“Those who love their dream of Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community.”
Thus wrote (in paraphrase) Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book “Living Together.” Bonhoeffer understood something which many of us struggle to accept – Christian community isn’t easy. Especially in a modern society so used to material comfort, we don’t like when our Christian communities get uncomfortable. We want things to be easy and without conflict. Nevertheless, real, authentic Christian community is going to be messy and challenging. That is because real, authentic Christian community is like a family.
We get angry at family. We disagree with family. We get hurt by family. But we do not therefore tear apart our family – at least, not if we hope to have a strong one. Instead, we work through the mess and do our best to resolve conflict. We love, extend grace and patience, we forgive, and strive for peace. Certainly, we still have our ideal in our minds, but we recognize our ideal will often not match reality – both because of us and other parties – and so we meet each other where we are and attempt to grow together. This is what strong, healthy families do.
Unfortunately, we often do exactly the opposite when it comes to our Christian families. We bring to these communities what Bonhoeffer called the “wish-dream,” the idealized version of what we think that community should be, and we judge individuals and the whole upon that ideal. When the ideal is shattered by reality, at best we want to abandon our community for another, and at worst, we destroy the community in merciless judgment. But to Bonhoeffer, the shattering of our wish-dreams is really a blessing from God. Through the shattering of these idealized dream scenarios, we can come to accept each other on God’s terms rather than on our own.
In 1 John 1, the apostle tells us that our fellowship comes through our fellowship with Christ. We are in fellowship with each other by being in fellowship with him. Both in 1 John and elsewhere in scripture, we find that we are in fellowship with Christ not because of our perfection, but because of the perfection of Christ (Phil. 3:9; 2 Cor. 5:21) and our faith in him (Eph. 2:8-10). Accordingly, our fellowship with each other should not be based upon the ability of others to live up to our idealized version of them or the Christian community, but rather upon their connection with Jesus Christ. In other words, we should be in fellowship with each other on God’s terms and not on our own. The ultimate question should be whether the other person is in fellowship with Jesus. If they are, then we are family, fellow citizens of the same Kingdom. We ought to live out that reality regardless of how well they fit in to my personal ideal.
I’m not sure I agree with Bonhoeffer that “visionary dreaming” – i.e. the existence of an ideal – is a bad thing in and of itself. But we must not conflate our ideal with God’s truth, and we must be cautious not to make our ideal the standard of fellowship instead of our mutual fellowship with God in Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 14). The Christian community, like family, will experience troubles. We will have disagreements, we will get angry, we will experience hurt feelings. At the same time, we will have moments of beauty, moments in which we create wonderful memories, and most importantly moments in which we reflect to the world the unity and love of the Father, Son, and Spirit. We should be very careful that the former does not become an obstacle to the latter. Our idealized visions of the church easily lead to exactly this. But when we allow such obstacles, we become destroyers of the church, no matter how earnest our intentions may be.
The solution, and indeed among the most vital aspects of life within Christian community, is found in the words of Paul: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Eph. 4:32) We should extend to others the same amount of grace we want God to extend to us. When we understand this and live it out, when we set aside our ideals and allow Christ to be the standard of fellowship, then and only then will we cease to be destroyers, and begin to be builders.