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Challenged to be the church

Adolf Hitler greets Reich Bishop Mueller and Abbot Schachleitner in a 1933 photo. From the website www.nobeliefs.com/nazis.htm

THE CHURCH has reduced itself to being a mere service-provider and a dispenser of sentimentality and meaningless assurance.

That was the astonishing claim of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his 1937 book, simply titled Discipleship.

While he laboured with a sense of urgency that seemed almost to demand that he write it, Discipleship was not produced in response to the rise of National Socialism in 1933 or even the constitution of the Reich Church under Hanns Kerrl in 1935.

Such political events paled compared to the catastrophe that was occurring within the church.

In Bonhoeffer’s reckoning, there had been a chronic malfunction in the church’s life which all but neutralised any effective witness it might have to the world.

Somehow, since Luther, “grace” had ceased being the power which bound the church to Christ, which elicits the repetition of the drama of death and resurrection in the lives of members of the church.

It had instead been perverted, cheapened, and re-tooled so as to consecrate indiscriminately all the banality and godlessness of culture, thus effectively baptising German society as “Christian.”

“Grace” was shorthand for a gospel aimed at making people “feel more secure in their godless lives.”

Clearly pained by this realisation, Bonhoeffer was forced to conclude that the church was no longer the church.

It had abandoned its calling to be “salt and light,” and had whored itself to the state, offering its wares in exchange for financial security and the benefit of a quiet and peaceful existence.

Bonhoeffer wrote, “We gave away preaching and sacraments cheaply; we performed baptisms and confirmations; we absolved an entire people, unquestioned and unconditionally … When was the world ever Christianised more dreadfully and wickedly than here?”

Surrounded by a nominally Christian culture without, and having been inoculated against the unconditional demands of real grace within, Bonhoeffer believed the church stood condemned to the existence it chose for itself: one of self-congratulating obsolescence.

The church was functionally dead, and yet prided itself on being prosperous and alive.

Bonhoeffer continued, “Like ravens we have gathered around the carcass of cheap grace. From it we have imbibed the poison which has killed the following of Jesus among us.”

Despite the oft made claims that Howard’s or Beattie’s politics are proto-fascist, there is a vast difference between our society and that of Germany in the 1930s and it is disingenuous to exaggerate similarities just to make a point.

But what is striking about Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship is how unaffected it seems by the political climate.

The sole concern of the book is what had taken place in the church to make it susceptible to the allure of the pompous nationalist idolatry of Nazi Germany.

It is here that the parallels with our condition are most pronounced, and most terrifying.

Bonhoeffer observed that one of the great contradictions of German Protestantism was that its adherents were indeed “members of a true-believing church with a pure doctrine of grace, but no longer members of a church which follows Christ.”

Similarly, the perilousness of our present situation comes into focus as soon as one looks at the stark difference between our ‘official’ statements of belief and the realities of our practice.

Paragraph 4 of the Basis of Union represents one of the great formulations of ecclesiology of modern times: “Through human witness in word and action, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ reaches out to command people’s attention and awaken faith; he calls people into the fellowship of his sufferings, to be the disciples of a crucified Lord; in his own strange way Christ constitutes, rules and renews them as his Church.”

One wonders, when the language of witness and discipleship is so prominent in the Basis of Union, why are the practices of witness and discipleship so undervalued in Uniting Churches?

Everywhere one turns today, the unconditional summons to discipleship has been swapped for shameless attempts to entice people into church attendance by the lure of facile ‘community oriented’ programs.

The call to “bear witness” to Christ “in word and action” has been traded (with the encouragement of certain pseudo-theological trends that are flowing through our church’s veins like a cancer) for the bland affirmation of each individual’s idolatrous quest to discover the divine in us all.

And many of our ministers have abandoned the sharp corners of tough Christian belief and practice for fuzzy ecumenism, pursuing the well-worn paths of least mental resistance instead of the hard work of theological clarity.

In our time, the commitment to ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue has become a smokescreen for our own exceedingly tenuous grasp of the Christian faith.

With this escalating catastrophe taking place within our own church, the saddest indictment of all is that the only thing that gets everyone talking about the state of the Uniting Church is the decline in attendance recorded by the latest census.

Perhaps the most radical challenge facing the Uniting Church today is to have the courage to actually be the church!

Scott Stephens is an author, theologian and minister at Chermside Kedron Uniting Church. He teaches ethics at Trinity Theological College and is a regular contributor to Journey

Photo : Adolf Hitler greets Reich Bishop Mueller and Abbot Schachleitner in a 1933 photo. From the website www.nobeliefs.com/nazis.htm