The Church and Life Together

Bonhoeffer.jpgI’ve been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s magisterial, moving Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works). It is, so I think, his best book. No need, however, to debate what is neither provable nor non-falsifiable.

What is worth discussing is his incredible set of statements about the expectations we bring to the church and that we expect of the church and how our expectations, when they encounter the realities, are dashed to the ground.

In my classes at Northern Seminary, we are reading a section to begin class from this great book. Those who can read Bonhoeffer’s life (and death) and not grieve what we lost have not come to terms with this great man’s life and thought.

Here are my favorite lines, lines that follow on from his important claim that Christian fellowship is “through” and “in” Jesus Christ:

This dismisses at the outset every unhappy desire for something more. Those who want more than what Christ has established between us do not want Christian community. They are looking for some extraordinary experiences of community… Such people are bringing confsused and tainted desires into the Christian community. Precisely at this point Christian community is most often threatened from the very outset by the greatest danger … the danger of confusing Christian community with some wishful image of pious community, the danger of blending the devout heart’s natural desire for community with the spiritual reality of Christian community.

Now hear this:

Only that community which enters into the experience of this great disillusionment with all its unpleasant and evil appearances begins to be what it is should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.

And this:

Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.

Those who dreams of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves.

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  • Tom F.

    I love Life Together. Bonhoffer’s words here have been almost a mantra to me as the church I am part of is maybe just coming out of what was a very difficult time. We definitely all had to own up to our idealizations of community. I think the big thing that we would really prefer not to be true is that real community grows up amongst the dirt. Its really about making it through all the junk together that gives us the real chance to build one another up in Christ.

  • But I don’t want to give up my dream of Christian community. 😉

  • Great quotes from a great book. Though, I still get a chuckle out of his warnings against harmony & warbling in worship.

  • This is my favorite of his work as well. Probably because it’s so strongly rooted in his experience (via Finkenwalde) rather than a work of mindy theology or arm-chair philosophy. The “wish dream” is worth it’s weight in gold and something I recommend all Christian communities to read aloud once a year. The new “DB Works” set is superb both in the translation and packaging.


    Psalm 115:1

  • Mick Porter

    Great quotes, sounds a truly valuable book. In spending a decade in a cult-like church movement, I observed that many were disillusioned that the church didn’t meet the lofty expectations that the church had promised. So people had unreasonable expectations, those expectations being largely created by the marketing of the church itself.

  • sean b

    This is a great work. @mick I agree that in the American context at least that it is our marketing and consumerism in the church that promotes these false expectations. Moreover the “flawless service” seems itself to be the antithesis to the grit and flow of authentic community. How do we apply these thoughts of Mr bonhoffer in a setting that does not insist on it out of necessity, as his setting seemed to?

  • NateW

    “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.”

    This is absolutely brilliant. I hear so many “progressive” Christians complaining that they can’t find a church that is progressive enough to make them feel welcome and accepted. While I can understand not wanting to be a part of something destructive and perhaps oppressive, I think that in most cases those leaving churches seem to be thinking that the church exists to love and agree with them instead existing as a place for them to unconditionally love others.

  • Great reminder of a great book!
    I just started Jean Varnier’s book “community and growth” and really am benefiting from his insights of doing community for more than 20 years with mentally handicapped people!
    There is some great videos of him on the work of the people website if anyone is interested

  • DMH

    My wife and I were part of a community (all move in together type) and this is the book we had people read if they thought they wanted to be a part.

  • Sounds like I need to walk a little more alongside Bonhoeffer. I read Jon Walker’s “In Visible Fellowship” synopsis of “Life Together”; perhaps I should tackle the original soon.

    After a severe disappointment with church community this year, I’m taking another look at my expectations of it. I’m happy in a new community that I’m holding very loosely, while continuing to be in community with people from more areas of my life besides “church.” I’m definitely in transition of rethinking the church’s function…

  • We call our Sunday night small groups “Life Together” groups and actually used it as our curriculum this semester – the people have loved it, and are wanting to read more of his works based off this one powerful book!