Written by Stephen Cox
I am very much looking forward to being away on our Church camp next weekend. It’s always been great time to be encouraged by God’s word and a fun time getting to know our church family. As we are preparing to share a weekend together I was reminded of a book I read a while ago describing the authentic Christian community: Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)
Bonhoeffer had a brilliant career in theology ahead of him. He earned his doctorate in theology from the University of Berlin at age 21. Then, at 24, he qualified to teach there.
When Adolf Hitler took power, many pastors and theologians yielded to Nazi interference in church affairs. Not Dietrich. For him, there could be no compromise with Hitler. He signed the Barmen Declaration, which declared independence from Hitler’s state and from the co-opted church. He helped create the independent “Confessing Church” in Germany.
In 1943, Bonhoeffer’s record of resistance and his involvement in smuggling Jews out of Germany got him arrested. Just before he went to prison, he became engaged to Maria. He wrote love letters from his cell but his plans were never to be. He was executed by special order of Heinrich Himmler on April 9, 1945 at the age of 39, just a few weeks prior to Hitler’s death and the end of World War II.
One witness said that Bonhoeffer died, “brave and composed.” Nine years earlier, he wrote; “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” These were more than mere words to him. Bonhoeffer’s practical courage was a profound complement to his scholarly brilliance. From him we learn that real Christianity is not just having correct ideas about God, but following Him at all cost. In the words of the third century preacher and author, Tertullian, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Getting a life is something you cannot do alone. Don’t look for fanciful dreaming about the bliss of fellowship from Bonhoeffer. Instead, he praises the daily practice of Bible reading, prayer, fellowship and serving one another. He recognized the huge impact of the truthful tongue, the listening ear, the helping hand, and other practical resources that sweeten Christian fellowship.
Of the nature of Christian community, Bonhoeffer writes that it is unified through and in Jesus Christ. He maintains that the communal life is not an ideal, but a divine reality. This means that a Christian must regard community not as a “dream world” of great experience and discoverable riches, but as inherently messy; for it is not, as the author writes, “an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.” And in such a reality, the sinful nature is ever present.
His central theme is that despite his own imperfection (and because of Christ alone!) the Christian is a great help to his brothers and sisters as they mutually act as “bringers of the message of salvation”—which, Bonhoeffer argues, is the goal of all Christian community. Indeed, through their attachment to the church, singing, Bible reading and prayer, personal prayer, and mutual service the members of the Christian community are being set apart for God.
To Bonhoeffer, life together brings with it a charge to tame our tongues. The tongue is too lethal a weapon to fail to keep it in strict training, for the sake of others.
Life together also calls for singing together: “It is not you that sings, it is the church that is singing.” (p. 61).
Life together also requires regular prayer: “I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.“ (p. 86).
Finally, Christian fellowship shows how the hand speaks louder than the mouth. It teaches us not place too much trust in verbal proclamation if our lives do not measure up.
He ends the book with a challenge to practice the confession of sin. There can be no Christian fellowship where confession of sin is smothered or concealed. For Bonhoeffer, the worst sort of loneliness grips those who are alone with their sin. Since we are not called into Christian community in order to be lonely, we must practice confession. We can be together without confession but we cannot have life together without it.
In ‘Life Together’, Bonhoeffer spells out how Christians ought to do ‘life together’ in Christ. And that tone of Christ focused discipleship floods the book. It’s short – 96 pages. The language is thoroughly accessible, and overall the content is hugely practical and straight-forward. Bonhoeffer relentlessly pushes you into Jesus, exploring what it means and looks like to follow him. ‘Life Together’ is ‘The classic exploration of Christian community.’ If you’re going to read something about how to be a church, this is the book.