Updated: Jan 15
January 14, 2021
In today's "Reflections on Life Together," Pastor Scott begins walking us through Bonhoeffer's chapter on ministry. But he doesn't understand ministry to only be the paid work of ordained pastors. Ministry is something for every day, not just Sundays. And ministry is something for every Christian, not just professional ones. Ministry is simply working and speaking to serve others according to God’s Word in the power of God’s Spirit. Ministry is intentionally relating to others in ways that will point them in our words to the hope of God’s grace found only in the gospel of Jesus and to demonstrate in our actions the reality of God’s redeeming love for them in Christ.
Catch up on the first season's episodes on the theme of the gathered church-community.
As we resume our midweek devotional series looking at Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic book on church-community, Life Together, we’re jumping ahead to one of the most transformative chapters for me: ch. 4 on “Ministry.”
If you’re just now joining us in these video devotionals, catch up on what we learned from ch. 1 on the true nature of Christian spiritual community, check out the archive of back episodes.
As we think about ministry, it is important to understand what Bonhoeffer means by the word—and maybe even more important to understand what he doesn’t mean. While he wrote this book out of his experience in teaching and living with young seminarians in a clandestine, illegal seminary for the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany, what Bonhoeffer has in mind when he says “ministry” is not the vocational work of ordained, professional pastors and ministers. Ministry is something for every day, not just Sundays. And ministry is something for every Christian, not just professional ones. Ministry is simply working and speaking to serve others according to God’s Word in the power of God’s Spirit. Ministry is intentionally relating to others in ways that will point them in our words to the hope of God’s grace found only in the gospel of Jesus and to demonstrate in our actions the reality of God’s redeeming love for them in Christ. This is what Peter is talking about in 1Peter 4:8–11:
Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
But even before we launch into the world-transforming tasks of mundane ministry, Bonhoeffer reminds us of a danger to which we must be constantly alert: Ministry, even as it serves, tends towards leadership—and leadership, whether given or received, always tends towards the temptations of pride and self-assertion in our fallen world. Bonhoeffer points out that this was true even of Jesus’s first disciples. Over and over the Gospels relate stories of the disciples distancing others from Jesus whom they didn’t think were as important in the kingdom as they were or, when they were alone, disputing among themselves about who was the greatest. What Bonhoeffer recognizes is that each of us, apart from Jesus, has an innate tendency to assert ourselves over against others. We all are looking for a way to get a leg up, to prove ourselves most important, most worthy, to find a way to keep control. Astutely, Bonhoeffer notices that this is even true of those who are obviously in some way “weaker” than those around them—they can “[claim] the right of the weak as [their] own and [use] it against the strong” (91). Unless we submit ourselves to Christ in the Spirit moment-by-moment, we will tend towards trying to subject others to us rather than serve them for their good. At the root of this spiritual and relational dysfunction is our insistence on justifying and defending ourselves rather than finding our identity and vindication in our union with Christ. As Bonhoeffer puts it, beginning by quoting Luke 9:46:
“…a Christian community should know that somewhere in it there will certainly be ‘a reasoning among them, which of them should be the greatest.’ It is the struggle of the natural man for self-justification. He finds it only in comparing himself with others, in condemning and judging others. Self-justification and judging others go together, as justification by grace and serving others go together.” (91)
The way into ministry to our brothers and sisters is the way of laying down all the ways that both our strength and weakness can be used to manipulate and control others. We rest not in what we can prove about ourselves or what power and leverage we can find to keep control of our circumstances in our own hands, but instead in the fact that in Christ we have been adopted, fully accepted and perfectly loved by the Father as his own Beloved Son. (90-91) In the weeks ahead, we’ll look at the different forms of everyday ministry by everyday disciples that Bonhoeffer identifies so that we can pursue live-giving life together as much as we can while we are physically apart. Each one is a different way of doing what Paul commands us in Galatians 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” I think you might be surprised by how simple, how basic some of these transforming ways of everyday ministry are that Bonhoeffer has identified in the NT. And then we’ll continue to gather in our Grow Groups on Sunday to reflect further on what the book of Ephesians has to tell us about the gospel and how to live worthy of the calling we have in it through Jesus Christ. This week we’ll be looking at the opening passage of ch. 2 and the glorious hope of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone to the glory of God alone. On Zoom or in the room, we’ll see you there!