Eberhard Arnold always emphasized Gemeinde – the living congregation of believers – over Kirche, the church as an institution or establishment. He believed that the true church transcends time and space, uniting all those who call on God and receive his Spirit. Thus the church is past and present and future, and lives on earth as well as in heaven. For him, the high point of the ecclesiastical year was Pentecost: the celebration of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as the foundation of the “living church.”
The following address, a response to a letter from his friend, the Swiss Religious Socialist Leonard Ragaz, touches on these themes. Ragaz had asked whether Eberhard’s community, the Bruderhof, considered itself to be “the” church – as opposed to just one of many other members in the “family of Christ.” The question, Ragaz conceded, was a delicate one: “If such a great thing would be given to you, should you not handle it with the utmost reserve, as a miracle which could easily withdraw, something of which you were not worthy, as none of us is?”
Eberhard considered Ragaz’s question carefully, dedicating three evenings in March 1933 to the topic; the excerpt below summarizes these discussions.
It is of decisive importance that we remember the mission of the church as it is laid upon us in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. If anyone asks us whether we, a few weak and needy people living in community, are “the” church, we have to say, No, we are not. Like all human beings, however, we are the recipients of God’s love. And like everyone else – more so, if anything – we are unworthy and unfit for the work of the Holy Spirit, for the building of the church, and for its mission to the world.
But if anyone asks, “Does the church of God come down to you?” – then we have to answer yes. The church comes down wherever believers are gathered who have no other will but that God’s kingdom come and that the church of Jesus Christ be revealed. The church is wherever the Holy Spirit is.
Of course, we need to call on God if we want to receive the Holy Spirit; willpower by itself is not enough, because it remains rooted in what is human. The Holy Spirit alone has the power to bring the church to us.
There is, however, one other condition that must be fulfilled: we need to agree on the one object of our pleading because only when we are united in our asking will the impossible become possible. Unless our prayer is made as one body, the Holy Spirit will not be poured out. Without the pouring out of the Holy Spirit the church will not be established and built up. Without the working of the Holy Spirit there is no perfect fellowship, no living body of Jesus Christ.
The disciples whom Jesus told to wait for the Holy Spirit remained together for days, united in their expectation of God and his power. And when the time was fulfilled, the Holy Spirit broke upon them from above, as a wind from heaven, as flames of fire on their heads (Acts 2:2–3). They received the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the powers of the world to come. They were united with one another in their teaching, in the breaking of bread and in the fellowship of the table; they were united in prayer and in the sharing of all their goods (Acts 4:43–47). So the church came into being, and so the church will come into being again and again.
But where people do not submit to the working of the Holy Spirit – and where there is not full fellowship of work and goods, nor complete unity and agreement in faith and action – we cannot speak of the church.
The Spirit of God works everywhere and in all people. God sees this, though it is often hidden from us. For this reason we cannot presume to say where the Holy Spirit is at work. Only God can judge in this way. All the same, there are works, deeds, fruits, results, and effects of the unity of the Spirit that are quite plainly recognizable as coming from the Holy Spirit. About such things we cannot remain silent. Where it is impossible to establish deeds as fruits of the Holy Spirit we may not speak of the church. But where the working of the Holy Spirit is clear, we must for the sake of God’s honor say: Human beings have not done this; God has done it. There is no other explanation. That is the church.
We confess quite simply that we cannot live in unity for a single day if the Holy Spirit is not given to us again and again. We cannot agree on anything unless Jesus Christ is revealed to us – unless we allow God to work in us and amongst us. And God works only when we put our own works aside. The mystery of the church is thus deeply related to the mystery of the kingdom of God, since when God reigns, the works of human beings will rest.
Clearly, the mark of the church of God is the laying down of human works. This is of particular significance today, when we stand before the collapse of state and society – when love is growing cold and enmity and hatred are increasing (Matt. 24:10–12). More than ever before, we must recognize that the church of Jesus Christ is God at work now. And so we must come together to call upon God, despite our smallness, our unworthiness and insufficiency. We must come before God and ask him to pour out upon us that which we do not have, do among us what we ourselves cannot do. We must ask for his Holy Spirit so that we can live as a witness to the whole world, so that we can become one, even as the Father and Son are one (John 17:21).