The Call to Community: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Life Together

by Dr. Elizabeth Gerhardt - Professor of Theology and Social Ethics, Northeastern Seminary, Rochester, NY

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) is well known for his theology, ethics, and resistance to the Nazi State. His prophetic struggle to emancipate the church from the influences and subsequent collusion with an evil government led to his eventual demise in a prison yard only a month before the surrender of Germany. Due to these overwhelming challenges, a strong theme throughout Bonhoeffer’s life and writings was on the critical necessity of community, both for the well-being of the church, and the life and mission of a people.

Bonhoeffer knew that it was critical to support new leaders for a church in crisis. Leaders that would speak truth to power, support their communities to join in solidarity with the persecuted, and actively resist evil. After the gestapo closed his seminary in Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer had time to reflect on the essential nature of Christian fellowship. Life Together was published in 1939 and has become a classic text on the life of the church.

In Life Together, Bonhoeffer discusses the need for both solitude and community. In fact, one without the other is detrimental to one’s life with Christ. “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community.” We must engage in prayer, struggle, and be able to be before God alone. However, “let him who is not in community beware of being alone.” Bonhoeffer argues that we are all called into community, and we cannot serve others without relationships. Indeed, to emphasize this necessity for fellowship he argues that if we reject others then we “reject the call of Christ!” In solitude we recognize our need for community, and within community we also recognize the gifts of solitude.

We need each other, because it is through each other that we encounter Christ. Our encounters, including the life of the community, enable us to receive the gifts that God desires for us. Bonhoeffer writes: “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. Whether it is a brief, single encounter or daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.” These gifts enable us to serve others from a place of renewed life, and hope. Service without encountering Christ through fellowship often leads to a deep tiredness, and perhaps despair, from attempting to serve from our own abilities and energy. “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer,” Bonhoeffer maintains. Both solitude and community are necessary to have life in Christ. Finally, Bonhoeffer reminds us that “Jesus Christ alone is our unity. He is our peace. Through him alone do we have access to one another, joy in one another, and fellowship with one another.”

The church of Germany was encountering a crisis of identity in the face of evil. Bonhoeffer knew that those called to serve during that perilous time needed lessons on the critical importance of community in order to live out God’s call and mission. Life Together offers a powerful description of God’s gift of community. We too need these reminders during our time of increased isolation, and challenge. It is through Christ encountered in fellowship that we find our identity, and lasting hope.