The local church was always at the center of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s heart and theology. In his studies he wrote his first dissertation on life in the church (“The Communion of Saints: A Dogmatic Inquiry into the Sociology of the Church”). As a theological professor he labored to train pastors for the church. And in his later writings, he often returned to muse on life together in the local church.
It’s this subject that entitles one of his most famous works, Life Together, posthumously subtitled, “The Classic Exploration of Christian Community.” Coming in at 122 pages, Life Together is not a long book. But it is one that invites you to think deeply about God’s design for his people. Overflowing with wisdom, you will run your highlighter dry if you are given to marking up books.
As we consider the One Anothers in our weekly sermons, I would encourage you to pick up a copy. A small investment in reading Life Together will pay big dividends on doing life together.
An Outline of Life Together
Here’s a brief overview of what you can expect in Bonhoeffer’s book.
- Chapter 1 explores what community life ought to look in the church. It makes the case for why and how we should pursue Christ as a body of believers. It reminds us Christian community is not established on the basis of common strengths, preferences, or anything visible on the earth. Community comes from the Lord himself and is a gift of grace unequally distributed to the children of God. For that reason, before ever correcting or critiquing our church, Bonhoeffer implores us to give thanks to God for the amazing grace of having a community to call our own.
- Chapter 2 explores how disciples of Christ should spend their day with others. While the chapter may feel “too liturgical” for many who don’t come from or who have left a high church background, his encouragement to read Scripture, pray, and sing together is a welcome correction to the hyper-individualism which plagues the America church.
- After addressing the corporate nature of the faith, Bonhoeffer turns to the individual in chapter 3. He focuses on a handful of personal spiritual disciplines (e.g., silence and solitude, meditation, prayer, etc.). He calls on individuals to commune with the Lord, but not to the exclusion of others. In private we are to intercede for one another, by “bring[ing] our brother into the presence of God, to him under the Cross of Jesus as a poor human being and sinner in need of grace” (86).
- This ongoing focus on others leads to the focus on ministry in chapter 4. With a trajectory moving towards speaking the Word of God one to another, he reminds us that Christians must first listen, help, and bear with one another. Only as we minister in these ways, can we admonished one another with the Word of God (Col 3:16). Proclaiming the word of God one to another is the primary work of the church, but it must always be accompanied by loving service. Biblical truth needs to be clothed with acts of mercy, lovingkindness, and justice, for it is in these garments of righteousness that the doctrine of God is beautifully adorned.
- Last, chapter 5 calls Christians to confess their sin to one another (James 5:16). Bonhoeffer calls this act of confession a “break through.” Communion, therefore, in the church does not come when all the good people play their parts, but when each sinner breaks through the veneer of self-righteousness to admit their sin in the presence of others. Bonhoeffer cautions against a priestly caste who receives all confession and against taking pride in confession. He also gives this practical counsel: true confession typically is offered before another individual, not the whole church.
In short span, Bonhoeffer covers a wealth of material. He plumbs the depths of the heart. And he lifts up a vision of the church that we all do well to consider. Immersed in the endless autonomy of twenty-first century America, we need voices from others times and other places. Writing from Nazi Germany, in a time when the church was compromising and under attack, Bonhoeffer gives us a prophetic message.
Two Contextual Caveats
Against the Arian-Idolatry of his era, he warns us of neglecting the poor among us. Frequently, Life Together calls the strong to care for the weak and for the weak to not despise the strong. His words embody the wisdom of Romans 14, but from his perspective they also warn us of what happens when strength is worshiped and weakness is hated. In our culture, which also prefers and supports “the survival of the fittest,” we need to hear his message to care for the weaker brother.
At the same time, we should know that his writings come out of a very close-knit seminary community. From 1935 to 1940 Bonhoeffer organized and taught in two small seminaries. Leaving the University of Berlin behind, he focused his attention on a few dozen young men. In these residential schools, he and his pupils were able to practice much of what he describes in Life Together. This context is important to remember, because some of his ideals (e.g., reading Scripture, praying, and singing together everyday) are more easily duplicated in a school than a church. Nevertheless, his vision for community applies directly to our church and confronts one of the greatest weaknesses in the American church—a lack of commitment one to another.
May God use this book to stimulate conversation, prayer, and persistence in the pursuit of doing life together. There are copies of the book in the foyer. I hope you will pick one up. I trust you will profit from it immensely.
For His Glory and your joy, ds