Lessons From Bonhoeffer on Christian Community
by Chad Scruggs
There’s a lot of talk these days about Christian community. Here are some valuable insights from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together on the subject.
1. Christian community is a gift, not a guarantee.
“It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone…Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.” (18, 20)
God does not owe us the experience of community. May gratitude rather than entitlement be the tone of our fellowship.
2. Our romantic hopes for community are often deep hindrances to reality.
“When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.” (28-29)
This line is challenging. It begs the question: What did we dream a community would be for us? A busy place where our needs would be met? A safe place where we could retreat from the hazards of the world? An easy place where relationships happen organically? According to Bonhoeffer, our dreams need to be chastened and perhaps even mortified. Genuine Christian community rises to life from the ashes of our misguided romances.
3. Faith is more vital than experience.
“There is probably no Christian to whom God has not given the uplifting experience of genuine Christian community at least once in his life. But in this world such experiences can be no more than a gracious extra beyond the daily break of Christian community life. We have no claim upon such experiences, and we do not live with other Christians for the sake of acquiring them…We are bound together by faith, not by experience.” (39)
In other words, how we feel is not always a reliable indicator of what God is doing. Sometimes faith leads us into the relational experiences we want in a community. Other times, faith leaves us wanting something else entirely. But we are called to live out a profession, not a feeling, and so we must trust that God is at work in spite of the contradictions we feel within us.
4. Jesus must be at the center.
“Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this.” (21)
It’s important to state the obvious here. Every community has a center—something that binds it together. That binding agent could be anything, from a social cause to a football team. At the center of Christian community should be Jesus Christ. In practice, His priorities always trump our personal preferences and cultural biases. We live together as perpetual listeners, open to His correction and renewal.
5. Sinners are welcome.
“The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. 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. The fact is that we are sinners!” (110)
“But it is the grace of the Gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that it 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. He wants you as you are; He does not want anything from you, a sacrifice, a work; He wants you alone.” (110-111)
This insight follows from the last point. If Jesus welcomed sinners, then the social reality gathered in His name must bear that welcome as well. What makes Christian community unique is also what makes it hard—anyone can come. We must dare to expose ourselves as sinners alongside one another, trusting that God’s love is for us as we are, not as we should be.
6. Community takes practice.
“Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so, too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.” (30)
Community takes more than talk. It takes practice and enduring commitment. May God increase His patience in us as we live out His life together.