It seems fitting that after the stories about Pastor Bob Childress and Slate Mountain Presbyterian Church, I should close the month with a book review. The author is a well-known pastor who was executed by Nazi Germany in 1945, because he courageously exposed the evil of that regime and defended the church of Christ. He left behind several books; this one discusses how Christ meant for us to live with one another, to build one another up in the faith, and to be sowers of good seeds so that the Kingdom of God would advance. This helpful little book is entitled Life Together.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as you may already be aware, was a German Lutheran pastor who helped found a seminary in Germany to train young pastors. They lived and studied together. He wrote the book as a model for other seminaries, but also envisioned it to serve the Christian church as a whole, opening with the words of Psalm 133:1: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” Plentiful throughout this book are scripture verses to reinforce the points being made.
“ Psalm 133:1: 'Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!' ”
Bonhoeffer makes clear from page one, that while Christians cannot neglect living together (although certainly not communally like the seminary students, but in community churches), they must not live cloistered away from the rest of the world, “but in the midst of enemies.” It is in that atmosphere that they have been called to work. Here he quotes Martin Luther:
“To rule is to be in the midst of your enemies. And whoever will not suffer this does not want to be part of the rule of Christ; such a person wants to be among friends and sit among the roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the religious people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing, who would ever have been saved?”
Bonhoeffer, as mentioned before, lived during the time that Adolph Hitler with his national socialist agenda rose to power, closing the Christian Church. Some religious leaders followed the state instead of scripture and strayed away from biblical doctrine, endorsing Hitler’s evil dictatorship. This book was released in the midst of that, to encourage believers to stick together. This brings to mind the struggles of the church in China today, and more recently Hong Kong. Christian persecution is at its highest rates around the world and more subtly advancing even in the United States. Considering that, this book is especially applicable to us right now as believers.
“ We belong to him, because we are in him. ”
So, what must we do to stand united against such formidable unrest and evil as we find ourselves living in? First, Bonhoeffer addresses “community” and pulls it together in Jesus Christ. He reminds us that: “wherever he is, he bears our flesh, he bears us. And, where he is, there we are too—in the incarnation, on the cross, and in his resurrection. We belong to him, because we are in him. That is why the Scriptures call us the body of Christ. But if we have been elected and accepted with the whole church in Jesus Christ before we could know it or want it, then we also belong to Christ in eternity with one another.”
This goes against how I often feel. Sometimes when I think of spending eternity with certain Christians, I’m not so sure that it will be easy or even desired on my part. My initial thought is to blame them as the problem, when actually, the Word of God says it’s me. We are given one another for our own sakes. When I see Christ in another, it affirms Christ in me. We stand united in Him. My gut reaction should be thankfulness for other believers, instead of making demands on them. Even if it’s only in my heart, I need to thankfully receive them. Bonhoeffer writes:
“Will not another Christian’s sin be an occasion for me ever anew to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Therefore will not the very moment of great disillusionment with my brother or sister be incomparably wholesome for me because it so thoroughly teaches me that both of us can never live by our own words and deeds, but only that one Word and deed that really binds us together, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.” Wow!
“ Together—not individually—we are the Bride of Christ. ”
Bonhoeffer goes on to describe that my bad feelings towards fellow sisters or brothers in Christ, stem from my emotions—which are not reliable or truthful, and have everything to do with changes I want to see in another, instead of how that person is known by Christ. Rather, he says, “Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person as seen from the perspective of Jesus Christ. It is the image Jesus Christ has formed and wants to form in all people.” In other words, I need other Christians in order to know Christ better and to grow in Christ. Together—not individually—we are the Bride of Christ.
The next section of the book deals with worshipping together, and begins with a reference to Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” The importance of reading and hearing the Word of God, singing, and praying are each discussed. How often do we take these things for granted, doing them so often that they become rote and meaningless? By focusing on how each of these things put our thoughts on Christ and Christ alone, we are provided rest from personal concerns and preparation to face them. Our united voices and hearts centering on Christ remind us of His salvation and care for us as His whole Body, and draw our thoughts to our future together with Him in the place that He has prepared for us in His presence.
Bonhoeffer then moves on to the topic of the necessity of individual worship to the Christian community. He points out that those who don’t like to be alone, but always in community, bring harm to the community. We must remember that God calls us first as individuals. We respond to Him individually. Each person alone made their own decision to obey and follow Christ, and one day will face death alone, giving an account to God.
“ 'Those who seek solitude without community perish in the bottomless pit of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.' ”
However, the reverse is true as well, and Bonhoeffer warns that always being alone provides its own set of problems. “Those who seek solitude without community perish in the bottomless pit of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.” Both belong together and in fact, “Only in community do we learn to be properly alone and only in being alone do we learn to live properly in community.”
Bonhoeffer advocates a meditation time alone each day that includes “meditation on the Scripture, prayer, and intercession.” Having grown up with a daily regimen of Bible reading, I fell into one of two things: first, trying various plans that were designed to read certain amounts of scripture in a given time frame; or, second, reading a devotional that gave me one scripture a day and then briefly expounded on it. While each of these can be helpful, Bonhoeffer points out that taking a short passage and meditating on it is a much more personal way to actually “hear” the Word, reading and re-reading, letting the “Word dwell in us, gripping us, and challenging us.” Meditation turns into prayer as we think and listen to the Holy Spirit ministering to us through what we are reading.
Reading this chapter helped me to realize that our individual experiences are so much the same. In prayer, I find my mind wanders a great deal, and Bonhoeffer addresses this in such a helpful way, tying all of this into quiet meditation.
“ 'God did not make others as I would have made them. God did not give them to me so that I could dominate and control them, but so that I might find the Creator by means of them...' ”
He writes: “A special difficulty in the time of meditation is that it is so easy for our thoughts to wander and go their own way, toward other persons or to some events in our life….If we find ourselves in this situation, it is often a help not frantically to restrain our thoughts, but quite calmly to draw into our prayer those people and events toward which our thoughts keep turning, and thus patiently to return to the starting point of the meditation.”
Service in the Christian community is where Bonhoeffer takes us next. What he writes first was not what I was expecting, but it certainly reflects the truth. The chapter opens citing a verse from Luke 9 about how the disciples got to arguing about which of them would be the greatest. It almost seems comical to me to picture this, knowing the humility and sincerity of their ministries and the letters that they wrote to believers. Yet, as Bonhoeffer points out: “No Christian community ever comes together without this argument appearing as a seed of discord. No sooner are people together than they begin to observe, judge, and classify each other….It is the struggle of natural human beings for self-justification.”
Bonhoeffer wisely points out that keeping our tongues in control is advised and that when we do that, we will find that judging and condemning others diminishes. In its place we allow one another to live freely and begin to see the reasons that God has brought us together. Thoughts like the following begin to form in our minds: “God did not make others as I would have made them. God did not give them to me so that I could dominate and control them, but so that I might find the Creator by means of them. Now other people, in the freedom with which they were created, become an occasion for me to rejoice, whereas before they were only a nuisance and trouble for me. God does not want me to mold others into the image that seems good to me, that is, into my own image. Instead, in their freedom from me God made other people in God’s own image. I can never know in advance how God’s image should appear in others. That image always takes on a completely new and unique form whose origin is found solely in God’s free and sovereign act of creation.”
“ Service to others manifests itself in listening, helping, supporting, and bearing with one another. ”
Therefore, we in the Christian community should not be “governed by self-justification, which violates others, but by justification by grace which serves others.” Service to others manifests itself in listening, helping, supporting, and bearing with one another. Is this not what scripture teaches over and over again, and is it not during times of giving and receiving these gifts of service from one another that we feel our community is the strongest?
Perhaps, Bonhoeffer says, the greatest service we can give is speaking the Word of God to one another. This does not only mean to encourage and build up, which is essential, but also to open ourselves up to be accountable to one another. This is indeed the highest height and the deepest depth of encouragement—to speak the Word of God to brothers and sisters in order to recognize and keep one another from sin. And to be vulnerable enough to place ourselves in the humble position of listening when the Word of God is spoken to us by one in our community.
This discussion leads us into the final chapter of the book on “Confession and the Lord’s Supper.” If we are not lovingly confessing to and hearing one another’s confessions, the problem of piety arises. Bonhoeffer points out that the “pious community permits no one to be a sinner. Hence all have to conceal their sins from themselves and from the community.” This problem then blocks the reality of the Lord’s Supper, which is a time for believers to recognize the very giving of Jesus’ life for sin; to examine oneself for indwelling sin, and repent of it; and to celebrate together in unity the sacrificial body that made our body of believers possible. It is both an individual and community activity that relies on hearing and making confession to one another, “reconciling the community’s hearts with God and one another.”
“ He has purchased the Church at great price as a bride for His Son. ”
“Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate,” Bonhoeffer writes. Just as we have no right to be given salvation, Christian community is a gift that comes to us without our having any “claim” on it. We may regard our Christian community at times, as pathetic and weak, in the same way we often think of our individual self. But, thank God, He does not view us as we view ourselves. He has purchased the Church at great price as a bride for His Son. His glory shines on us and in us, and that is what He sees as He continues to prepare us for our final marriage feast.
The division in our country currently on several major issues—including among others, health amidst pandemic, racial unrest, and preservation of life—point to a great need in our society for the church to unite together in order to truly radiate Jesus Christ to a lost world. Bonhoeffer and other Christians did that so bravely during World War II and their good examples remain for us. That unity begins by the means espoused in this book which rests squarely on scripture, teaching believers how they should live. This is a book for every believer, helpful to church communities, families, even marriages, because it so accurately prescribes how to do life in the Church. And if we are true believers, life in the church is exactly what we are doing.