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Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian in Community Paperback – May 26, 2009
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After his martyrdom at the hands of the Gestapo in 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer continued his witness in the hearts of Christians around the world. His Letters and Papers from Prison became a prized testimony to Christian faith and courage, read by thousands. Now in Life Together we have Pastor Bonhoeffer's experience of Christian community. This story of a unique fellowship in an underground seminary during the Nazi years reads like one of Paul's letters. It gives practical advice on how life together in Christ can be sustained in families and groups. The role of personal prayer, worship in common, everyday work, and Christian service is treated in simple, almost biblical, words. Life Together is bread for all who are hungry for the real life of Christian fellowship.
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In the most basic of language, free from extremely technical theology, Bonhoeffer calls the believer back to a humility which Jesus modeled and proclaimed but which has, sadly, been lost in our Greek-based culture of self-actualization. Indeed, taking Bonhoeffer to heart can prove to be.a formidable challenge to the believer who desires to truly take this book to heart, as it runs counter to the pervasive message of self-love and self-glorification.
I would recommend this book to any believer who desires to know God, but who has experienced difficulty in coming into His presence, whether alone or in the presence of other believers.
Bonhoeffer’s perspective begins with the idea that not only are humans helpless and hopeless without the love of Christ, but humans really have nothing (or at least, little) to offer each other without Christ as Mediator (Location 123—all references to my Kindle Edition of the book). “The more we received, the more we were able to give; and the more meagre our brotherly love, the less were we living by God’s mercy and love. Thus God himself taught us to meet one another as God has met us in Christ.” (Loc 139)”The more genuine and deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us.” (Loc 151)
I particularly resonated with Bonhoeffer’s assertion, “God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.” (Loc 167) Further, in seeking that truth, Bonhoeffer urges believers not to neglect the scripture. “The Scripture is a whole and every word, every sentence, possesses such multiple relationships with the whole that it is impossible always to keep the whole in view when listening to details. It becomes apparent, therefore, that the whole of the Scripture and hence every passage in it as well far surpasses our understanding. It is good for us to be daily reminded of this fact, which again points to Jesus Christ himself, ‘in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (Col. 2.3). (Loc 528) He goes on to ask, “How, for example, shall we ever attain certainty and confidence in our personal and church activity if we do not stand on solid biblical ground? It is not our heart that determines our course, but God’s Word.” (Loc 559). He goes on, “How often we hear innumerable arguments ‘from life’ and ‘from experience’ put forward as the basis for most crucial decisions, but the argument of Scripture is missing.” (Loc 561)
Of course, I wasn’t too wild about his non-musical assumptions with regard to singing. He seems to suggest that harmonization and improvisation in congregational singing is a matter of vanity and insincerity. Even though I disagree with this, check out his discussion: “There is no place in the service of worship where vanity and bad taste can so intrude as in the singing. There is, first, the improvised second part which one hears almost everywhere. It attempts to give the necessary background, the missing fullness to the soaring unison tone, and thus kills both the words and the tone.” (Loc 633)
The description of table fellowship was interesting, however. “The table fellowship of Christians implies obligation. It is our daily bread that we eat, not my own. We share our bread. Thus we are firmly bound to one another not only in the Spirit but in our whole physical being. The one bread that is given to our fellowship links us together in a firm covenant.” (Loc 746) I really believe this would bring many believers closer together if they understood it appropriately.
Perhaps, the most valuable part of the book was Bonhoeffer’s summary of ministry. He calls for the ministries of: holding one’s tongue, meekness (as opposed to ambition), listening (actively, not passively), helpfulness, bearing (as in being both forbearing and supportive), proclaiming, and authority. This is different than most lists, but quite needed in churches during and since Bonhoeffer’s time. One thought seems expressly valuable: “The Church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus Christ and the brethren.” (Loc 1297)
Gemeinsames Leben is short consisting of a mere 5 chapters:
2. The Day with Others;
3. The Day Alone;
4. Ministry; and
5. Confession and Communion (5).
The book begins with Psalms and ends with the sacrament of communion. In some sense, the community of God is framed with the word (scripture) and the sacraments—and so it is with Bonhoeffer.
Community. Bonhoeffer starts with a provocative quotation: Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! (Psalm 133:1 ESV) Today, it would be considered political incorrect because the translation is literal (brothers, not brothers and sisters). For Bonhoeffer, it was provocative because the Old Testament was considered un-German, worse, Jewish, by the Nazi, hence forbidden.
Bonhoeffer’s second paragraph is no less provocative. He says:
It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies (17).
The mere existence of Christian community is a political statement and: a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer (19). Bonhoeffer expands on this thought saying:
The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the Triune God (20).
Bonhoeffer reframes the everyday experience of the Christian into the persecuted world in which he finds himself in Nazi Germany. This is possible only because: We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ (21). Community is also an antidote to self-centered, pretentious dreaming. Bonhoeffer writes: God is not a God of the emotions, but the God of truth (27).
The Day with Others. Bonhoeffer commends the keeping of the hours. For example, he states: The early morning belongs to the Church of the risen Christ (41). The psalms are especially meaningful to Bonhoeffer as a model and mode for personal prayer (45). Here we learn what prayer means, what to pray, and how to pray in fellowship (47-48). For Bonhoeffer, Christian worship really never stops with continuous readings (50), hymn singing (57), prayer (71), table fellowship (66), and godly work (69).
The Day Alone. For Bonhoeffer, community is not an escape from loneliness—like the television in the psyche ward which is never turned off. He starts his discussion of time alone by saying: Many people seek fellowship because they are afraid to be alone (76). Bonhoeffer (78) commends silence as the mark of solitude (and speech as the mark of community). He sees 3 reasons to be alone during the day: for scriptural meditation, for prayer, and for intercession (81).
Ministry. For Bonhoeffer, ministry begins with humility and restraint. Evil thoughts should not even be dignified with expression (James 3:2; 91) and this evil begins with the discord over who should be in charge (Luke 9:46; 90). Bonhoeffer offers 3 services in ministry: listening (97), active helpfulness (99), and burden bearing (100). If these 3 services are not properly rendered, proclamation of the word is most perilous (104). Leadership accordingly depends also on these 3 services (108).
Confession and Communion. Sin isolates us both from God and from community. Bonhoeffer observes: Sin wants to remain unknown (112). He sees 2 dangers in confession of sin: first that the one hearing confessions will be overburdened and second that the confessor will try to elevate sin to “pious work” (baptize the sin into acceptance; 120). The sole objective of confession is absolution, not acceptance. Bonhoeffer proposes that confession occur the day prior to communion as a necessary step to participating in communion (121). For this reason, in part, communion is a joyous celebration because the slate has been wiped clean, so to speak.
How then can the church remain a faithful witness under persecution by a high-tech, secular culture? Bonhoeffer does not answer this question in words. Rather, he answers it by actions—let the church be the church! And so we should.
 Eric Metaxis. 2010. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Nashville: Thomas Nelson. Pages 162, 367-368.