Bonhoeffer on Christian Community


There is probably no Christian to whom God has not given the uplifting and blissful experience of genuine Christian community at least once in her or his life. But in this world such experiences remain nothing but a gracious extra beyond the daily bread of Christian community life. We have no claim to such experiences, and we do not live with other Christians for the sake of gaining such experiences. It is not the experience of Christian community, but firm and certain faith within Christian community that holds us together. We hold fast in faith to God’s greatest gift, that God has acted for us all and wants to act for us all. This makes us joyful and happy, but it also makes us ready to forget all such experiences if at times God does not grant them. We are bound together by faith, not by experience.

Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that genuine community can survive. 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…

Contemporary Christ-followers imagine that our Christianity is somehow more real or vibrant than that of previous generations. Yet, Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood the sweetness of Christian community better than most of us. Perhaps that was because he spent the last two years of his life in a Nazi concentration camp, virtually devoid of the community he loved above all.

Today’s Christians grasp what he called Community by a different handle: Fellowship. Most of us do fellowship once, or maybe twice a week, living our lives independently the rest of the time. We protect our independence passionately, as autonomous believers, and when challenged about it, we defend ourselves on the basis of family priorities and the church’s urban structure—or rural structure, whichever applies.

Our general idea of faith-community is annual family camps and monthly potlucks, where men gather to discuss manly things and women gather to discuss womanly things, while the kids and youth run around doing kidly and youthly things. Once the preaching, seminars, committee meetings and classes recharge our spiritual batteries we pile into our cars or RVs and head home to the “real” world.

Bonhoeffer’s “real” world was his faith-community.

“Easy for you to say; he was a pastor,” someone might interject.

Okay, I’ll grant that life was different eighty years ago, but we aren’t. Separating our lives into the two discrete realms of sacred and secular handicaps both sides. We will only be effective in both realms when our walk in Christ’s Way salts our walk in the world. And it is truly reciprocal, in that a monastic life of faith benefits primarily the believer.

Bonhoeffer’s second paragraph above makes a strong point that I could never express so understandably: It’s kind of like being in love with love, and we all do it to some extent. With idealized preconceptions of Christian community life, we go into it with strong expectations of what it “should” be like. All Christian communities are comprised of fallible human beings who are lucky to get “it” right under the best of conditions, but the best of conditions seldom persist. Disillusionment is the inevitable, rotten fruit of all expectations but those we faithfully derive from Scripture.

Bottom line? Chuck all idealistic expectations about Christian community and fellowship, and replace them with the hope we have in Christ Jesus. Then mix in healthy portions of gratitude and praise, and our community experience will shine with the true, Godly love that he commands us to show all the brethren.

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