Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is a classic work on the church. In this work, he explored the nature of Christian community and how to live it out. While Bonhoeffer originally wrote for seminarians during World War II in Nazi Germany, there are still lasting lessons for the church today, especially in a socially distant world.
Nature & Praxis of Community
Bonhoeffer sought to answer two questions in Life Together: what is the nature of Christian community and how is it lived out?
The nature of community consists in the Christians’ union with Christ by the Spirit. Only by that unity may Christians be united to one another (23). This understanding of community means that although God’s people are “a scattered people” (18), they are still united to one another “through … and in Jesus Christ” (21). Since Jesus holds together Christian community, there is a “joy and strength” when Christians gather together because it proclaims that physical unity is how community should be (19).
Bonhoeffer identified three ways the church lives out its community: 1) through its continual, daily worship, 2) ministry to one another, and 3) reconciliation of sins. First, Bonhoeffer focuses so heavily on the place of worship during the Christian life that he provided instruction for worship in the morning (40ff) noonday, and evening (72ff). Second, for Bonhoeffer, worship consisted in the Scriptures, prayer, and singing (44). While worship is important, Bonhoeffer also recognized that in a diverse community, differences will arise (90). To love one another, Christians must be slow to speak (91), which requires meekness (94), and that is practiced in listening to (97), helping (99), and bearing one another (100). Third, when these difference cause sin to arise, it must be confessed to one another (112). After confession, the Table restores their unity (122).
An interesting aspect of Life Together is how Bonhoeffer viewed the nature of community.
He viewed the Christian’s public witness as crucial, even as he interacted with seminarians who tended to live secluded lives in an underground schools (17). Even though these seminarians were gathered together, the church broadly remained a scattered people (18). From the beginning, he held this tension between the scattered nature of God’s people and the importance of being together (19). This tension allowed Bonhoeffer to see a broader extent of community than based on who someone went to church or school with. He looked through the temporal nature of the immediate community and saw the transcendence of life together: “But if, before we could know and wish it, we have been chosen and accepted with the whole Church in Jesus Christ, then we also belong to him in eternity with one another” (24).
Community in 2020
Solitude can fall outside of a philosophy of community because it does not seem to fit. However, Bonhoeffer integrated solitude into his understanding of community. He devoted a whole chapter to a day alone and accounted for the benefits and deficits of seclusion from one another.
Bonhoeffer offered two pieces of advice that cut to the core of community and solitude: “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. … Let him who is not in community beware of being alone” (77). Bonhoeffer warned his readers that if someone cannot spend time alone with the Lord, they will not thrive in community. On the reverse, if someone is not in community, the solitude can be detrimental.
The church today is learning this truth. There is a great emphasis on serving one another, being plugged into programs, and avoiding loneliness. The global pandemic has brought the church to a screeching halt to the point that she is learning what it means to be alone with God amidst all the noise of activity. The church needs to learn the value and importance of community and solitude because there may come a day, like in some areas of the world, separation may be permanent.
Bonhoeffer laid out a succinct case on the nature of Christian community and what it looked like to live together. The essence of community is union with Christ by the Holy Spirit. This union is lived out in worship, ministry, and reconciliation. Bonhoeffer’s lessons on community are needed now more than ever as the church seeks to come together after being apart from the global pandemic.