This afternoon, Joel Lawrence’s lecture bore the intriguing title, “Death Together: Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Becoming the Church for Others.” Lawrence, assistant professor of systematic theology at Bethel Seminary in St Paul, Minnesota, repeatedly returned to Bonhoeffer’s theme that the Church is the Church only when it is for others. But how does it become that? The story opens in a Garden, specifically Eden. In Eden, life centers around God and the tree of life, and human freedom is limited in the sense that it is about being free for the sake of others. The second act in the story is sin, namely selfishness and an inward-focused heart. This can only spell death: man is now the center of the universe, alone and limitless but unable to bear the gift of life for others. The third act focuses on Jesus as the human being for others, who restores humanity to fellowship with God.
In Christology, Bonhoeffer is interested specifically in the nature of Christ concretized in history, taking form in the church; Christ exists as the church community, which has an ontological connection to its head. In the church, the new humanity in Christ is formed in history, actualized by the Holy Spirit. Christ’s nature replaces the sinful, self-centered nature, and thus the church is for others.
How does this actually happen, this transformation from self-centered to other-focused? Confession is the heart of this death (to self) together. Here Lawrence draws from two pieces by Bonhoeffer dealing with confession. Confession is the heart of “Spiritual Care” – we must confess we are sinners, before we can receive grace. Confession is the grace which puts to death the old Adam by breaking our pride, freeing us and opening us up to true community. Confession is also central to “Life Together,” which has a chapter on this practice. Confession is the breakthrough to real community (we cannot be freed from sin until we allow that we are sinners), to the cross, new life, and assurance.
Confession is communal because it is from one person to another, thus ending the isolation and solitude produced by sin. The church becomes for others through the practice of confession. Lawrence asks, do we lack life in the church because we lack death? The church exists to be the form of Christ on earth, and to represent Christ the church must face death to sin and self, in order to experience new life and be for others.