Bonhoeffer on Christian community
Updated: Nov 15
In the previous blog we looked at the first three qualities that Bonhoffer describes about Christian community. In this post we will be tackling the last two.
Truth v Fantasy
One of the most challenging sections, at least for me, was the German pastor’s insistence that Christian community has to be based on the reality that already exists - being in Christ - rather than the desire or some might say the fantasy, of what could be. A longer quote makes a radical point here:
‘Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realise it. But God's grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.’
This ties back into grace. It is only God’s ‘sheer grace’ that doesn’t permit us to live even briefly in a dream world. ‘He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth.’ Bonhoeffer turns the screw on those who see themselves as visionary (ouch!): ‘He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.’
‘God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realised by God, by others, and by himself.’ He argues that the visionary creates an idol and when the community doesn’t match up to reality - first he becomes an accuser of his brethren, and then God and finally a despairing accuser of himself.
Here there is a clear challenge to the pastor and zealous Christians too. The pastor should never complain about his flock, certainly not to others and not even to God. ‘Let him rather accuse himself for his unbelief. Let him pray God for an understanding of his own failure and his particular sin, and pray that he may not wrong his brethren. Let him, in the consciousness of his own guilt, make intercession for his brethren. Let him do what he is committed to do, and thank God.’ Back to gratitude again.
Spiritual v human community
Bonhoeffer has a lot to say on the difference between spiritual and human community and there is much that needs to be read and re-read to understand his ideas and their implications. Suffice it to say that the basis of the community of the Spirit is truth rather than desire, agape love rather than eros and surrender to the Holy Spirit rather than dominating others. He urges us in difficult relational situations to meet others with the ‘clear word of God’ and then to leave that person with the word for a long time so that Christ might deal with them. So a ‘spiritual love will speak to Christ about a brother more than to a brother about Christ. It knows that the most direct way to others is always through prayer to Christ and that love of others is wholly dependent upon the truth in Christ.’
There is lot more to tease out from Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on Christian community and one might not agree with all but hopeful these basic ideas and quotes will inspire you to read Life Together and see how you might put them into practice. Let me finish with a last quote that sums up the difference between spiritual and human community:
‘What love is, only Christ tells in his Word. Contrary to all my own opinions and convictions, Jesus Christ will tell me what love toward the brethren really is. Therefore, spiritual love is bound solely to the Word of Jesus Christ. Where Christ bids me to maintain fellowship for the sake of love, I will maintain it. Where his truth enjoins me to dissolve a fellowship for love's sake, there I will dissolve it, despite all the protests of my human love.’
If we want to have communities that truly offer something to a world that hankers for authentic relationships - they must be ones full of grace, physical presence, truth, gratitude and spiritual life. Bonhoeffer writing in a very different time and place to us (but no less challenging for that) has much for us to reflect on as we seek to do Christian community together.