Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the Importance of Christian Community

For many, including myself, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community has contributed meaningfully towards a fuller understanding of what it means to biblically approach the broader subject of community. In an age where social capital is on the decline, individualism dominates, and consumerism is the norm, understanding the essence of Christian community is important now more than ever. Life Together is widely considered to be a classic on the subject.

Although Bonhoeffer is most commonly known as the German pastor who was hanged for his role in a conspiracy to assassinate Adolph Hitler, he was no radical activist. A natural theologian, Bonhoeffer was passionate about the church and the Gospel. His first doctoral thesis was titled Sanctorum Communio, a work considered by Karl Barth to be a “theological miracle.” In it he combined a sociological and philosophical understanding of ecclesiology to interpret the church as “Christ existing as church-community.” His work gained him much respect within academia.

Bonhoeffer demonstrated throughout the course of his life that the sincerity of his commitments laid not only the intellectual, but the practical as well. In 1933, German Protestants began to build a new church “in the new state of Adolf Hitler.” One of their first steps towards this direction was to pass the Aryan Paragraph at the General Synod, legitimatizing Anti-Semitism for the entire Evangelic Church of the old-Prussian Union. Bonhoeffer objected to Christians succumbing to the political pressures of the day, arguing that there “must be in the end a break with theological backing for restraint against state action.” In 1935, this sentiment compelled Bonhoeffer to take a directorship role of the preacher’s seminary at a small Confessing Church, “the Council of Brethren.” Here he lived in community with dozens of pastoral candidates, working, living, and teaching them in preparation for their existence as leaders of the underground church. His work would continue until the Gestapo shut down the entirety of the Brethren’s operations in late 1937. By that time, 27 of his former students were imprisoned

It was within this context of widespread compromise, oppression, and increased hostility towards religious dissent that Bonhoeffer wrote his book Life Together. He desired to form a “communion of saints” marked by their unity, refusal to conform, and passion for Christ. In a time when external forces subjugated the church to simply another socio-political institution, how can one faithfully cherish Christian tradition? How does one preserve the dignity of a religion denigrated by the majority? By elaborating on a biblical ideal of community, Bonhoeffer sought to answer these questions.

By emphasizing community as a gift, Bonhoeffer acknowledged its importance in perspective to the entirety of the Christian life. Throughout the book, he describes community as a privilege and a blessing. It is a means of sanctification, “a gift of grace,” something that “any day may be taken from us.” He writes somberly, perhaps knowing how his own fate would end, “[n]ot all Christians receive [it]. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone.” In participating in this gift, one must realize that the presence of community is “grace, nothing but grace.”  

In its essence, Christian community means that “we belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.” The foundation for this fellowship rests not in the sincerity of our love for each other, but in Christ’s “alien righteousness.” In this respect, Bonhoeffer expounds on the Reformation’s emphasis on justification: “[G]race alone” he says, “is the basis of the longing of Christians for one another.” As members of the Body of Christ, “we are in him.” Our participation in Christ then serves as the basis for our community with God, not one’s piety, spirituality, or right standing in the world. Bonhoeffer infers that on this presupposition, “rests everything…in the way of directions and precepts for the communal life of Christians.”

The consistent biblical structure of his analysis sought to combat conceptions of community that would undermine its intended purpose for the believer. He denounced those that approach the church community “looking for some extraordinary social experience.” This attitude brings “muddled and impure desires into Christian brotherhood” and threatens to poison it at its root. According to Bonhoeffer,

“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.”

This is something contemporary church leaders would be wise to take note. Community is more than simply a gathering of individuals. It is not what we make of it. Christian community, as Bonhoeffer described it, is a “spiritual…not psychic reality.” Though it may be easy to envision this reality as a project or endeavor shaped by a select few in leadership, if the church only exists because of its relationship with Christ, does that not mean the genuineness of our community comes from Him as well? As Bonhoeffer clearly stated: “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.” 

This conception compels the Christian to analyze the desires behind their approach to community. In pursuit of this end, Bonhoeffer distinguishes between two kinds of love: human and spiritual. He defines the former as one that has “little regard for truth.” It “desires the other person, his company, his answering love, but it does not serve him.” Human love is a shallow desire for human community that, so long as it can be satisfied, “will not give [itself] up, even for the sake of truth, even for the sake of genuine love for others.” This desire “creates of itself an end, an idol which it worships, to which it must subject everything. It nurses and cultivates an ideal, it loves itself, and nothing else in the world.” In respect to the modern-day church, one can see how this type of love may translate into a seeker-sensitive approach to worship, missions, and teaching. If the purpose of church is to appeal to men, its practice will follow.

In contrast to this anthropocentric love, Bonhoeffer emphasizes spiritual love as the core desire of the church. This is one that “comes from Jesus Christ… serves him alone…[and] knows that it has no immediate access to other persons.” Believers can only come together in genuine fellowship when they are motivated by this passion. Perhaps most illuminating, however, is his proposition that spiritual love serves as the basis for right relations. Bonhoeffer states that while human love “produces human subjection, dependence, constraint,” spiritual love “recognizes the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ” and creates freedom of the brethren under the Word.” As Bonhoeffer expounds throughout the rest of his book, this love translates into a communal practice of prayer, scripture reading, singing, fellowship, and intercession. It motives the church to be missional, pursuing the ministry of “meekness,” “listening,” “helpfulness,” “bearing,” and “proclaiming.” It leads to unity.

For the Christian grappling with the meaning of community, Bonhoeffer’s words are monumental. In relation to my own life, it dawned on me that until very recently, the type of Christian community described throughout his book was absent from my experience. Since relocating in Massachusetts ten years ago, my family has attended multiple different churches for various lengths of time. While this experience supplemented my faith with a diversity of perspectives, practices, and theology, the unavoidable inconsistency led me to develop a very consumerist conception of the church. For me, attending a Sunday service was about what I could receive from the message, the people around me, and the worship. If a Sunday service were unsatisfactory, I would oftentimes listen to a John Piper sermon the moment church was over. Though it was not wrong to be hungry for substance, my pursuits led me to regard the church community as an unproductive, fruitless activity. Instead of seeing it as an organic, living reality for spiritual communion, church community was simply something I sought to conform to my desires. In a way, I was very much concerned with the “human love” Bonhoeffer discusses in his book.

This attitude effectively isolated me from potential community. When coupled with other social factors, it also contributed to a profound sense of loneliness throughout the last two years of high school and my first semester in college. This loneliness was bitter, painful, and wearying. Its cold grip continuously tampered with my ability not only to relate to others, but also find joy and live productively. Though I wished to be heard, known, and truly loved, these things were primarily sought with the intention of being satisfied through people. Constantly, self-doubt would creep in. Cynicism would ask, “Why don’t they seem to care about me? Why can’t they be better friends? Why don’t they ever text me? Why don’t they want to connect?” These questions only created more insecurities and for a while, my only response was self-pity. My life was being driven primarily by human love, which as Bonhoeffer accurately noted, “[when] it can no longer expect its desire to be fulfilled…stops short-namely…There it turns into hatred, contempt, and calumny.” 

It was not until wrestling with how I approached the relational voids at the root of loneliness did my perspective on Christian community begin to change. I began to see friendships as a blessing, as a gift, and a privilege. They were something God would provide throughout the course of my life, but not as a substitute for Christ. Only upon understanding this truth and realizing that His “grace is sufficient” in weakness was I able to find contentment when friends were far and church life dry. Finding myself captured by a “spiritual love” placed these things into perspective.

In the third chapter of Living Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer discusses the relationship between loneliness and community in a way that was deeply illuminating of my experiences. He notes how many people “seek fellowship because they are afraid to be alone.” This fear of loneliness drives them to seek the company of other people, a pursuit, in effect, which demonstrates that what is being sought is not really community, “but only distraction… [to forget their] loneliness for a brief time.” As Bonhoeffer rightly points out, “Christian community is not a spiritual sanatorium.” It cannot be a substitute for one’s individual communion with God.

During my struggle with loneliness I failed to realize the important connection between solitude and community. From Bonhoeffer’s perspective, it is equally necessary to be alone as it is to be in community. On the one hand, refusing to be alone rejects “God’s call to you,” for “[a]lone you stood before God when he called you” and “alone you had to answer that call.” On the other hand, “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.” The two, according to Bonhoeffer, must be held in balance. One does not precede the other, but both “begin at same time, namely, with the call of Jesus Christ.”

Comprehensively grasping the significance Christian community plays in the life of the believer is a monumentally important task. As I have learned from my own experience, properly approaching this matter in a biblical, Christ exalting manner is integral to not only building one’s individual faith, but also seeing with clarity the richness of God’s gifts. It is vital the church heeds the wisdom contained throughout the pages of Bonhoeffer’s book. A community wholly in pursuit of the spiritual love of God will be one that has “access to one another, joy in one another, and fellowship with one another.” Its commitments will overflow with a love informed by gratitude and discernment. Its values will be shaped by their identity in Christ. In a day where division, strife, and envy thrive, finding this Christian, biblical community is imperative.

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not proport to reflect the opinions or views of the Gordon Review, editorial staff, or its members.

Categories: Faith

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Sophia Jesson

Thank you Liam for the article! As someone who struggled with friendship in highschool and parts of college, the process of learning to rely on Christ was a hard one. No relationship can be fulfilling if we expect it fill something Christ promised to fill.

Shelleen Weaver

Well-written and wisely-spoken Liam.

Emily Jones

Great article, Liam! Thank you for sharing so openly your journey to understanding true Christian community.