, angry, dismayed, or disgusted with what we see.”

The church I serve is blessed with very strong children and youth ministries. When high school seniors leave us for college, we occasionally hear one say, “I’m going to find a church just like this one.” Our reply is always, “No. You won’t find one like ours. You’ll find the one God has for you, one in which you will be challenged and grow in different ways. That church won’t do things the way we do them; it will do many things better.”

The Apostle Paul knew more about the church’s warts and blemishes than any other person of his time. Yet, when I read his letters to the Corinthians, Philippians, and Thessalonians, I hear him saying, “Despite the failures, impotence, and embarrassments of your church’s witness, never view your church with contempt or disgust. Love the church you have.”

During Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ministry, most of the German church was failing miserably, being co-opted by Hitler’s seductive pseudo-gospel. Bonhoeffer was frustrated by the compromise and cowardice. No one had more of a right to wash his hands of the church and walk away from orthodox faith.

But in Life Together, he wrote…

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by  

I was a pastor, and yet I felt cynical about church.

I preached every week. I kept serving and loving the best that I could. But I had become an expert at spotting all that’s wrong with the church. I grew concerned over church politics, the way we spent money, how little we prayed, how little we seemed to rely on God’s power.

I had rightly identified some areas of legitimate concern, and yet my response was completely wrong. I had stopped loving God’s people and had started judging them instead.

The Danger of Cynicism

“Cynicism comes from a good place: high standards,” writes Peter Adam. “But cynicism is a dangerous way to express those standards. It gives us the luxury of being right without the responsibility of working for change … Cynicism is the worst response to high standards.”

Looking back, I’d been feeding on a diet of books critiquing the church. Cynicism is contagious. Hang around cynical people and read cynical books, and you will soon become a cynic yourself.

I’d also been hurt as a pastor. The right way to respond to hurt is to go to God for help, and to get help from others, confronting when necessary, and working toward forgiveness. Instead, I nursed those hurts. I became a cynic.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns what can happen when we respond wrongly to hurt. “The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own laws, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community as if his dream binds men together.”

“When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.”

But such disappointment is also an opportunity, according to Bonhoeffer. “The very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by the one Word and Deed which really binds us together — the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.”

Disappointment with the church is an opportunity. We can choose to become cynics, or we can remind ourselves of God’s grace and enter into deeper community.

I’ve lived out both options. The latter is much better.

What’s Changed

Slowly I started to repent of my cynicism. I found help in two places.

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“The First Service One Owes To Others In The Fellowship Consists In Listening To Them. Just As Love Of God Begins In Listening To His Word, So The Beginning Of Love For The Brethren Is Learning To Listen To Them. It Is God’s Love For Us That He Not Only Gives Us His Word But Lends Us His Ear. So It Is His Work That We Do For Our Brother When We Learn To Listen To Him.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”

~ Dietrich BonhoefferThe Cost of Discipleship

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