Community (Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, Richard Foster’s review rings true: “Most books can be skimmed quickly; some deserve careful reading; a precious few should be devoured and digested. Life Together … belongs to the third category.” Chapter one is on Community. (This reading is in preparation for John Armstrong’s cohort group, which emphasizes 3 core principles: interior life, relational unity and missional theology. Join if you can.)
“Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily fellowship of years…” (21). “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate” (30). “…the human element always insinuates itself and robs the fellowship of its spiritual power and effectiveness for the Church” (37).
What is a Christian? “The Christian seeks his salvation, deliverance, justification in Christ alone. He knows that God’s Word in Christ pronounces him guilty, even when he does not feel his guilt, and God’s Word in Christ pronounces him not guilty and righteous, even when he does not feel that he is righteous at all. If somebody asks him, Where is your salvation, your righteousness? he can never point to himself. He points to the Word of God in Christ, which assures him salvation and righteousness. In himself he is destitute and dead. Help must come … daily and anew in the Word of Christ, bringing redemption, righteousness, innocence, and blessedness” (22). This is what a Christian is–what it means to be in Christ.
Christians need community. “When one person is struck by the Word, he speaks it to others. God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure” (23). True Christian community happens in Christ.
Strive, discord and ego. “Among men there is strife. Without Christ there is discord between God and man and between man and man. Without Christ we would not know our brother, nor could we come to him. The way is blocked by our own ego. Only in Jesus Christ are we one (Eph 2:14), only through him are we bound together.”
We can truly give only when we have truly received. When Jesus took on flesh in the incarnation, he truly took on, out of pure grace, our nature. This is how God relates to us, how He won our hearts by His love. “When God was merciful to us, we learned to be merciful with our brethren. When we received forgiveness instead of judgment, we, too, were made ready to forgive our brethren. What God did to us, we then owed to others. The more we received, the more we were able to give; and the more meager our brotherly love, the less were we living by God’s mercy and love (Rom 15:7; 1 Th 4:9-10). Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us” (25).
However, 2 things threaten true Christian community: Christian brotherhood is not an ideal, but a divine reality; Christian brotherhood is a spiritual and not a human reality.
Not an Ideal, but a Divine Reality
What Bonhoeffer writes here perfectly describes all failed Christian community exactly and precisely. It’s hard to improve on what he wrote.
Idealism does not work. Because of our own ideals and ideas about Christian life together, great disillusionment soon sets in “with others, with Christians in general, and if we are fortunate, with ourselves. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight… The sooner this shock or disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a 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. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren… He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren…and finally the despairing accuser of himself” (27).
Disillusionment is good. “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 Christ? The very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only that one Word and Deed which really binds us together. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship” (29).
To pastors: Don’t accuse your people. “This applies in a special way to the complaints often heard from pastors and zealous members about their congregations. A pastor should not complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men. …he had better examine himself first to see whether the trouble is not due to his wish dream that should be shattered by God; and if this be the case, let him thank God for leading him into this predicament” (29,30).
A Spiritual not a Human Reality
Even devout men cannot cultivate a spiritual community. “The community of the Spirit is the fellowship of those who are called by Christ; human community is the fellowship of devout souls. In the community of the Spirit the Word of God alone rules; in human community there rules, along with the Word, the man who is furnished with exceptional powers, experience, and magical, suggestive capacities. There God’s Word alone is binding; here, besides the Word, men bind others to themselves. There all power, honor, and dominion are surrendered to the Holy Spirit; here spheres of power and influence of a personal nature are sought and cultivated. …devout men…do this with the intention of serving the highest and the best, but in actuality the result is to dethrone the Holy Spirit, to relegate Him to remote unreality. In actuality, it is only the human that is operative here” (32).
Where a superior power rules, spirituality fails. “Here is where the humanly strong person is in his element, securing for himself the admiration, the love, or the fear of the weak. Here human ties, suggestions, and bonds are everything. …human absorption appears wherever the superior power of one person is consciously or unconsciously misused to influence profoundly and draw into his spell another individual or a whole community. Here one soul operates directly upon another soul. The weak have been overcome by the strong, the resistance of the weak has broken down under the influence of another person. He has been overpowered, but not won over…his conversion was effected, not by the Holy Spirit, but by a man, and therefore has no stability” (33).
The idolatry of human love. “Human love…makes the truth relative, since nothing, not even the truth, must come between it and the beloved person. Human love desires…it continues to desire even when it seems to be serving. Human love cannot tolerate the dissolution of a fellowship that has become false…and human love cannot love an enemy. Human love is by its very nature desire–desire for human community. Where it can no longer expect its desire to be fulfilled…it turns into hatred, contempt, and calumny. Human love creates of itself an end, an idol which it worships, to which it must subject everything. It nurses and cultivates an ideal. Spiritual love, however, comes from Jesus, it serves him alone; it knows that it has no immediate access to other persons” (35).
Spiritual love releases to Christ. “Spiritual love will not seek to move others by all too personal, direct influence, by impure interference in the life of another. It will not take pleasure in pious, human fervor and excitement. It will meet the other person with the clear Word of God and be ready to leave him alone with this Word for a long time, willing to release him again in order that Christ may deal with him. It will respect the line that has been drawn between him and us…it will find full fellowship with him in the Christ who alone binds us together. Spiritual love will speak to Christ about a brother more than to a brother about Christ. It knows that the most direct way to others is always through prayer to Christ (3 John 4)” (36,37).
The greatest danger to Christian community. “Life together under the Word will remain sound and healthy only where it does not form itself into a movement, an order, a society, a collegium pietatis, but rather where it understands itself as being a part of the one, holy, catholic, Christian Church, where it shares actively and passively in the sufferings and struggles and promise of the whole Church. Every principle of selection and every separation connected with it…is of the greatest danger to a Christian community. …the human element always insinuates itself and robs the fellowship of its spiritual power and effectiveness for the Church, drives it into sectarianism” (37)
I wanted to write an exhaustive reflection, but Bonhoeffer’s words seem “far too perfect” to add to or to subtract from.