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I inherited my mother’s copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and read it while traveling out West last month. It’s not an easy read. I’ve been trying to digest it ever since.

There’s a section where Bonhoeffer minimizes the value of the church, at least as an institution. This caught my attention because I and many others like me are witnessing the demise of the denominations in which we were born and bred. Bonhoeffer suggests that it’s OK to let them go. Human institutions, he argues, tend to codify the original disunity with God. They institutionalize the temptation to discern between good and evil, to play the role of ultimate authority, the role of creator.

Bonhoeffer observes that when we act within these faulty human parameters, we experience anxiety. In order to quell our anxious hearts, we double down on these codes and their application. As is the case with all addictions, we become increasingly severe in our judgments and our severity serves to hide our own emptiness. We say to ourselves and the world: “Surely there are no problems here, look how orderly and discerning we are!”

To my ears, this sounds much like what’s happening in my denomination, the Reformed Church in America and the white American evangelical church at large. We have become a place that never really puts the sin and salvation narrative to rest. We’re characterized by a lack of joy. There can be no peace for those of us who, no matter how sincere, are caught up in a constant search for guilt and a constant application of judgment.

Bonhoeffer points out that Jesus wasn’t the least bit interested in playing this game. He says in effect, “I’m not going to entertain your nonsense.” The Kingdom of God is entirely elsewhere. There is a way that leads to life and a way that leads to death. Choose life. My ways are not your ways.

Everything leads back to creation and God’s original intent. Only in a restored creation can we commune with God and be at rest. Discerning good and evil is a fatiguing and guaranteed-to-fail enterprise. Anything which is not anchored to the ultimate foundation of reality — creation in and through Jesus — has no option except to fail.

In all this, Bonhoeffer places a strong emphasis on the humanity of Jesus, on Jesus being fully accountable for human failures and simultaneously fully transcending them. His humanity wasn’t just a transactional necessity in meeting the requirements of a cosmic legal system. Jesus wasn’t a victim. He was the manifestation of love and the foundation of reality.

Bottom line: Jesus’ humanity is an endorsement of everything related to human experience. The notion of leaving the body behind as having little value and escaping to heaven is not the truth of the Gospel. This premise is, rather, a sophisticated variation on the discerning good and evil narrative. It’s a rejection of who Jesus is. God’s love is originally, and only, manifest in a concrete place and in real, concrete human societies.

Peter Boogaart

Peter Boogaart is retired and living in Zeeland, Michigan. He has been active in the Creation Care Ministry at Hope Church, Holland, Michigan, as well as the Holland Chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Peter has served as a consultant to both county and city governments for planning a responsible energy future. He is a graduate of Western Theological Seminary.  

7 Comments

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Thank you for this. After just finishing a very productive group at church that read through and discussed the Report on Human Sexuality in a safe and respectful manner, I am beginning to feel more and more that the church is more focused on drawing lines in the sand that keep us all safe instead of throwing open the doors to be Christ to the world. Even though the word ‘love’ is used often, it seems the focus is on playing “the role of ultimate authority, the role of creator”, as you have paraphrased Bonhoeffer. Makes me sad for this CRC denomination I have loved my whole life.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Peter,
    That was an excellent piece. I appreciate Bonhoeffer and I have concern for the church that is being decimated for the staying true to what the church members feel is the gospel. We have not joined together to try to get rid of the infidelity that has taken place in the church and other sins between people of different genders. I am against us joining an organization that attempts to just target the gays. We are all sinners in many different ways.

  • James C Dekker says:

    Thank you. This judgmental “discerning of good and evil” characterizes well the HSR’s process and conclusions, finally aiming at, in the committee’s opinion, LGBTQ people who don’t comform to the report’s strictures. They become the scapegoat, even being implicated as potentially losing salvation. That is so sad, but a large number of my pastor colleagues embrace that position and are willing and even advocating schism. In the report’s view sexuality has become a salvation issue. That’s a mighty small foundation for a church’s theology and shrinks still further the witness to God’s love and Christ’s work.

  • Gordon says:

    Amen, and thank you Pete for this. For all have sinned…. What makes sexuality the salvation issue is beyond my comprehension.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    Part of me loves this idea, and it is easy to note the times when individuals were right and the church was wrong. Another part of me, however, realizes that there were also times when individuals were wrong and the church got it right. All humans individuals and all human institutions are prone to error and sin and need to be held accountable. Humility is needed on both sides and all our judgments are subject to further review.

  • This is squarely where I find myself with regard to my denominational roots, which have manifested in the purity mindset in most of the local congregations. I see Genesis 3 as a warning not to focus on the knowledge of good and evil, for that is a deadly enterprise. Life is found in relationship with God who only cares about sin because it hurts everything it touches. Thank you for sharing Bonhoeffer’s conclusions.

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