This is the eighth 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.
One might say that Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the church is the only true “corporations are people”1 argument that a Christian can accept. He claims that “The Church is the present Christ himself…While we are used to thinking of the church as an institution, we ought instead to think of it as a person with a body, although of course a person in a unique sense.”2 Chapters 10-12 in Discipleship provide a revised digest of Bonhoeffer’s 1927 doctoral thesis, Sanctorum Communio. A theme that is explored in these chapters is what it means to be a follower of Jesus and, thus, a member of the church-community. The theological agenda of these chapters can be summed up with the words of E.H. Robertson:
To understand the church, one needs to clarify three concepts: person, community and God. He [Bonhoeffer] links these three in such a way as to make convincing and dramatic the vision of the church as the community of sinners and the saving acts of Christ…Having described the Fall as the breaking of the link between God and man, he shows that this leads to the tearing of the fabric of humanity. The saving act of Christ is then seen, not only as the reconciling of man to God, but also as the restoring of the torn fabric of humanity. The church is where the fabric is restored. This takes place where the reconciling word is proclaimed and where the sacraments are administered.3
Bonhoeffer holds out the tortured and torn body of Jesus as the healing salve for the torn fabric of humanity.
His understanding of Christ’s relationship to humanity dances between mysticism and metaphor. On the one hand, he pictures a kind of mystical union between Christ and the world when he writes that Jesus carried “all of humanity”4 and accepted “all of humanity.”5 The foundation of our reconciliation with God and with each other is not centered in God’s acceptance of “a single, perfect human being,”6 named Jesus, but is based on God’s willingness to take “on the whole of our sick and sinful human nature, the whole of humanity.”7
“Jesus thus brings humanity not only into death with him,” Bonhoeffer explains, “but also into the resurrection.”8 Bonhoeffer blurs the line between Christ’s individual person and our particular persons, his individual person and our particular communities, his individual person and the unique life of God. Bonhoeffer writes, “It is true that all human beings as such are ‘with Christ’ as a consequence of the incarnation, since Jesus bears the whole of human nature…The body of Jesus Christ is identical with the new humanity which he has assumed.”9 This line of reasoning is closely akin to the apostle Paul’s discussions in Romans and Corinthians concerning the first and second Adam.
While on the one hand Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on Christ’s relationship to humanity, including the church, are mystical, when talking about the latter, they stride closer to metaphor. He is explicit:
The unity between Christ and his body, the church, demands that we at the same time recognize Christ’s lordship over his body…There are two events in salvation history, namely, Christ’s ascension and his second coming, which make this distinction necessary; these events categorically rule out any idea of a mystical fusion between church-community and Christ.10
Here the notion of the Church as the body of Christ is tempered by the apostles’ witness that Christ Jesus both ascended into heaven and will come again. This is where the organic image of the mystical body of Christ shifts toward the manufactured image of a temple of God. This temple, of course, is not a temple made by humans for God, but a temple of God that is made by God. The temple of God metaphor is more apt for the task of describing the relationship of how God both dwells in the community of saints and how this same community continues to fulfill the ministry of the incarnate God through our proclamation of the word and table fellowship. According to Bonhoeffer, “The Christian community is thus essentially the community gathered to celebrate baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and only then is it the community gathered to hear the word proclaimed.”11
Like the temple complex, “The body of Christ as church-community includes both differentiation and a common order…A body lacking differentiation is in the process of decomposition.”12 This recognition of differentiation as necessary to stay the process of decomposition also serves as a safeguard for the unity of the inner and outer life of the church. Diversity in roles, as well as perspectives, is healthy for a community, but there are dangers as well: “It is not always easy to recognize where a legitimate theological interpretation ends and heresy begins. One congregation may still accept a particular teaching as legitimate, while another has already rejected it as heresy (Rev. 2:6 and 2:15ff).”13
While Bonhoeffer’s theological reflections on the nature and purpose of the church as the Body of Christ dance between mysticism and metaphor, his practical witness has a steady gait toward ministry. J. Deotis Roberts, in his book entitled Bonhoeffer & King: Speaking Truth to Power, writes: “the following words from the Lord’s Prayer capture the spirit behind the life, thought, witness, and death of Bonhoeffer and King: ‘Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt.6:10)…As I ponder the lives and witness of both theologians, I am reminded of the title of the film ‘Heaven Can Wait.’ Both leaders spoke out against a vertical-only view of religious faith.”14 Bonhoeffer’s practice of Jesus’ teaching, transcends the witness of his words. However, lest someone mistake the meaning of his practice, he offers the following as, what I believe is, the thesis of the entire book. He writes:
The bond between Jesus and the disciples who followed him was a bodily bond. This was no accident but a necessary consequence of the incarnation. A prophet and teacher would not need followers, but only students and listeners. But the incarnate Son of God who took on human flesh does need a community of followers [Nachfolgergemeinde] who not only participate in his teaching but also in his body.15
Mysticism, metaphor, and ministry! In the end, the very words he spoke about the body of Christ became a reality for him. When his ministry engaged the world, his person assumed the form of the suffering Lord.16 May our ministries evermore conform to the same!
Dr. Maury Jackson is a professor of the HMS Richards Divinity School at La Sierra University where he teaches pastoral ministry, ethics, and philosophy. He lives in Riverside, California, with his wife and children.
1. Alex Park, “10 Supreme Court Rulings—Before Hobby Lobby—That Turned Corporations Into People,” Mother Jones, July 10, 2014.
2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 218.
3. E. H. Robertson, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1967), 14.
4. Discipleship, 214.
8. Ibid, 216.
9. Ibid, 217.
10. Ibid, 220.
11. Ibid, 229.
13. Ibid, 231.
14. J. Deotis Roberts, Bonhoeffer & King: Speaking Truth to Power (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 125.
15. Discipleship, 215.
16. Ibid, 247-248.