A letter to the Assemblies from beyond the grave

(The following was an assignment for a class I took last year that I found fun to do. We were to write a letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to our church fellowship/denomination using only Scripture and Bonhoeffer’s Ethics. If you have read Bonhoeffer what would you think he might say to your church?):

Grüße euch Gott und des Herrn Jesus Christus,

I am writing to you to encourage your continued growth in the Lord. As a fellowship of churches constituting the Assemblies of God you have accomplished tremendous things in the work of Spirit empowered global evangelism in your less than one hundred year history. With great fervor, you have preached what has been proclaimed as the “full gospel”. In your fervor to be true to the full account of Scripture, you have managed to steer the right course (past the shipwreck of countless other movements) through many treacherous theological and ethical waters.

However, there is one area in the sea of ethics that has become to you a hidden rock beneath the surface. You have rightly emphasized the life of holiness as inherent and necessary to the life of all believers. I would continue to affirm your strong desire to obey the command of Christ in everything and to “be holy as He is holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16). Where you have steered wrongly is in the area – most clearly visible to even your own constituents – of declaring ethical principles as if they were direct correlatives of the command of Christ. In turn, holiness has become the guise for legalism and thereby the beckoning song (“Biblical Principles”) of those ancient Sirens – “Self-Righteousness” and “Judmentalism” – has been heeded to the detriment and endangerment of all.

You may ask, “How could biblical principles ever lead anyone to ruin?” The answer is multi-faceted, but the peril of heeding the allure of biblical principles lies in the inherent deceptiveness of the very idea. Principles, be they labeled “biblical” or otherwise, are a ruinous “attempt to reduce ethics to a static basic formula.”[1] Formulas in turn fail precisely because they do not allow for the treatment of the living individual as living or individual, nor do they allow God to be properly God.

Let me explain what I mean further. The principles that you have regarded as “biblical” should in fact be regarded not as principles at all. They should either be recognized as the living command of the living God to living humanity or else as altogether unbiblical. Certain of your historically held and explicitly stated principles (do not smoke, drink alcoholic beverages, attend theatres or dances) should certainly be included in the latter category as “unbiblical”. Nowhere do we find the command of God regarding these specific issues as you have treated them. In fact, the implications of much of scripture would actually allow for all of these supposed restrictions to be permitted, even though not necessarily beneficial.

Concerning the former type of principles that you have wrongly believed “biblical,” we must discuss in further detail. You have, for many years now, made it clear that no minister having been divorced may ever remarry without losing his or her credentials. There may possibly be biblical support for this highly nuanced interpretation (1 Timothy 3:2). Yet, it has been treated not as the living command of the living God to living humanity, but as a universal principle to be applied without regard for any variance in circumstances. The principal ignores context “regardless of the consequences” and the consequences grow direr as time presses on.[2]

Too long have you denied your co-laborers the opportunity and calling of God upon their lives by ignoring each one’s circumstances. While not every one of them will be fit to the ministry of pastor, why should all be excluded without due consideration of each one as an individual that stands before God? Has the Lord regarded you in this way? Does He not treat you with grace and mercy according to your circumstances? Does His calling and commandment not speak specifically to you in your exact context?

Have you so readily exchanged grace – as the free gift of God – for the righteousness of self? Alternatively, have you surrendered mercy of God for the judgment that you think rightly belongs to you? Has God placed these at your disposal to be disregarded for the sake of obeying a “principle”? Consider your brothers and sisters in the Lord not as those whom you can treat lightly or dishonorably, without thought to their story, but treat them instead as recipients of God’s sovereign grace and mercy. Thereby, you might witness what the Lord’s specific will is for each of them instead of trying to determine ahead of time what was never yours to determine anyways.

In as much as your calling is to live responsibly as things should be, you are called to live in reality.[3] You must not entertain the false notion that you have been given responsibility to declare righteous or unrighteous by the application of one “principle”. The command of God is specific to context and as such deals mercifully and graciously and not as the principle. Do not disregard what is, for what you think should be. Encounter what is through love, that is grace and mercy, and allow God to resolve the issues of what should be and indeed, what will be.[4] Leave the determination of what is right and what must be to Him.

You might further respond, “If we leave the determination only to God then is there any room for our judging right and wrong?” There is certainly room to make the determination of right and wrong, but it belongs to God. You must not simply ask, “what did God say,” but rightly “what is God saying?” His commandment is living. His commandment is life. That life is our Lord Jesus Christ. He is not abstract or universal principle to be comprehended then applied. He is the living commandment of God to be encountered and lived out daily in life as “new every morning” (Lam.3:23).

Each new encounter requires freshness and discernment. We must repeatedly and humbly approach the Lord through His Word and hear His voice. What is the Lord Jesus – the eternal and living Word – saying through the Spirit to the church in each particular place and circumstance? If He did not regard the churches of Asia (Rev.2-3) as under universal principle, but spoke a particular message to each, how much more so will He continue to speak to each church and each person through His Spirit concerning their particular circumstances? You must once again hear His voice over the dissonant din of self-righteousness and judgmentalism.

Self-righteousness is that righteousness that seeks and even demands to be right. It is a righteousness which knows itself to be righteousness and no longer has need of grace and mercy. It is the church of Laodicea that pronounces herself as having “need of nothing” and yet the Lord Jesus reserves the most scathing rebuke for her and declares her as actually having nothing, because she needs nothing (Rev.3:17). Grace and mercy demand open confession of unrighteousness and open the door to the knocking Lord (Rev.3:19-20).[5]

This self-righteousness creates new lords instead of owning the Lord. You must reject every pretense of righteousness that exists apart from the judgment and righteousness of Christ (Rom.5:17).[6] His righteousness is the only righteousness and he is the only one given the authority to declare righteous. Do not presume to declare yourselves righteous in these ethical matters because you have followed a principle. Can you make or even call yourselves righteous when he has reserved this for himself (1 Cor.4:4)? Silence the voice of self-righteousness!

Judgmentalism is that wicked sister to self-righteousness. Judgmentalism rests on the strength and merit of the one who is self proclaimed righteous. It casts a condemning eye upon all that is not like self and finally even upon the self. It is the act of a person bound to forever repeat the sin of the Garden. It asks, “Did God really say…?” and then answers with the proud proclamation of having ascended above the very throne of God Himself (Gen.3:1 NIV; Isa.14:13; Rom.10:6). The judged then becomes the judge.

Do not dare to proclaim judgment for yourself where God reserves it to Himself. Do not pretend to know the mind of God concerning every situation or even any situation. Instead, let God speak again and let him who judges rightly be the judge. Jesus did not even judge while on the earth, but left this to the Father. How much more so should we reserve judgment to “Him who judges justly” (1 Pet.2:23 NIV). By this, you will shut the mouth of judgmentalism!

You have, of late, begun to shift course and attempt to turn from the destruction that would soon befall you. Do not lose heart in your struggle to be holy and yet a people of grace and mercy! Continue to change what has for too long been regarded as “principle” into what must become rightly the living command of God. Hear his voice calling your name and speaking into your situation. Do not allow for sin, but do not determine for yourselves what sin is. Allow the Holy Spirit to direct and guide you. Let the Holy One take the helm and guide you safely along in your blessed journey.

If only your “principles” had sooner been corrected and exchanged for the living command. That is, before there were countless persons treated with utter disregard in the rampage of the over-zealous and grace-deficient. The living command may yet restore much of what was damaged and once again give you the blessing promised (Joel 2:25). His judgment of you will be merciful if you will be merciful. It was our Lord Jesus who declared that in as much as you forgive others their sins (even personal sins against you), you will be forgiven yours (Matt.6:14-15; 7:12; 18:21-35). Therefore, forgive and be forgiven.

Let the living command of God be life to you and those around you. Walk in mercy, proclaiming the forgiveness of God to everyone that will receive it. Embrace and bless those that by “principle” are your enemies as if they were your brother or your neighbor (Rom.12:14, 17, 20-21). Love them and do not judge them, but let God deal with them (Rom.12:19). Plead to God for mercy on their behalf, whether those without voice or without the current will to plead for themselves (Matt.5:44). Perhaps God will grant them and yourself the mercy that is so desperately and daily needed.

Even more so, love those that are of the family of God (Rom.12:10; Gal.6:10). Pray for them, have mercy on them, forgive them, do not judge, but do confront in love and with all humility (Gal.6:1-5). Treat sin seriously and do not allow ongoing rebellion against the living command of God. Break fellowship when demanded, but seek earnestly to restore fellowship freely (1 Cor.5-6; Gal.6:1; Eph.5:5-7). While holding your pastoral and elder leadership responsible to right living, do not treat them by principle, but treat them as living persons before the living God. Encourage them and uphold them in prayer that the gospel might spread ever wider and with greater power (Matt.9:38; 1 Tim.2:1-4). Pray that they might lead by the living command of God, guided by the ever-speaking Holy Spirit.

Finally, I do commend those of you that have been brave enough to warn the others of the impending doom of your misguided course. There have been many voices (may there be many more) and their crescendo has risen as they give notice of the crashing waves against the rock of legalism. Your Assemblies must not continue headlong towards the beckoning and bewitching voices of “Self-Righeousness” and “Judgmentalism”. You must resist their call at every turn. Lend your ear instead to the overwhelming harmony of Grace and Mercy cried loudly upon Calvary’s tree and hear again the victorious melody, “Do this and you shall live” (Luke 10:28 NIV).

Your Fellow Traveler and Coworker In Christ,
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Vol. 6 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 220.
[2] Ibid., 220.
[3] Ibid., 222.
[4] Ibid., 225, 233.
[5] Ibid., 136.
[6] Ibid., 142.

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