Nowadays, "Christian community" is a highly elastic term. It can refer to anything from a homeschool co-op to members of a dating website. Rather than recognizing Christian community as a gift from heaven created by word and sacrament, we tend to view it as a voluntary association created by like-minded individuals who share enthusiasm for a particular issue or practice. Valuing autonomy, personal choice, and the practical, we look for fellowship through our consumer preferences, cultural practices, and political convictions. No longer is the local church considered the primary agent of Christian community. In fact, today the local church is rivaled, if not overshadowed, by Internet ministries, parachurch organizations, and a variety of Christian movements, each offering its own version of fellowship. It has become more convenient than ever for believers to be spiritual drifters, living their lives detached from an ordinary congregation gathered together under the word.
This is what makes Dietrich Bonhoeffer's 1938 work Life Together so timely for Christians living in 2014. Although this book's historical setting is much different from ours, its message helps us recover a biblical understanding of Christian community. Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together while teaching and living at an underground seminary for the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany. At a time when his countrymen were uniting under Fascism and hate, Bonhoeffer wrote of believers' unity under the word. He begins his little book (only five chapters in length) by quoting Psalm 133:1, "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!" Against the bleak backdrop of the Third Reich, when very little appeared good and pleasant, Bonhoeffer expounds on the goodness and pleasure of true Christian fellowship.
Life in Christ
In the first chapter, he argues that "Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ’¦We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ" (21). Our union with Christ includes union with Christ's body. The New Testament does not recognize an individualistic form of Christianity that allows a believer to remain outside of the local church, for the local church is the primary and essential place where Christian community is experienced and made visible. It is the place where Christ's people are assembled to worship him and receive his word. Because only the gospel can assure us that in Christ we are not counted guilty but righteous before God, we need others to proclaim the gospel to us. We cannot do this on our own.
If somebody asks [the Christian], Where is your salvation, your righteousness? He can never point to himself. He points to the Word of God in Jesus Christ, which assures him salvation and righteousness’¦But God has put this Word into the mouth of men in order that it may be communicated to other men. (22)
The public means of grace at the local church, therefore, is indispensable to the spiritual life of the believer. "The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God's Word to him’¦He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. 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).
Apart from the proclamation of Christ, there is no Christian community. "A Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ’¦Without Christ there is discord between God and man and between man and man" (23). Christ not only reconciles us to God, but also to our brother. "Now Christians can live with one another in peace; they can love and serve one another; they can become one. But they can continue to do so only by way of Jesus Christ" (23-24). Christian community is not something we can conjure up by uniting around our common interests or shared experience. Instead, it is a divine reality, created by Christ and his gospel. "Not what a man is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality and piety, constitutes the basis of our community. What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done for us" (25).
Because the Christian community is a divine reality and not a human ideal, we must accept the fact that the church is messy in this life and put to death any utopian dreams of a perfect church. Bonhoeffer pulls no punches when explaining how one's idealistic dreaming is detrimental to the communion of saints:
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’¦. 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. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself. (27-28)
It is God, not our dreams and ideals, who has bound us together in fellowship and made us a family in Christ. We come to the church, therefore, not as demanders, but as thankful recipients.
Life on Sunday
In the second chapter, Bonhoeffer focuses more narrowly on the day Christians spend together. On the Lord's Day, the Christian community comes together "for common praise of their God, common hearing of the Word, and common prayer. Morning does not belong to the individual, it belongs to the Church of the triune God, to the Christian family, to the brotherhood" (41-42). Worship in the local church is a family gathering. Together, we offer our prayers, sing hymns, and sing the Psalms, which are the vicarious prayers of Christ for his church. "This prayer belongs, not to the individual member, but to the whole Body of Christ. Only in the whole Christ does the whole Psalter become a reality, a whole which the individual can never fully comprehend and call his own" (46). The Psalms not only teach us what we should pray, but also how to pray as a fellowship. We sing and pray the same words at the same time.
The Lord's Day is also the time for the Christian community to receive the word of God together. In the lectio continua reading and preaching of the Scriptures,
We become a part of what once took place for our salvation. Forgetting and losing ourselves, we, too, pass through the Red Sea, through the desert, across the Jordan into the promised land. With Israel we fall into doubt and unbelief and through punishment and repentance experience again God's help and faithfulness’¦We are torn out of our own existence and set down in the midst of the holy history of God on earth. There God dealt with us, and there He still deals with us, our needs and our sins, in judgment and grace. (53)
The history of salvation is a story to be heard together, as a community. It shows us that we are part of something much larger than our own private experiences, with which we are so preoccupied.
The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important than the fact that I shall die, and the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, shall be raised on the Last Day. Our salvation is "external to ourselves." I find no salvation in my life history, but only in the history of Jesus Christ. (54)
The Life of the Individual
Our life together, though, does not exclude personal devotion. This is the subject of the third chapter. The individual member of the Christian community should still cultivate the spiritual disciplines of meditation, prayer, and intercession. Every believer can benefit from times of solitude and silence. "Silence is the simple stillness of the individual under the Word of God’¦We are silent at the beginning of the day because God should have the first word, and we are silent before going to sleep because the last word also belongs to God" (79). There is great wisdom in Bonhoeffer's challenge, especially in our day of constant noise and interruption from our enslavement to technology. Training ourselves to set apart a regular time for solitude and silence without the distraction of smartphones and social media can do much good for our souls. But be warned: "If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you" (77).
For Bonhoeffer, life together also requires us to learn how to tame our tongues and develop listening ears. In his fourth chapter, he describes the "one-anothering" that takes place in the Christian community. Each member must strive to have a truthful tongue, a humble heart, a listening ear, a helping hand, and a bearing shoulder. These are the tangible ways in which we esteem others more highly than ourselves and show that we are a community of love.
Because the Christian community is a collection of sinners, the practice of mutual confession and forgiveness is a necessity. To withhold confession and forgiveness is to divide the body of Christ and drive the sinner further into sin.
The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of his sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation….[But] since the confession of sin is made in the presence of a Christian brother, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned. (112)
Through the pain of confession, we experience the joy of reconciliation and peace with others. We might be together without confession and forgiveness, but we cannot have life together without them.
Life Together is a healthy tonic for the ills that plague us in our culture of autonomy. Bonhoeffer shows us how the gospel creates a new and living community, where people very different in looks and background are being knit together in Christ. To have Christian community, we do not need more movements, more conferences, and more celebrities. We do not need the next big thing. What we need is to take up our place alongside the brothers and sisters whom God has chosen for us, whom we find in the very ordinary and imperfect place called the local church. There, Bonhoeffer reminds us, we find our life together: "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" (37).