Today marks 70 years since Deitrich Bonhoeffer was killed in a Nazi concentration camp. In his honor, I’d like to reflect on his classic work on Christian community — and one of the most life-changing books I’ve ever read — Life Together.
Oddly enough, Life Together is more relevant today than when Bonhoeffer wrote it.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is a brief but rich treatise on Christian community. In it Dietrich Bonhoeffer gives you practical suggestions for how you can live in Christian community with others. To achieve this goal, he first defines community. The subsequent two chapters describe a typical day both in community with others and in solitude. He then explains how you can practically minister to your brethren, and he concludes Life Together with the importance of confession and communion.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is short, but its brevity does not diminish its richness. The book raises these four challenges that still resonate today.
1. You need both individual and communal spiritual growth.
In chapters two and three of Life Together, Bonhoeffer presents a sample regimen for a day spent in community with other believers or a day spent in solitude, along with practical spiritual practices that can edify you in both scenarios. Community and solitude are both important for the Christian life because communal fellowship “will be unfruitful without the day alone.” In an age in which we focus so much on our individual spiritual growth, Bonhoeffer’s message can spur us to remember that spiritual growth within community is just as important.
2. Your can engage in ministry simply by serving others.
When you hear the word ministry, you may think of pastors, institutions, and church leaders. Yet for Bonhoeffer, ministry is primarily about helping others, in unglamorous ways, through “holding one’s tongue,” meekness, listening, helpfulness, suffering alongside a brother, and speaking difficult words to another. Bonhoeffer even tempers his discussion of church authority by emphasizing that it is less about personality than about faithfulness. Bonhoeffer’s words remind us that we should view ministry less as a public role of leadership or spiritual stature — but more as a humble means to serve others in unspectacular ways.
3. We should be thankful for living in Christian community.
From the first pages of Life Together, Bonhoeffer bluntly states that “it is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians.” After all, many believers must live in isolation — as Bonhoeffer would experience first hand years later. Yet today we can so easily speak of the church with pessimism, disgust, and dissatisfaction. We get fed up with the church’s hypocrisy, legalism, and judgment. But Bonhoeffer pointedly reminds that the ability to live in Christian community should not be taken for granted. It should be a joy and cause for celebration. Despite its warts and imperfections, Christian community is a beautiful gift of God’s grace.
4. You can integrate your faith into your everyday life.
The lifestyle Dietrich Bonhoeffer promotes is completely centered on faith in Christ. Christ is your first thought in the morning and the last thought at night. Devotions and times of prayer fill your day. Even work is a cause for “praying without ceasing.” This Christocentric lifestyle is completely different than what most us are used to. At best, we tend to relegate faith to a brief morning devotion and occasional prayer before a meal. Bonhoeffer challenges us to reconsider our life priorities and to center his life on the most important thing — Christ.
Seventy years after Bonhoeffer’s death, much has changed. Yet Life Together is more relevant today than when Bonhoeffer wrote it. Our culture values individualism above all else, and our churches preach individual salvation to the neglect of mentioning the community into which we are saved. Life Together reminds us that the Christian life is not just about me and God. It’s about true community with other believers.
Source: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Life Together. Translated by John W. Doberstein. San Francisco: New York, 1954.