I’ve never read “Life Together.” Bonhoeffer wrote it in the fall of 1938 in a time and place foreign to me. He taught at university and preached at a local church while witnessing the political upheaval of his time. When he had the chance to leave the country, he remained. When he watched many of his fellow pastors in the Confessing Church take an oath of personal allegiance to Hitler, he demurred to the full Synod. His posture of resistance landed him in jail and ultimately cost him his life at age 39 – hanged by the Nazis in April, 1945.
The social tensions surrounding Bonhoeffer as he wrote “Life Together” grant his words special significance and expose, perhaps, some of our own assumptions about the nature of the relationship between politics and the church – demanding we look clearly at our own commitments.
It is my intent over the next several weeks to read through this fascinating text and offer some thoughts on its relevance for ministry. The author was, after all, a pastor and theologian. I invite your commentary and feedback.
Note: For this series, I’m reading from the definitive translation published by Fortress Press in 1996. It is a wonderful work, thoroughly annotated, and part of a massive 16-volume collection in which “Life Together” constitutes the greater part of volume 5.
“Christian community means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. There is no Christian community that is more than this and none that is less than this.”
At first reading I’m guessing most of us would say “well, of course!” because I think Christians instinctively understand this to be true. Yet Bonhoeffer takes it a step further: “One is a brother or sister to another only through Jesus Christ. What persons are in themselves as Christians, in their inwardness and piety, cannot constitute the basis of our community, which is determined by what the persons are in terms of Christ. Our community consists solely in what Christ has done for us.” The beauty of these thoughts comes into play when we think about all the expectations we place on what we believe is essential for true community, for real relationship. Christians have a tendency to formulate what Bonhoeffer calls an “ideal” of community and make all kinds of demands on the current community as it stands in hopes of reaching this “ideal.” The irony then, is that if Bonhoeffer is correct in his assessment that authentic community is only possible “from outside”, that is Christ, then any expectations we place on others (small group, bible class, a church as a whole) to meet some ideal of community more than what has already been brought together by Christ constitutes a prideful and unreasonable demand. “Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ (with all its imperfections and shortcomings! BP) in which we may participate.”
Think of the implications for ministry. How often do members and ministers alike grow frustrated because their ideal for what a Christian community should be is not realized? They become “disillusioned” and disappointed bringing about thinking that is actually destructive to community because their ideal was not experienced. Bonhoeffer writes (ironically, I think): “Only that community which enters into the experience of this great disillusionment with all its unpleasant and evil appearances begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.” In other words, when Christians disavow the “ideal” in their mind that authentic community must have such and such traits – meaning those that go beyond what is found simply in Christ – a condition is set up for failure because the community as it is brought together by Christ constitutes the community in its fullness – with all the bad behavior, disappointment, and imperfection inherent with being human. Or, as Bonhoeffer sums up nicely: “Those who love their dream of the Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.”
How often have I made unrealistic demands on the community of faith because of my own naïve expectations of what authentic community should require?