The Illusion of Christian Community

Many of us dream of coming into or making the ideal Christian community.  Pastors, elders, and members often have a vision of how a church should function and how the members should interact.   But is this a good thing? Could our dreams and visions of Christian community actually destroy genuine Christian community?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wisely understood the temptation to love the ideal community in our heads instead of the real community in the pews. For a couple of years in the mid 1930’s Bonhoeffer ran a secret seminary where he taught and worshiped with 25 other vicars/pastors. During that time he wrote a book called Life Together. He knew that when these idealistic pastors came together visions of a perfect, ideal community would rattle around in their heads. He smashes the ideal in the first chapter of Life Together. The quotes below are taken from that chapter. While he is talking to a community of pastors, it is easy to apply his words to our churches and our families. 

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves. 

Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

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. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of 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 the accuser of the brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself. 

We do not create a Christian community by our will, vision, dream, or law. Community is created by Christ when people live under His Word and walk in His Spirit. We think Christian community means no sin, no ugliness, no pain, no disillusionment. We like a sanitized Christian community. But Christ likes to flip over rocks and see what creepy crawlies lie in the dirt of hearts. Thus when we enter a community created by Christ, living under His Word we find all sorts of nastiness. We see the slugs in our lives and the worms in the lives of our brothers. Bonhoeffer calls this finding of sin “disillusionment.” And declares it to be a kindness of God. Bonhoeffer even says, 

The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both. A community which cannot bear and survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. 

The sooner our  illusion of the perfect, clean church with all the perfect people falls away the better. The sooner we realize that we are sinners and we live among sinners and we must fight sin in ourselves the better.  The sooner we realize that we all stand in desperate need of forgiveness and grace the better. 

So how should we approach Christian community? What should our attitude be as we deal with our sins and the sins of those around us? Here is part of Bonhoeffer’s answer.

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 the 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. And is not what has been given us enough: brothers who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of His grace?  Is the divine gift of Christian fellowship anything less than this, any day, even the most difficult and distressing day? Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother become incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that  neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by that 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. 

We should remember that God brings us into community by his kindness and mercy. Christian community is not made with human hands nor is it formed by human ideals. It is a gift of grace that we are privileged to be a part of.  Instead of grumbling, let us give thanks. Instead of finding fault, let us give praise for the forgiveness we can find in Christ.