Just because you’re standing in a kitchen doesn’t make you a toaster. Or a Pop-Tart.
When I hear people tell me that their lifelong membership in a church means they’re automatically and obviously Christians, I have to do a little quick translating. I understand that some church traditions teach this, and can explain the theological reasoning for this belief, but my own convictions on this particular topic overlap that of the renegades of the Reformation, the Anabaptists. We may well belong to a congregation, but that does automatically make us followers of the risen Messiah. I had to tap my understanding of Lutheran theology and church history to decode Chapter 5 in Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. (I’m blogging my way through this contemporary classic. Click here to review earlier posts in the series.)
…at least this is certain: in one way or the other, we shall have to leave the immediacy of the world and become individuals, whether secretly or openly.
Most of us in this country are really, really good at being individuals. At least, we think we are. So the language found in Chapter 5 encouraging people to come out from the herd and be individuals in order to follow Jesus faithfully can seem a little strange to our American ears. It is helpful to remember Bonhoeffer’s context in 1930’s Germany, where the state-aligned Lutheran church had become a vehicle for “Christian” patriotic nationalism. The majority of German citizenry were born and baptized into the church, and belonging was just a piece of what it meant to be a member of society. Bonhoeffer challenged that default setting:
There can be no genuine thanksgiving for the blessings of nation, family, history and nature without the heart-felt penitence which gives the glory to Christ alone above all else. There can be no real attachment to the given creation, no genuine responsibility in the world, unless we recognize the breach which already separates us from it.
He cites Abraham as an example of the kind of individual response which should be normative for each person responding to the call of God in their lives, noting that it was only Abram who heard the specific call, not the entire group of people surrounding him. Those who went with him were bound to him by fidelity to their relationship, as Lot and his people were, or via the one-flesh covenant of marriage, as Sarai was. But Bonhoeffer notes that the model for us is not the group who traveled with him, but the reality that God called Abram as an individual and Abram responded as an individual. We see the same individual call and response in Abraham’s life when it came time to walk up Mt. Moriah with his teen son, Isaac, and offer the child to God.
Perhaps the most important message of this chapter is reminding us of the order of things: we must respond to God as individuals first, and then find our place in the family of God. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place of welcome in a healthy church community for not-yet-believers – there most certainly is! – but to allow the message that church membership automatically equals following Jesus is spiritual malpractice. You might be in the metaphorical kitchen by attending church, but it takes a spin in the toaster to make that a single strawberry Pop-Tart into something new.
Reflect: What is your understanding of the relationship between individual response to God and membership/belonging to a church body?
Prayer: God, please give me ears to hear your call, and the will to respond to that call. If I am a life-long church attender, help me to gain clarity on what that means and doesn’t mean in my relationship with you. I ask this in the name of Jesus, who calls each of us as individuals to follow you, and then invites us as our head to be living members of his body. Amen.