Community (Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

Reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, Richard Foster’s review rings true: “Most books can be skimmed quickly; some deserve careful reading; a precious few should be devoured and digested. Life Together … belongs to the third category.” Chapter one is on Community. (This reading is in preparation for John Armstrong’s cohort group, which emphasizes 3 core principles: interior life, relational unity and missional theology. Join if you can.)

“Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily fellowship of years…” (21). “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate” (30). “…the human element always insinuates itself and robs the fellowship of its spiritual power and effectiveness for the Church” (37).

What is a Christian? “The Christian seeks his salvation, deliverance, justification in Christ alone. He knows that God’s Word in Christ pronounces him guilty, even when he does not feel his guilt, and God’s Word in Christ pronounces him not guilty and righteous, even when he does not feel that he is righteous at all. If somebody asks him, Where is your salvation, your righteousness? he can never point to himself. He points to the Word of God in Christ, which assures him salvation and righteousness. In himself he is destitute and dead. Help must come … daily and anew in the Word of Christ, bringing redemption, righteousness, innocence, and blessedness” (22). This is what a Christian is–what it means to be in Christ.

Christians need community. “When one person is struck by the Word, he speaks it to others. God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure” (23). True Christian community happens in Christ.

Strive, discord and ego. “Among men there is strife. Without Christ there is discord between God and man and between man and man. Without Christ we would not know our brother, nor could we come to him. The way is blocked by our own ego. Only in Jesus Christ are we one (Eph 2:14), only through him are we bound together.”

We can truly give only when we have truly received. When Jesus took on flesh in the incarnation, he truly took on, out of pure grace, our nature. This is how God relates to us, how He won our hearts by His 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. What God did to us, we then owed to others. The more we received, the more we were able to give; and the more meager our brotherly love, the less were we living by God’s mercy and love (Rom 15:7; 1 Th 4:9-10). Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us” (25).

However, 2 things threaten true Christian community: Christian brotherhood is not an ideal, but a divine reality; Christian brotherhood is a spiritual and not a human reality.

Not an Ideal, but a Divine Reality

What Bonhoeffer writes here perfectly describes all failed Christian community exactly and precisely. It’s hard to improve on what he wrote.

Idealism does not work. Because of our own ideals and ideas about Christian life together, great disillusionment soon sets in “with others, with Christians in general, and if we are fortunate, with ourselves. 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… The sooner this shock or disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. 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 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… 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. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren…and finally the despairing accuser of himself” (27).

Disillusionment is good. “Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Christ? The very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only that one Word and Deed which really binds us together. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship” (29).

To pastors: Don’t accuse your people. “This applies in a special way to the complaints often heard from pastors and zealous members about their congregations. 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. …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” (29,30).

A Spiritual not a Human Reality

Even devout men cannot cultivate a spiritual community. “The community of the Spirit is the fellowship of those who are called by Christ; human community is the fellowship of devout souls. In the community of the Spirit the Word of God alone rules; in human community 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. …devout men…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” (32).

Where a superior power rules, spirituality fails. “Here is where the humanly strong person is in his element, securing for himself the admiration, the love, or the fear of the weak. Here human ties, suggestions, and bonds are everything. …human absorption appears wherever 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. Here one soul operates directly upon another soul. The weak have been overcome by the strong, the resistance of the weak has broken down under the influence of another person. He has been overpowered, but not won over…his conversion was effected, not by the Holy Spirit, but by a man, and therefore has no stability” (33).

The idolatry of human love. “Human love…makes the truth relative, since nothing, not even the truth, must come between it and the beloved person. Human love desires…it continues to desire even when it seems to be serving. Human love cannot tolerate the dissolution of a fellowship that has become false…and human love cannot love an enemy. Human love is by its very nature desire–desire for human community. Where it can no longer expect its desire to be fulfilled…it turns into hatred, contempt, and calumny. Human love creates of itself an end, an idol which it worships, to which it must subject everything. It nurses and cultivates an ideal. Spiritual love, however, comes from Jesus, it serves him alone; it knows that it has no immediate access to other persons” (35).

Spiritual love releases to Christ. “Spiritual love will not seek to move others by all too personal, direct influence, by impure interference in the life of another. It will not take pleasure in pious, human fervor and excitement. It will meet the other person with the clear Word of God and be ready to leave him alone with this Word for a long time, willing to release him again in order that Christ may deal with him. It will respect the line that has been drawn between him and us…it will find full fellowship with him in the Christ who alone binds us together. 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 (3 John 4)” (36,37).

The greatest danger to Christian community. “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 struggles and promise of the whole Church. Every principle of selection and every separation connected with it…is of the greatest danger to a Christian community. …the human element always insinuates itself and robs the fellowship of its spiritual power and effectiveness for the Church, drives it into sectarianism” (37)

I wanted to write an exhaustive reflection, but Bonhoeffer’s words seem “far too perfect” to add to or to subtract from.


  1. Thank you for reminding me. When I was in UBF, my mother once sent me a letter with a copy of a page from that book, where she had the last passage you quoted underlined. Unfortunately, at that time I was so convinced that UBF was different from everything that Bonhoeffer could have seen in his life, that it didn’t cause me to stop and think – it was only years later that I understood how right that passage had been.

    • Thanks, Chris. Just reading chapter 1 feels like being a deer in the night staring at headlights. It is so easy to mess up Christian community because of our sins! Worse yet, would be to not be able to see it or realize it…because of our sins.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Ben. For quite a few years I was wondering why everything was not going in the way I expected while I did all the right things (which I was taught). And now I am so happy that God was merciful to me to help me overcome those visionary dreaming. Well it was to be shattered at all.

    • Thanks, David. We acknowledge that lust, pornography, worldliness, etc, is a sin. But I think that it seems to be much harder (for me at least) to realize that idealism, good intentions, and “visionary dreaming” can be just as great a sin and idolatry.

  3. Thanks for sharing Ben. I am so looking forward to reading this, as well as someday joining a cohort! I have drawn much strength from examples like Bonhoeffer, who correctly understood the danger in National Socialism when others praised it.  

    • Scary video, Brian. How easy it is to motivate others by cultural superiority, racism, imperialism, nationalism. Only the true gospel can break our ever present sinful inclination to endorse these …isms, which are all idolatries at the deepest level.

    • Ben,

      This video is only scary to us, only because we are seeing it in black and white, with ominous music in the background, and because we know the end result.

      However, let’s go back in time. The world was never black and white, but always in full-blown, marvelous color! Imagine you were a young college student in Germany in the 1930’s. You are upset and angry over how your country was treated for WWI, blamed for things you felt were not fair. Imagine hearing a noble dream, an offer for an honorable society! Imagine the church leaders seemed to support (or at least did not criticize) such a leader.

      And remember, that Germany was one of the most highly educated countries at the time (maybe the most educated?). We see Hitler and Nazism for what it ended up being, but from young, college-educated people’s viewpoint looking forward, Hitler offered an honorable, noble, God-blessed future! And he had so much good-sounding speeches, beautiful artwork, and last but not least: power. 

      Perhaps I’m over-stepping my history lesson here… Chris or anyone, please correct me if I’ve said something incorrectly. From what I’ve studied about this astounding period, I fully understand how and why Hitler could rise to power, as well as his predictable downfall.

    • This video explains more of what I mean. Even great British leaders were impressed with Hitler. They celebrated great German culture, promised great things, demonstrated giving jobs to the people, and even how Hitler got rid of the “bad” Communists. But of course there were secrets and deceptions along the way:  

    • Hitler, and that period in Germany are really interesting for me. I watched few movies, read something etc. And I fully agree with Brian, that in that context he sounded very noble. he was real visionary. Some of his speaches  shaked some of my convictions. once I listen how he aks his soldars – that they have “just obey” their leaders and ideology, and they will win.

    • Since my childhood I could never understand how Hitler could come to power, and even today it’s difficult for me to understand, even though I read and thought much about this problem. It somehow looks like Hitler sold his soul to the devil who gave him incredible supernatural power of people for a few years in return. But I fear the whole story just shows how easily people can be manipulated, and how deeply corrupt human nature is. I think Brian’s explanatations are good. People saw only the “good” sides and the “vision” the new regime was promising. Also, they only had one-sided propaganda information. The propaganda machine of Goebbels was incdredible. The people just didn’t want to see the bad sides and ignored all the bad smell and alerting signals.
      Here I see some parallels in how people in UBF do not want to speak up about the grievances in UBF because they only want to see the good side, because they didn’t experience the bad things on their own, and do not want to even hear the negative examples, much less investigate on their own if things do not fit in their world view.
      Another parallel is the way these Germans believed in a “German spirit”, a special spirit inherent in the movement, somehow blessed by God or by “fate” or other supernatural forces. The Heidelberg university had the slogan “Dem lebendigen Geist” (to the living spirit) written on their main building, which the Nazis change to “Dem Deutschen Geist” (to the German spirit). In a similar way, UBF people tend to believe in a “UBF spirit”. I think it’s very dangerous to believe in such kinds of “spirits”. The Holy Spirit is the only spirit we need.
      Also, you have to understand that the time when people could make an active choice was very short. The “Machtergreifung” (seizure of power) happened already in 1933, from there on Hitler ruled with force and terror.
      Anyway, many people just blindly obeyed and believed they had no responsiblity in anything because they had no choice as to obey, and obedience had a positive connotation at that time. As a German, I could never understand how UBF tried to sell “absolute obedience” to me as a desirable virtue.
      We can also see that a lot of bad things happen if you believe your ideology, religion, race, nationality etc. is somehow “better” than others, and you are not tolerant and embrace and try to understand all human beings on this earth. Still, there are many people in many countries who believe nationalism is something good. They love their own country, which is good, but they don’t love the other people in other countries as much as their own, which I think we should do, according to the teachings of Jesus and the Bible (love your neighbor as yourself – I think these two words “as yourself” make all the difference).

    • Thanks so much for sharing, Chris. Though it might be hard for some to hear the analogy between Hitler and UBF, I’d have to say that there are certainly truths to your analogy. I believe that problems and issues are increasingly being addressed, and changes will be forthcoming, albeit quite slowly.

      For one, I believe that we need to hear from people like you and Brian and others, who have been with UBF for decades. I pray that this will happen. Reconciliation is key, crucial, fundamental and foundational to Christianity as our witness to the world.

  4. @Brian
    I haven’t studied the history of the period enough to know, but as I read the biography of Bonhoeffer (the one by Eric Metaxas, I am still confused how Hitler could get to power like that.
    Strong deception has strength with a weak and liberal church, which lacks discerning and prophetic voices?
    It’s scary to think of Russia or the world as having a possibility to become what Germany became about a century ago. So we will still need many Bonhoeffers. Or one, but with Internet helping to spread the message. :-)

    • Mother Barry gave me the Bonhoeffer book by Metaxas, which I haven’t read. I prefer reading (boring) theology than (rich) stories!

      Hitler or any charismatic leader is able to gain power because man has the power of influence (and deception), and people, instead of living by the truth, seek an easy peace, forced unity, and false security. Sorry fo my over-simplistic over-generalization.

  5. @Ben,
    You wrote, “Mother Barry gave me the Bonhoeffer book by Metaxas, which I haven’t read. I prefer reading (boring) theology than (rich) stories!” – here you are wrong. The book is well blended with Bonhoeffer’s theology :-)

    Please start it and you will lose months like me. I am still at about 30% of it :-)

  6. Thanks, Timothy. I think I will start reading it then, since I am already reading Life Together. Not sure if you’re interested, but here is Frank Viola blogging on Bonhoeffer:

    It’s also interesting that Viola considers this one of the most profound and helpful things that Bonhoeffer ever wrote:

    • Thank you, Ben, too. I’ll save the links for using them later. As for now I will complete the book first. I also bought “Life Together” not knowing it’s translated to Russian already. Since I don’t know German, it would be fine to read him in Russian, too :-)
      And “Discipleship” is also available in Russian. (For my Russian friends, the books are online at

  7. Yeah, I would think that a classics like Life Together and Bonhoeffer would most certainly be translated to most major languages of the world.

    A friend just sent me a video of Charlie Chaplin dressed up like Hitler delivering an inspiring and moving speech: I can’t imagine Hitler coming across as being so humanitrian. Passionate, yes, but not humanitarian.

    • Oops, I meant “Cost of Discipleship” not Bonhoeffer.

    • This is the final scene from the movie “The Great Dictator” in which Charlie Chaplin plays both Hitler and a poor Jew who happen to look the same. Here, the one talking is in reality the Jew. Hitler spoke much differently in the movie. Still not as horrible as the real Hitler. The movie is really worth seeing.

  8. Hi Chris, I’ve been wanting to see the Great Dictator, but never got around to it. Maybe after I see the Avengers!

    This is a great/funny quote from Frank Viola which addresses the enemy of community:

    “Sectarianism, elitism, and exclusiveness are like body odor. Everyone else can smell it except those who have it. One of the hallmarks of Jesus’ character is His radical inclusivity. When Jesus walked this earth, He despised the spirit of separatism, elitism, and self-righteousness (Mark 9:38-40).”

  9. John Frame on the importance of fellowship/community (from Salvation is from the Lord):
    “Without God’s grace, we are lost. And we need God’s grace not only at the beginning of the Christian life but throughout. So, naturally we ask, where can we go to find God’s continuing grace to us? Where do we go to get the resources for sanctification, for continuing spiritual growth? The short answer is that there are three places: the Word, fellowship, and prayer.
    Except for the second, we can find those resources either privately or publicly. The second, fellowship, is by definition public. But we can receive the Word either by individual Bible study or through the public preaching and teaching of the church. And we can pray, of course, either privately or publicly. In our private use of the means of grace, we come to God as members of the church, the body of Christ. Apart from Christ, our Bible study and prayer will not help us. Indeed, we need other members of the church to help us understand the Bible and to teach us how to pray. So, in an important sense, even the private means of grace are within the church. . . .
    It is not typical in Reformed theology to regard fellowship as a means of grace. But I think it clearly is. Remember all the passages . . . on one-anothering? Those make it plain that our spiritual health depends on one another — both what other believers do for us and what we do for them. The larger concept that includes all those one-anotherings is the concept of fellowship.”

  10. Sara Lee of Toronto UBF graciously shared with me her powerpoint slides, which is her visual and creative explanation of Life Together. She prepared this for John Armstrong’s ACT 3 cohort class on June 2, 2012.

    Check out my 7 min explanation of Sara’s great slides:

    • Thanks for sharing this Ben. I think UBF directors should learn from what you’re doing in Westloop.

      By the way, I heard the teaching of that slide many times during my time in UBF (and even remember seeing a diagram almost like that). I think you understand the meaning correctly, however that teaching was used to guilt-trip people into staying in UBF and demanding higher levels of conformance to UBF ideology. Instead of giving life and freedom, the teaching that we draw close to Christ on the cross was used to teach me that I could never leave UBF. Gathering around the cross was even used to teach us that we should focus on God only and ignore our neighbors.

  11. That’s interesting Brian. I guess I can never imagine teaching the community-in-Christ diagrams as a way to guilt-trip people into staying in UBF. It is sad if anyone does teach it that way.

    The diagrams themselves point to the utmost importance of centrality in Christ and away from anthropocentricity and human coercion.

    Looks like you may have heard it taught something like this:

  12. Joseph R

    “The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure”

    This is not clicking. How could your brother be certain if the only certain one is Christ?

    • Joseph, I would say we need to look at the larger quote of what Bonhoeffer wrote: “When one person is struck by the Word, he speaks it to others. God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.”

      If we have an idea or teaching or understanding about something, we all need brothers and sisters who can be “sounding boards”, correcting and discussing life and Scripture. Those who rely only on their “personal revelation” are far weaker (and usually wrong) than those who have the insight and rebuke of others. That is one reason why we should never be people of flattery or multiply “kisses”, but speak boldly with gentleness and firmness.

  13. Thanks, Joseph, Brian. That’s why we need community, accountability, friendship, fellowship, “koinonia.”

    For instance, I know that I personally need to listen more, which practically means “just shut up!” (James 1:19) But when a friend tells me this, which I already know, I am reminded more strongly and powerfully about what the Word says. Thus my own heart is weaker than the Christ in the words of my brother. God can even use the mouth of an “ass” to speak his word to us (Num 22:30).

  14. jerson rosario

    Most people seldom talk or write about a good community because it seems too abstract. Community is often viewed as a location, a set of services, or a complex of buildings. Few authors tackle the more complicated version of the community, that is, what makes it a good place to live. So for me community is not just about a place or an environment..but it is the relationship on how we live w/ God.

    Having a God centered community is very important. In that way we can encourage one another and express how God is working in our life.

    But there is a question: What/who hinders it?

    Having a good community will not be effective if there is someone who thinks or who acts as if he is the creator of that community.. who is trying to control the situations inside the if his dream binds men together.

    In conclusion, we should be a God centered community. We should always think that, God is the only one who can control the situation in the community no matter what happens. So I want to thank GOD for allowing me to be a part of Philippines UBF community, who is mainly centered in God.

  15. Joseph R

    ‘community…it is the relationship on how we live w/ God’

    thanks jerson. community is not just how I or you live with God but it is how WE live with God. As to the ‘what’ hinders it: as much as I want to, I cannot put the blame on any person(s), because ultimately we are not against this or that person. Rather, I put the blame on the Father of sin (Ephesians 6:12). He insinuates (negatively spreads himself in) people’s minds and try to turn their path either left or right or as Dr. Ben’s words, ‘every direction but heavenward’.

    God is the center of the community, think it and know it. I teach about the Bible and still forget, at many times, that God is the center of everything including community.

  16. jerson rosario

    thanks joseph.
    ya your right, we should not put the blame on any person/s because as much as possible we should bear one another. thats why we are living in one community,
    but what i am trying to driving out is that. we cannot escape the fact that. in one community there is someone who act as a leader,whose trying to control the situations w/c is good. because we should maintain the peace and order. but as a leader you should know your limitations thats why we should always be reminded that Jesus is the real leader.. thank you..

  17. Jerson, your point that a leader should no his limitations is a very important one. A church should clearly define and know the realm of authoritiy of their leaders. For instance, I don’t believe a leader should act as a trainer or personal shepherd. A leader should not be a single person, but there should be a plurality of elder who are leading together and controlling and advising each other. And these leaders should be elected by and fully accountable to the church members. In the German Bible, I do not even find the word leader (“Leiter”) in any positive context. In the NIV, I don’t find many mentions of leaders either (we already discussed Hebr 13), but I find the warning “So then, no more boasting about human leaders!”

  18. Thanks, Chris, Joseph, Jerson. Leadership is one of my top 5 favorite topics as a Christian, perhaps because it is so poorly practiced by sinful leaders, who do not want or wish to be critiqued or be truly accountable. I do not judge or condemn the sinful leader, for I am both a sinful member and a sinful leader of UBF.

    Yes, I would say accountability, self-criticism, and listening to critiques from others is key for leadership to remain relevant and in touch with the broader community in and outside the church.

    I have always strongly encouraged our men at West Loop UBF based on Heb 3:13, so that they will hold me accountable to them. I post on UBFriends publicly so that anyone can call me out for the errors of my ways and thoughts and writings.