Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this book while spending several years running an “illegal” seminary in Germany (~1935-1938). He describes what life in a Christian community ought to be. The influence of Martin Luther weighs heavily throughout the whole book, and those not familiar with the Lutheran tradition (including myself) will likely be struck by some of the themes and ideas Bonhoeffer presents of a strongly Lutheran character. Life Together contains five chapters: Community, The Day with Others, The Day Alone, Ministry, Confession and Communion. I’ve been challenged and inspired and convicted by what Bonhoeffer says.
Chapter 1: Community
Bonhoeffer begins the chapter on Community by noting the amazing blessing of being able to gather with other believers. Many Christians, he claims, walk a lonely road whether on the mission field, in prison, under persecution, or in the isolation of infirmity and age: “Let [the Christian] thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”
Bonhoeffer, like Luther, also takes a strong stand against isolated monastic life removed from the cares and concerns of the world: “So the Christian, too [like Christ], belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes.” Bonhoeffer also emphasizes that Christ is at the center of Christian fellowship. It is for Christ’s sake that we need others, and it is in Christ alone that we approach others. The centrality of Christ in Christian fellowship, while seemingly obvious, takes on a striking severity for Bonhoeffer: “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 both of us.”
Desiring more from community than fellowship in Christ detracts from a truly Christian fellowship:
“One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood. He is looking for some extraordinary social experience which he has not found elsewhere; he is bringing muddled and impure desires into Christian brotherhood….In Christian brotherhood everything depends upon its being clear right from the beginning, first, that Christian Brotherhood is not an ideal, but a divine reality. Second, that Christian brotherhood is a spiritual and not a psychic reality.”
Bonhoeffer highlights the common pitfalls of unrealistic and unrighteous expectations of the church. He talks about the “wish-dream” that people have about other believers and the Christian community. In the ideal church people would (fill in the blank): “invite me over,” “help me get a job,” “provide me with friendship,” “affirm my choices or lifestyle,” “give me a spouse,” etc. Bonhoeffer emphasizes that the church exists for Christ and by his will. It exists as it is – with a spiritual existence – not to satisfy our various dreams, desires, or hopes. As he notes:
“The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly.”
Throughout the book, Bonhoeffer is concerned about the pollution of impure desires, the risk of domination/manipulation, and unrealistic hopes and expectations of Christian fellowship. He also contrasts Christian community with human community. He writes:
“Christian brotherhood is not an ideal we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate….[But] [t]he basis of all human reality is the dark, turbid urges and desires of the human mind. The basis of the community of the Spirit is truth; the basis of human community is desire.”
And later he writes:
“Human love lives by uncontrolled and uncontrollable dark desires; spiritual love lives in the clear light of service ordered by the truth. Human love produces human subjection, dependence, constraint; spiritual love creates freedom of the brethren under the Word.”
I find it interesting that Bonhoeffer seeks to exorcise human desire from Christian community – and I am unsure whether I can go along with such a sentiment. It seems to me that he is reacting both to Romanticism (which had a particularly strong and powerful legacy in Germany – think Richard Wagner) and to an increasingly psychological view of the world (think Sigmund Freud).
Bonhoeffer also worries about the will to dominate others and the exercise of power. He talks about how, in contrast to Christian community where “God’s Word alone is binding,” in human community “men bind others to themselves.” Instead of relying on the work of the Spirit, “in human community, psychological techniques and methods” are used to govern or manipulate others.
As he discusses this further, Bonhoeffer sounds remarkably like C. S. Lewis in his works Till We Have Faces and The Screwtape Letters, which talk about the corruption of love – or really a kind of love that has become a demon (as Lewis describes Eros in The Four Loves) and attempts to dominate, control, or even absorb others into oneself. In fact, Bonhoeffer writes:
“Thus there is such a thing as human absorption” because “human community expresses a profound, elemental, human desire for community, for immediate contact with other human souls, just as in the flesh there is the urge for physical merger with other flesh. Such desire of the human soul seeks a complete fusion of I and Thou, whether this occur in the union of love or, what is after all the same thing, in the forcing of another person into one’s sphere of power and influence.”
This brings us back to the emphasis on Christ. He is the mediator of Christian community. Our unity is not one of dominating others or “absorbing” them to be like us. Rather, we are all being brought into Christ, being transformed into his likeness. Since Christ is the head of the Church, and the only source of authority, we are all on equal footing. And our community is governed by Him, not by merely human sentiment, emotion, or desire. As Bonhoeffer describes it:
“Human love is directed to the other person for his own sake, spiritual love loves him for Christ’s sake. Therefore, human love seeks direct contact with the other person; it loves him not as a free person but as one whom it binds to itself. It wants to gain, to capture by every means; it uses force. It desires to be irresistible, to rule.”
Although I have some hesitation about this view, it explains nicely why what parades as human love quickly turns to hate when the object of human love either refuses to go along with our wishes or disappoints us through sin or through being drawn to some other person or object other than ourselves. Bonhoeffer says:
“This is why human love becomes personal hatred when it encounters genuine spiritual love, which does not desire but serves. Human love makes itself an end in itself. It creates itself as 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. Spiritual love, however, comes from Jesus Christ, it serves him alone; it knows that it has no immediate access to other persons. Jesus Christ stands between the lover and the others he loves.”
Again, for those of you familiar with Lewis’ work, this sounds exactly like his description of Eros in The Four Loves. His novel, Till We Have Faces, dramatizes this whole process of love, possession, and hatred. The biblical story of Amnon and Tamar also illustrates this idea.
Bonhoeffer concludes his first chapter:
“It is not the experience of Christian brotherhood, but solid and certain faith in brotherhood that holds us together….For Jesus Christ alone is our unity. ‘He is our peace.’ Through him alone do we have access to one another, joy in one another, and fellowship with one another.”
Chapter Two: The Day with Others
This chapter reflects on the tangible concrete aspects of our day in Christian fellowship. Bonhoeffer says our day with others should start at dawn and comments on how frequently people in the Bible rose early to pray or to go about their business. Related to this point is the idea that night and day had far greater meaning and significance before the advent of electricity for light, entertainment, and communication. The Apostle Paul frequently contrasts the activities of the day and those of the night – with the latter being a time associated with debauchery and licentiousness while the former is associated with being sober-minded and self-controlled.
We should start the day with others, if we can, in worship. This “common devotion should include the word of Scripture, the hymns of the Church, and the prayer of the fellowship.” This strikes me as somewhat quaint to our modern society where we are often not near other believers to do this with, nor are many of us often up at the break of day. But perhaps that should cause us to reflect on whether we should reorder our lives in this direction, and whether it is truly as insurmountable or impossible as it may feel.
Be that as it may, Bonhoeffer continues to discuss praying the Psalter as central to community worship. He argues that “The Psalter is the vicarious prayer of Christ for his Church.” This is how we can pray even the imprecatory Psalms of judgment and destruction. Though we may not find ourselves in analogous situations to the Psalm-writer, when we pray it from Christ’s perspective, the Psalm should no longer be quite so foreign or alien to us. But Bonhoeffer warns that it must be Christ in us praying. Left to ourselves we will likely take the Psalms for our own use – especially the imprecatory ones.
Scripture should be read in families, according to Bonhoeffer, in the morning and in the evening – at least one chapter of the Old Testament and half a chapter of the New Testament. Should we object that this is too much to comprehend or understand, he argues we are missing the main point:
“Do not object that the purpose of common devotions is profounder than to learn the contents of the Scriptures; that this is too profane a purpose, something which must be achieved apart from worship. Back of this objection there is a completely wrong understanding of what a devotion is. God’s Word is to be heard by everyone in his own way and according to the measure of his understanding. A child hears and learns the Bible for the first time in family worship; the adult Christian learns it repeatedly and better, and he will never finish acquiring knowledge of its story.”
Although we should grow in our knowledge of Scripture, and we will by God’s grace when we are in it regularly, the measure of our devotion is not our comprehension. Devotion, for the sake of obedience and love, often comes before knowledge and understanding. This is particularly true of habitual or ritual devotion in community.
Of course, we must wrestle with and puzzle over the text ourselves on our own too. Bonhoeffer has some interesting things to say about music and singing. He says:
“Because it is bound wholly to the Word, the singing of the congregation, especially of the family congregation, is essentially singing in unison. The soaring tone of unison singing finds its sole and essential support in the words that are sung and therefore does not need the musical support of other voices….The purity of unison singing, unaffected by alien motives of musical techniques, the clarity, unspoiled by the attempt to give musical art an autonomy of its own apart from the words…. Unison singing, difficult as it is, is less of a musical than a spiritual matter.”
At first I read this as a condemnation, or at least a discarding, of complexity and variety in music. But looking at it again, I think he is referring specifically to worship and singing together as believers in fellowship. There, in the family or in the local church or Christian community, only (?) the voices are necessary to sing in unison. Every addition or attempted complication of the music, like other parts, distracts from the purpose and the joy of singing in unison.
I do wonder what this means for instrumental accompaniment – something he does not address. It seems like he would be skeptical of that too as it adds greater complexity to the music, at least in terms of worship. I will say, though, in defense of his view, that true unison singing, especially in larger groups and among passionate worshipers, is really an inspiring and up-lifting experience; one that far too few Christians experience today in churches with rock bands and performances, or small congregations that struggle to carry tunes altogether.
When Bonhoeffer writes of joining together at the table, he talks about the role of eating, both as a sign of God’s provision shared by all people as well as a reminder of our destination:
“The fellowship of the table has a festive quality. It is a constantly recurring reminder in the midst of our everyday work of God’s resting after His work, of the Sabbath as the meaning and goal of the week and its toil. Our life is not only travail and labor, it is also refreshment and joy in the goodness of God. We labor, but God nourishes and sustains us. And this is reason for celebrating.”
Our daily lives are also characterized by work. This is essential activity that all people must and should participate in. But worship and devotion and work are connected: “Praying and working are two different things. Prayer should not be hindered by work, but neither should work be hindered by prayer.” They are each important and each activity should have its time and place in the day. As Bonhoeffer says: “Without the burden and labor of the day, prayer is not prayer, and without prayer work is not work. This only the Christian knows.”
Work draws our attention to the “it” of the world – to the things and people and circumstances around us. It is something that we dive into in light of our devotion to God and our prayers, but with separate attention and practice. The work protects us from “indolence and sloth of the flesh” while also allowing us to work for the Lord in the world.
We rest in the middle of the day (and have a meal) and at the end of the day. These times of rest are not meant to distract ourselves with news or social media, but to reorient our hearts towards our Maker and towards one another. The closing of the day, while also devotional, has a different character than the opening of the day. Bonhoeffer says that confession and forgiveness are important practices in family and community at the end of the day so that we follow Paul’s exhortation: “Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.”
And we also pray with trust, that God keeps us and guards us, even in sleep. I have not thought of this much, though you can find elements of it in Augustine’s Confessions, but Bonhoeffer suggests that we should ask God to guard our souls even while we sleep:
“It is the prayer that God may dwell with us and in us even though we are unconscious of His presence, that He may keep our hearts pure and holy in spite of all the cares and temptations of the night, to make our hearts ever alert to hear His call and, like the boy Samuel, answer Him even in the night.”
Chapter Three: The Day Alone
This chapter explores the role of silence and solitude even when we live in community. Some of Bonhoeffer’s most interesting insights come in this chapter. First, he emphasizes that solitude and community are intimately connected, saying both: “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community.”
And: “Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”
Both states have dangers associated with them. And both states equip us for the other state. For those who “cannot be alone,” the danger is that they constantly seek distraction and affirmation from others, largely because they do not feel God’s affirmation privately. Left to themselves they are anxious, worried, fearful, doubtful, etc. Bonhoeffer says: “alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to God. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out.” You must face God, and his work on the cross, and his demands on you yourself. Seeking community without facing these things alone undermines our ability to truly be in community with others.
On the other side, those who lack community, or feel estranged from others, should beware of being by themselves. We are part of the body of Christ. There are no “lone-range Christians.” Bonhoeffer writes: “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.”
In beautiful parallelism, he describes the connections between community and solitude:
“The mark of solitude is silence, as speech is the mark of community. Silence and speech have the same inner correspondence and difference as do solitude and community. One does not exist without the other. Right speech comes out of silence, and right silence comes out of speech. Silence does not mean dumbness, as speech does not mean chatter.”
We spend our time in silence “waiting for God’s Word” and then bringing that blessing back to the fellowship. Similarly, we spend our time in silence praying for others, even as we spend time conversing and worshipping with them in community. Intercession, then, becomes an essential and important part of every Christian’s ordinary day when they are alone, in silence and in solitude. In some longer passages, Bonhoeffer describes the role of intercession:
“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. His face, that hitherto may have been strange and intolerable to me, is transformed in intercession into the countenance of a brother for whom Christ died, the face of a forgiven sinner….Intercessory prayer is the purifying bath into which the individual and the fellowship must enter every day.”
Furthermore, everything that we do or think in private, when we are alone, has a bearing on the fellowship:
“[T]here is no sin in thought, word, or deed, no matter how personal or secret, that does not inflict injury upon the whole fellowship. An element of sickness gets into the body; perhaps nobody knows where it comes from or in what member it has lodged, but the body is infected….Every member serves the whole body, either to its health or to its destruction. This is no mere theory; it is a spiritual reality.”
Therefore: “Every act of self-control of the Christian is also a service to the fellowship.”
Chapter Four: Ministry
I was surprised by how Bonhoeffer moved the speaking of God’s Word off of center stage in ministry. For in the Baptist, Together for the Gospel, and Gospel Coalition mindset, the Word is central: preach the Word, teach the Word, read the Word. But Bonhoeffer puts the priority of speaking and teaching God’s Word several steps down on the ministry priority list. Instead, he puts “Holding One’s Tongue” at the top.
He places this as the top priority in ministry because of the natural, and unavoidable, human tendency to want to place oneself in the place of highest honor. He cites Luke 9:46 where the disciples argue amongst themselves about who is the greatest to illustrate this point: “Thus at the very beginning of Christian fellowship there is engendered an invisible, often unconscious, life-and-death contest…enough to destroy fellowship.”
This ties back with his great concern in the first chapter about not trying to exercise power or domination over one another, and how Christ must be the center of Christian community and friendship to prevent our tendency towards domination. The same is true in ministry.
Holding one’s tongue is critical to preventing gossip, which poisons relationships and stirs up hatred, envy, and disdain. Bonhoeffer is also particularly concerned about how both weak and strong exist in the fellowship and how they relate to one another: “Every Christian community must realize that not only do the weak need the strong, but also that the strong cannot exist without the weak. The elimination of the weak is death of fellowship.”
Beyond holding one’s tongue, meekness comes next on the list of importance in ministry. Humility and service seem more important than using one’s authority to teach. Bonhoeffer says we must dwell on the depths of our depravity, as the Apostle Paul did, and consider ourselves the chief of sinners before we are ready to minister to others: “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.”
Then we find more radical statements from Bonhoeffer about meekness, and listening, coming before the ministry of the Word:
“We are apt these days to reply too quickly that the one real service to our neighbor is to minister to him the Word of God. It is true that there is no service that compares with this one, and even more, that every other service is performed for the sake of the service of the Word of God. Yet a Christian community does not consist solely of preachers of the Word. We can go monstrously wrong here if we overlook a number of other things. The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them.”
In addressing our potential impatience when we think that either we must deliver God’s Word, or that we must spend our time preparing to teach God’s Word or go about some other task, Bonhoeffer warns us:
“Anyone who thinks his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies….But it is part of the discipline of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform a service and that we do not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God.”
Bonhoeffer makes us ask ourselves whether our plans are really so important. Do we really know best and should all of our plans come to fruition? Is that likely to advance God’s kingdom the most or in the ways that He desires? Such a belief could only come from enormous naivete or pride.
Then there is the service of “bearing” one another’s sins and griefs. Walking alongside folks as they struggle with circumstances or doubt or temptation or sin. One thinks here of Job’s friends before they opened their mouths to condemn him. Simply sitting or walking alongside other believers in whatever season or valley they are passing through.
After doing all this – keeping quiet, listening, humbling ourselves, walking alongside others – now we are ready to preach to them and they are ready to hear. But ironically, we find ourselves often more hesitant to speak after we do all those things: “the person who has really listened and served and borne with others is the very one who is likely to say nothing….What can weak human words accomplish for others?” It leads us to put our hands over our mouths if we speak in an only human way (as Job’s friends did), and only to open our mouths to speak God’s Words, which cut to the heart and speak to our souls regardless of season.
Bonhoeffer also encourages us to realize that it is no light thing we do in laying the Gospel upon others, especially if it is unlooked for or unasked for. He says:
“Who dares to force himself upon his neighbor? Who is entitled to accost and confront his neighbor and talk to him about ultimate matters? It would be no sign of great Christian insight were one simply to say at this point that everybody has this right, indeed, this obligation. This could be the point where the desire to dominate might again assert itself in the most insidious way. The other person, as a matter of fact, has his own right, his own responsibility, and even his own duty, to defend himself against unauthorized interference. The other person has his own secret which dare not be invaded without great injury, and which he cannot surrender without destroying himself.”
I have some reservations about Bonhoeffer’s assertion of our rights to privacy or to choose when we are ready to grapple with eternal questions, but I very much take his point that tactless evangelism is often offensive and sterile. We should strive to be winsome in our conversation, and to treat others as human beings with souls and minds, worth of respect, not simply as potential or necessary converts: “The more we learn to allow others to speak the Word to us, to accept humbly and gratefully even severe reproaches and admonitions, the more free and objective we will be in speaking ourselves.”
Ultimately, the minister or preacher or pastor is no one special. We should not desire them to be charismatic or great or impressive. Such a desire easily distracts us from Christ and the centrality of his Word. “The desire we so often hear expressed today for ‘episcopal figures,’ ‘priestly men,’ ‘authoritative personalities’ springs frequently enough from a spiritually sick need for the admiration of men, for the establishment of visible human authority, because the genuine authority of service appears to be so unimpressive.” Yet our true barometer of a good under shepherd “is determined by the faithfulness with which a man serves Jesus Christ, never by the extraordinary talents which he possesses. Pastoral authority can be attained only by the servant of Jesus who seeks no power of his own, who himself is a brother among brothers submitted to the authority of the Word.”
Chapter Five: Confession and Communion
Bonhoeffer concludes the book with a chapter on confession and communion. Christian community requires confession to other Christians. It is about taking what is in the dark and bringing it into the light so that we can embrace the truth that:
“You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you.” And our brother or sister in Christ shows us that love by hearing our confession and speaking God’s truth to us. This is a message of “liberation through truth.”
Confession is essential for openness and openness is essential for community. Sin wants to stay in the dark. Confession brings it into the light:
“In confession the break-through to community takes place. Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person. This can happen even in the midst of a pious community.”
Isn’t that the truth! This reminds me of the regular parade of scandals and failures of one public Christian leader after another. Certainly their churches have their flaws (all earthly churches do), but many of the churches where these scandals occur are godly, Christ-centered communities. Sin, unconfessed, festers in the heart and leads to destruction, even in pious community.
The Lord’s Supper ends the book, and Bonhoeffer does not have much to say about it except that it is the culmination of Life Together. As we practice what he describes, especially the confession which is a part of the Lord’s Supper, we stand united as the body of Christ. And so it is especially fitting that we celebrate the Lord’s Supper together, as we remember Christ’s body and blood given for us, in a community where we relate to one another through Christ, and we all fully devote ourselves to him, and we are faithful to confess our sins knowing he is faithful to forgive us of those sins.
That is Life Together.
Paul Mueller is a Senior Research Fellow at AIER, a research fellow and associate director for the Religious Liberty in the States project at the Center for Religion, Culture, and Democracy, and the owner and operator of The Abbey Bed and Breakfast.