First, a bit of a disclaimer. A friend asked me if I was concerned about drawing lessons from the writings of a prominent neo-orthodox theologian. My answer: somewhat. I am aware in general that Bonhoeffer held quite a few very wrong beliefs, and so I am watching closely as I read Life Together to see if his teachings there are skewed by those beliefs. But I have to do the same thing with the writings of many people I find helpful, whether Christian (C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Jacques Ellul, A.W. Tozer, Wendell Berry) or unbeliever (Neil Postman) or of unknown status.
I’d rather be reading someone on this topic whose beliefs were thoroughly orthodox. But so far I haven’t run across any Reformed or Puritan writers who have tackled the specific matters which Bonhoeffer is addressing. And so far in reading Life Together I haven’t found any claims that seem to be infected with his wrong beliefs.
In fact, I find that one of my differences with Bonhoeffer makes his work very valuable to me, namely his extreme devotion to ecumenicity. Bonhoeffer does not teach, as some ecumenists do, that we must keep peace among the brethren by ignoring our differences; neither does he teach, as anti-ecumenists do, that we should separate over our differences. Rather, he teaches that we must learn to surmount our differences by focusing on the one thing that joins us, namely Jesus Christ.
This can be taken too far, of course. A Mormon might claim brotherhood with a Christian on that basis; I’ve had Mormon missionaries demonstrate to me that they too are Christians by pointing to their name badge, which has written on it very prominently “The Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-Day Saints.” But this is a false claim—the Jesus Christ of Mormonism is not the Jesus Christ of the Bible. The bounds of brotherhood are determined by more than a simple assertion of brotherhood.
Whatever the bounds of brotherhood, they allow for major differences between brothers, which leaves us with the question Bonhoeffer begins with: how can brothers dwell and peace and unity? His answer is that the source of disunity is not our differences, but our unwillingness to have our bond in Jesus Christ outweigh those differences. Unity is not established by seeking out fellowship with those who think more like us, but by learning to see Jesus more clearly in that sovereignly determined collection of brothers we are already in fellowship with.
Some differences, no matter how fundamental, are differences we can live with at a practical level as long as we agree to tend our own gardens. Even though our beliefs on eschatology, soteriology, or the covenant status of children may have profound and concrete outworkings in how we live our lives, we can live with those who believe differently as long as the practical effects of their beliefs don’t infringe on our own sphere of responsibility. If our views differ on, say, the urgency of evangelism, we should be able to live with that difference as long as your view does not constrain me from living out my own view, and vice versa.
There are a few matters where a prevailing view that is different must necessarily infringe on your own practice. Admitting children to the Lord’s Table is one. I belong to a denomination that does not allow anyone to come to the Table without having first made a credible, verbal profession of faith. Even though I believe that any child of a believer is presumptively a believer, and should as such be allowed at the Table, I can’t bring some of my children to the Table. Yet I submit to that restriction happily, because I think God will honor my obedience to the authorities who bar my children based on their own honestly held belief. And I would take that sort of submission very far—if, for example, I found myself part of a credobaptist community, I would submit to their practice and not baptize my children until they could make a profession of faith.
Which is not to say that I would totally ignore such concerns, only that I would not let them be the determining factor in seeking out fellowship. I would not move in order to find a paedobaptist church, but if I were to move for some legitimate reason, I would definitely seek out the church most closely in agreement with my beliefs.
My tentative summary of Bonhoeffer’s teaching on community: human community is something that is built by humans, while spiritual community is a gift of God. We may seek to improve our human situation as seems good to us (e.g. finding a place suitable for building a family legacy, developing close working relationships with dependable people while avoiding those who are undependable), but we are to take fellowship as it is given to us, and be thankful for the fellowship that God has chosen for us.