I wrote recently about the “flip principle” as regards church leaders and the congregation: the congregation desires authority which by grace has been given to the leaders alone; the leaders alone perform works of ministry which by grace have been asked of the whole congregation. I trembled as I wrote the words—as I tremble when writing almost anything pertaining to God, his Word, and the life of the congregation—for fear that I had gone too far, had spoken too directly, had diminished the priesthood of believers in order to exalt an office I hold.
Then I read Bonhoeffer, as I am wont to do, and found my words soft, indirect, even diminishing the office of preaching in the face of the congregation—perhaps because of my own acquiescence to American democratic egalitarianism!
In his magisterial Ethics, he writes concerning the commandment of God in the Church:
[The office of preaching] is instituted directly by Jesus Christ Himself; it does not derive its legitimation from the will of the congregation but from the will of Jesus Christ. It is established in the congregation and not by the congregation, and at the same time it is with the congregation. When this office is exercised in the congregation to its full extent, life is infused into all the other offices of the congregation, which can after all only be subservient to the office of the divine word; for wherever the word of God rules alone, there will be found faith and service. The congregation which is being awakened by the proclamation of the word of God will demonstrate the genuineness of its faith by honouring the office of preaching in its unique glory and by serving it with all its powers; it will not rely on its own faith or on the universal priesthood of all believers in order to depreciate the office of preaching, to place obstacles in its way, or even to try to make it subordinate to itself. The superior status of the office of preaching is preserved from abuse, and against danger from without, precisely by a genuine subordination of the congregation, that is to say, by faith, prayer and service, but not by a suppression or disruption of the divine order by a perverse desire for superiority on the part of the congregation.
All this seems well in line with the teaching of Scripture, especially in its emphasis on true church leadership and the distinction to be maintained between leaders and congregants, the priesthood of all believers notwithstanding. (Indeed, I think the strongest statement of the priesthood of all believers comes directly after Paul’s distinguishing leaders from congregants in Ephesians 4:11-6.)
But Bonhoeffer presses on, as he is wont to do, and challenges our reactive Reformation approach to the Scriptures within the congregation:
The office of proclamation, the testimony to Jesus Christ, is inseparably bound up with Holy Scripture. At this point we must venture to advance the proposition that Scripture is essentially the property of the office of preaching and that it is the preaching which properly belongs to the congregation. Scripture requires to be interpreted and preached. By its nature it is not a book of edification for the congregation. What rightly belongs to the congregation is the text of the sermon together with the interpretation of the this text, and on this basis there is a “searching of the Scriptures, whether these things be so” (Acts 17.11), that is to say, whether they are really as the preaching has proclaimed them to be; in certain unusual circumstances, therefore, there arises the necessity for contradicting the preaching on the basis of Holy Scripture. But even here it is presupposed that Holy Scripture belongs essentially to the office of teaching. If individual Christians, or groups of Christians, seize hold of the Bible, appealing to the equal right of all Christians, to the right of the faithful to speak for themselves and to the self-evident truth of the scriptural word, it is by no means a sign of special reverence or special scriptural understanding for the essential character of the divine revelation. In this lies the source of a great deal of presumption, disorder, rebellion and scriptural confusion. Respect for the holy character of the Scripture demands recognition of the fact that it is only by grace that a man is called upon to interpret and proclaim it and that it is also by grace that a man is permitted even to be a hearer of the interpretation and proclamation. The book of homilies and the prayer-book are the principal books for the congregation; the Holy Scripture is the book for the preacher; there can be little doubt that this formulation correctly represents the divinely ordained relationship between the congregation and the office. It must at the same time be borne clearly in mind that these ideas do not spring from a clergyman’s desire to schoolmaster the laity; they follow from the revelation of God himself.
These are tough words, flying in the face of much contemporary thinking, but I suspect Bonhoeffer’s last assertion is true: this is the revelation of God himself throughout the New Testament. Many of the errors of both theory and practice in the local church spring from a diminished view of the office of proclamation and an elevated view of the role of the congregation.
One needn’t agree with every jot and tittle of Bonhoeffer’s work in order to gain mightily from reflection on the problem he exposes. To that reflection I challenge you—both preachers and congregants—to commit yourselves.