What is the church and what kind of corporate life should it have? These are important questions, especially in an age where style leads substance and effectiveness leads conviction. Into this, voices from the past remain important for us to listen to, to help us consider our theology and way of being the church in the present time.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer remains an important voice for a number of reasons – his story is compelling and continues to draw interest, his theology is both stark and ambiguous so that many people can find appeal in his words.
His book Life Together has, rightly, been hailed a classic and is full of riches to anyone thinking about the shape, purpose and mission of the church. Personally I consider it required reading.
In the first chapter, Bonhoeffer deals with ‘Community’ and reminds us that the church is a gathering in the world not set apart from it.
The Christian…belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. (p.7)
The church is a scattered people, cast like seeds to the wind but like seeds to grow wherever we land.
God’s people must dwell in far countries among the unbelievers, but it will be the seed of the Kingdom of God in all the world. (p.7)
Bonhoeffer dwells on the embodied nature of fellowship. Christ came in the body, we remember Christ through bread and wine and our physical presence with each other should be treated as a grace gift of God being reminded that many miss such presence – the sick, the prisoner, the missionary, the lonely. Bonhoeffer is also acutely aware of the time he was writing in – Finkenwalde was an underground seminary, the Nazis were tightening the noose on those connected with the Confessing Church. There were no promises of peace and Bonhoeffer saw this:
It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. (p.10)
In the light of this threat and reality Bonhoeffer urges a thankfulness that is often missing from contemporary church life, gratefulness for the church itself.
Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian 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. (p.10)
That would certainly be a refreshing attitude to encounter on Sunday mornings.
He then moves on the foundation of Christian community, Jesus Christ. Here Bonhoeffer’s appeal to evangelicals becomes clear.
The Christian lives wholly by the truth of God’s Word in Jesus Christ. If somebody asks him, ‘Where is your salvation, your righteousness?’ he can never point to himself. He points to the Word of God in Jesus Christ, which assures him of salvation and righteousness. (p.11)
But while it is the word alone which is the basis of the Christian life, we only hear that word through another person. Believer and unbeliever alike needs to hear the gospel. This for Bonhoeffer is the purpose of Christian community;
They [the believers] meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation. (p.12)
This goes beyond the preacher, each believer has a duty and commitment to encourage their brothers and sisters in the truth of the gospel but before we get too eager to dispense ‘truth’ Bonhoeffer reminds us of how God brought truth to us.
When God was merciful to us, we learned to be merciful with our brethren. When we received forgiveness instead of judgement, we, too, were made ready to forgive our brethren. What God did to us, we then owed to others. (p.13)
We’re to grow in the love of God and the church is the primary place we exercise and grow in that love. That is a healthy reminder. As Bonhoeffer unpacks what love is like and how it is manifested in Christ, he deals with all sorts of unloving behaviour that is commonly seen in churches – grumbling, complaining and self-centredness and ensuring we do not exclude the weak or the poor.
Bonhoeffer calls the church to a unity formed on the basis of who we are in Jesus Christ, and he is solidly reformed on this, and then made manifest to one another through ‘loving one another’. We are the church only because of Jesus Christ, we live our life together under the Word of Jesus Christ and so it is only there that we find the teaching on what it is to be the church, to love as the church and the unity of the church.
We are bound together by faith, not by experience (p.26)