Last weekend, I read the following quote from Bonhoeffer on Dave Black’s blog (Sunday, August 16, 2009 at 7:45 am):
The Church is the Church only when it exists for others. To make a start, it would give away all its property to those in need. The clergy must live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling. The Church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.
This quote is both very provocative and (to me, at least) very true. It was both exciting and encouraging to find out that Bonhoeffer wrote this from prison in Germany over 60 years ago.
But, I wanted to know the context of this quote. So, I started searching. It turns out that this quote is in Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison (Ed. Eberhard Bethge, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1972).
The five sentences quoted above are part of a summary that Bonhoeffer wrote while in prison. He states that he wants to write a short book (“not more than 100 pages”) with three chapters: 1) A Stocktaking of Christianity, 2) The Real Meaning of Christian Faith, and 3) Conclusions. The quotation is the beginning of the chapter on Conclusions.
Here is the entire section in which Bonhoeffer summarized the “Conclusions” of his short book:
The Church is the Church only when it exists for others. To make a start, it should give away all its property to those in need. The clergy must live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling. The Church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others. In particular, our own church will have to take the field against the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy, and humbug, as the roots of all evil. It will have to speak of moderation, purity, trust, loyalty, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty. It must not under-estimate the importance of human example (which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus and is so important in Paul’s teaching); it is not abstract argument, but example, that gives its word emphasis and power. (I hope to take up later this subject of ‘example’ and its place in the New Testament; it is something that we have almost entirely forgotten.) Further: the question of revising the creeds (the Apostles’ Creed); revision of Christian apologetics; reform of the training for the ministry and the pattern of clerical life. (pg. 382-383)
Example. If “example” is something that had been “almost entirely forgotten” in Bonhoeffer’s day, it seems to be even more forgotten today. In fact, it is common for “ministers” to be taught to remain aloof from others in the church – to separate themselves and their lives from others – to seek advice and counsel only from other “ministers” outside of their church. Where is the example in this? (Granted, I think this idea of “ministry” is becoming less popular today.)
We cannot speak and teach from a vacuum. We speak and teach from a context, and that context is our own lives. The instructions “serve one another” take own a new power when they are uttered while in the process of serving. When the teacher is getting his or her hands dirty while helping other people, the lesson to help and serve others is effective.
I haven’t read further that this quote. But, I’m interested to see if Bonhoeffer had time and opportunity to “take up” the subject of example. I would love to read more, and I would love to see the church embrace example today.