Listening is Greater than Speaking

In Community (Chap 1 of Life Together), Bonhoeffer explains what destroys 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.” In Confession (Chap 5), he says that true Christian community cannot exists among sinners acting pious without true confession of sin, because “the pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner.” In Chap 4, Bonhoeffer addresses Christian Ministry under 7 very helpful, self-evident, seemingly obvious headings (though difficult to practice as a Christian):

  1. The Ministry of Holding One’s Tongue (Ps 50:19-21; Jas 1:26, 3:2, 4:11-12; Eph 4:29)
  2. The Ministry of Meekness (Rom 12:3,16)
  3. The Ministry of Listening (Jas 1:19)
  4. The Ministry of Helpfulness (Phil 2:4)
  5. The Ministry of Bearing (Gal 6:2; Col 3:13; Eph 4:12)
  6. The Ministry of Proclaiming (2 Tim 4:2)
  7. The Ministry of Authority (Mk 10:43)

Who is Greater? Every Christian community begins with a seed of discord, which is “an argument … among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest” (Lk 9:46). “Hence it is vitally necessary that every Christian community from the very outset face this dangerous enemy…for from the first moment when a man meets another person he is looking for a strategic position he can assume and hold against that person. 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.”

Hold Your Tongue. “To speak about a brother covertly is forbidden, even under the cloak of help and good will; for it is precisely in this guise that the spirit of hatred among brothers always creeps in…” (Ps 50:19-21; Jas 4:11-12; Eph 4:29) This should help us “to cease from constantly scrutinizing the other person, judging him, condemning him. Strong and weak, wise and foolish, gifted or ungifted, pious or impious, the diverse individuals in the community, are no longer incentives for talking, judging, condemning, and thus excuses for self-justification. They are rather cause for rejoicing in one another and serving one another. Every Christian community must realize that not only do the weak need the strong, but also that the strong cannot exist without the weak. The elimination of the weak is the death of the fellowship. Not self-justification, which means the use of domination and force, but justification  by grace, and therefore service, should govern the Christian community. Once a man has experienced the mercy of God in his life he will henceforth aspire only to serve.”

Meekness. “He who would learn to serve must first learn to think little of himself.” (Rom 12:3,16) “This is the highest and most profitable lesson, truly to know and to despise ourselves. To have no opinion of ourselves, and to think always well and highly of others, is great wisdom and perfection” (Thomas Kempis). “Because the Christian can no longer fancy that he is wise he will also have no high opinion of his own schemes and plans. He will be ready to consider his neighbor’s will more important and urgent than his own. The desire for one’s own honor hinders faith. One who seeks his own honor is no longer seeking God and his neighbor. (Jn 5:44) What does it matter if I suffer injustice? Would I not have deserved even worse punishment from God? One who lives by justification by grace is willing and ready to accept even insults and injuries without protest. If my sinfulness appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all. My sin is of necessity the worst, the most grievous, the most reprehensible. Brotherly love will find any number of extenuations for the sins of others; only for my sin is there no apology whatsoever. ‘Never think that thou hast made any progress till thou look upon thyself as inferior to all’ (Thomas Kempis).”

Listening. “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them.” Do not “forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. He who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but clerical condescension arrayed in pious words. There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.”

Helpfulness. “The second service that one should perform for another in a Christian community is that of active helpfulness. We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. It is a strange fact that Christians and even ministers frequently consider their work so important and urgent that they will allow nothing to disturb them.They think they are doing God a service, but actually they are disdaining God.”

Bearing (Gal 6:2; Col 3:13; Eph 4:12). “Bearing means forbearing and sustaining. The brother is a burden to the Christian, precisely because he is a Christian. For the pagan the other person never becomes a burden. He simply sidesteps every burden that others may impose upon him. It is only when he is a burden that another person is really a brother and not merely an object to be manipulated.” Jesus did likewise (Isa 53:4-5). “To cherish no contempt for the sinner but rather to prize the privilege of bearing him means not to have to give him up as lost, to be able to accept him, to preserve fellowship with him through forgiveness.”

The key sentence in regards to Ministry: “Where the ministry of listening, active helpfulness, and bearing with others is faithfully performed, the ultimate and highest service can also be rendered, namely, the ministry of the Word of God.”

Proclaiming. “…in which one person bears witness in human words to another person, speaking the whole consolation of God, the admonition, the kindness, and the severity of God. (But if the speaking of the Word) is not accompanied by worthy listening, (active helpfulness, from a spirit of bearing and forbearing rather than impatience and the desire to force its acceptance) how can it really be the right word for the other person?” “We warn one another against the disobedience that is our common destruction. We are gentle and we are severe with one another, for we know both God’s kindness and God’s severity. Why should we be afraid of one another, since both of us have only God to fear?” “The more we learn to allow others to speak the Word to us, to accept humbly and gratefully even severe reproaches and admonitions, the more free and objective will we be in speaking ourselves.” “(The) renunciation of our own ability is precisely the prerequisite and the sanction for the redeeming help that only the Word of God can give to the brother. (Ps 49:7-8; Jas 5:20)”

Authority (Mk 10:43). “Genuine spiritual authority is to be found only where the ministry of hearing, helping, bearing, and proclaiming is carried out. Genuine authority realizes that it can exist only in the service of Him who alone has authority. (Mt 23:8) Pastoral authority can be attained only by the servant of Jesus who seeks no power of his own, who himself is a brother among brothers submitted to the authority of the Word.”

How’s your ministry of being heard/listening? Being helped/helping others? Borne with/bearing with others? Taught/teaching others with spiritual authority?


  1. You are right about one thing Ben, these points are hard to practice as a Christian. Did you see the movie, “Amish Grace?” It is a true story about the Amish community. Where a gunman came to their school and shot school girls and 7 of them died. The parents of the victims forgave the murderer and tried to help his widow and children. But it was not easy. One of our daughters said if God gives her future family a son she would want to name him, “Dietrich.” Thank you for posting these articles on the written work of Bonhoeffer.