There are books that shape us and the way we think. Usually, they present us with new ideas or concepts. Sometimes, they make us think about familiar concepts in brand new ways. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is one such book for me. From the time that I was first introduced to the concepts it develops from one of my mentors, to the time I first read it, so much of my thinking about the church had changed. How could my thinking about the church be so impacted by a twentieth-century, Lutheran pastor and theologian? As I was first discovering the book, I was blown away by how relevant it was to the contemporary church. However, I didn’t just find it relevant to the church overall, but it seemed relevant to my church, to the Christian community of which I was a part.
Beginning with this post, I will run a five-part series that will walk through the book, highlighting key themes throughout. Hopefully, this series will act as an encouragement for you to open the book for yourself.
The book is laid out in five chapters, developed from lectures that were given at the underground seminary at Finkenwalde that Bonhoeffer ran during the Nazi rule of the German state church. Bonhoeffer’s close friend, Eberhard Bethge, helped him compile the lectures and ideas into what became published under the title Gemeinsames Laben (Life Together) in 1939, (3-6, all page #’s are from the DBWE, Vol 5 edition of Life Together). The first chapter is titled, “Community,” and provides the foundation for the main concepts of the book.
The book sets out to define life together under the Word. That phrase, under the Word, is an important element of the book, because it shows Bonhoeffer’s approach to the Scriptures. It is from that approach to the Word, that Bonhoeffer develops a theology of community throughout the book. He discusses Christian community, specifically that community which is developed in Christ and by his Word. He does not talk about community in a general sense, instead he assumes the reader knows what community is. However, one could argue that through the ways he describes Christian community, a definition of his general understanding of community can be ascertained. What is clear in his description of Christian community is that it is rooted in Jesus.
“Christian community means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ,” (31). With this statement he grounds Christian community in a center and that center is Jesus. This is so prevalent in his understanding of community that he says, “Only in Jesus Christ are we one; only through him are we bound together,” (33). His view of community is rooted in his understanding of Jesus Christ or his Christology. Who Christians now are in the community in light of Christ is meant to benefit the others in the community. Christ is what the community finds its foundation in and also what drives the community to serve one another. He says in explanation to this concept, “Our community consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us,” (34). Christ is entirely what the community is about.
There are two key truths that drive the remainder of the chapter, “first, Christian community is not an ideal, but a divine reality; second, Christian community is a spiritual and not a psychic reality,” (35). The first truth finds its roots in his point of the Christocentric nature of community. For Christian community to be a divine reality, then it is by default a reality created by God in Christ. Thus, it is not an ideal for Christians to strive for, but something that already is, in Christ. The second truth rests closely to the first truth. The apostle Paul frequently makes a distinction between the Spirit and the flesh, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3b, ESV). Bonhoeffer’s own distinction between spiritual and psychic are best understood in a similar way. Thus, a community developed with a psychic reality would be a fleshly community, centered on fleshly things and concepts. However, a Christian community is a spiritual reality, centered on Spirit-driven, Christ-centered things.
The means of perpetuating such a Christian community is the Word of God. “The basis of all pneumatic, or spiritual, reality is the clear, manifest Word of God in Jesus Christ,” (39). This is the antithesis of fleshly community, because fleshly community cannot be and is not based on the Word.
“In the spiritual community the Word of God alone rules; in the emotional, self-centered community the individual who is equipped with exceptional power, experience, and magical, suggestive abilities rules along with the Word. In the one, God’s Word alone is binding; in the other, besides the Word, human beings bind others to themselves,” (40).
He here explains the symptoms of a community without Christ at the center, which is by default self-centered. If Christ is not the center of the community, someone will be. That community will lead itself further into destruction. Consequently, Bonhoeffer suggests that a successful Christian community promotes “the ability to distinguish between a human ideal and God’s reality, between spiritual and emotional community,” (45). A Christ-centered community will enable those involved to discern truth from error, because the Word is the basis.
Christian community under the Word is a gift and a grace that God gives to his children. Bonhoeffer is clear on this throughout the book as well as in his other writings. He was someone who greatly valued and benefited from it at crucial points in his life, especially as he developed the content for the book in his underground seminary, dodging Nazi rule, with his brothers in Christ. Yet as much as he valued Christian community and loved it, he warned, “It is not the experience of Christian community, but firm and certain faith within Christian community that holds us together,” (47). His words remind us to stay focused on Christ and his Word in the communities in which we find ourselves. He will sustain us therein.