I recently had a conversation with a friend who spent twenty years in prison for a violent crime. Christ rescued him from his sin and transformed his life shortly before he was convicted and sentenced. He spent the duration of his time serving the Lord while locked up. He said something that struck me about the community life of Christians behind bars: “We all knew we were bad people. That’s why we were in prison, so there was a transparency we were able to have with one another.” This transparency is something he said he’s had difficulty finding in the church off the yard. When you’re incarcerated, it’s hard to pretend that you’re better than you are. It’s common knowledge that you’ve done horrible things, so confessing your sins to one another comes a little more naturally. This openness helped him build relationships with other believers that were more than surface level, and which contributed to his sanctification. “Real Christian growth can only come with genuine transparency,” he said.
He was on to something profound, and our discussion reminded me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s wise words in his classic book on Christian community, Life Together. In so many churches today, Bonhoeffer says, there’s little genuine fellowship because we only know one another as “devout people.” We all put on a front to protect ourselves from criticism (or worse). People only know a caricature that we’ve curated. The contrived and pious individual we show others conceals the real “me”—the one who struggles immensely to obey God, and even fails to do so at times. We become a church not of “bad people,” but of characters who look good externally.
But in this kind of community, no one really knows each other. And when perchance an individual does open up and become vulnerable, they’re met not with the thunderous proclamation of gospel forgiveness, but crickets. Churches for “good people” who have their lives together don’t know how to address sin, so it has to stay hidden.
The Problem With “Pious Fellowship”
Bonhoeffer wrote, “The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy.”
In prison, my friend couldn’t hide that he was a sinner because the law had already convicted every person there. It got me thinking that “pious fellowships” can only exist where God’s law isn’t taken as seriously as it should be. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that to sinfully harbor anger towards another would make you liable to God’s judgment as a murderer (Matt. 5:22), and that to look upon someone lustfully made you guilty of adultery (Matt. 5:28). One of Christ’s points there is that we’re all guilty.
Later, Paul writes that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23), and that God showed us his love not when we were pious saints, but pernicious rebels (Rom. 5:6–11). While we don’t revel in our sin as followers of Jesus, we must embrace the fact that we’re convicts, justly condemned apart from God’s grace, and desperately in need of his sustaining Spirit. We must know each other in the church as sinners who are declared saints by God’s free justification, not pretenders who have “life together” in a sense other than Bonhoeffer’s meaning.
Genuine Community Begins With Confession
The remedy for this kind of pious fellowship is confessing our sins to one another. This is something the Bible encourages (James 5:16), but which many of us have great difficulty with.
If we have a low view of God’s law, we won’t think we’re sinners (and therefore won’t confess), but if we have a low view of God’s gospel, we’ll also neglect confession because we’ll simply feel hopeless. If churches are going to be places where genuine community takes place—the kind that goes beneath the surface to the soul—we’ll need to preach the law with full force, and bring the truth of the gospel to bear with all of its goodness. Again, Bonhoeffer wrote,
But it is the grace of the gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you … The mask you wear before men will do you no good before Him. He wants to see you as you are, He wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and your brothers, as if you were without sin; you can dare to be a sinner. Thank God for that; He loves the sinner but He hates the sin.
This gospel-wrought transparency gives birth to genuine Christian community and demolishes the contrived fellowship of the pious. It also brings with it another glorious benefit: God ordinarily uses confession to help us kill the sins we’re honest about. It’s in the light of honesty that sin loses its power over us. Many believers are trapped in patterns of sin they’ve spent years concealing instead of confessing. But in the light of confession, our sins are brought out of the closet and under the cross, and it’s there—beneath the cross of Jesus—where sinners find real community.