Book Review: Life Together
Facing the rise of Nazi control over churches in Germany in the mid-1930s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer took charge of a small seminary to train young pastors. These men shared life together in close quarters, and, at Bonhoeffer’s lead, rigorously devoted themselves to the Christian community. From this experience, Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together.
Although Life Together is a short book, each word, each sentence and paragraph, carries such a weight that it demands the reader to take their time reading and rereading each page. This is not because it is difficult to read or digest. Rather, Bonhoeffer’s insight into Scripture, rooted in the foundational gospel truths of the Reformation, combined with his pastoral approach to Christian doctrine gives immense depth to the practical nature of the Christian community. Every Christian serious about being a part of a local church will find his instruction tremendously beneficial for personal and church life.
Bonhoeffer covers three aspects of life together in the Christian community. He begins with Jesus Christ, the foundation of the Church, and how union with Him causes and governs the Church. This underlies the entire book. His next two chapters cover biblical and practical methods of worship and communion with other believers and personal devotions. Bonhoeffer concludes this book with practical methods of serving and ministering to other believers within the church.
Most would assume such a practical book to come across as a how-to-do-church sort of book, but it’s not. It surprisingly ends up being more of a why-to-do-church book. Certainly, any reader could see it as merely a how-to book, but doing so misses Bonhoeffer’s rich insights into the human condition within the Christian community. Doing so also misses Bonhoeffer’s theme throughout the book that people need more than just a spiritual to-do list in order to get the most out of church, they need true fellowship with one another. If you only view it from a how-to perspective, you will soon find out that biblically ordered fellowship of believers is far too radical to carry out without divine help.
Each time I read this book, something new stands out to me. It isn’t that I read an updated or revised copy, but that certain aspects of church life are more pressing in certain moments than others. For me, this proves Bonhoeffer covers this topic of life together holistically. It is not a diary of his observations, but a thoroughly biblical approach to church community. So, I will share some of the highlights pertinent to my current situation.
“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” (pg. 23).
This sentence has an abundance of practical implications for church life. As a teacher, I must not be concerned with presenting a bible study that shocks and wows my hearers so that I leave an impression on them for the rest of their lives, but that I simply preach Christ. Sermons, bible studies, theological conversations and encouragements do not need to be memorable to be effective, they need to build up our subjective assurance of Christ by reminding us of the historical and objectively true Jesus Christ.
For personal devotion, I must seek Christ not in my own heart, but in the Word of God. I must let Christ be Christ and not some figment of my imagination. I must remind myself through prayer, song, and Scripture reading.
“Human love cannot tolerate the dissolution of a fellowship that has become false for the sake of genuine fellowship, and human love cannot love an enemy, that is, one who seriously and stubbornly resists it” (pg. 34).
The context in which Bonhoeffer writes these words is in the struggle believers have between creating a vision of the Christian community and submitting to Christ’s order for Christian fellowship. Perhaps this pertains more to those in authority (pastor, elder, deacon, etc.) than those under that authority. When certain power is given to individuals, those individuals enter a battle between their own idea of community and Christ’s idea, and when they cannot tolerate the dissolution of their idea, whether in diminishing numbers of congregants or other elders confronting them on the truthfulness of their idea, their love is shown to be human love instead of spiritual love.
Bonhoeffer observes that human love becomes hatred at one point or another. Perhaps, two leaders or church members have different visions for church life, hatred and dissension will ensue, hurting not only the parties involved but the entire community. Each local church needs spiritual love to reign in order for unity and blessing within the fellowship. The foundation, Bonhoeffer tells us, is Christ and His mediation both to God and to our brothers and sisters in the faith. In Christ’s mediation, we learn to truly love our brothers and sisters. Bonhoeffer argues thus, “The other person needs to retain his independence of me; to be loved for what he is, as one for whom Christ became man, died, and rose again, for whom Christ bought forgiveness of sins and eternal life” (pg. 36). Therefore, Bonhoeffer says, “I must leave him his freedom to be Christ’s; I must meet him only as the person that he already is in Christ’s eyes.”
With Christ as the centre of the Christian life and community, Bonhoeffer continues to lay out the order for worship in the local church, at work, and at home. It is largely built upon a statement made earlier in the book, in chapter one: “God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth” (pg. 27). Everything in the Christian community must be Word-centred. If it is not, it will not bring us to Jesus Christ, and it will not promote spiritual love among the church. If love is lacking, Christ assuredly is not the centre of that community.
“Why should we not find it easier to go to a brother than to the holy God? But if we do, we must ask ourselves whether we have not often been deceiving ourselves with our confession of sin to God, whether we have not rather been confessing our sins to ourselves and also granting ourselves absolution” (pg. 115).
One last quote from the last chapter of the book stands out to me. Bonhoeffer addresses confession of sin within the community, and the joy Christians should have in the fact that God is willing to forgive the sins of His children. This joy, however, is not always a reality in the Christian’s life, and part of the problem is that they do not truly bring their sins to light in confession. “As long as I am by myself in the confession of my sins everything remains in the dark,” Bonhoeffer writes, “but in the presence of a brother the sin has to be brought into the light.”
From Bonhoeffer’s perspective, life together takes a supernatural work. Our hearts, our passions, our perspectives, and our actions must reflect our union with Christ. One of the reasons I will revisit this book is the Christ-centred perspective Dietrich Bonhoeffer brings to the practical aspects of the Christian life together and alone. This book is for everyone serious about their fellowship with other believers in the local and universal church, for the ones in leadership and for those in the pews.
Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community
By Dietrich Bonhoeffer, HarperOne, 2009