Tag Archives: Church

What is required for reconciliation?

Two Sundays ago my message on Ephesians 2:11-22 was about how Christ breaks down the walls of hostility between us and God, and between us and other people – seen most clearly in the unification of Jews and Gentiles in the Church – but with broader implications.

Our world is marked by hostility and hatred, by pride and division, and by false ideologies. The past couple of weeks have made that once again blatantly obvious. My Facebook feed has erupted with “hot takes,” and while I’m sure I could add a few of my own (regarding racism, the alt-right, violence in general, the danger of unhealthy backlash, etc.), and that they would have some value, I don’t think there’s anything I haven’t said before.

Instead, I want to look at the pre-requisites for reconciliation – for breaking down the “walls of hostility” in our world – in any and all circumstances. Here’s an uncomprehensive list:

Truth: I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read recently that I agreed with in spirit but which undermined their cause (and mine) by communicating in a misleading way. So much commentary that I read today plays fast and loose with the facts, overstates things, and leaves out important details. Rhetoric gets more “likes” than truth, but it only garners applause from those who already agree. If we’re going to commit ourselves to being peacemakers then we need to commit ourselves to speaking the truth, even when that truth doesn’t fit our narrative.

Seeking truth also means calling out sin. Reconciliation can’t happen until sin is exposed. Without that, reconciliation will be superficial.

Love: Our truth-seeking and truth-speaking should be done with love. Love means that we truly desire the best for others and then take action to secure that good. It’s not so hard to love people like us. Jesus calls us to love even our enemies. And reconciliation is only needed when there are enemies involved.

Crossing boundaries: The sort of love needed for reconciliation, then, is not just brotherly love, but love across boundaries. Reconciliation won’t occur when people remain within their bubbles. If we only listen to and interact with people like us, we’ll feel justified in our opinions, but will only contribute to a more divided world. We need fewer people screaming at each other (though, there’s a place for public, peaceful, passionate advocacy) and more people who build bridges.

Humility: Pride is the enemy of bridge building. Pride is the mother of division. The second I place myself above my neighbor we are divided. I’m not arguing that everyone is the same, or that all sins are morally equivalent (President Trump’s morally equivalency argument was as sloppy as it was dangerous). But, we must admit that fundamentally we stand at the same level. If we can humble ourselves, we can begin to seek reconciliation. Until then, we’ll only seek to win.

Confession: The child of humility is confession. I confess my failure to speak the truth on many occasions. I confess my silence when I should have spoken, and my speech when I should have remained silent. I confess that I talk more about love than I act on it. I confess that I have failed to cross boundaries and find plenty of comfort remaining in my own insular community. I confess that even as I write this I am struggling with pride.

If we are to speak the truth about sin, we better speak the truth about our own sin. Speaking the truth about your own sin is called confession. And almost all of us have something to confess.

Justice: But sometimes it’s more black and white. Sometimes there’s the oppressor and the oppressed. In that case, we need more than love, humility, and confession, we need justice. Wrongs cannot be overlooked, they need to be set right. To the extent that there are injustices, those injustices cannot be left to continue, but should be exposed (truth) and dismantled (justice). Continuing injustice will only create more occasions for division and hatred. Again, peacemaking without justice leads to superficial reconciliation.

Mercy: And yet, a level of mercy is required. Why? First, because we all sin. If we fail to show mercy to others, we shouldn’t expect it to come back to us when we need it most. Second, because in our quest for justice we often overstep our bounds into the realm of vengeance. We need an attitude of mercy to temper the devils within us that make the backlash worse than the original offense. We’re tempted to return a slap with a punch. Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek. We’re tempted to return injustice with further injustice. Jesus tells us to go the second mile.

Jesus and Reconciliation:

All these ideas come together in Jesus. Jesus not only spoke the truth. He is the truth. He called out sin like no other, and his death on the cross exposes just how evil mankind can be. Yet Jesus loved the world so much so that he died for the world. He didn’t just tell us to love his enemies, he died for us while we were his enemies. His love crossed boundaries – the greatest boundary of all, that of Creator to created. His ministry crossed boundaries – between Jew and Samaritan, between men and women, between the “clean” and the “unclean.” He was humble, even though he didn’t need to be. He was God incarnate, yet washed his disciples’ feet. His death enabled both justice and mercy to be met in a single event. In it God could be just – since sin was atoned for – and he could show mercy by justifying many – since the penalty of their sin was removed.

The only one that doesn’t apply is confession. He had no sin to confess, yet took on the sins of the world. Yet his love leads us to confession since it shows us just how far we fall short.

The Church and Reconciliation:

And we fall so short. The church is the reconciled community. As followers of Jesus we are well positioned to lead the way in truth, love, boundary-crossing, humility, confession, justice, and mercy. But too often we (I) take a back seat. I wish I could make this last paragraph more positive. I’m not sure I can.

I would be nearly hopeless, if it weren’t for a few facts: 1) The Church has always been flawed, yet we are redeemed, and God continually works in his people for renewal. He’s doing a work now, even if unseen. 2) God’s Word is true. He has given us a task, and will be faithful to complete that task in us. 3) Our hope extends beyond this world and this age. It is this future which pulls us forward. We pray together: Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. God is faithful to answer that prayer. And we must be faithful to His call to be a reconciled community which proclaims and demonstrates his reconciliation before the watching world.

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13 Trust Building Behaviors – Applied to Church Life

In my secular job I am part of a “Trust Team.” Our job is to identify behaviors which increase and decrease trust within the department – and then take steps to reduce the former and encourage the latter. Part of the exercise of this group has been to read through The Speed of Trust by Stephen R. Covey. Covey identifies 13 Behaviors which, when consistently done, increase trust in an organization or any social unit. In this post, I will attempt to see how these behaviors apply to church life, particularly to church leadership. The best I can do is sketch them out. I would be interested in your own experiences and insights in the comments below, or on Facebook.

#1 Talk Straight: “Tell the truth and leave the right impression” and balance it all with tact. Like many of the behaviors on the list, there’s a direct correlation to Scripture here: Speak the truth in love. This one easily applies to every personal interaction. Don’t be a jerk, but usually there’s no reason to beat around the bush. We build trust when we consistently talk straight. We undermine it when we code our words and force people to read between the lines.

#2 Demonstrate Respect: In other words, apply the Golden Rule. Christians have an additional theological basis for this. All people are created in the image of God. And, all believers have been equipped to build up the church. We respect others because of who they are, who they are in Christ, and because they have been gifted by God.

#3 Create Transparency: In regards to our finances– our books are open. In regards to our child protection policy – never a secret. If you want to know something that is going on at church, we’ll be as open as we can be.

#4 Right Wrongs: This means acknowledging failures, apologizing for them, and then making it right. There’s a powerful story told in our church. In the past – well before I arrived – the church was marred by conflict, particularly directed at a string of pastors with very short tenures. Then there was a season of healing wherein the remaining church members sought to make things right with those pastors with whom they had had conflict. This humility laid a foundation for greater love and unity.

#5 Show Loyalty: Covey gives two examples of showing loyalty: 1) Give credit to others whenever you can. 2) Speak about others as if they were present. This reminds me of the biblical model of conflict resolution in the church. In the case of conflict, go directly to the person with whom you have conflict. To smear them behind their back undermines trust not only with that person, but also with the person you’re smearing them to.

#6 Deliver Results: The first five behaviors focused on character – the foundation of trust – but Covey also argues the capabilities are necessary for there to be trust. The best way to prove that you have the capabilities to be trusted is to deliver results, to do what you say you are going to do, to accomplish your goal. It’s possible to be too results driven, but sometimes we forget that results still matter. We have a task to do and we should aim to be effective at that task.

#7 Get Better: I would submit that there’s a certain level of “godly discontent” that comes with leadership, even church leadership. Those who serve in the church should strive to hone their skills and their character. And the church as a whole can consistently ask the question – how can we better love God and our neighbors? It’s OK to acknowledge a gap between where you are and where you want to be.

#8 Confront Reality: Sometimes realities are hard to confront, but we need to do it. As a preacher, this means acknowledging head on hard passages of Scripture. Other times it may mean acknowledging difficult budgets or systemic sin. Christianity has all the tools necessary to handle the most difficult of realities. Jesus conquered sin and death!

#9 Clarify Expectations: I see a failure to clarify expectations consistently lead to failures in my engineering job, but this one applies to church work, too. It’s especially important when working with volunteers. Let them know what is expected of them, don’t leave them guessing. The same clarity is needed when constructing a shared vision, or giving applications in a sermon.

#10 Practice Accountability: Accountability is an important part of discipleship. Some people even have “accountability partners” or “accountability groups.” In regards to building trust, Covey stresses we need to hold ourselves and others accountable to poor results. We need to take responsibility for our actions, and hold people accountable for theirs.

#11 Listen First: Stephen Covey (the author’s father) is famous for saying – “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” In relationships, being understood is essential for trust, it’s also essential for giving good counsel (in church life, giving spiritual counsel). Failure to listen – either by not asking questions, or asking only to reply – will undermine trust.

#12 Keep Commitments: Covey refers to this as the “Big Kahuna” of all the trust behaviors. I agree. Failure to keep commitment undermines trust and consistently keeping them builds trust. We need to be careful about what commitments we make, and then stick to them. As an aside, this applies to more than just leaders. If you want your leadership to trust you as a member, keep your commitments in the small things and watch how you get opportunities for the bigger things. If you consistently fail to keep commitments, don’t be surprised when more opportunities don’t come your way.

#13 Extend Trust: Extending trust to others – when it is wise to do – is a good way to build trust. Trust those who are in charge of the ministries you’re not in charge of are doing their best. To some degree, this is founded on the same principles as “demonstrate respect.”

A low trust church will be ineffective for the gospel, it will be too marred by internal conflict, or too busy managing the costs of the low trust environment. A high trust church will be freed up to work on the tasks at hand. Lord, help us pursue relationships based on trust, and foster that trust for your glory!

Book Recommendation
The SPEED of TRUST: The One Thing That Changes Everything

Connecting the dots between service and spiritual growth

The focus in 1 Corinthians 12-14 (and the focus of tomorrow’s sermon) is the spiritual growth – the “edification” – of the congregation; not necessarily the spiritual growth of the individual. But it’s worth asking, how does using your spiritual gifts contribute to your own spiritual growth? Here are a few answers:

Understanding that all gifts have a source in God (12:4-6) – and not in ourselves – enables us to have the sort of humility necessary to kill our pride and follow God. That truth also enables us to respond in worship and gratitude, the hallmarks of Christian obedience.

By using our gifts for the purpose for which they are intended – the common good (12:7) – in a community where others are doing the same, we can be built up far more than we ever could be on our own. The sorts of gifts described here are not lost when they are used, but are multiplied. You are able to benefit not only from the gifts God has given you, but from the gifts God has given others.

By seeing that every gift has a role to play, and that the diversity within the body is essential to its proper working, we can move from the immature mindset of dependence, and the arrogant mindset of complete independence, to the mature mindset of interdependence. This mindset is essential because it corresponds both with the world in which we actually live, and the community in which God intends us to live. We can only truly recognize this reality when we actively participate by using our gifts.

Most importantly, though, the use of gifts to serve other people is how we put action to the command to love God and love our neighbor. Following Jesus in this way is the best way to grow into spiritual maturity and become more like Christ.

Communion service, November 8

communion

On Tuesday, November 8, at 8:00 pm, our church will be holding a special communion service. The purpose of this election day communion service is not to compete with the task of selecting our government leaders, but to put it in perspective.

Communion is an essential Christian practice which should be performed regularly. It is typically celebrated as part of a Sunday worship service. For our church, the meaning is the same in whatever context it is performed. It is a God-ordained way of memorializing and proclaiming the death of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. It is an occasion for confession and reconciliation. It is an opportunity to thank God for the body of Jesus which was broken and the blood that was spilled for us. But we have placed this communion service on this particular day and this particular time for a purpose – so that we can re-orient our hearts toward the eternal and re-prioritize our lives around the gospel, the good news of Jesus.

In a sense, there is a “confession of the election” and a “confession of the gospel.” By “confession” here I mean a statement of beliefs. In other words, when we think about an election we tend to hold to certain beliefs. Those beliefs are not always in line with the gospel. Sometimes they stand in opposition to it. Sometimes they simply need to be relativized in relation to it. Sometimes it is possible to hold both beliefs in tension. Sometimes the gospel undermines our false beliefs. One of the goals of the communion service is to proclaim the “confession of the gospel.” In the context of this particular day and time, this will necessarily be contrasted with the “confession of the election.” Allow me to elaborate:

The confession of the gospel is that we all must approach the cross with humility, confessing our sins, and our sins alone.  The confession of the election allows us to believe that ours is the side of righteousness and to look down on our political adversaries. Communion breaks down our pride and self-righteousness.

The confession of the gospel is that we as believers are fundamentally united in Jesus, through his reconciling work. The confession of the election allows us to believe that we fundamentally divided by political parties. Communion reminds us of our essential unity around the table.

The confession of the gospel is that Jesus conquered our greatest enemies of sin and death through his sacrifice on the cross. The confession of the election leads us to believe that victory can only be one through earthly power. Communion reminds us that the greatest victory ever performed was won through love and self-sacrifice.

The confession of the gospel is that God is sovereign and that it was through the sovereignty of God that Jesus died for our sins. The worst that man could ever do – killing the author of life – turned out to be the exact way in which God would atone for the sins of his enemies and bring about his perfect will. The confession of the election is that our futures depend on the will of man and that man stands in that decisive place, either for good or for evil. Communion reminds us that God is sovereign and that he will bring about ultimate good, no matter what path it takes to get there.

The confession of the gospel is that after Jesus’ death and humiliation he was raised and glorified. God raised Jesus up and place him the position of ultimate authority. There is one who reigns over the entire earth and to whom all other authorities are subject. The confession of the election is that authority rests in the government. Communion reminds us that Jesus is still the one with ultimate authority.

The confession of the gospel is that Jesus’ death instituted a new era in salvation history, allowing for a new relationship between God and his people. If we can speak of a time on which history turns that time was two-thousand years ago. It was the days of Jesus’ death and his resurrection. The confession of the election is that election day is the most important day in history. The narratives of the political activists frame November 8th as the day on which history turns. Communion reminds us that history has already turned and it turns along the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.

Finally, the confession of the gospel is that Jesus is coming again. We celebrate communion in anticipation of that future wedding banquet of the resurrection. We proclaim the Lord’s death, until he comes. The confession of the election is that – unless the people act in a particular way – all is lost. Communion reminds us that because God has already acted, all is already won. 

We invite you to join us.

Globalism/Nationalism, Church/Nation

Flags_of_the_World

One of the more interesting aspects of this election is the political and theological debate around questions of “nationalism” and “globalism.” Both of these words are used almost entirely in their derogatory sense and are put up as bogey men, as concepts of which we should be afraid – and when used in that sense we should. Most of the arguments I have seen are also simplistic and underdeveloped. Here’s my attempt to bring a little nuance (read: boredom) to the discussion.

First we need to “come to terms”. I’m going to use “nationalism” in a broad and non-derogatory sense, as “the desire for national achievement.” It goes without saying (though I’m saying it anyway) that I am against a “nationalism” which causes us to place nation above love of God or love of neighbor. I’m also going to use “globalism” in the same sort of broad sense, as “a concern for the entire world”, and not in the sense that global interests should always outweigh national or local interests. I’m going to parse each of these out more below but I wanted to state up front how I’m using the terms so that you don’t just write me off as an idolater.

Second, we need to clarify that we are going to be speaking about the interests and the roles of the nation as distinct from the interests and the roles of the Church (=universal Church, not institutional church). The two group’s interests and roles cannot be completely divorced from each other but they aren’t the same either. Speaking of “nationalism” in terms of the nation means something very different from “nationalism” in terms of the church. Confusing the two, and the roles of the two, will get us into lots of trouble. I will address each separately:

In regards to the nation

A government’s primary responsibility is to its own people and so, in that sense, I want my government to put “America first.” But that “America first” message is not without limits. While it is not required to treat non-citizens as citizens, it must still act justly towards them and treat them as people (and in the Christian sense, those who bear the image of the living God). This means that it still bears some – though more limited – responsibility to individuals of other nations. It seems to me that these obligations would include advocating for basic human rights such as the freedoms of life and religious expression and taking appropriate action when those basic freedoms are threatened, as in the case of genocide.

“Nation first” can be good call as long as it doesn’t mean “nation only” and as long as it is constrained by virtue. What was so frightening about Nazi Germany was that it was a nationalism that was unconstrained by virtue. It made the advancement of the nation the greatest good, at the expense of justice for all.

There are dangers on the side of “globalism” as well. Many fear the consolidation of power in global institutions and this fear is not entirely unfounded. While there is some good which global organizations can bring the tendency will always be for more and more centralization of power. Since power can be used for evil just as easily as it can be used for good (maybe more easily?) I want the power of these global institutions to be limited, specifically limited by the sovereignty of the individual nation. I don’t want my nation to give up its national sovereignty for the same reason that I don’t want national power to be centralized in Washington but distributed to States, counties, and cities, and that’s because I want a government which will not overstep its bounds.

Another issue that has come up is the economy. Here I find myself in a minority. I agree with the many economists who argue that access to markets is one of the most important ingredients to a strong economy. Therefore, I want my country to embrace a global economy and the trade deals that go along with that economy. I see open markets as a way of fostering peace and building global wealth, things which would be good both for the country (America first) and for the world, particularly the global poor. I am of the perspective that open markets (when constrained by virtue and justice) are one of the greatest tools for loving our neighbors.

Family Metaphor

Perhaps one of the best ways to understand this is to think about family dynamics. The responsibility of the father and mother is to take care of their family first. In most cases the bulk of their time, energy, and income will go to providing for the basic physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the family. A father or mother who spent an inordinate amount of time away from their family, or gave away income essential for the care of the family would be guilty of dereliction of duty. Also, parents shouldn’t abdicate their responsibility to some higher level organization – like a church, or a school, or the government.

But that doesn’t mean that parents should only concern themselves with their own family or their own children. Instead, they should lead their family in service towards others, give out of an abundance of resources and love out of an abundance of love. A family does not exist only for itself, but as an essential part of the broader society. A family with this outward focus actually helps itself, since in serving and caring for others outside of our circle we fulfill one of our reasons for existence.

I think this principle can be applied to governments as well. Governments have a primary responsibility to their own citizens, but they also exist within a global framework and need to engage that broader world responsibly and justly.

In Regards to the Church

The Church, as in those who have put their faith in Jesus for salvation, is transnational. It is cross-cultural. It is multi-lingual. It is made up of people from every nation, tongue, tribe, and people. This characteristic is central to its very identity. Because of this fact there will always be a tension between the “globalist” inclinations of the church and the “nationalistic” inclinations of the nation. This tension is healthy, and it shouldn’t be resolved either by the church separating itself entirely from – or wedding itself to – the life of the nation.

I am currently reading the Eric Metaxis Bonhoeffer biography and noticed that (one of the) most significant heresies of the German Christians (and opposed by Bonhoeffer and others) was that it embraced the idea of a “national church.” It willingly submitted itself to the authority of the State and to the nationalist interests of the State at a time when it should have been resisting. The problem in Germany wasn’t only that it contained an unconstrained nationalism, but that the German Christians embraced such a close relationship with that government.

That said, the church does not exist independently of other institutions, but is historically and nationally located. Christians have a dual citizenship. We are both heavenly and earthly citizens. As heavenly citizens we have responsibilities towards all within the church, wherever they are located which, on some occasions, would supersede our responsibilities to the State. For instance, Bonhoeffer recognized that he had responsibilities to Jewish Christians who the Reich barred from leadership in the German church. As heavenly citizens we also have the mission of evangelizing the nations, of showing love through both word and deed to those outside the faith wherever they may be found.

As earthly citizens we recognize the context in which God has placed us and that, too, confers responsibilities and duties. We are responsible towards our families. We are responsible towards our local church, our city, our state, our nation, and the rulers and authorities of that nation. In participating in politics we merely ask that the government do its God given task of being the government. In so doing we serve both the nation in which we live and the God who has placed us in that nation. It is appropriate for Christians to have a sense of patriotism so long as that patriotism is understood in terms of gratitude to God and responsibility and so long as patriotism does not lead to idolatry characterized by either misplaced trust or misplaced fear.

So where does this leave us in term of nationalism/globalism? Here are a few concluding thoughts.

First, there will always be some tension between the nationalistic goals of the nation and the more global mission of the church. We need to live within that tension, understanding our dual citizenship.

Second, our task is to love our neighbors, local and global. One way we love our neighbors is by asking the government to perform its role as government, which can rightly pursue the success of the nation so long as it does not inflict injustice on those in other nations.

Third, we can remember that we are part of the global kingdom of Christ and yet participate in very local and concrete settings. We can begin by serving those directly within our sphere of responsibility, while never forgetting that God has called the global church to a global mission.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s view on Government and Church

Programming note for regular readers: I have made an update to my post “A pro-life perspective on the 2016 Election“. Also, after this post I will be taking a break from my blog for a few weeks. I’ll be on a family vacation and/or focusing on other projects.

Disclaimer 1: In summarizing Bonhoeffer’s view I am not saying that I am in complete agreement with it.

Disclaimer 2: This is a summary of Bonhoeffer’s view based on his chapter “State and Church” in Ethics and not on the whole of his work. I’m not a Bonhoeffer scholar so my summary is limited.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The basis and task of the government

Bonhoeffer begins his chapter by exploring the basis of the government. He summarizes three basic answers.

The first answer is to find the basis of government in the nature of man. This is the ancient Greek/Aristotelian answer. It sees the state as “the supreme consummation of the rational character of man.” The state naturally arises from human nature and is the “ultimate purpose of human life.” Using biblical language we could say that state is part of “creation.” This view has difficulty, however, in moving from the voluntary and natural “community” of “man for man” to the necessity of “government”, which represents the “coercive power” which exists over the state as “man against man.”

The second answer, then, is that the basis of government is in sin. In this view, the need for government – and the necessary element of coercive power – arises only because of the fact of sin. In other words, it is necessary because of the Fall. In this view, the task of the government is to use its power in order to be “the protector of outward justice.” The power from the government is “from above,” that is, it is given by God himself. It is “order in the world, an order which bears the authority of God.”

This second answer is where much of Christian theology stops, but Bonhoeffer presses further. He suggests we must add a third answer, that the basis of government is in Christ. Bonhoeffer bases government in Christ principally because he bases everything in Christ, and this is no less true of all powers and authorities. Christ is the ruler over all other authorities and therefore all authorities and powers, including the civil government, exist for the purpose of serving him. Indeed, Bonhoeffer argues that each government ought to serve Christ willingly but that, even when a government doesn’t do that, the nevertheless end up serving him unwillingly. For instance, it was the will of God that Jesus should be crucified. When the Roman government killed Jesus, it was failing in its task to protect outward justice (since the death of Jesus was patently unjust), but it was also unwittingly serving the greater purposes of God. Indeed, it was only able to crucify Jesus because Jesus gave it authority to do so.

This leads Boenhoeffer to summarize the task of the government as follows:

“The mission of the government consists in serving the dominion of Christ on earth by the exercise of worldly power of the sword and of justice. Government serves Christ by establishing and maintaining an outward justice by means of the sword which is given to it, and to it alone, in deputyship for God.”

How does the government serve Christ?

The task of the government is “to service Christ by establishing and maintaining outward justice.” Does this imply either the possibility or necessity of theocracy? Does Bonhoeffer’s perspective lead to the idea of a state church? While the idea that a government “serves Christ” might seem to indicate this might be the case, the answer is a resounding “No.” Bonhoeffer does not have a theocracy, or a Church run State in mind.

The reason for this is that Bonhoeffer views the roles of the state and of the church as quite different. The role of the government is limited. Its task is simply to establish and maintain outward justice. That is to say, it has the power of judicial authority. But what constitutes “justice”? This is not a question Bonhoeffer answers completely but he does insist on basing it in Christ. So, he says, the “goodness” promoted by the government “cannot in any case be in conflict with Jesus Christ” and “One might therefore, say that in this case natural law has as its foundation Jesus Christ.” The government knows about this goodness/justice then, “primarily from the preaching of the Church.” In other words, Bonhoeffer does not base the “outward justice” which the government is tasked with maintaining in what might be called “natural law” but in a sort of “natural law” which is informed by and proclaimed in the church.

But this is not to say that the government can be Christian or theocratic. Indeed, Bonhoeffer argues that in order for a government to serve Christ within its sphere and within its task it must be religiously neutral. Its role is to leave space for the preaching of Christ. Its task in not the creation of a Christian order, but of maintaining an order which leaves room for service to God.

The Government and its relationship to marriage and labor

Government’s role is primarily that of preserver. It is not, itself, life-giving or productive, but guards life by sustaining outward justice. It is only one of several God-given institutions and, Bonhoeffer notes, “finds already in the world which it governs two institutions through which God the Creator exercises his creative power, and upon which it must therefore, in the nature of things, rely; these are marriage and labour” (italics added). These two institutions are unique in that they are life-giving and productive. They are also unique in the sense that they are what we might call “pre-political.” They “possess their own origin in God, an origin which is not established by government.” They exist prior to the state, prior to government.

The role of government in relation to these two institutions then, is limited. Governments task is, first and foremost, to acknowledge these institutions. They are not entirely “hands off” but only interact with these institutions to the degree which is necessary to their task, to maintain outward justice. The government’s task is “regulative and not constitutive.” Bonhoeffer continues,

“Marriage is performed not by the government but in the presence of government. Industry and commerce, art and science, are not cultivated by government itself, but they are subject to its supervision, and within certain limits… to its discretion.”

Furthermore, Bonhoeffer is careful to say that the government’s limits are critical. To extend beyond these limits in regards to marriage and labor is to “forfeit its genuine authority over these fields.”

The Government and its relationship to the church

As stated above, to say that the government acts in service to Christ does not imply either a church run government or a Christian state. Bonhoeffer states, “the dominion of Christ over government does not by any means imply the dominion of the Church over the government.” Instead, the government acts in service to Christ by “securing an outward justice by means of the power of the sword.” If the government does what it is intended to do “the congregation [community of believers] can live in peace” and perform its duty of proclaiming the good news of salvation.

With this basic principle in place Bonhoeffer notes that the government may still make claims upon the church and, likewise, the church makes certain claims upon the government.

The Government’s Claim on the Church: The government’s claim upon the church is obedience to its laws (assuming, of course, that they would not force the person to sin against Christ, the ultimate authority). The Christian is expected to practice this obedience, understanding that in acting in this way they are acknowledging the authority which God has given to the civil authority. “As a citizen a Christian does not cease to be a Christian, but serves Christ in a different way.”

The Church’s Claim on the Government: The church’s claim on the government is only that it should fulfill its role as government. “Her aim is not that government should pursue a Christian policy, enact Christian laws, etc. but that it should be true government in accordance with its own special task.” In particular, this means that the church seeks what we might call “religious freedom” and Bonhoeffer refers to as “protection for the public Christian proclamation against violence… against arbitrary interference, and she claims protection for Christian life in obedience to Christ.” That is not to say that Christianity receives a special privilege. The government “affords protection to every form of service to God which does not undermine the office of government.”

Conclusion:

Bonhoeffer touches on a few more topics: What is the best form of government? Under what conditions is the being of the government (i.e., legitimacy) completely undermined? What happens if the government is completely undermined and fails to complete its task? Etc. But I do not have time to address each of these here, and none of these are fully developed arguments anyway. His argument continuously points back to his primary thesis, namely, that the governments task is that of maintaining outward justice by the power of the sword, thus serving (willingly or unwillingly) Christ, from whom all authority comes.

Implications for today?

I will have to only tentatively put these implications forward. Bonhoeffer lived in a different age and the government under which he spent much of his time – Nazi Germany – was far different from my experience in Democratic America. However, Bonhoeffer spent much time in America and it does seem as if his description of government was at least partially impacted by his time here. And so, I want to conclusion with a few observations.

  • Bonhoeffer believed that the government had a necessary and noble task. He believed that it had a role to play in the service of Christ – the preservation of the goodness of God’s created world and the institutions therein. He probably would have disagreed with those who only expression negative views of the government.
  • Bonhoeffer believed that government performed its task best when it knew what its task was and he believed that its task was limited. It played the role of protector and preserver, not the role of creator. To that extent he believed in “limited government” though that shouldn’t necessarily be understood in terms of liberal and conservative.
  • In regards to marriage: I think Bonhoeffer would have agreed with those who argued against the court’s redefinition of marriage. He likely would have seen this as an overstep of the government’s role and as a failure of the government to properly “acknowledge” marriage in its created order.
  • In regards to “religious freedom” Bonhoeffer would likely be a big supporter. One of the main ways in which the government serves Christ, and one of the primary claims of the church on the State, is that the government protects service to God and the proclamation of the gospel. The limit of “religious freedom” for Bonhoeffer would be “outward justice.” The government does have a regulative role, even in matters of church, if basic justice is under threat.
  • In regards to the role of the church and the individual Christian, especially in relation to a less-than-ideal government: First, the individual Christian’s task is to obey the government whenever possible as though serving Christ. Second, the task of the Christian is to serve within his own sphere of influence and thereby indirectly serve the government in a productive way. Third, it is the task of the church, to proclaim the gospel. In doing so, the government comes into a clearer understanding of the outward justice which it is called to protect or, is it may be, is called to task for failing to carry out its God-given role.

Book Recommendations

The Cost of Discipleship

Ethics

Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian in Community

E, S, V, P

First, let me just say that in the past 36 hours I have come up with some of my best political one-liners ever. They were funny. But they were probably also unnecessarily divisive. I also wrote half a blog post dealing on parts of what is currently happening in Cleveland. And yet, I practiced self-control and didn’t post any of it on FB and I deleted my post. I think I deserve a prize. Mint chocolate chip ice cream sounds pretty good…

Today’s post is quite different in nature, and it is particularly geared toward preachers.

I attended a training today at my engineering job. At the start of the training session we had an ice-breaker. Each person was instructed to state their name and whether they were an E, S, V, or P. “E”s are explorers, they are people who are very interested in the content of the class. “S”s are shoppers, they are interested in some of the material. They are looking for one or two takeaways. “V”s are vacationers, they aren’t really interested in the class but it got them out of their routine and they have no better place to be. Finally, “P”s are prisoners, they are in the class against their will – their manager made them come.

On any given Sunday, there is a mix of ESVPs in your congregation. This might be helpful to recognize.

When I prepare to preach I tend to “categorize” my audience and try to gear my preaching to a broad based of listeners. The broadest category is “believers” and “unbelievers.” I try to include a call to believers and a call to unbelievers. In other words, I try to both disciple and evangelize.

I also think through people in different life stages. How would a student understand and apply this message? How would a retiree? How would someone who is feeling sad about a recent loss? Etc.

I think I will add ESVP to my lens as well. How would this look?

Explorers: Explorers in a church setting are those people who come eager to learn. They love the Bible. Even if they can’t directly apply the message to their lives, as long as you faithfully expound the Word of God, they will stay tuned. These are the easiest to preach to. A seeker, even if not a Christian, could also be an explorer. They may still be interested in the message even if they don’t (yet) agree. I’m not sure you really have to do anything extra for the explorers, but it’s good to acknowledge that some people are eager to learn Scripture. If nothing else, this should encourage the preacher.

Shoppers: Some people are not really that interested in the whole service. Some might particularly like the music, or the social aspect, or perhaps they are looking for one or two “take home” points from the sermon. You have to work a little harder for their attention. Maybe they’re not interested in the “big idea” of the sermon because it’s not what they’re shopping for. We still, if we’re going to be faithful to the text, will want to draw them in. Here’s where a good “tension creating” intro can go a long way.

Vacationers: These are people who are really just apathetic. They aren’t hostile. Church is just another thing which breaks the routine. They don’t really have a better place to be – or the cost of getting to that other place is too high. I think the goal here is to awaken their passions and to do that by passionately proclaiming the gospel.

Prisoners: Prisoners are people who don’t want to be there. They were dragged by a spouse or a parent or were pressured by a friend. They are hostile. According to preaching books I have read the best ways to communicate with those who are hostile are with humor and story (two of my weakest preaching abilities).

Perhaps it might just be good to acknowledge that we have a mix of people in the audience. It’s not all explorers, it’s not all shoppers, it’s not all vacations, it’s not all prisoners. Assuming everyone is an explorer will grant you permission to be boring. Assuming everyone is a shopper will cause you to just focus on the “takeaways” without getting to the meat. Assuming everyone is a vacationer might make you force in passion where it doesn’t come naturally, or assume everyone’s problem is that they are “lukewarm.” Assuming everyone is a prisoner will likely either make you hostile and angry or overly deferential.

Sometimes I address a particular group: “perhaps you are here and you have never placed your trust in Jesus” or “perhaps you are here and you are really struggling with a loss right now…” Maybe I could do the same with ESVP… “perhaps you are here and you feel like a prisoner, you really don’t want to be here…” That acknowledges those “prisoners” where they are at and allows you to address them directly. “Yes, that is me, what’s he going to say?”

Preacher or congregants, what do you think, is this helpful?