In reflecting on the claims of Christian ethics on secular institutions, Bonhoeffer has recourse to the universal Lordship of Christ, which is grounded not only in his creation of all that is, but also in his redemption of all that is. This means that all things find their true meaning and “innate law” in obedience to Christ:
In the proclamation of the dominion of Christ over secular institutions these institutions are not made subject to an alien rule, for “he came unto his own” (John 1.11) and “by him all things consist” (Col. 1.17). [….] Under the dominion of Christ they attain to their own true character and become subject to their own innate law, which is theirs according to the manner of their creation. Nor, on the other hand, are they made subject to the arbitrary rule of a so-called autonomy which is fundamentally nothing but lawlessness, ἀνομία, and sin, but within the world which is created, love and reconciled by God in Christ they receive the place which is characteristic, proper and right for them. Thus under the dominion of Christ they receive their own law and their own liberty. (Ethics, p.323)
It is remarkable how much such a view has in common with the Dutch neo-Calvinism of a Kuyper or Dooyeweerd. All things, including, for Bonhoeffer, especially the four “mandates” of Church, family, government and labour, become properly themselves in obedience to the divine commandment contained within the proclamation of Christ. They do not become something foreign, such that they should be called a “Christian family,” “Christian government” or “Christian labour,” but simply family as it should be, government as it should be, labour as it should be and was created to be by Christ “in whom all things hang together” (Col. 1:17).
Since chapel yesterday I’ve been thinking on the life of Christian community. Whenever I get to thinking about this, my mind goes to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together. In particular, I often think of this passage, which I’ve shared before:
Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with them a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams [….] Whoever loves their dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. (26-27)
I was reminded of this passage again as I was reading Henri Nouwen on solitude:
In solitude we become aware that we were together before we came together and that life is not a creation of our will but rather an obedient response to the reality of our being united [….] In solitude we indeed experience that community is not made but given. (Clowning in Rome, 14, 13.)
Although Bonhoeffer approaches the story of the rich young ruler from a different perspective than I do, his commentary is both insightful and desperately challenging. You can find and compare my thoughts here.
If, as we read our Bibles, we heard Jesus speaking to us in this way to-day we should probably try to argue ourselves out of it like this: “It is true that the demand of Jesus is definite enough, but I have to remember that he never expects us to take his commands legalistically. What he really wants me to have is faith. But my faith is not necessarily tied up with riches or poverty or anything of the kind. We may be both poor and rich in the spirit. It is not important that I should have no possessions, but if I do I must keep them as though I had them not, in other words I must cultivate a spirit of inward detachment, so that my heart is not in my possessions.” Jesus may have said: “Sell thy goods,” but he meant: “Do not let it be a matter of consequence to you that you have outward prosperity; rather keep your goods quietly, having them as if you had them not. Let not your heart be in your goods.”—We are excusing ourselves from single-minded obedience to the word of Jesus on the pretext of legalism and a supposed preference for an obedience “in faith.” The difference between ourselves and the rich young man is that he was not allowed to solace his regrets by saying: “Never mind what Jesus says, I can still hold on to my riches, but in a spirit of inner detachment. Despite my inadequacy I can take comfort in the thought that God has forgiven me my sins and can have fellowship with Christ in faith.” But no, he went away sorrowful. Because he would not obey, he could not believe. In this the young man was quite honest. He went away from Jesus and indeed this honesty had more promise than any apparent communion with Jesus based on disobedience. (The Cost of Discipleship, pp.79-80)