Aristotle, Bonhoeffer, and Christian Community

by Winston Hottman

church worshipTo explain what is unique about human community, Aristotle distinguishes between speech and voice:

Speech is something different from voice, which is possessed by other animals also and used by them to express pain or pleasure; for their nature does indeed enable them not only to feel pleasure and pain but to communicate these feelings to each other. Speech, on the other hand serves to indicate what is useful and what is harmful, and so also what is just and what is unjust. For the real difference between man and other animals is that humans alone have perception of good and evil, just and unjust, etc. It is the sharing of a common view in these matters that makes a household and a state. (Politics, I.ii)

Aristotle identifies speech with the capacity of human beings to communicate moral value to one another. Unlike other animals, we are capable of differentiating between good and evil and expressing those moral judgments. It is as we communicate and gather around shared values that community comes into being.

If Aristotles observations about the function of speech within a community are true, how does this play out within the community of the church? In his classic work on Christian community, Life Together, Bonhoeffer explains how speech functions within the church:

God has put this Word [Word of Jesus Christ] into the mouth of men in order that it may be communicated to other men. When one person is struck by the Word, he speaks it to others. God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks Gods Word to him. He needs him again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brothers is sure.

And that also clarifies the goal of all Christian community: they meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.

As Bonhoeffer makes clear elsewhere, our speech does not create Christian community. We exist as the church because God has spoken in Christ, not because we have spoken. God has gathered us around His Living Word and united us in Him.

But within this community, God has not chosen to speak in a way that circumvents our own involvement. As Bonhoeffer notes, His Word comes to us in the witness of our brothers and sisters in Christ as we continue to proclaim the message of salvation to one another. Having been gathered around the Word, we speak the Word to one another, sharing a common view of Christ who is most valuable in our lives.

Whether preaching, singing, praying, encouraging, counseling, or sharing in communion, we are to be about one fundamental task: proclaiming the gospel. Not just to the world outside but among ourselves, acknowledging that it is the Word of God that has created us and sustains us as a community.

In our pragmatic Christian culture, quick fixes that are touted as the solutions to our ecclesiastical woes usually just involve more doing and are based on simplistic and skimpy versions of the gospel. What we really need is a recovery of a full, robust gospel that is worth proclaiming and hearing.

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