Life in Community: ‘The Roses and Lilies’ of the Christian Life

lifeWriting from Germany on the precipice of war, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a classic on Christian community. In Life Together he called attention the grace of Christian community, calling it “the ‘roses and lilies’ of the Christian life” (21).

In our country, where freedom to worship remains unchecked, his words provide a needed corrective to any laissez-faire attitude we may have towards biblical community. While church membership and attendance are generally affirmed by Christians, I don’t think we see how much grace there is in our ability to gather. By contrast, Bonhoeffer watched the Third Reich run over the church and the Church in turn to compromise with the state.

In such a context, he came to see just how much grace there is when brothers dwell together in unity—true spiritual unity. Consider his words and give thanks for the community of believers he has given you. May his words spur us on to press deeper into the life of our church, or to start such a community of spiritually-minded believers, if one is not present.

Christian Community is a Profound Gift

He introduces his book with the idea that Christian community is a profound gift, but one not experienced by all Christians alike.

It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians. (17)

So between the death of Christ and the last day it is only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians. 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. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing. They remember, as the Psalmist David, how they went “with the multitude… to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude the holyday (Ps 42:4). But they remain alone in far countries, a scattered seed according to God’s will. (18–19)

It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the kingdom of God that any day maybe taken from us, that the time that still separates us from other loneliness maybe brief indeed. 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. (20)

Christianity Community is Covered with Warts

While adamant about the importance of Christian community, Bonhoeffer is no idealist. He makes it clear that the church is a place for sinners, warts and all. While Christ died to beautify his bride, that beauty is still forthcoming.

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung up from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But god’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. … He who loves his dream of community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. (26–27)

Bonhoeffer stands against what he calls “wish dreaming.” The church is not a utopian club for the well-polished. Rather, God intends for us sinners to abide with other sinners, to look to the cross for our daily justification, and to be polish with the friction that results. He writes,

Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can live by our own words or deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together—the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. (28)

What a strong antidote Bonhoeffer provides for Christians seeking self-satisfaction in the church. God aims for our eternal holiness, not our immediate comfort. So he puts us in community around other sinners. He afflicts us with their sin, and them with our sin, to make us both depend more thoroughly on his grace. In this process, he makes us more gracious by conjoining us to other sinners in need grace. Like dozens of jagged stones put in the same tumbler, our heavenly potter turns the church to smooth our rough edges.

Christian Community is Centered on Christ

Bonhoeffer also observes the centrality of Jesus Christ in the midst of the church. For him, what holds the church together is not a commitment to fellowship and community. What holds the church together is Jesus Christ himself. He writes,

Within the spiritual community there is never, nor in any way, any immediate relationship of one to another, whereas human community expresses a profound, elemental, human desire for community, for immediate contact with other human souls, just as in the flash there is the urge for physical merger with other flush. (32–33)

Bonhoeffer warns of “human absorption,’ where one person takes advantage of and rules over another. Here, in human community, “one soul operates directly upon another soul” (33). This is no way to establish a life-giving community, for while “human love is directed to the other person for his own sake, spiritual love loves him for Christ sake” (34). His point is that community apart from Christ always devolves falls apart. Why? Because community built upon the community has no greater foundation. What is needed is truth.
Human love has little regard for truth. It makes the truth relative, since nothing, not even the truth, must come between it and the beloved person.” 34 … Human love lives by uncontrolled an uncontrollable dark desires; spiritual love lives in the clear light of service ordered by the truth. Human love produces human subjection, dependence, constraint; spiritual love creates freedom of the brethren under the word. Human love breeds hothouse flowers; spiritual love creates the foods they grow healthfully in accord with gods goodwill in the rain and storm and sunshine of gods outdoors. The existence of any Christian life together depends on whether it succeeds at the right time and bringing out the ability to distinguish between human ideal and God’s reality, between spiritual and human community. (36–37)

And always, the litmus test for the source of community is the Word of God. We cannot look at how individuals treat one another to determine the source of its affinity. We must look to the community through the lens of God’s Word. Only a community that is founded his Truth will endure.

In this way, unity cannot be the goal. Christ is. And where he is, there will be spiritual unity based upon his truth. Seek Christ and He will give you communion with him. In this age, that communion may come with Christian community. In the age to come, it will certainly come with a blessed Christ-centered community. But conversely, if you (or any church) seeks unity first, you will miss Christ. For Christ will depart from the ones who seek unity over him.

Let me close with his words:

It is not the experience of Christian brotherhood, but solid and certain faith in brotherhood that holds us together. That God has acted and wants to act upon us all, this we see in faith as God’s greatest gifts, this makes us glad and happy, but it also makes us ready to forego all such experiences with God at times does not grant them. We are bound together by faith, not by experience. … For Jesus Christ alone is our unity. “He is our peace.” Through him alone do we have access to one another, join one another, and fellowship with one another. (39)

Truly, as we consider how to do life together, may we put Christ and his Word at the center and trust him to build his church.

soli Deo gloria, ds

(photo credit: Wisdom for Life)

3 thoughts on “Life in Community: ‘The Roses and Lilies’ of the Christian Life

  1. Pingback: Life in Community: ‘The Roses and Lilies’ of the Christian Life | bonhoefferblog

  2. Pingback: The Church’s Place in *Picturing* the Gospel (A Review of 1 Corinthians 1–10) | Via Emmaus

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