Bonhoeffer and the Visible Church

“This is the end, for me the beginning of life.” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer[1]

Those who know me know that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of my favorite pastors from history. I share these reflections with you on the seventy-fifty anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s death. Bonhoeffer completed his journey on earth on April 9, 1945. He remained faithful to Scripture, to Jesus, and the church until his last days. He helped lead an attempt to overthrow Hitler. His courageous leadership inspires me.

In this post, I will focus on Bonhoeffer’s description of the church. I have thought a lot about the nature, function, and purpose of the church in these days in which the gathered community of Jesus is unable to gather due to COVID-19 issues. Many churches, including the one I pastor, have gone to online-only services to protect the most vulnerable among us and to comply with state and national leaders. I have been reflecting deeply on matters relating to the local church for weeks now. In my study at the church, I had to see what Bonhoeffer said. This post will contain some of my favorite Bonhoeffer quotes on the church from his Discipleship followed by a reflection on each statement. I will conclude this article by describing the implications of Bonhoeffer’s work to our current ministry context.

“If we want to hear his call to discipleship, we need to hear it where Christ himself is present. It is within the church that Jesus calls through his word and sacrament.” [2]

Bonhoeffer urged his reader to consider that Jesus is most present within his church. His presence is revealed through the word and the sacrament. Obviously, Bonhoeffer is referring to the preaching of the Christian scriptures when he uses the term word. The faith group I serve prefers the term ordinance to the sacrament. Bonhoeffer essentially said that the clearest revealer of Jesus’ presence on earth today is when people gather in community and partake of the bread and the cup.

In these days of the online church, we can still receive the preached word. Many people have tuned in each week to watch church streamed services. That is a reason to rejoice. More people are hearing the Gospel. Perhaps some are even hearing the Word preached for the first time. The other element is a bit more challenging to practice during this time of social isolation. This writer has observed some churches partaking in Communion in their own respective homes. I am not sure I am ready to comment on that yet. I have not studied the Supper enough to comment here. Bonhoeffer’s point is undeniable though. The Church is the place where humans hear Christ’s call to discipleship through the Word and the ordinances.

“It is in the body of Jesus Christ that we are accepted by God for eternity.” [3]

Bonhoeffer devotes this chapter of the book to describe the body of Christ. He refers to both the broken body of Jesus and the now existing body which is the church. That quote resonated deeply with me. We may face rejection in many environments, but the church of Jesus is to be a place of acceptance. This does not mean that we should tolerate sin. There is a biblical warrant for church discipline. God accepts sinners into His family through Jesus for all eternity. The church is the medium through which sinners are redeemed and brought into God’s family There are no divisions in the true body of Christ according to Paul. (Eph.4:4-6)

Although the gathered community of Jesus cannot gather right now, we can still celebrate that we are accepted into a much larger family based on God’s mercy. The church is the visible body of Christ on earth. In that body, we are loved and accepted.

“The body of Christ is thus the place of reconciliation and of peace between God and human beings…in the same body of Christ, we find ourselves accepted by God.” [4]

The church is a place of reconciliation and peace. If there is anything our world needs today it is reconciliation and peace. Bonhoeffer went on to say that the temple is the “holy church-community in Jesus Christ”. [5] God’s redemptive goal is to dwell with humanity again. God will dwell with humans again in the eschaton but for now, God dwells with humanity through the church. Fellow church leaders let’s remind our people that the Church is a place of reconciliation and peace. Let’s pray that this time of separation will draw us closer to one another and ultimately closer to Christ. Our acceptance in Christ and His bride is astonishing and humbling.

Conclusion

These are difficult days to live and minister. Brethren, the church is Jesus’ bride. The church is the visible representation of Jesus’ ongoing ministry of reconciliation. Christians, we are the church. I thank God that the church is both universal and local in nature. It is through the local church that the Good News of Jesus will spread through to the ends of the earth. Let’s be the best visible community of Jesus we can be!

[1] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, (Thomas Nelson: Nashville, TN, 2010), 528. Fellow prisoner Payne Best claimed that Bonhoeffer said this on the day of his death when he was taken from the other prisoners.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, MN, 2015), 178.

[3] Ibid., 194.

[4] Ibid., 205.

[5] Ibid., 205.

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