The Great Enemy
From 1935–1940, Dietrich Bonhoeffer led a seminary community of young preachers in Nazi Germany. The seminary did not have government support, and it was closed by the Gestapo in 1937. Yet it continued as an underground seminary for the next three years. During this time, Bonhoeffer penned a short jewel of spiritual insight explaining the lessons he and his students had learned living in this community together. The book is called Life Together, and in it, Bonhoeffer shares several key ideas that should form the foundation of any Christian community.
One of the most important is the idea that we must never be alone in our sin: “Those who remain alone with their evil are left utterly alone. It is possible that Christians may remain lonely in spite of daily worship together, prayer together, and all their community through service . . . for the pious community permits not one to be a sinner. . . . We are not allowed to be sinners. Many Christians would be unimaginably horrified if a real sinner were suddenly to turn up among the pious. So we remain alone with our sin, trapped in lies and hypocrisy, for we are in fact sinners.”
Bonhoeffer expresses the sad truth that in many of our churches, we are not allowed to be sinners. Even though church is the one place on earth where sin should be confessed and grace extended, it often isn’t. In many churches, people cover over and hide their sins. Or they confess “acceptable” sins while hiding worse sins for years. The goal of our enemy is simple and clear. If believers keep their mouth shut and hide their sin, they will continue to suffer guilt and live in defeat and shame.
Speaking the Truth in Love
Our churches need to recover the practice of speaking the truth in love. This means being honest about sin yet creating a culture of grace and love. The moment we come out of hiding, we begin to live in the light of forgiveness and fellowship (1 John 1:7–9). Speaking the truth in love means that we grow through conversations, specifically talking about sin and struggles and asking for help. But we must use the proper words to do this. Paul instructs, “Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them” (Eph. 4:29 NLT).
The Bible speaks of the church as a community with trusting relationships and a gracious environment. Grace requires us to treat one another as God has treated us, which means better than we deserve. We grow to maturity as we learn and practice mature communication skills, for example talking about who God says we are instead of using the world’s labels and identities or the lies we believe about ourselves (Eph. 2:10). God says that every believer is gifted, every one has an important contribution to make, and every one is a saint and minister. One believer cannot say to another, “I don’t need you” (1 Cor. 12:21). Everyone must be treated as someone God values.
But this does not just mean being nice to one another. It means listening to others when they confront us and getting rid of the bad habits that harm others. Paul lists several bad habits of the heart that need to be exposed and confronted, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior” (Eph. 4:31 NLT). Getting rid of these things is not something we do in a vacuum. The process begins with God’s word entering our minds, then requires speaking those words to one another and putting them into practice in our community of believers. Putting off harsh words and putting on kind words is a habit that we must acquire and develop with the help of the Holy Spirit.
Why We Should Listen
Bonhoeffer goes on to say, “Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them.” Listening to others might be the greatest gift of love we can give them. And listening is always necessary because we cannot really help someone until we understand his or her need. Bonhoeffer further points out, “Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either; they will always be talking even in the presence of God.” If we cannot learn to listen in silence, then we cannot properly learn to speak. In fact, our speech will be distorted and driven by our own unmet needs. Our communication will be about us and getting our needs met, not helping others.
Again, let me stress that what is required here is not just being a nice person. We get angry when our sin is confronted. We grow defensive. We do not like it when people speak about our business. But this confronting is a necessary part of our discipleship, how we learn how to live our life as though Jesus was living it. Speaking the truth in love also requires being willing to receive the truth in love. Bonhoeffer reminds us, “Nothing can be more cruel than the leniency which abandons others to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin.”
Some religious communities are like a group of drowning people who won’t do what is necessary to save themselves because no one wants to go first. But speaking the truth in love is love at work, and it is necessary work.
Grow into maturity as a community is not possible unless the parts of the body are working properly. Only then can our churches grow into wholeness and health. The big lie will continue to survive as long as pastors and church leaders avoid the discipleship process. Preaching alone will not change our churches. Good leadership methods won’t do it, either. Change requires disciple-making pastors making disciples who make disciples and form authentic communities that can model this process to others. This is a communal project.
 Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 108.
 Ibid., 98.
 Ibid., 99.
 Ibid., 105.
This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.
Image credit: Unsplash.