Bonhoeffer: Reframing Christian Community

Dietrick Bonhoeffer, Life TogetherDietrich Bonhoeffer.  1954.  Life Together:  The Classic Exploration of Christian Community (Gemeinsames Leben).  Translated by John W. Doberstein.  New York:  HarperOne.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Gemeinsames Leben was written in 1938, a year after Nachfolge, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught in an underground seminary Pomerania, Germany.  At the time, the Confessing Church, which he helped organize, was floundering under Nazi persecution.  While the last part of Nachfolge dealt with the church and life as a disciple, it was highly theological, not a work in practical ecclesiology.  Gemeinsames Leben appears then to address the question: how then can the church remain a faithful witness under persecution by a high-tech, secular culture?


Gemeinsames Leben is short consisting of a mere 5 chapters:

  1. Community;
  2. The Day with Others;
  3. The Day Alone;
  4. Ministry; and
  5. Confession and Communion (5).

The book begins with Psalms and ends with the sacrament of communion.  In some sense, the community of God is framed with the word (scripture) and the sacraments—and so it is with Bonhoeffer.


Bonhoeffer starts with a provocative quotation: Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! (Psalm 133:1) Today, it would be considered political incorrect because the translation is literal (brothers, not brothers and sisters).  For Bonhoeffer, it was provocative because the Old Testament was considered un-German, worse, Jewish, by the Nazi, hence forbidden[1].

Bonhoeffer’s second paragraph is no less provocative. He says:

It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies (17).

The mere existence of Christian community is a political statement and: a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer (19).  Bonhoeffer expands on this thought saying:

The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the Triune God (20).

Bonhoeffer reframes the everyday experience of the Christian into the persecuted world in which he finds himself in Nazi Germany.  This is possible only because: We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ (21). Community is also an antidote to self-centered, pretentious dreaming.  Bonhoeffer writes: God is not a God of the emotions, but the God of truth (27).

The Day with Others

Bonhoeffer commends the keeping of the hours. For example, he states: The early morning belongs to the Church of the risen Christ (41).  The psalms are especially meaningful to Bonhoeffer as a model and mode for personal prayer (45).  Here we learn what prayer means, what to pray, and how to pray in fellowship (47-48).  For Bonhoeffer, Christian worship really never stops with continuous readings (50), hymn singing (57), prayer (71), table fellowship (66), and godly work (69).

The Day Alone

For Bonhoeffer, community is not an escape from loneliness—like the television in the psyche ward which is never turned off. He starts his discussion of time alone by saying: Many people seek fellowship because they are afraid to be alone (76).  Bonhoeffer (78) commends silence as the mark of solitude (and speech as the mark of community). He sees 3 reasons to be alone during the day: for scriptural meditation, for prayer, and for intercession (81).


For Bonhoeffer, ministry begins with humility and restraint. Evil thoughts should not even be dignified with expression (James 3:2; 91) and this evil begins with the discord over who should be in charge (Luke 9:46; 90).  Bonhoeffer offers 3 services in ministry:  listening (97), active helpfulness (99), and burden bearing (100).  If these 3 services are not properly rendered, proclamation of the word is most perilous (104).  Leadership accordingly depends also on these 3 services (108).

Confession and Communion

Sin isolates us both from God and from community.  Bonhoeffer observes:  Sin wants to remain unknown (112).  He sees 2 dangers in confession of sin: first that the one hearing confessions will be overburdened and second that the confessor will try to elevate sin to “pious work” (baptize the sin into acceptance; 120).  The sole objective of confession is absolution, not acceptance.  Bonhoeffer proposes that confession occur the day prior to communion as a necessary step to participating in communion (121).  For this reason, in part, communion is a joyous celebration because the slate has been wiped clean, so to speak.


How then can the church remain a faithful witness under persecution by a high-tech, secular culture?  Bonhoeffer does not answer this question in words.  Rather, he answers it by actions—let the church be the church!  And so we should.


[1]Eric Metaxis. 2010.  Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  Nashville:  Thomas Nelson.  Pages 162, 367-368.

Bonhoeffer: Reframing Christian Community

Also see:

Metaxas: Bonhoeffer’s Times and Ours 

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