Life Together is a book that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote when he taught at an underground seminary when the Nazi’s were in power in Germany – not long before he was killed by the Third Reich. The book is the classic on what Christian community really is and so I want to do my best to present what I think are the three key points in the book.
- It’s all about Jesus – The Church as a Divine Reality
The key idea in Bonhoeffer’s book is that the church is created by the Word of God and it owes its ongoing existence to the Word of God. Another way of saying this is that Christian community only exists because of Jesus, and through Jesus. He creates our existence as a people and he binds us together. The Word of God is the fuel that runs the engine of the church. Indeed, it is the Word of God that really holds us all together and this, for Bonhoeffer is a very practical sort of thing – we need other people, from diverse backgrounds, and with diverse personalities, to speak the Word of God to us; and we, in turn, need to speak the Word of God to our brothers and sisters. So not only is Christian community created by the Word, it actually functions through the Word as we give and receive it. Bonhoeffer reminds us that participation in this sort of fellowship of the word is truly a wonderful privilege, that we are not entitled to. We need to be thankful for Christian fellowship. Of course, Bonhoeffer does not deny that Christian relationships are often challenging since they involve sin and friction, but he reminds us that Christian brotherhood truly is a great gift from God – it is “extraordinary, roses and lilies.”
- Don’t Overthink Things – The Church is Nothing More and Nothing Less than Christian Brotherhood
Another key idea in Bonhoeffer’s book is that we need to stop trying to make the church into something it isn’t. It isn’t a social club. It isn’t a government charity. It isn’t a business networking tool. It isn’t some cultural project we get to play with – no – the church is nothing more and nothing less than simple, Christian brotherhood. We need to embrace the simplicity of the church. It is a family. It is a group of inter-connected relationships. And we need to preserve this simplicity, for, as Bonhoeffer says, “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community becomes a destroyer of the latter…” I love this point. We live in times where many church leaders want to jazz up and hype up the nature of the church. I like the realism of Bonhoeffer – the church is all about Jesus and Jesus’ people. There is a beauty and a simplicity in all of that which we don’t need to try to spin to serve some other agenda.
- It’s all about Love – We Fellowship Under the Cross
I can’t stress this enough. Bonhoeffer’s central point in all of this is that we relate to one another in and through Jesus. That means that we forgive each other the same way Jesus forgave us. It also means that we confess our sins to each other just like we need to confess them to Jesus. We have the privilege of hearing confession and giving confession to one another. But Bonhoeffer is very careful on this point. He warns of the dangers of only confessing to the same person over and over. The key in all of this is that we need to confess sin naturally, and that receiving and giving confession needs to be a two-way street – the people we confess to should also confess to us. But behind all of this is the reality of the cross. One of the great quotations from this work is as follows: “Anybody who lives beneath the Cross and who has discerned in the Cross of Jesus the utter wickedness of all men and of his own heart will find there is no sin that can ever be alien to him. Anybody who has once been horrified by the dreadfulness of his own sin that nailed Jesus to the Cross will not longer be horrified by even the rankest sins of a brother.” In all of this you see the utter importance of humility. On that same line of thought, a key little psychological insight here is that only the humble can actually give good, gracious rebuke and correction to others. The proud are too afraid to say anything because they project their own hypothetical, offended feelings they experience when corrected and then chose never to say anything that would help a brother in sin – in essence your own pride consigns your brother to his sinful ways, but your humility will set him free. This is Bonhoeffer at his best. We need the humility to give correction, to receive correction, to give confession, and to hear confession – and to offer forgiveness and assurance of divine pardon. We are to be a gospel-fueled community and not a bunch of judgmental curmudgeons. When we get these gospel truths firmly in our grip then they free us to love without judgment and to serve sacrificially without feeling that we must do it to prove ourselves or earn some sort of divine favor.
Life Together is great. I heartily recommend it. There is no fluff in this book. It’s straightforward, tough, realistic and yet full of cross-enabling grace.