The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community

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.


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.”


The toughest decisions in life are those we must make with inadequate information. This takes faith. To prefer knowledge to faith as a guiding principle is normal. Who wouldn’t? But some of life’s most crucial decisions must be made while vital knowledge is unavailable.

Few knew this better than General George Washington (1732 – 1799), a leader well known for his hunger for intelligence that could make wartime decisions easier. In the fall of 1776, with information low and risk high, his indecision after losses on Long Island, in New York, and at White Plains, led to the added losses of Forts Washington and Lee—severe blows to the cause. Washington was harshly criticized in hindsight, even by some close to his confidence. He handled the criticism gracefully and wisely retained officers that other leaders might have been tempted to blame. He saw a bigger picture.

Washington was the practical founder. While the other founding fathers were signing founding documents, Washington was in the field training an army in the courage, stamina and skill required to stand behind the words on those documents. In his book “1776,” David McCullough suggested that Washington was well taught by experience. His greatness was not in avoiding failures but in learning from them. His wisdom and determination after failure was exceptional. This indispensable quality was rooted in his faith in providence, a word our Founders often personified with a capital “P”. Washington knew that Providence out-ranked him and could be trusted when risks were high and failure loomed large. Some trust can be rooted in practical experience but the future remains, like fate, up for grabs. McCullough surmised that Washington was not a great strategist or orator, but he never forgot what was at stake and he never gave up. Though a great pragmatist, he never lost his faith in Providence.

Washington’s army seldom numbered more than 15,000 (usually much less) and his ability to keep his troops together under dire circumstances is what set him apart. Only a man of his stature and dignity could have commanded the respect of his men under the conditions they faced. Great trust is inspired when a leader displays confidence and optimism rooted in faith through the worst of times. When his men see him making the same sacrifices he asks them to make, they stand by him in support. Washington was long known for being fearless under fire and for his ability to see things as they were rather than as he wished them to be. He had an indispensable grasp on the vast difference between faith and wishful thinking.

The incredible twists of fate sustained by Washington and his men have enthralled many a reader of Revolutionary War history. The good General had a capacity for keeping an even keel through it all. He did not regard twists of fate as random accidents. He believed there was a plan and he trusted the ultimate Planner. Accordingly, his men trusted him with the unknown when much was unknown. They did know well, however, that Washington sustained more defeats in battle than victories. Yet, they persevered to win the war. Faith is contagious.

After winning a nearly impossible victory in 1781 against the greatest military power on earth, Washington resigned his commission rather than ride his popularity to great personal power. In 1787, he presided at the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, bringing high credibility to the process. In 1789, he was elected as our nation’s first President. Amid chaotic times, he garnered so much prestige that calls to for him to rule for life were frequent and loud. But again, in 1797, he gave up power and returned to his farm, refusing to trade hard-earned liberty for the personal prestige of a crown. For over 2,000 years since Cincinnatus returned to his plow, no leader in similar circumstances had willingly done what Washington did. He symbolized the American spirit at its best with his personal virtue, renowned integrity, undying perseverance and unselfish sacrifice. Even King George III called his nemesis “the most distinguished man alive.”

Washington’s biographer, James Flexner, called him the “indispensable man” of US history. Washington himself might disagree. In his Farewell Address in 1796, this lifelong Episcopalian churchman told us what he considered truly indispensable:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

Truth is No Longer an American Value

President Obama was re-elected in 2012. Some want to forget this and others are still celebrating. I am in neither camp. Those who forget what happened and how are being especially irresponsible. Memory matters! Truth suffers without it.

Remember when President Obama declared that the use of chemical weapons by Syria represented a “red line” that must not be crossed? He asked, “What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way?” (September 10, 2012).

Good question. Voters were impressed.

Within a year, the Syrian government conducted a lethal poison gas attack on its own people. The line was brazenly crossed. Two weeks later, at a press conference in Sweden (September 4, 2013), our President said “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line…” Seriously? He said congress also set the red line with The Syria Accountability Act. He continued, “My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line, and America and Congress’ credibility is on the line, because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important.”

Did he say, “lip service?”

Is there an Olympic medal for mendacity or shifting blame? If so, no one could compete with President Obama. He simply denied saying what we all knew he said and blamed congress and the international community instead. With a straight face, he criticized the cheap “lip service” of the international community, America and congress, and it worked!

Throughout the 2012 campaign, Democrats led by Obama claimed that their Republican opponents were so incredibly vile that they were actually conducting a “war on women.” How so? Governor Romney, in an effort to hire more women and increase their influence, apparently had used a “binder” to gather qualified names. Outrageous! Also, Republicans wanted all women to have access to contraception at their own expense. Millions of voters fell for it.

Another fantasy was that simply requiring a valid ID to vote was repressive racism. Again, it worked.

At a community college in Maryland (March, 2012), the president derided Republicans as “members of the Flat Earth Society” for opposing his “investments” of taxpayer money in “green” energy. Was his misrepresentation silly in the extreme? Yes, but the students cheered.

When four Americas (including an ambassador) were murdered on September 112, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya, the Obama administration immediately fled toward fantasy, a safe haven for them. Without evidence (in fact, against the evidence they had), they blamed some film-maker in America for inciting a spontaneous demonstration that allegedly caused the killings. Obama’s campaign had been promoting the fantasy that Al Qaeda and such terrorist groups were on the run. When the facts stood in opposition to the fantasy, the fantasy held sway. And the voters swooned.

Meanwhile, countless conservative groups like the TEA Party were languishing under targeted IRS scrutiny and harassment. The Obama administration’s claim that the IRS corruption just involved a few “rouge” employees in Cincinnati was disproven. The public was successfully deceived about the extent of IRS wrongdoing and the deception stands to this day.

President Obama also resorted to fantasy to sell his signature health coverage plan. He repeated the following promise to America long after he knew it was not true: “No matter how we reform health care, we will keep this promise to the American people. If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor, period. If you like your healthcare plan, you’ll be able to keep your healthcare plan, period. No one will take it away, no matter what.” (speech to the American Medical Association in June 2009). Reality eventually raised its ugly head and blew this promise out of the water. But the fantasy worked like a charm for years.

Whatever happened to Superman’s motto: “Truth, justice and the America way!”? Why can’t American’s even recognize truth anymore? Perhaps, the French scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal had the answer back in 1670. He wrote; “Truth is so obscured nowadays and lies so well established that unless we love the truth we shall never recognize it.” (Pensées).

I no longer think truth is an America value. Oh, we still use the word, much like the Soviets used the Russian word for “truth” for their state run newspaper: Pravda. But using words and valuing truth are two different things.

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The Preaching Enterprise
Part III: A Timeless Message for Turbulent Times

Christians have a message for the world. It pivots around the problem of sin and centers on Jesus as its only solution. However, our culture glorifies sin even while denying its reality. Attempts to define sin for what it is are rarely appreciated. Efforts to suppress it are disparaged as “puritanical.” This is ‘old hat.’ A brief look at four great British preachers from the 17th through 20th centuries well illustrates how common this collective unconsciousness of sin has been, even in times when sin ran rampant.

Richard Baxter (1615 – 1691)

Remember the Puritans? They were 16th and 17th century reformers who emerged through turbulent times out of the Church of England which needed much reforming. The great Puritan preacher, Richard Baxter, once said of his fellow preachers, “From the general strain of some men’s preaching, one would almost be ready to conclude that there were no sinners in their congregations to be converted.” The severity of sin and its consequences inspired Baxter to say, “I preach as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.” (from, Love Breathing Thanks and Praise). Indeed, the English Civil War (1642–1651) produced many dying men.

John Angell James (1785-1859)

Over a century later, John Angell James penned an inspiring classic titled, An Earnest Ministry, which every young minister should read. In it he asked, “How came the spirit of slumber over the church? Was it not from the pulpit?” James served one church for 55 years with a firm grasp on the severity of sin. This gave him a burning sense of mission and a life-long zeal for God’s grace. He astutely observed, “Men will care little about pardon, till they are convinced of sin.” Still, his preaching was even-handed: “If in one hand the preacher of the gospel carry the sword of the Spirit, it is only to slay the sin; while he holds forth the olive branch in the other, as the token of peace and life to the sinner.” James challenged his fellow preachers thusly, “He who does not supremely aim to bring sinners into friendship with God, falls short of the design of the sacred office.”

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834 – 1892)

The next generation brought Charles H. Spurgeon, the “Prince of Preachers,” to prominence. He served one London congregation for 38 years and preached to some 10,000,000 souls. He wrote, “You cannot preach conviction of sin unless you have suffered it. You cannot preach repentance unless you have practiced it. You cannot preach faith unless you have exercised it. True preaching is artesian; it wells up from the great depths of the soul. If Christ has not made a well within us, there will be no overflow from us.”

John R.W. Stott (1921 – 2011)

A 20th century witness to the power of Christian preaching comes from the late great British churchman John Stott. In his book, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century, Stott wrote: “A deaf church is a dead church… God quickens, feeds, inspires and guides his people by his Word. For whenever the Bible is truly and systematically expounded, God uses it to give his people the vision without which they perish.”

One More Sermon!

Illusions of innocence are not new. Jesus confronted Pharisees full of such illusions. In 1973, Psychologist Karl Menninger wrote a book entitled, Whatever Became of Sin? to affirm the reality of sin in a sin-denying culture. Christian preaching begins with the severity of sin and moves straight to Jesus, the one man whose claim to innocence was no illusion. He faced sin and death head on and emerged from that fatal (but not final) confrontation as the only real solution sinners can turn to for hope. The apostle John summed up Jesus’ mission thusly: “He appeared in order to take away sins;” (1 John 3:5).

The four great preachers above may have found fame preaching to millions, but they were well aware of how unpopular preaching could be. Spurgeon had some advice for those who ran away from real gospel preaching. He said, “Oh, what would the damned in hell give for a sermon, could they but listen once more.”