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Discipleship—6: Suffering Servants


This is the sixth post in a nine-part series for Spectrum’s 2014 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. You can view the reading/posting schedule here

Chapter seven is Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of Matthew 10, the second sermon Jesus gives after the Sermon on the Mount.  And it is a sermon to and about pastors.  As a pastor’s daughter, friend of pastors, and someone who cares deeply about ministry in the local church, this was both a hard read and an inspiring one.

Sometimes (perhaps because I preach from time to time) I am asked why I didn’t become a pastor or whether I would be willing to become one.  If I’m feeling flippant, I like to say, “It’s because I don’t love people enough.”  I explain that I think the primary gift pastors have (it is related to the title “pastor”) is the care and love of the souls of people.  And while I’m a teacher and I hope I’m learning to love, I don’t see myself having that deep abiding care that pastors should/do have for the souls of their parishioners.  I’m sure my take on this is shaped by my pastor-father, who is nothing if not a lover of souls, and who is gentle and unselfish, if not always the world’s most stirring preacher.  

Bonhoeffer vindicates my (yes, possibly superficial) response to queries about my pastoral gifts.  He reminds us of how much Jesus loved his flock and how hard he tried to instill the priority of unselfish sacrifice in his disciples.  Anyone who would be a minister-disciple must have a passion and sympathy for broken people.  And Bonhoeffer doesn’t let me get away with putting this off on the professional ministers:  “Jesus is looking for help.  He cannot do this work alone. . . Is it a miracle, since this merciful gaze of Jesus is given to so few” (p. 195)?  But he seems to be acknowledging that there is a special role for people with apostolic and ministerial gifts in the church, for the full-time ministry.

After articulating the primacy of the need to love the flock of God, Bonhoeffer emphasizes the required poverty of ministers.  He points out how Jesus sent his disciples to be dependent on the people in the towns into which they came to work and that they were not to accumulate wealth.  “They may receive their daily wages without shame, and without shame they should remain poor for the sake of their ministry” (p. 190).

I have to say, this makes me uncomfortable.  In addition to birthing three children, my parents adopted three older children at different times during our childhood. How could they have done this in the midst of profound poverty? Five of us went to college and all of us attended Christian school and this could never have happened if the church hadn’t paid at least the basic white collar middle class salary to my pastor-father. (Full disclosure, my mother was also a professional, so her salary helped.)  Am I just being materialistic and selfish here?  What sort of poverty did/does Jesus require of his apostle/disciple/ministers?

What I most appreciated in this chapter was the realization that pastors frequently suffer in their ministry.  They desperately need wisdom in their work, and they are frequently maligned and misunderstood.  Bonhoeffer’s advice regarding wisdom really challenged me, and I would be interested in what others think.  He argues that lack of success and the hatred of others must not bring discouragement.  “Because Jesus never called his disciples to uncertainty, but always to greatest certainty, this warning. . . can only call the disciples back to the word. . .  Our own evaluation of our situation cannot make us see what is wise; only the truth of the word of God can do that” (pp. 193, 194).

What does this mean? He seems to be saying that people will always discourage us and so we shouldn’t pay as much attention to what they are saying, but it strikes me that some sort of recognition that we may be blind to some of our weaknesses is needed here.  Too much certainty can be a problem.  However, I suspect that Bonhoeffer has such a great confidence in the Word that he is trusting that the Spirit, not “worldly wisdom” as he calls it, will make sure that we don’t keep blundering on in our own vanity, if that is a problem. The language Jesus uses regarding “shaking off the dust” from the disciples shoes in places where they were rejected is pretty strong and seems to indicate a great deal of self-confidence in one’s methods.  So how sensitive should pastors be to the criticism of others and how much they should be reading/seeking for wisdom in how to relate to those they are serving?  Could there be such a thing as a persecution complex?

In general, however, this chapter is full of compassion for pastors, while lifting up a high standard.  And throughout, it is clear that Bonhoeffer’s advice is for lay disciples as well as ministers.  In all things, they are suffering and working for what they most care about — the salvation of others.  

It is a really high calling. I think we are very tough on pastors today.  With our “priesthood of all believers” theology, we can sometimes assume that a professional minister is unnecessary.  Or we can see them as primarily professionals and judge them on their preaching or slick programs.  As a layperson, I’m always in danger of underestimating the self-sacrificing love and investment my pastors are making in me and in my fellow-believers.  

I’m wondering how many of you have experiences of pastors or other church leaders suffering as they go about the work of ministry, and what your ideas are on how much we as a church should expect that they will be poor, self-sacrificing, and suffering.  The New Testament is full of this language, but I find myself pushing back on this.  I’m probably just worried Bonhoeffer might be telling me I need to be financially poor or to be in pain most of the time when I’m serving God’s people.  Am I misinterpreting Jesus’ words? Or Bonhoeffer?  Where are the rest of you on this?

Lisa Clark Diller lives, gardens, and worships in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

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