Practical implications of Bonhoeffer on community

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.


9 thoughts on “Practical implications of Bonhoeffer on community

  1. I have read a few of your posts and enjoy some of the same authors you note such as Ellul, Lewis, Berry, and Postman. Unfortunately I havent read the others you mention.

    I certainly agree with your assertion that a Mormon or any individual cant claim brotherhood simply from asserting it. However, I am curious as to the distinction you see between Jesus Christ in the Bible and of Mormonism. I ask this sincerely in a friendly way and you can send me an email if you prefer. Is it a matter of holding correct dogmas that make one a Christian, a matter of how we live our lives, a combination of both?

  2. I certainly agree with your assertion that a Mormon or any individual can’t claim brotherhood simply from asserting it. …  Is it a matter of holding correct dogmas that make one a Christian, a matter of how we live our lives, a combination of both?


    I believe that eternal life is a gift of God, given to some and not to others, not earned in any way. So if we mean by “Christian” one who has been chosen to receive eternal life, then you either have or haven’t been one since the beginning of time; there is nothing you can do to become one.

    I am not able to tell with any certainty whether or not someone has received eternal life, and even if I could tell that they had not, I could not distinguish between those who have not been chosen and those who have been chosen but have not yet received the gift. Consequently, I assume that everyone I meet is provisionally chosen, i.e. either has the gift of eternal life or will receive it at some later date. Put another way, when someone receives the gift, I want them to have fond memories of how I treated them beforehand; I certainly have such memories of how God blessed me before I was converted.

    But I think there is another meaning of “Christian” that is strictly temporal; “disciple” and “follower of Jesus” are other names for it. Although one who has received eternal life will normally be such a person, such a person is not necessarily one who has received eternal life. The Bible tells us that at one point in Jesus’ ministry, “from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” And Jesus himself says:

    Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

    Just as Jesus tells us with the parable of the wheat and the tares, there will be those who proclaim themselves to be disciples who in fact do not have eternal life—and we are not to set about uprooting them, but simply to wait until they are separated out on the last day from those who will enter the kingdom of heaven.

    How to respond to all this? Well, I don’t go around trying to discern whether someone has received eternal life. And if someone proclaims themself to be a follower of Jesus then I take that at face value—but I also want to hear more about what they think it means to follow Him. Occasionally our understandings are such that, although I won’t deny them the right to claim the description, I have to make clear that we mean very different things by it, different enough that there isn’t much profit in trying to figure out what our understandings might have in common.

    During the summer of 1999 I spent quite a few afternoons visiting with two Mormon missionaries, who would sometimes bring along other members of their church. They were all very sweet people, and I learned a lot about the Mormon faith that year; I think I surprised them greatly by taking the time to read through the Book of Mormon, the Doctine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, some books by their theologians, and many of their Sunday School collections (e.g. a book of excerpts from the writings of Brigham Young).

    There were many, many things we could have discussed about how Mormon theology differed from what I believed, so I spent a lot of time looking for a fundamental difference that might help convey how wide the gulf was between their faith and mine. Finally I settled on this: the Mormon version of the Gospel, i.e. the Good News, is in fact very bad news to me, since it tells me that my entry into Heaven is based on my own merits, that I must achieve perfection before I can be admitted. On the other hand, my faith tells me that my own merit is the last thing that matters, that Jesus Christ substitutes his own righteous for mine and thereby qualifies me to enter into heaven. For someone who is painfully aware of his many imperfections, and who knows there is no hope of triumphing over them this side of the river Jordan, only the latter is truly good news.

    We spent nearly the entire summer discussing this one point, and in the end my Mormon friends agreed with me that this was a fundamental, irreconcilable difference. And acknowledging the difference short-circuited just about every other argument we might have had. What difference did it make, for example, that we both called ourselves Christians if we couldn’t agree on the basic mechanism of salvation? There was no point in exploring whether we had any other common ground; we simply agreed to disagree, and said our farewells.

    The name “Christian” is only useful to me as shorthand for describing a person who holds to a basic, specific set of beliefs (more or less laid out in C.S. Lewis’s book Mere Christianity) about the nature of Jesus, God, creation, salvation, eternity, and so on; useful, because it gives me some assurance that I have important common ground with one who calls himself by that name. My only objection, and it is a mild one, is that when someone claims the name who holds to beliefs other than what I think of as Christian beliefs, it leads to confusion. But for those who think that their right to the name outweighs any risk of confusion, and that those of us who might be confused should just get over it—well, I won’t argue with them.

  3. If I knew how, I’d highlight the first paragraph of your reply… that’s what I’d like to ask about. I know people have wrestled with this issue over and over again, but for me it is a fresh thing. So, please forgive me if these are foolish questions. If there is nothing that we can do to affect our salvation, then why does Jesus command us to go to all the nations, baptising and teaching them? What does it matter if we live a Biblical agrarian life, or choose some other standard of living? Why do I go through all the effort to teach my children to love and honor God if some of them will be saved and some will not, regardless of what I teach them to believe, how I teach them to live? I am not in any way trying to argue for works related salvation, unless perhaps it has been so ingrained in my thinking that that is what I am doing without even realizing it….How do our lives matter at all if we cannot make any difference in anyone’s salvation? Why do we say that we are ‘building God’s kingdom’ unless somehow we have something to do with salvation? Or is it all just an act of obedience to live in a way that honors God, to keep His commands, to teach these things to our children? Or maybe there is something that I am seriously not understanding…..

  4. Rick
    I appreciate your reply. It seems to me you are describing in part the faith v. works debate. However, your opening paragraphs seems to imply or directly state that eternal salvation is through predestination.

    I believe that no individual can perfect themselves or be saved absent Christ. However, im not sure I would go to the point where individuals exercise no free will in the matter. I am not a determinism nor a compatibilist and believe in Libertarian Free Will.

    Perhaps I am reading your post wrong but I at least understood the divide between your beliefs and those missionaries. I would add that the idea that entry to heaven is based upon one’s merits while mainstream in mormon thought is not the only view. There is a growing trend to focus much more on the aspect of grace and our complete inability to be saved absent Christ. I tend to think God is much more liberal in giving salvation and our works or merit plays a much smaller role than many suppose.

  5. If there is nothing that we can do to affect our salvation, then why does Jesus command us to go to all the nations, baptising and teaching them? What does it matter if we live a Biblical agrarian life, or choose some other standard of living? Why do I go through all the effort to teach my children to love and honor God if some of them will be saved and some will not, regardless of what I teach them to believe, how I teach them to live?


    Whether or not we understand why, all those things are true because the Bible tells us so. We are commanded to do all the things you mention—and doing them adds nothing to our salvation. Maybe the deeper question is this: why do we think that doing any of those things should add to our stature in God’s eyes? I think maybe it’s because we wish it would, given that it’s all we’re capable of, and something in us despises the idea that we can’t contribute in any way.

    But if living a life according to Scripture can’t contribute to our salvation, we can still wonder about what other reasons we might be commanded to live one. One analogy I think about is this. Say the government decided to solve the problem of poverty by providing everyone with unlimited amounts of a food ration that was akin to cheap dogfood but not as tasty, guaranteed to keep you alive without providing any pleasure in the eating. Would there be any purpose to working to provide yourself with better food? Well, not so far as the need to sustain life goes. But doing so would provide immense pleasures and benefits beyond simply existing on the government ration.

    (I have an analogous analogy for folks who question the value of the agrarian life, not a knock-down argument in favor of it but just something that can help illustrate what distinguishes agrarianism from industrialism. If the government decided to provide you with any food you could possibly want at no direct cost to you, would there be any benefit in growing your own? If there are such benefits, they are lost in modern industrial living, whether or not you pay for the food yourself.)

  6. Where does repentance fit in? How about prayer, does it have any effect on other people’s lives, or is that an act of obedience too? How I wish that I had a better understanding of so many things, so that I could better teach my children… How do I even know if I am saved? Any recomended reading that might help me understand some of these basic things better?

  7. Any recomended reading that might help me understand some of these basic things better?


    I’m far from the best person to ask about this, but for a basic understanding of the outlines of the Christian faith, I recommend C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which I think is very direct, down to earth, and easy to understand. For a more comprehensive explanation, I recommend James Montgomery Boice’s Foundations of the Christian Faith, which is fat (700+ pages) and covers all parts of systematic theology, but in a way that is engaging, friendly, and easy to read (the chapters were originally a long sermon series Boice gave at his church, and he was a very good preacher).

  8. Hi Rick,

    Long time no see. This is Joshua Blackburn from Damascus VA.
    Interesting to see this thread pull out so long in time: a good three years. My only addition to the conversation would be point Angela away from protestant false dichotmy (such as “free will” v “grace) and look to the ancient Church, the Christian East, to better understand how repentance, prayer form the backbone of Christian life. Kallistos Ware’s works The Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Way come highly reccomended as an introduction.

  9. Angela,

    Joshua knows whereof he speaks, having spent some time on the fiercely Protestant side of the gulf before embracing Orthodoxy. I second his recommendations, not because I’ve read them but because I know and respect Joshua.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s