The church has her fair share of critics. Some are unbelievers but others are spiritual leaders putting a noble spin on their points, as if their passion for intimacy with God is the reason they criticize the church, or leave her. Loving Jesus and serving the needy, some claim, are such full time jobs that little time is left to commit to a church with programs, services, budgets and “churchy” people. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic Life Together (1937) takes a different view and I want to share it with you here.
BONHOEFFER’S LIFE AND DEATH:
At seventeen, with a brilliant career in theology ahead, Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) began his studies at Tubingen, Germany. He earned his doctorate in theology from the University of Berlin at age 21. Soon, he qualified to teach there. In 1930, he crossed the Atlantic as an exchange student to study at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
When Adolf Hitler took power, many pastors and theologians yielded to Nazi interference in church affairs. Not Dietrich. For him, there could be no “Christian” compromise with Hitler. In 1934, he signed the Barmen Declaration, which declared independence from Hitler’s state and from the co-opted church. He helped create the independent “Confessing Church” in Germany.
In 1943, Bonhoeffer’s record of resistance and his involvement in smuggling Jews out of Germany (the “U7” operation) finally got him arrested. Just before going to prison, he became engaged to be married. He wrote love letters from his cell but his plans were never to be. After two years in prison, it was learned that he played a part in a failed Hitler assassination attempt. He was executed by special order of Heinrich Himmler on April 9, 1945, just a few weeks prior to Hitler’s death and the end of World War II. Combining scholarly brilliance with moral courage, he showed the world that real Christianity is not just having correct ideas about God but also following Him at all cost.
In 1935, Bonhoeffer created and directed a clandestine seminary in Finkenwald (Pomerania) for training young pastors in Christian discipleship. There, he shared life together with about 25 young men devoted to God. It was closed down by the Nazis in 1937 but not before he wrote The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. He was officially forbidden to publish or speak publicly but he continued to work for the resistance to the Third Reich.
Life Together (1938), was forged in the backdrop of the pre-war German underground. With Hitler’s hate on the rise, Dietrich was lifting up Christ’s love in a small community of faith. He believed that God bestows brotherhood upon us for a reason: We are our brother’s keepers. Getting a life is something we cannot do alone. Bonhoeffer began his book by quoting the Psalmist; “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” (Psalm 133:1). There was precious little in Germany that was good and pleasant but the sweetness of Christian fellowship flourished at Finkenwald and you can taste it in Bonhoeffer’s classic: Life Together.
Don’t look for fanciful dreaming about the bliss of fellowship from Bonhoeffer. He warned, “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.”
Instead of dreaming about greater intimacy, Bonhoeffer praised the daily practice of Bible reading, prayer, table fellowship and work. He recognized the impact of the truthful tongue, the listening ear, the helping hand, and other practical resources that sweeten Christian fellowship. Belonging to a community shows how the hand speaks louder than the mouth. It teaches us not to place too much trust in verbal proclamation if our lives do not measure up.
Bonhoeffer’s Christ-centered premise was clear: “Without Christ there is discord between God and man and between man and man . . . Christ opened up the way to God and to our brother.” In Christian fellowship, we mediate the presence of Jesus to each other. The Christ in one’s own heart is weaker than the Christ found in fellowship.
Let that resonate. It’s not a common concept today.
Life together calls for singing together. Bonhoeffer wrote, “It is not you that sings, it is the church that is singing.” Singing builds fellowship even if the guy next to you is blind, off key and loud.
Life together also requires regular intercession. Bonhoeffer wrote, “A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses. I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.”
Bonhoeffer ends his book calling for more confession of sin. There can be no Christian fellowship where sin is smothered or concealed. He believed the worst sort of loneliness grips those who are alone with their sin. We cannot have real life together without honest confession. Bonhoeffer asked:
If my sinfulness appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all. … How can I possibly serve another person in unfeigned humility if I seriously regard his sinfulness as worse than my own?
No wonder the German church that resisted Hitler was called the “Confessing Church.”