Intro: The following excerpt is from Life Together, Chapter 1 “Community,” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was completed in 1938 and published in German in 1939. It contains Bonhoeffer’s thoughts about the nature of Christian community based on the common life that he and his seminarians experienced at the Lutheran seminary and in the “Brother’s House” there.
“I will … gather them; for I have redeemed them … and they shall return” (Zechariah 10:8,9). When will that happen? It has happened in Jesus Christ, who died “that he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad” (John 11:52), and it will finally occur visibly at the end of time when the angels of God “shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matthew 24:31).
… So between the death of Christ and the Last Day it is only by gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians. It is by the grace of God that a congregation is Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing… they remain alone in far countries, a scattered seed according to God’s will. Yet what is denied them as an actual experience they seize upon more fervently in faith.
Communal life is again being recognized by Christians today as the grace that it is, as the extraordinary, the “roses and lilies” of the Christian life.
… The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer… The believer feels no shame, as though he were still living too much in flesh, when he yearns for the physical presence of other Christians. Man was created a body, the Son of God appeared on earth in the body, he was raised in the body, in the sacrament the believer receives the Lord Christ in the body, and the resurrection of the dead will bring about the perfected fellowship of God’s spiritual-physical creatures.
The believer therefore lauds the Creator, the Redeemer, God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for the bodily presence of a brother. The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees the companionship of a fellow Christian [as] a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body; they receive and meet each other as one meets the Lord, in reverence, humility, and joy. They receive each other’s benedictions as the benediction of the Lord Jesus Christ.
But if there is so much blessing and joy even in a single encounter of brother with brother, how inexhaustible are the riches that open up for those who by God’s will are privileged to live in the daily fellowship of life with other Christians!
It is true, of course, that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.
The measure with which God bestows the gift of visible community is varied. The Christian in exile is comforted by a brief visit of a Christian brother, a prayer together and a brother’s blessing; indeed, he is strengthened by a letter written by the hand of a Christian… Others are given the gift of common worship on Sundays …
Among earnest Christians in the Church today there is a growing desire to meet together with other Christians in the rest periods of their work for common life under the Word. Communal life is again being recognized by Christians today as the grace that it is, as the extraordinary, the “roses and lilies” of the Christian life.
This article is excerpted from Life Together, Chapter 1 “Community,” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was published in German in 1939 as Gemeinsames Leben, and first translated into English in 1954 by Harper, San Francisco, USA.
- See related article, Fighting for Costly Grace, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Top image design and Scripture quote by staff artist for Living Bulwark.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German Lutheran pastor and a founding member of the Confessing Church. He was the first of the German theologians to speak out clearly against the persecution of the Jews and the evils of the Nazi ideology. In spring of 1935 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was called by the Confessing Church in Germany to take charge of an “illegal,” underground seminary at Finkenwalde, Germany (now Poland). He served as pastor, administrator, and teacher there until the seminary was closed down by Hitler’s Gestapo in September,1937.
In the seminary at Finkenwalde Bonhoeffer taught the importance of shared life together as disciples of Christ. He was convinced that the renewal of the church would depend upon recovering the biblical understanding of the communal practices of Christian obedience and shared life. This is where true formation of discipleship could best flourish and mature.
Bonhoeffer’s teaching led to the formation of a community house for the seminarians to help them enter into and learn the practical disciplines of the Christian faith in community. In 1937 Bonhoeffer completed two books, Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship. They were first published in German in 1939. Both books encompass Bonhoeffer’s theological understanding of what it means to live as a Christian community in the Body of Christ.
He was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo in April 1943. On April 8, 1945 he was hanged as a traitor in the Flossenburg concentration camp. As he left his cell on his way to execution he said to his companion, “This is the end – but for me, the beginning of life.”