The Barnabas Ministry
Book Review

Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community
By Dietrich Bonhoeffer (HarperCollins, New York, NY 1954. 122 pages)

Life Together will be a welcome insight into what Christian relationships were designed to be like. Further, if you have ever been a part of a church where the relationships were unhealthy, manipulative or controlling, Bonhoeffer's Life Together will be a welcome voice of clarity and insight.

Bonhoeffer, writing in 1938 from his communal experiences in an underground Christian seminary in Nazi Germany, brings out many insights on "life together." He shines a bright light on all of the whacked-out ways of looking at discipleship, movements, church life and relationships to which virtually all of us have been exposed to at one time or another.

I like to provide representative quotations from all books I review, but this book strikes me as one of those books that are more like the setting sun shining on the mountains. One might have the same "mountain" and the same "sun," but will have a different view every day. This is one of those books that is simple enough to ready easily, but truly deep enough to study and gain new insights time and time again. So with that caveat, here are some sample quotes that will hopefully give you a flavor of the book:

We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ (p. 21).

One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood. He is looking for some extraordinary social experience 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 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 psychic reality (p. 26, italics in original).

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself (p. 27-28).

A pastor should not complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men. When a person becomes alienated from a Christian community in which he has been placed and begins to raise complaints about it, he had better examine himself first to see whether the trouble is not due to his wish dream that should be shattered by God; and if this be the case, let him thank God for leading him into this predicament. But if not, let him nevertheless guard against ever becoming an accuser of the congregation before God. (p. p 29-30).

In the community of the Spirit the Word of God alone rules; in human community of spirit there rules, along with the Word, the man who is furnished with exceptional powers, experience, and magical, suggestive capacities. There God's Word alone is binding; here, besides the Word, men bind others to themselves. There all power, honor and dominion are surrendered to the Holy Spirit; here spheres of power and influence of a personal nature are sought and cultivated. It is true, in so far as these are devout men, that they do this with the intention of serving the highest and the best, but in actuality the result is to dethrone the Holy Spirit, to relegate Him to remote unreality. In actuality, it is only the human that is operative here. (p. 32)

There is such a thing as human absorption. It appears in all the forms of conversion whenever the superior power of one person is consciously or unconsciously misused to influence profoundly and draw into his spell another individual or a whole community. (p. 33)

The life or death of a Christian community is determined by whether it achieves sober wisdom on this point as soon as possible. In other words, life together under the Word will remain sound and healthy only where it does not form itself into a movement, an order, a society, a collegium pietatis, but rather where it understands itself as being a part of the one, holy, catholic, Christian church, where it shares actively and passively in the sufferings and and struggles and promise of the whole Church. (p. 37, italics in original)

Bonhoeffer was living in a communal type of situation when he wrote this, and much of what he says applies specially to that sort of circumstance-- it isn't necessarily about church life specifically. Along these lines, he does dive into advocating the regular practice of some solitary disciplines that, honestly, I don't think are meant to be a realistic part of the Christian life for most people.

Since meditation on the Scriptures, prayer, and intercession are a service we owe and because the grace of God is found in this service, we should train ourselves to set apart a regular hour for it, as we do for every other service we perform. This is not "legalism"; it is orderliness and fidelity (p. 87).

I don't think meditation and prayer are a "service we owe." Perhaps something was lost in the translation (this work was originally written in German), but I have a problem finding this sort of teaching being given in the New Testament to any Christians.
People living with spouse, children, jobs, and other responsibilities in the world simply don't have the luxury of regularly spending hours in prayer, study and contemplating deep things-- though there is a time and a place for these things to be sure for all of us, no matter how busy we might be. To me, the New Testament seems to advocate a spiritual and balanced approach to life and all its aspects.

But this is a minor part of the book. The place where Life Together shines (I know I'm using that word a lot in this review, but it really just seems appropriate) brightest is in the discussion of ministry. This discussion is worth the entire book:

"There arose a reasoning among them, which of them should be the greatest." (Luke 9:46). We know who it is that sows this thought in the Christian community. But perhaps we do not bear in mind enough that no Christian community ever comes together without this thought emerging as a seed of discord. Thus at the very beginning of Christian fellowship there is engendered an invisible, often unconscious, life-and-death contest. "There arose a reasoning among them": this is enough to destroy a fellowship.

Hence it is vitally necessary that every Christian community from the very outset face this dangerous enemy squarely, and eradicate it. There is no time to lose here, for from the first moment when a man meets another person he is looking for a strategic position he can assume and hold over against that person. There are strong persons and weak ones. If a man is not strong, he immediately claims the right of the weak as his own and uses it against the strong. There are gifted and ungifted persons, simple people and difficult people, devout and less devout, the sociable and the solitary. Does not the ungifted person have to take up a position just as well as the gifted person, the difficult one as well as the simple? And if I am not gifted, then perhaps I am devout anyhow; or if I am not devout it is only because I do not want to be. May not the sociable individual carry the field before him and put the timid, solitary man to shame? Then may not the solitary person become the undying enemy and ultimate vanquisher of his sociable adversary? Where is there a person who does not with instinctive sureness find the spot where he can stand and defend himself, but which he will never give up to another, for which he will fight with all the drive of his instinct of self-assertion?

All this can occur in the most polite or even pious environment. But the important thing is that a Christian community should know that somewhere in it there will certainly be "a reasoning among them, which of them should be the greatest." It is the struggle of the natural man for self-justification. He finds it only in comparing himself with others, in condemning and judging others. Self-justification and judging others go together, as justification by grace and serving others go together. (p. 90-91)

Bonhoeffer again addresses our influence upon one another and seeks to minister to us, converting our desire to control others into a desire to be a true co-worker with God in our dealings with one another:

Often we combat our evil thoughts most effectively if we absolutely refuse to allow them to be expressed in words. It is certain that the spirit of self-justification can be overcome by the Spirit of grace; nevertheless, isolated thoughts of judgment can be curbed and smothered by never allowing them the right to be uttered, except as a confession of sin, which we shall discuss later. He who holds his tongue in check controls both mind and body (Jas 3:2ff). Thus it must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him. ...

Where this discipline of the tongue is practiced right from the beginning, each individual will make a matchless discovery. He will be able to cease from constantly scrutinizing the other person, judging him, condemning him, putting him in his particular place where he can gain ascendancy over him and thus doing violence to him as a person. Now he can allow the brother to exist as a completely free person, as God made him to be. .... God did not make this person as I would have made him. He did not give him to me as a brother for me to dominate and control, but in order that I might find above him the Creator. Now the other person, in the freedom with which he was created, becomes the occasion of joy, whereas before he was only a nuisance and an affliction. God does not will that I should fashion the other person according to the image that seems good to me, that is, in my own image; rather in his very freedom from me God make this person in His image (p. 92-93).

This discussion reminded me of M. Scott Peck's "The Road Less Traveled." To paraphrase Peck, if I love someone, I care about what is best for them-- not how I can assert myself over them or leech onto them and call it "love." Yet Christian churches are too often known by this whole control thing-- and considering his circumstances it is stunning to see Bonhoeffer write about it! But beyond that-- Christian ministry and fellowship is corrupted and polluted when it is characterized by such antics. But how excellent is a fellowship that is characterized by humble trust in others who are humbly faithful with that trust?

Bonhoeffer closes with a penetrating discussion of the confession of sin and communion-- two concepts that are frequently neglected, trivialized or abused in churches today but are critical for our spiritual health at its very core.

All in all, though Bonhoeffer's discussion of Life Together, I can imagine a great deal of what he discusses being pretty much what much of life in the early church was like. His dead-on discussion reminds me of something the prophet Isaiah said long ago:

"Come, all you who are thirsty,
    come to the waters;
  and you who have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
  Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without cost.

Why spend money on what is not bread,
    and your labor on what does not satisfy?
  Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
    and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. (Isaiah 55:1-2)

Copyright © 2007 John Engler. except as noted. All rights reserved.

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