Bonhoeffer on Christian Community
The evening standard reported that,
‘Many young people are in the middle of an escalating mental emergency and are ‘paralysed’ by anxiety and fearful of the future’1
One key element in this pandemic of growing mental health problems is the lack of community. Of course the impact of this problem has only been exacerbated recently by Covid lockdowns and social distancing - where ‘significant’ human contacts per day were at least halved.
One key aspect of what our Christian faith has to offer the world is community. The psalmist declares in Psalm 133.1 “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” But anyone who has lived in Christian community for any period of time - whether a traditional church setting or a more intentional group of Christians living together know how ‘bad and unpleasant’ things can become with relational strife. And what about a denomination or national church when unity appears fleeting and superficial? More like the Simpson’s family than that of the March’s in Little Women. What makes Christian communities have anything to offer their members, let alone the world?
I’ve been re-reading Bonhoeffer’s Life Together2 and wanted to share some of his thoughts on Christian community. There are five qualities that stand out: Grace, Presence, Gratitude, Truth & Spiritual (rather than human) community. They are often presented with their opposites although the first one doesn’t mention ‘works’ for example, it is implied.
Grace versus works
The first essential in Christian community is grace. ‘It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God's Word and sacrament.’ Bonhoeffer goes back to his Lutheran roots and the Reformation itself to declare: ‘All we can say, therefore, is: the community of Christians springs solely from the Biblical and Reformation message of the justification of man through grace alone; this alone is the basis of the longing of Christians for one another.’
The element that makes the difference between Christian and non-Christian community is what comes from outside, from God - agape rather than eros love.
‘When God was merciful to us, we learned to be merciful with our brethren. When we received forgiveness instead of judgment, we, too, were made ready to forgive our brethren.’
Physical presence versus physical absence
He then goes on to talk about how essential it is to meet in person (and talks about those who can’t because of disability or illness). This section seems so relevant to us today when there is the temptation to replace physical presence with virtual zoom meetings. He refers to a surprising number of places in the New Testament where the importance of seeing people face to face is mentioned. 2 Ti 1.4 “Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy.” 1 Th 3.10 “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.”
Paul longs to see other Christians in person especially after being separated from them for a long time and this is vital for the issue of mental health. Many might prefer to work from home or link into church meetings virtually, but physical presence is so important for our physical, mental and spiritual well being.
Gratitude versus Complaining
Throughout the first chapter of Bonhoeffer’s book (& it really is worth reading at least this chapter as it is short and very thought provoking) the theme of the importance of gratitude is key. ‘We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what He does give us daily. And is not what has been given us enough: brothers, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of His grace?’ He goes on to say that we often pray for the big things but forget to give thanks for the small and ordinary gifts (which often aren’t really small or ordinary), and asks: ‘How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things?’
We will explore in the next instalment what he says about Truth versus Fantasy and Spiritual versus human community.