Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic study of Christian community makes it clear that true community is not an easy thing. In fact, it is not a human possibility, for only the Holy Spirit can produce a community that actually functions as the body of Christ.
One of the principal obstacles to embodying a biblical vision of life together in the American context is the prevailing culture of therapeutic individualism. Most of us see ourselves first as individuals rather than as members of family, church, nation, etc. We have imbibed deeply at the river of self-care and self-fulfillment. Indeed, we have difficulty imagining any approach other than “me first” even in the spiritual realm.
I am struck by this repeatedly when I listen to much of the music we sing in our churches. How often the lyrics abound with first person singulars! “I” and “me” appear with dreary monotony as we reinforce the idea that Christian faith is basically about me and Jesus. Why don’t we sing about “we” and “us”? Sometimes I purposely change the words to plural just to resist the tide of Christian narcissism.
In his recent book Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? Daniel Kirk discusses how this same cultural filter leads to a misunderstanding of the apostle’s teaching regarding spiritual gifts:
In one of the most profound ironies of my own experience, talk of such gifts has usually been part of a larger vision of self-discovery. We take inventories to see what gifts each one of us has. We sit down with a list of tasks wherein we might find ourselves well employed within our gifting. In the process, what for Paul was an inherent part of life in community is co-opted by our individualistic Christianity as a means to self-fulfillment (p. 67).
In spite of all the communitarian talk we hear today, Bonhoeffer is right: true community is not a human possibility. May the Spirit of God awaken his people to be the church!
Dave Dunbar is president of Biblical Seminary. He has been married to Sharon for 42 years. They have four grown children and six grand children.