Life Together: What we can learn from Dietrich Bonhoeffer about Christian Fellowship

Christian fellowship has come to mean different things to different people.  To some, its a Sunday afternoon pot-luck, with rows of casserole dishes and pies made by silver haired ladies and busy Moms.  To others, its a Bible study at someone’s home.  To others it may be getting together with a good Christian friend.  We, as American Christians, have done what most Americans do to everything.  We have taken something from the Bible and made it fit into our lives and culture.

There is nothing wrong with making things fit within your cultural norms.  But with Christian fellowship, according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book “Life Together:  A discussion of Christian Fellowship”, there is everything wrong with this.  For those you do not know, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor during Hitler’s Germany.  He was executed at Flossenburg concentration camp, April 9, 1945.  The following is from the foreword of Bonhoeffer’s book:

“For innumerable Christians in Germany, on the Continent, England and in America, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death has been a contemporary confirmation of Tertullian’s dictum,  The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church; for his life and death and his writings, which throb with the simple, downright faith of one who has met Jesus Christ and accepted the ultimate consequences of that encounter in the World (which he defined as the sphere of the concrete responsibility given to us by and in Jesus Christ)–these are still a living witness in the ecumenical church in which he served.”

There is much that can be read on Bonhoeffer’s life online or in many biographies.  I highly recommend you pick one up and read.  Not only does he speak truth on Christianity, but also his words resonate in today’s world events like few others do.

Back to Christian fellowship.  Bonehoeffer says in his book that there is a difference between true Christian fellowship, that is where we are brought to community by Christ and Human Fellowship, which is where we are brought together by ourselves.  Something really struck me about the following passage:

“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.  Just at this point Christian brotherhood is threatened most often at the very start by the greatest danger of all, the danger of being poisoned at its root, the danger of confusing Christian brotherhood with some wishful idea of religious fellowship, of confounding the natural desire of the devout heart for community with the spiritual reality of Christian brotherhood.  In Christian brotherhood everything depends upon its being clear right from the beginning, first, that Christian brotherhood is not an ideal, but a divine reality.  Second, that Christian brotherhood is a spiritual and not a human reality.”

Now granted, this is only on page 26 of a 115 page book, but what he is saying struck me as the antithesis of everything most modern American churches stand for.  According to Bonhoeffer, we have taken the truth of true fellowship, with Christ as our only mediator, and turned it into a dream world of human community.  He does state later on that there is a place for both and we can’t make everything spiritual, but if what he is saying is true, we have lost the point of being with other Christians.  That would explain why to many people they see no difference in the churches they visit than they do with people in the world.  Christians sagely say that it is because Christians aren’t perfect and we are just sinners saved by grace.  We are human, so we will act like humans.  There is truth to this, of course.  But what really is happening is that we have taken something that is spiritual and tried to bring it down to our level, instead of trying to elevate ourselves.

Not only do we begin to be annoyed by those around us and question their faith, we begin to elevate ourselves to the place of their judge.  Bonhoeffer states:

“Because Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to act, 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.  This is the meaning of the proposition that we can meet others only through the mediation of Christ.  Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become.  It takes the life of the other person into its own hands.  Spiritual love recognizes that true image of the other person which has received from Jesus Christ; the image of Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men.”

Now, to clarify, there are all stages of Christian, and non-Christian, attending our churches today.  They may not be the level that Bonhoeffer states above.  However, that isn’t who I am referring to.  It is the mature Christians, regardless of chronological age, the leaders, the teachers, the Pastors, that have fed into this idea Church may be one great big pot-luck.  Our programs, our youth groups, everything fosters the idea of community.  That’s fine, as long as its a Christ centered community, not a group of Christian humans getting together and calling it a Christian community.

I am not a deep theological thinker like Bonehoeffer, but I can see this in congregations.  A few weeks ago, I posted on divorce in the church, how sometimes it was better just to part ways.  Bonhoeffer also states that this is true.  To paraphrase, he states that if as a community you have deluded yourselves to believe that church is a social hour, that all your human support and love comes from your fellow church members, or your Pastor, you should probably just walk away.  Our support, our love, and our help comes from Christ and Christ alone.  It is by his grace and that grace alone that we are allowed to have the community of other Christians.

“Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ.  No Christian community is more or less than this.  Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this.  We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.”

So when you are having strife in your church or with a Christian brother, remember this.  If your community has tried to become anything more or less than this, perhaps the potlucks are all you have left.  Christ left the building a long time ago.

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