Bonhoeffer on Disappointment with Church

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. (John 15:12-13 ESV)

Every church has its flaws.  Significant ones, in fact, since even the best of churches are made up of and led by exclusively by sinners.  As a result, if you are a member of a local church, you are bound to be regularly disappointed by something going on within it.

In the local church it doesn’t take long before you encounter people who don’t share your excitement for the particulars of your theology, or who don’t seem to be very zealous in evangelism or very excited about living in “community,” or who are just remarkably ordinary (unlike you, of course). Every Christian comes into the church with expectations regarding what church life should be like and every Christian who has spent any period of time in the church has experienced some level of disappointment with his/her church from those expectations going unmet.

In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer addresses these things and argues that experiencing this kind of disappointment is actually a good thing, and vital to the experience of genuine community within the local church.[1]

In what is probably the most personally challenging 1,200 word passage that I’ve ever read apart from Scripture, Bonhoeffer forcefully argues that every Christian needs to experience disappointment in the church in order to learn what genuine Christian fellowship is all about.  He puts it this way:  “Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.”

But why is this disillusionment and disappointment so important in the church?  It is because a church that is built upon the “wish dreams” and “visionary dreaming” of it’s members cannot and will not survive in the long run.  “Sooner or later it will collapse,” Bonhoeffer says.  And he is right.

Loving the church you are in is very different than loving the church that you dream of.  Many people dream of being in an ideal church and their dreaming destroys genuine fellowship in the churches that they are in, because the churches they are in can never measure up to their dreams.  As Bonhoeffer writes, “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”

What a sobering word that is.  Let it sink in.  Even though your intentions may be sincere, if your love for your church family is conditioned upon it being the church you want it to be, you are hurting your church, not helping it.

Yet Bonhoeffer takes it further – much further!  And exposes the prideful heart where all visionary dreaming comes from.

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious.  The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself.  He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly.  He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren.  He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together.  When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure.  When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash.  So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

So, then, what is the antidote to our disappointment?  Bonhoeffer counsels us in very straightforward manner here.  We are to respond to our disappointment by giving thanks to God.  We are to fight our disappointment with gratitude.

“We thank God for giving us brethren who live by his call, by his forgiveness, and his promise,” he says.  We thank God that he has included us and accepted us into his family.  We thank God for his grace in Jesus Christ that unites us with our brothers and sisters.  We let the sins of our brothers and sisters serve as occasion to give thanks to God for his “forgiving love.”  We respond to our disappointment by seeking to do as God calls us in Colossians 3:15, [to] “let the peace of Christ rule in [our] hearts, to which indeed [we] were called in one body. And be thankful” (italics mine).

If we refuse to give thanks for these things, Bonhoeffer warns us, we will miss out on the blessing of genuine fellowship.  He writes,

If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if, on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, “The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.”  Or as the Scripture says, God “gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5).

Christian, be diligent to remember that the church you are in does not exist because of you, nor does it exist for you.  Insofar as you are in a truly Christian church (i.e. a Gospel-preaching, Jesus-loving community), you are a part of your church by the grace of God and that alone. That, regardless of the many flaws of your church (flaws that you are in part responsible for!), is cause for rejoicing and for constant thanksgiving.

As difficult as life in the local church may be at times, it is a precious gift to us that we must never take for granted.  It is a miracle of grace that God would accept any one of us into his family and include us as a part of his people.  May this truth protect us from becoming accusers of our brothers and sisters, and even of God himself.  Our churches are not ours, but his.  To be a part of them is a privilege.  Let’s never lose sight of that.

[1] All quotes in this post taken from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, London, SCM Press, 1954, Kindle ed.

  • dave

    Great article Zach. Understanding this phrase alone would radically change the church: “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter…”

    • Zach

      Completely agree, Dave. Thank you for reading!