Community Disciplines: Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, Part 1

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a brilliant German theologian who wrote during the years leading up to World War II. The German churches were under incredible pressure to submit to the government of the Nazis, and many church leaders capitulated to the pressure.

His book Life Together was written in 1938, a time when Jews were prohibited from leaving Germany and the Gestapo shut down the seminary where he was trying to establish a truly Christian community along the lines described in his book.

When Bonhoeffer writes about living among enemies of the faith, he is not speaking of theory but a then present reality. And we can only imagine how precious Christian community was in a nation in which Christianity was under such direct and vigorous assault.

And yet Bonhoeffer’s writings are so built on the Scriptures that his conclusions apply even in our much more favored times. Indeed, I believe that this is a book that speaks directly to some of the most serious issues faced by the Churches of Christ today.

He begins the book by saying,

The Christian cannot simply take for granted the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. In the end all his disciples abandoned him. On the cross he was all alone, surrounded by criminals and the jeering crowds. He had come for the express purpose of bringing peace to the enemies of God. So Christians, too, belong not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the midst of enemies. There they find their mission, their work.

(p. 27). Oh, wow! We modern Christians want to play church-league softball against other Christians, to drink coffee bought at the Christian coffee shop, to read books we bought at the Christian bookstore, and to retire to an old folks home next to the church building so we can while away our retirements among friendly Christian faces.

But Bonhoeffer, living in Nazi Germany, urges us to enter the world that hates Jesus and be salt and light. We’d rather hide our lights under a bushel basket and keep our salt in the shaker, nice, white, and pure — and in so doing, we’re not remotely like Jesus.

And this is how he begins to talk about Christian community! It seems so backward! How can we be in community and yet live among enemies? Isn’t Christian community all about Christian schools and athletic leagues?

Thus in the period between the death of Christ and the day of judgment, when Christians are allowed to live here in visible community with other Christians, we have merely a gracious anticipation of the end time. It is by God’s grace that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly around God’s word and sacrament in this world. Not all Christians partake of this grace. The imprisoned, the sick, the lonely who live in the diaspora, the proclaimers of the gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible community is grace.

(p. 28). Ah, Bonhoeffer says, if you enjoy Christian community, recognize that you have received a special grace from God, a grace that many of your brothers and sisters in Christ do not have! Savor it! Don’t let it excuse you from confronting the enemies of Christ, but don’t take it for granted.

Indeed, in the US and many other free nations, Christianity is easy and cheap. There is no price to pay for being a Christian. And yet we who enjoy this special grace squander the privilege by cloistering ourselves away from the world, refusing to confront sin and hiding from the dirty, uncomfortable world that surrounds the church.

Rather than preparing for mission and witness, we hide in our buildings, resenting the least inconveniences, letting God’s grace spoil us.

Indeed, it’s the history of the Churches of Christ that we do not crave Christian community at all. Rather, when the going gets tough, we leave or split. We prefer our purity to the company of our brothers and sisters. We’d prefer to take communion alone in our houses rather than being tainted with the sin of someone who disagrees with us — not on whether to worship God — but how.

Rather than risk defilement of an imperfect worship service, we’ll divide Christ’s body a hundred times, taking for granted the rare, costly privilege of being in community. You see, to us, community is cheap. It has no value. And therefore we throw it away far too easily.

After all, living in community is hard and requires sacrifice and submission. Living in community requires putting up with people who dare to disagree with us. Living in community requires humility. And it’s so much more pleasant to go to a tiny church where our preferences and nuances are constantly re-affirmed by a preacher who knows better than to ever ask us to change.

Therefore, let those who until now have had the privilege of living a Christian life together with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of their hearts. Let them thank God on their knees and realize: it is grace, nothing but grace, that we are still permitted to live in the community of Christians today.

(p. 30). Imagine living in a world in which a 21st Century version of the Gestapo bans us from meeting together at all. Imagine that attending church is a capital offense, that we must meet in secret. How many splits would we have? Who would leave over the choice of which songs to sing? If we really appreciated the preciousness of the gift of community, we’d meet for the sheer joy of Christian community, for getting to sing any songs, for getting to worship with anyone who loves Jesus enough to risk his life to come to church.

The stakes are too low. The price too cheap. And so we throw away friends and brothers and sisters for the sake of pride and preference — as though they could be easily replaced and one’s as good as another.

And we dare do this in the name of Jesus! As though dividing his body could somehow be an act of obedience. As though the easy path, the path of separation, could somehow proclaim reconciliation to a lost world!

If we are to ever convert the lost to the true gospel, to the gospel of Jesus, we have to learn to be peacemakers and reconcilers. And if we can’t be bothered to make peace among ourselves and to reconcile our own brothers and sisters in our own congregations, what makes us think that leaving solves anything?

You see, we fool ourselves into thinking that the new congregation that we form or join will be better, but if it’s filled with people who couldn’t get along at their last congregation, what says they’ll get along in their new congregation? A refusal to submit, to sacrifice, to submit, and even to suffer for Jesus at church A isn’t cured by moving to church B.

And, yes, the people at the first church are very, very annoying and worldly, but if church B has any kind of outreach at all, it will be filled with other annoying and worldly people. At some point, you know, we really have to develop the skills necessary to deal with imperfect people.

The only alternative is not church but cult. If we only convert those just like us and only fellowship those just like us, and if run off anyone not just like us, then we can get along without the bother of submission and sacrifice. But unless we’re willing to turn the church into a cult, we’re going to have to become a lot more like Jesus and lot less like the world to stay together in anything that resembles true Christian community.

Ah, but true Christian community, where people who truly are different and who disagree and who have to work very hard indeed to get along — and who do so out of an other-worldly kind of love, well, that will bring in converts by the millions — but they won’t be much like us, and we’ll be perfectly fine with that.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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11 Responses to Community Disciplines: Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, Part 1

  1. Alan says:

    Excellent post.

    If we don’t learn to be united in good times, God may decide to send us hard times.

  2. Jerry says:

    I’ve often wondered how important our differences with one another – or even with “the denominations” – would be if Christianity were banned and persecuted openly. Will it take another general persecution for the church to be really one in Jesus?

  3. Christian faith is an inconvenient way to live life. And that specifically conflicts with one of the central themes of western civilization. Loving others, in the same way, Jesus loves me, takes intense focus and persistence.

    God give us strength.

  4. Todd Collier says:

    Thank you so much Jay.

  5. I recommend putting a link to this post on your home page. I notice that you don’t have an “About” page on your site. This would be a good About page.

  6. Orion says:

    Thank you, thank you , thank you.

  7. Good post. “Birds of a feather flock together” is a doctrine intended for pigeons, not for the children of God.

  8. nick gill says:

    Excellent post.

    If we don’t learn to be united in good times, God may decide to send us hard times.

    Or, what’s even more troubling, we’ve defined good based upon comfort and affluence – hardly kingdom metrics at all.

    Also, as Screwtape reminds Wormwood, “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts…”

    Who says that what we call “good times” come from God at all?

  9. Alabama John says:

    Good thought provoking post!

    Today there are places in the US where folks of different persuasions are brought together and what you are religiously doesn’t matter.

    War is one and prison is another. War as only combatants in danger and hurt know. Not the prison on TV or the one sold us by the operators, but the real prison known only by the inmates.

    Talk about worship, now there is on your knees real worship.

  10. James says:

    I look forward to this series, Jay. Life Together was my introduction to Bonhoeffer’s wisdom and insight.

  11. eric says:

    I like where this is going. It would be good if we could come to a point many nondenominational churches have already. They celebrate more so than tolerate diversity. Sure they have the core of the gospel as their foundation but the side differences are just interesting conversation and opportunities to learn from one another. I’ve seen it in action and it’s beautiful and evangelistic. Much more so than infighting. And by the way in my opinion the church feels most like the church when there is unity in diversity. God made us all unique so maybe He likes it that way and maybe we should like it that way. God is really good at bringing order to chaos so if we join Him I think he will bring us order as well.

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