Building a Christian life with Bonhoeffer: Life Together

Building a Christian life with Bonhoeffer about being and living in a worshipping family and community.

Notes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Life Together, London, SCM, 1954. (Translated by John W Doberstein, 1954) (published in German, 1939)

Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is a small but very powerful book which covers a series of suggestions about how Christians should live, work and worship together both in their families and in Christian communities.  The following notes pull out some of Bonhoeffer’s key ideas and suggestions. 

Chapter 1: Community,  Covers the working of the Christian family but the principles widen out to the family of the church. 

Life Together begins with a quotation from Psalm 133:…Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.  Bonhoeffer underlines the importance of unity both in the family and in the local church.

Bonhoeffer notes on p7 that it is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians…the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. This is a good reminder to pray for folk who do live in minority environments or have no-one that they can realistically fellowship with in person. One gets the feeling that Bonhoeffer was not a fan of closed monasteries.

On fellowship with other Christians, Bonhoeffer notes (p10): The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure. There is strong encouragement from meeting and praying with Christian brothers and sisters. Throughout my working life in schools I have always managed to have a  weekly prayer partner in my school environment. It is a huge blessing.

On p13 Bonhoeffer notes: Christian community means community through and in Jesus Christ . On this presupposition rests everything that the Scriptures provide in the way of directions and precepts for the communal life of Christians.  The sub-text of this point is that the community of the church we attend is not really Christian at all, no matter how vital and busy, if it is not a community based strongly in and through Jesus our Lord. Otherwise we could just as well be a bowling club or a reading group. On p14 Bonhoeffer continues: 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. 

On the desire (I have often heard expressed and often felt myself) for the perfect church Bonhoeffer writes on p14: Just as surely God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great general disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves…By sheer grace god will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth…He who loves his dream of community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions be over so honest and earnest and sacrificial…we must give thanks daily …even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, faith, and difficulty….These are typically tough words from Bonhoeffer.  

I do not think he is saying there should be no emotion in our community or worship but rather that Christ’s church cannot be built on pure emotion..it must be built on Christ alone. I do not think either that he means we should not aim high..rather that when we fail to achieve what we think should be or happen in our church, we ought not to blame ourselves or our fellow Christians…we simply must work within the fellowship we have; we should not get depressed or down-hearted  and we should keep on praying for the blessing of God’s Holy Spirit. It is God’s church and he will build it.  Trying to build it with our own strengths and gifts alone will simply result in disillusion and burn out.  In addition I am sure he is reminding us that “when we think we are strong then we are weak”. We are in the greatest spiritual danger when we become proud and over-confident of our spiritual maturity and “joyful Christian life”.  Pride does go before a fall and spiritual pride is the deadliest of sins. When we become dependent on ourselves and not God’s mercy we are in the greatest of dangers.

On p17 Bonhoeffer notes: A pastor [nor a church member] should not complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God.  Hmm.. this will reduce a large number of Christian conversations! 

In a footnote on p19 the translator, John W Doberstein, explains the words he uses for translating the Greek pneumatikos ( Greek πνευματikος , German geistlich ) and the Greek psuchikos ( Greek ψυχικος, German seelisch ).  He translated geistlich as “spiritual” and seelisch as “human”.  He felt that “psychic” has a different connotation in English and although he didn’t say so “soulish” is not really a word. [Of course the New Testament gets itself into difficulties any way in 1Corinthians 15 where Paul distinguishes between the “physical” (Greek φυσικος – phusikos ) body and the  “spiritual” (Greek πνευματikος – spiritual body which could be interpreted as an “immortal soul which is without a body… which is not his intention as shown by his argument at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15. Small wonder that Christian theologians easily get themselves into differences and difficulties when they begin writing in detail about the “resurrection of the body”!]

On p22 Bonhoeffer writes: Where Christ bids me to maintain fellowship for the sake of love, I will maintain it. Where his truth enjoins me to dissolve a fellowship for love’s sake, there I will dissolve it, despite all the protests of my human love.  On a first reading, this passage appears to contradict his statements on p14 that we should expect much weakness, faith, and difficulty in our Christian community. In fact what I think he is saying is that when an allegedly ‘Christian” community says outright that it will have no truck with prayer, or Bible or preaching Christ or talk of salvation or repentance then indeed it should rename itself and become something else. I once was paid to run a youth group of over 80 members in a wealthy inner Melbourne community but when it came to worship they said “ok, but no hymns, no Bible readings, no prayers!”. These were thus difficult gigs to present and although the members came  (they had to if they wanted the youth club afterwards), not a lot of spiritual growth occurred. We occupied a lot of lives on a Friday evening for two years but the only observable life changes I recall were those in a small group of eight who met separately at a different time for Bible study and prayer.  When we left that church, the youth group disappeared overnight. On the other hand I have read of other folk who laboured faithfully on an overseas mission field for perhaps  fifteen years and had not one observable convert. They maintained their faithful vision.

On p23 Bonhoeffer writes spiritual love…will not seek to move others by all too personal, direct influence, by impure interference in the life of another. It will not take pleasure in pious, human fervour and excitement. It will rather meet the other person with the clear Word of God and be ready to leave him alone with this Word for a long time…Once again Bonhoeffer steers away from too much emotion in our evangelistic efforts.  (Not sure how he would have related to a Billy Graham Crusade meeting).  I also understand this paragraph to say that we need to give folk space, and not badger them with the Gospel or try to force something on them they are clearly uncomfortable with.   Paul’s encouragement to preach “in season and out of season” is not intended to encourage bullying or rudeness I am sure. Bonhoeffer is also saying I think that “scalps on the evangelistic belt’ is not what we are about in speaking a word of Christian encouragement to another traveller. 

On p24 Bonhoeffer seems to show a dislike for para-church organisations with a single aim or function. He writes life under the Word will remain sound and healthy only where it does not form itself into a movement, an order, a society, a collegium pietatis, but rather when it understands itself as being a part of the one, holy, catholic, Christian church. 

On p24  Bonhoeffer writes that there is no such thing as a church consisting of only spiritually strong people. …the exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; in the poor brother, Christ is knocking at the door…when a community of a purely spiritual kind is established, it always encounters the danger that everything human will be carried into and intermixed with this fellowship. A purely spiritual relationship is not only dangerous but also an altogether dangerous thing…Nothing is easier than to stimulate the glow of fellowship in a few days of life together, but nothing is more fatal to the sound, sober, brotherly fellowship of everyday life.   We cannot stay on the mountain-top! We have to walk through life’s valleys as well as its peak experiences.

Chapter 2: The Day with Others…about Christian practices.

On p32f  Bonhoeffer describes some difficulties we encounter when we try to pray the Psalms. Sometimes they say exactly what we want to say…especially when we want to shout God’s praises or communicate our deep distress. But some of the psalms are very personal to individuals and may not be “us” at all. And then there are the imprecatory psalms..how do we pray them in relation to Jesus’ command to love our enemies?

 One particularly helpful solution which Bonhoeffer offers on p34 is that in the psalms..there are two voices, bringing the same concern to God..the one who prays is never alone…there must be a second person…Jesus Christ himself, praying with him.

In regard to reading the Scripture, Bonhoeffer notes (p36) there is little doubt that brief verses cannot and should not take the place of reading the Scripture as a whole..and further (p36)..the reason we find it hard to read large sections of Scripture is because we are ignorant of the contents of Scripture!    In relation to the public reading of Scripture, Bonhoeffer stresses that it is very important not to try to draw attention to yourself.

In regard to singing hymns in church Bonhoeffer is very much opposed to folk who sing harmony in church (something I love to do!) Bonhoeffer things this is showing off (p44) …It is not you that’s singing, it is the church that is singing! He write of the great power of the church singing together in unison.  Regarding the perennial problem of what hymns/songs to sing and how to sing them Bonhoeffer offers the advice that any doctrinaire attitude, which we meet so often in this area, comes of evil.  (p44).

In regard to devotional prayers, Bonhoeffer argues that one person in the family group only should do this (p46)…I am not sure why he would insist on this.

In regard to formal, liturgical prayers, Bonhoeffer accepts that they can be a help (p47) …but often ritual becomes an evasion of real prayer.

In regard to dissension within the church or family, Bonhoeffer is strong (p56)…It is a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that every dissension that the day has brought must be healed in the evening. It is perilous for the Christian to lie down to sleep with an unreconciled heart. 

Chapter 3: The Day Alone:…about individual Christian devotional practice.

On p57f Bonhoeffer notes: Many Christian people seek fellowship because they are afraid to be alone…who hope they will gain some help in association with others. They are generally disappointed. Then they blame the fellowship for what is really their own fault? The reverse is also true: let him who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone.

On p59f Bonhoeffer writes; There is a time to keep silence and a time to speak (Ecclesiastes 3:7).  Silence is nothing else but waiting for God’s Word and coming from God’s Word with a blessing. 

Regarding personal devotional times and the use of Scripture, Bonhoeffer notes we are better with a brief selected text, rather than a long consecutive passage. We should ask “what is the text saying to us?” not “‘what should I preach about it or tell others about it?” (p61f)

On p63 Bonhoeffer notes ..it is not necessary that we should have any unexpected, extraordinary experiences in meditation. This can happen, but if it does not, it is not a sign that the meditation period was useless.  Bonhoeffer seems to be encouraging us not to set the bar too high in our expectation of “spiritually uplifting” moments in our devotional lives.  When these times comes it is a blessing but it is not a sign of spiritual slackness or weakness if they are not occurring. 

Regarding folk losing concentration in meditation Bonhoeffer notes (p64f) Many folk get upset when their mind strays in meditation. When this happens it is often a help not to snatch back our thoughts convulsively, but quite calmly to incorporate into our prayer the people and events to which our thoughts keep straying. I think this is excellent advice and it is an approach I have always felt to be particularly helpful

Chapter 4: Ministry. Bonhoeffer notes many important ministries…many of them seldom spoken about: 

p70:  The ministry of holding our tongue…it must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him…to speak about a brother covertly is forbidden, even under the cloak of help and good will.

p. 71 Bonhoeffer notes that we should not try to fashion folk in our own image. God did not give this person to me as a brother for me to dominate an control, but in order that I might find above him the Creator. 

p72 In a Christian community everything depends on whether each individual is an indispensable link in a chain…a community which allows unemployed members to exist within it will perish because of them.  [nb I think he means “unemployed” in the sense of not having a role in the Christian community!

p73  the first man who was born on this earth was Cain.  A useful insight…Adam was created in Paradise. 

p74 As a rule we shouldn’t be running around insisting on our rights. Paul insisted on his rights as a Roman citizen but I believe he did this hoping to testify to Christ before the Roman Emperor himself. 

p74. In community, it is important to consider ourselves s the greatest of sinners…Thomas à Kempis:  Never think that thou hast made any progress till thou look upon thyself as inferior to all.

p75  The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them….He who no longer listens to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God.

p76   The ministry of helpfulness:  We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.

p77.  The ministry of bearing:  For the pagan the other person never becomes a burden at all. He simply sidesteps every burden that others may impose upon him. Here in this passage only, I disagree strongly with Bonhoeffer. In my experience pagans are often the first responders and helpers in a crisis and often seriously put themselves out.  I think Bonhoeffer underestimates selfless and caring pagans many of whom often put Christians to shame. 

p80  The ministry of proclaiming: Bonhoeffer notes that the speaking of that Word is beset with infinite perils….and yet we are called to this task..training and care is required…

p 84  The ministry of authority:  Bonhoeffer notes that the desire we so often hear expressed for ‘episcopal figures’, ‘priestly men’, ‘authoritative personalities’ springs frequently enough from a spiritually sick need for the admiration of men ….The Church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren. 

Chapter 5: Confession and Communion.   

On p86 Bonhoeffer notes Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinners suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners.

On p88ff Bonhoeffer puts up a strong case for confession to a fellow Christian individually and personally, not just corporately in worship.  There do seem to be significant difficulties in this process.

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