Called to One Another in Christ
Author: Stephanie Bennett
One hundred years ago, in the winter of 1906, a baby was born to a prominent German family. The child would grow up to write a book about the dire need for Christians to experience “life together” as a primary element of what it means to “be” in the church. The setting; an underground training post for Christian workers. The book; Life Together. The man; Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer began his adult years as a staunch pacifist; yet, at a time when many German Christians were remiss to raise a voice of resistance against the atrocities being thrust upon their Jewish brethren, the young German theologian raised his, and, suffering the throes of imprisonment, his decision to stand against Hitler’s tyranny led ultimately to his hanging and death in a German prison camp.
As the scripture declares, “. . .unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone; but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit” (John 12: 24). Such has been the legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The grain of life in this brother’s soul has multiplied in a bountiful crop of devotional and instructional literature, much of which was written in the form of letters and papers during his time in the German prisons of Tegel and
Flossenberg. He writes in a highly accessible style, without much fanfare or theological jargon. His thoughts on what it means to “be” the church in a very practical sense are most helpful.
Bonhoeffer may best be recognized throughout the world through his classic work, The Cost of Discipleship, but it was in the small volume, Life Together, that he detailed the necessity of the church functioning as a living and vibrant organism, what he called, a “community of love.” Although his letters, papers, and books are extensive, Bonhoeffer has never received wide acclaim in the Church-at-large. Perhaps this is because in his final years he established a need for what he called “religionless Christianity,” and although he was a hero in the eyes of many people who suffered persecution and pain at the hands of Adolph Hitler, Bonhoeffer did not live long enough to detail or expand his thoughts on the matter.
The richness of Life Together flows largely from the fact of Bonhoeffer’s high standing in the Lutheran church and reputation as a public intellectual. Because his position as pastor gave him an inside view to the needs of the Body of Christ, he was able to articulate what he saw as the gap in reality between what the church should look like according to the book of Acts, and what the church actually looked like before the eyes of the world.
Bonhoeffer grieved at the way “parishioners” sat idly by in the face of Hitler’s venomous rhetoric, being cradled by their pastor’s passive obsequiousness and innocuous preaching to simply walk the path of least resistance. He found it difficult to accept that the murderous treatment of the Jewish people was simply being accepted by his beloved German people as part and parcel of the edict to “obey those who rule over you.” Bonhoeffer loved to preach, but saw the Body of Christ as much more than a place for preaching. He believed that those who were called to minister in the church could only understand true church life by experiencing what it meant to live in community, learning to lead through hard work – the relational work of loving and serving one another side by side everyday. Setting about to provide the men who were called there with this type of training ground, Bonhoeffer took up his role directing the “house of brethren” at Finkenwalde, and established a daily regiment of corporate prayer, worship, meals, work, more prayer, evening worship, and two hours of silence every evening before retiring to bed.
Bonhoeffer’s heart was taken up with the importance of the church really “being” the church, and through his careful and daily study of the scriptures came to understand the needs of the church as being predicated on three foundational necessities, each of which I will touch upon in this short essay. First, the church must meet on the ground of Christ. Next, followers of Christ must understand that the church is a divine reality. Finally, his interpretation of the church could best be expressed as community of love.
The centrality of Christ
To approach Bonhoeffer one must understand that the overarching premise of his ecclesiastical epistemology is the centrality of Jesus Christ. Many have spoken about the centrality of Christ, but by it Bonhoeffer meant that the only ground for meeting as the church is Christ, himself. So, “meeting on the ground of Christ” prompts us to examine the question: how does the church meet, and why is that important? For Bonhoeffer, the church “meets” on the ground of Christ. Another way of saying this is that the locus of the Body of Christ is found in Christ. In other words, personalities, gifts, enjoying a certain type of worship or agreeing on the setup of chairs, pews, or order of service does not constitute enough reason to meet or enough reason to divide. Meeting with “Christ as our ground of fellowship” may better be described by discussing what it does not entail. The church is not a business venture, a money-making or fund-raising club, an activity for Sunday morning, a program for social welfare, or a ministry; the Church is the Body of Christ, a gathering of believers amongst whom Jesus Christ is central and the reason for meeting. To be clearer, Bonhoeffer believed that it matters not if those who gather all agree on preference for expression, liturgy, song, or place. Uniformity is not unity; Christ is the “reason” or ground upon which the believers meet. Jesus Christ is the locus of church unity. This view is clearly depicted throughout all of Life Together, but perhaps most succinctly said in the following statement: ". . . our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. This is true not merely at the beginning as though in the course of time something else were added to our community. It remains for all the future and to all eternity"1
The church is a divine reality
Next, the church is a “Divine Reality.” He so believed in this empirical Body of Christ that he wrote: “Whereas psychological community is based on utopian desire and unmediated fellowship, spiritual community is based on recognition of reality and relationships mediated by Christ.”2 Bonhoeffer underscored the imperfect nature of the church, stressing that it is not made up of stellar, sparkling individuals, but people who are sinners, “on the way, ” --- people in the process of being transformed by the love of God, moving forward in connection with Christ and each other. This is why the practice of “confessing our sins one to another” is essential. The church as “divine reality” also means that for a community of love to flourish it must be an empirical church, i.e. an observable church, that is, really there; not a: romanticized or virtual community, not just in name or a grand idea. As “divine reality” Bonhoeffer differentiates the Christian community from the psychological community, and explains: "The church community, not some philosophical or theological system of thought, is God's final revelation of the divine self as Christ existing in community."3 In other words, “don’t wait for a new revelation:” Christ in you (the church) is it!4
The church as community of love
As community of love, the relationship to each other takes on prime importance in the Church of Jesus Christ. Among other things, that means that the church is not a gathering of people who just happen to meet in the park, one day, perchance. Nor is it made up of perfect people living a utopian ideal. As a community of love, there is a mutuality that is inherent in the lives of those gathering together to fellowship, and intentionality to meeting. There is a certain “one-anothering” that takes place. When the people of God come together to share their lives openly, freely, accepting each other with the kind of unconditional positive regard, there is a sort of social-spiritual “chemistry” that emerges, and those that come together experience a delightful cohesion and sense of belonging. “As” the church, the people of God are interrelated, but we’ve got to know who we are to each other. What the Bible says is that we are family – brothers and sisters ---who dwell together in Christ. Love is very practical in Bonhoeffer's schema. It is not esoteric or mushy. Love in the community of believers is a divine reality that takes discipline and effort; a dailyness and intentionality that do not give up.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw this and wrote about it far more eloquently and practically than I am able to do in this short review. He died a martyr’s death 61 years ago as he hung naked and unashamed on the gallows of Flossenberg, but I do not commemorate his death, but celebrate his life today. The grave does not hold Dietrich Bonhoeffer; He lives and reigns with God in Christ, and awaits that day with the rest of the great cloud of witnesses who watch and eagerly await the day the People of God will come home and walk in the perfection and glory that is ours in the Beloved.
1 Life Together, pp. 25-26).
2 Life Together pp. 32-35.
3 Page 65 Testament to Freedom. (from Act and Being, Bonhoeffer's dissertation)
4 Please read Ephesians 1 for more insight