Driving with Bonhoeffer, Chapter One; Part One: Life Together

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”

Paul of Tarsus (Colossians 3:23-24, ESV)

Some thoughts came to me while I was driving and thinking about the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I figured I’d write them down so I could remember them. Maybe someone can help me solidify the ideas that have come to mind. Either way, I’m prone to forget those “brilliant” ideas I have pretty quickly; this blog seemed like a decent enough way to try to fight that tendency.

I’ve only just started reading Life Together (1938) by Bonhoeffer. I think I picked it up and read the first chapter about a week ago. But, something about the words he wrote there–accompanied by what I already knew Bonhoeffer had said, through other sources–really struck me hard. I’ve been wrestling with his words in my mind ever since. They were that important to me. Bonhoeffer’s words occupy my mind so much that it feels like he is saying more in my mind than I am these days. We’ve been having this conversation in my head, and so I’ve been getting to know the man behind the words as best I can.

The best way I can see to discuss his words in the most faithful way would be to read through the chapter again. As I do, I’ll comment on the words that struck me most. I’ll tell the story of my drives to work while talking with Bonhoeffer through commenting on his words.

– – –

life together

“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”

David, king of Israel (Psalm 133:1, ESV)

Bonhoeffer begins with scripture, so I thought I should as well. He states outright that his discussion of the Christian community would be words directly from God. “In the following we shall consider a number of directions and precepts that the Scriptures provide us for our life together under the Word.” (17) Right from the start, his intention is to lay out the worldview that should listen to his words. Anyone who wishes to understand what the scriptures say about community with Christ should listen to Bonhoeffer. Because that’s exactly what he’s talking about. If we happen to disagree with him, it might be because we dislike the truth. We don’t deny its validity.

“So the Christian, [like Jesus], belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes.” (17) The very pinnacle of a model Christian is the example Jesus gave us. So, if we really wanted the best, we’d be like him. To be like him, we must be among our enemies, not merely our friends. Coming from Bonhoeffer, this is some heavy stuff. Bonhoeffer was a persecuted Christian pastor during the holocaust. He was held in prison camps. He was eventually executed. This is the guy telling me that I shouldn’t seek the close-knit community of a comfortable Christian life during those times? Why should I deny the same motivation in my own times?

Then Bonhoeffer quotes Luther:

“The Kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared?”

He brought it to the level that I wanted to bring it to as well. He accuses the whole church of seeking the pleasure of close company rather than our enemies for the Kingdom of Christ. “I will sow them among the people: and they shall remember me in far countries.” (Zechariah 10:9) Then he drops scripture on the conversation, and says “According to God’s will Christendom is a scattered  people, scattered like seed ‘into all the kingdoms of the earth.’ (Deuteronomy 28:25)” But that’s just how it is, as Bonhoeffer shows. You can’t deny the biblical truth of the seed of God’s Kingdom being scattered among the nations. That’s how God designed it, so there is no denying it.

At this point, my brain made an interesting connection to Luther’s words in this context. In his book, The Divine Conquest, A. W. Tozer makes this remark in his preface:

“Toward anything like thorough scholarship I make no claim. I am not an authority on any man’s teaching; I have never tried to be. I take my help where I find it and set my heart to graze where the pastures are greenest. Only one stipulation do I make: that my teacher must now God, as Carlyle said, “otherwise than by hearsay,” and Christ must be all in all to him. If a man have only correct doctrine to offer me I am sure to slip out at the first intermission to seek the company of someone who has seen for himself how lovely is the face of Him who is the Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valleys. Such a man can help me, and no one else can.” (13-14, emphasis added)

The true Christian is content with the Rose of Sharon, Jesus Christ. One who loves Jesus understands that he is the Lily of the Valley, the Lord and Savior of humankind. Luther’s words in this context changed the meaning of his words for me. The group of believers that seeks to shelter their community from the outside world and make for themselves a sort of “heaven on earth” seeks a Godless community. Bonhoeffer puts it this way:

“We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity. That dismisses once and for all every clamorous desire for something more. One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want the 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. Just at this point Christian brotherhood is threatened most often at the very start by the greatest danger of all, the danger of being poisoned at its root, the danger of confusing Christian brotherhood with some wishful idea of religious fellowship, of confounding the natural desire of the devout heart for community with the spiritual reality of Christian brotherhood. In Christian brotherhood everything depends upon its being clear right from the beginning, first, that Christian brother is not an ideal, but a divine reality. Second, that Christian brotherhood is a spiritual and not a psychic reality.” (26, bold emphasis added, italics in original)

He who seeks more than Christ and the community he offers through his sacrifice does not seek Christ at all. The family of God, the big-C Church family, is held together and brought into being and sustained only by and through Christ. Seeking the comfort of our Sunday morning worship concerts, our small-group meetings, and our close-knit group of Christian friends leads us away from seeking Christ. The Kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. So it was for Christ, so it is for us. The comfort of Christian brotherhood when it is available should be sustaining us for the loving work of God through his Church.

Instead, it has focused our minds on the differing aspects among the plethora of worship concerts. One style is hard rock. Another is southern gospel. Another sings congregational hymns. Another doesn’t have a very good guitar player and their drummer is always off-beat, so you shouldn’t go there. When did we become a family so consumed by image and the illusion of perfection? When did we start caring more about the music being played rather than the fact that Jesus was being openly praised on a massive scale. We have the rare opportunity to boldly practice our beliefs without any fear of repercussions. Throughout history there have been long periods of religious persecution for just about every religion. The opportunity given to us in the U.S. to proclaim that we love Jesus without having any consequence is by the grace of God alone.

“Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.” (20, emphasis added)

Bonhoeffer understood this better than anyone. He was being persecuted. He wrote Life Together while working in underground seminaries, banned by the Gestapo. This man understands what the Christian life should be about. He understands how special and important Christian brotherhood is in the context of God’s will for us.

Our generation would do well to revisit his words and take them to heart. I encourage you to share this post if you agree.

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