Everybody, apparently, longs for community.
That’s certainly a common sentiment, and there is no doubt truth to it. It’s true that individualism is fracturing our society, leading people to long for connection and togetherness and genuine relationship.
All the same, the longing for individual autonomy in our culture is at least as strong as the desire for community. Modern individuals want to craft their own lives, images and identities without the cramping effects of communal expectations or rules.
So is our society trapped in individualism and longing for community? Or is it wary of community because we love our individualism?
It’s a bit of both, I suspect. Whatever the case, in this article, I don’t want to talk so much about a general longing for community, but about the unique and extraordinary thing that is Christian community.
1. Our longing for church-community
Churches, as we know, can be incredibly rich and satisfying expressions of what it means to belong. In church, I am part of a body of people who appear to be actually interested in me—who ask me how I’m going, who pray for me, and who help me in all sorts of ways. In our society, this is far more unusual than we realise, and we often take for granted just how rich Christian community and fellowship is.
When it’s functioning well, church can be an incredibly deep experience of community—when we serve each other sacrificially; when we jump in and work together, shoulder to shoulder, towards a common goal; when we pull together in times of crisis, providing meals, helping out with housework, giving lifts, and visiting members in hospital. In particular, there’s a real sense of connection when someone is open about their sins and we pray for one another, or when we move past the football and talk freely together about the wonders of God’s word and how it applies to us. These are the times when we experience the real blessings of Christian community.
But like all human things, Christian communities have their flaws, and there are also plenty of times when we feel dissatisfied with the level of “community” at church. It doesn’t feel much like community when you arrive at church and find yourself loitering around the edges, unnoticed by everyone; when there’s a stampede for the exits as soon as the service is over; when you hang around over morning tea, chatting awkwardly about nothing much over a cup of bad coffee and a milk arrowroot; when someone you’ve spoken to repeatedly still doesn’t seem to know your name; when you miss a few weeks and no-one seems to miss you; when you don’t feel like anyone really knows you or what you’re going through.
It’s easy to be dissatisfied with the sense of community in our churches, and to worry that something is wrong or missing.
As a first step to diagnosing the problem, we need to understand what Christian community really is. And to begin to do that, we’re going to reflect on perhaps the most significant work on Christian community written in the past 100 years: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.
2. Bonhoeffer’s world
a) Where is the real church?
You may sometimes wonder in your idle moments whether your church is lacking genuine community, or whether some aspect of community is missing. But for Bonhoeffer, the issue was urgent and drastic. In the early 1930s, certain sections of the Christian church in Germany were acquiescing in the rise and the actions of Hitler, while other German Christians were utterly appalled at that kind of compromise and support for the Nazi regime. Where did genuine Christian community exist in this?
Bonhoeffer was a part of the Confessing Church, the collaboration of churches that opposed Hitler. Together they came up with the Barmen Declaration, which expressed the essence of their opposition to the compromises of their peers. They saw that the German Christians who supported Hitler had lost sight of the centre of Christianity. They had become focused on what God might or might not be doing through the rise of the German Reich, rather than what God had done and was doing through Jesus Christ. The very first article of the Barmen Declaration makes clear what the centre of Christianity is: “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” For Bonhoeffer, the fight was over whether the church would obey Jesus Christ or compromise with the political realities of their day.
It was in this context that Bonhoeffer set up a seminary in a place called Finkenwalde. Bonhoeffer and his students lived together as they studied the Scriptures in community, much like Moore College teachers and students do today. Bonhoeffer saw this seminary as kind of a laboratory for reinventing the German church. The German church, which had been so fractured and destroyed over allegiance to Hitler, could perhaps be reborn through the young seminary graduates he was training at Finkenwalde. Perhaps they could bring genuine Christianity and genuine Christian community back to German Christianity. Unfortunately, his little laboratory of Christian community was shut down by the Gestapo in 1937. In 1938, however, Bonhoeffer sat down and wrote Life Together.
3. What is Christian community?
a) It’s impossible
In Life Together, Bonhoeffer argued that Christian community is not a type of something else. It’s not as if there’s a category of thing called “community” existing in the world, and the goal is to build a Christian version of that thing. Bonhoeffer argued that Christian community is something quite distinctive and unique. In fact, he said, it is something that is impossible by any human standard or action. It is impossible—except for the work of Jesus Christ.
This bold statement is based on Bonhoeffer’s view of sin. Bonhoeffer, being a German and a Lutheran, was very steeped in Luther’s view of sin. Luther famously described sin as “The human heart curving in on itself”.1 Rather than our hearts being open to God and to other people, the essence of sin is for our mind and will to turn inwards on ourselves. We become self-enclosed and self-obsessed. Everything is about us. This is the essence of sin.
If that is the case, Bonhoeffer said, then we are incapable of proper relationships with other people, on account of our selfish, aggressive, self-obsessed ego—that is, our own overriding commitment to ourselves. So when we encounter other people as inwardly curved sinful people, we encounter them either as objects to control or manipulate in some way to get what we want, or as threats to our purposes, needs and wants.
This is why Bonhoeffer argued that genuine relationship and community with other people is really impossible for sinful man. It is as impossible for sinful human people to relate properly and rightly in community with others as it is for sinful people to relate properly and rightly to God. Our self-centredness—our persistent, inwardly curved nature—is what makes it impossible. It ruins everything. This is a hugely important point not only for understanding true community, but for recognising false or fake community.
b) Except through Jesus Christ
i. The mediator
Bonhoeffer insisted that Jesus Christ is the key to the true community. Jesus breaks into our slavery and sets us free from our inwardness—our inwardly enclosed self. He pardons us. He forgives us. He draws us out of ourselves. He opens out the inwardly closed, self-focused person I am, and sets me free to relate rightly to God again through him. When I come to realise that my rebellious inwardness is a destructive lie, and that life and liberation is only found through an open, free relationship with God through Christ—only then do I become the truly human person I was created to be. That’s what Jesus does: he stands in the centre between us and God, and brings us into right relation with God.
However, Bonhoeffer says that Jesus not only brings me back to God, he opens me up to being a true human person again. Jesus shows us what it means to be a human person—someone who’s not inwardly curved and self-obsessed, but someone who is with others and for others. These were two expressions Bonhoeffer used constantly: Jesus Christ was a man who was always with others and for others—as opposed to being with and in himself and for himself. In doing so, Jesus shows us and equips us by his Spirit to be true human beings.
So Christ not only sets me free from sin and relates me rightly to God again, he actually relates me rightly to you again—no longer as someone who wants to manipulate or use you, but as someone who wants to love and serve you. That’s what a human being is supposed to be, and that’s what Jesus does in and for us: he renews in the image of our creator, in his own image, as outward-flowing lovers, rather than inward-focused takers.
As Paul says in Ephesians, Christ breaks down the barriers not only between God and us, but between us and us:
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Eph 2:14-16)
And so in Christ, we become one body, as it often says in the New Testament—all linked together, serving and interacting and relating to one another, existing with one another and for one another only through Christ. Bonhoeffer says very boldly that Jesus Christ is not only the mediator between us and God; his is also the mediator between you and me:
Without Christ we would not know God; we could neither call on God nor come to God. Moreover, without Christ we would not know other Christians around us; nor could we approach them. The way to them is blocked by one’s own ego. Christ opened up the way to God and to one another. Now Christians can live with each other in peace; they can love and serve one another; they can become one. But they can continue to do so only through Jesus Christ. Only in Jesus Christ are we one; only through him are we bound together.2
ii. Real community
This leads to Bonhoeffer’s definition of what real Christian community is:
Christian community means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. There is no Christian community that is more than this, and none that is less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily community of many years, Christian community is solely this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.3
In this sense, Christian community is not something we can create or manufacture or even build; it’s something God creates and builds through Jesus Christ by his Spirit. Christian community doesn’t consist of people having things in common with other people—such as all being young mums together, or men together, or workers together. It doesn’t consist of a feeling of closeness with other people, such that I have an intimate knowledge of your life and you have an intimate knowledge of mine. That’s a lovely thing, and it relates to Christian community. But it is not Christian community. According to the New Testament, Christian community consists only and solely by having Jesus Christ in common with one another, says Bonhoeffer—having Jesus stand between us and draw the two of us together, with him in the centre.
That’s how Christian community happens: the gospel word comes to me, and by his Spirit, God converts, regenerates and stands me on my feet and makes me a new person. He does the same for you. And he thus introduces us to each other around himself, and makes us partners together—makes us a “fellowship”, to use the New Testament word, in and through him.
Real Christian community is one where the gospel word of Jesus Christ, who is present in our midst by what he says in his gospel and his word, liberates us and draws us together as one people. Real Christian community is a fellowship in which the thing we have in common is Jesus.
c) Two types of community
Bonhoeffer’s strong statement about what real Christian community is leads him to contrast true and false community. On the one hand, Bonhoeffer talks about “fleshly” or “emotional” or “psychological” community. This sort of community is very common and very human: it’s about the common needs we have for each other and with each other—the longings, the needs, the wants, the desires that we have as humans, and which we seek to satisfy through our relationship with others. This kind of emotional, psychological community is quite different from Christian community, says Bonhoeffer. In fact, it’s possible for a so-called Christian community to not be centred around Jesus Christ, but instead centred around the mutual satisfaction that members of the community gain and draw from each other. Bonhoeffer writes,
Therefore, the other who comes face to face with me earnestly and devoutly seeking community is not the brother or sister with whom I am to relate in the community. My brother or sister is instead that other person who has been redeemed by Christ, absolved from sin, and called to faith and eternal life. What persons are in themselves as Christians, in their inwardness and piety, cannot constitute the basis of our community, which is determined by what those persons are in terms of Christ.4
It is not who we are as humans or the personal connection we have with other people as humans that makes us a community; it’s who we are in Jesus Christ and in him alone. In fact, says Bonhoeffer very boldly, the people who come really wanting community get in the way of genuine Christian community. The “emotional” or “soulish” community (as Bonhoeffer called it) is a barrier to the kind of community that is focused on Jesus Christ, not ourselves.
We still see this in churches today—in different ways with different personalities. We see it when someone joins a church because the church helps them feel better about themselves, or because it provides the satisfaction of being part of something bigger. We see it in the person who has a role in church life that they will not and cannot relinquish—because the sense of belonging and significance that the role gives them is more important than actually serving others through Jesus Christ. We see it in the person who is always craving engagement, who always needs to be noticed, sympathised with and validated. We see it (conversely) in the detached person—the person who is content to receive the benefits of being part of the church community (the teaching, the kids program), but who remains somewhat aloof—who doesn’t want to give themselves to others.
Now in each of these cases, we see aspects of genuine Christian community in action. Church community does provide meaning and significance, it does heal the broken-hearted, and it does provide for many needs. But these things are not the basis and true nature of Christian community.
In contrast, Bonhoeffer says, a true Christian community is one that is a spiritual community. It’s one where we relate to one another through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit—where we love the other person through Jesus Christ, and we learn from Jesus Christ what it means to love that other person:
Christ stands between me and others. I do not know in advance what love for others means on the basis of a general idea of love, growing out of my own emotional longing—all of which in the sight of Christ may instead be hatred and the worst kind of selfishness. What love is, only Christ in his word can tell me. Contrary to all my own opinions and convictions, Jesus Christ will tell me what love for the brother truly looks like. Therefore, spiritual love is bound to the Word of Jesus Christ alone.5
Therefore, Bonhoeffer says, true spiritual community has the word of Jesus Christ at its centre. This is revealed in our devotion to the word when we gather together as a whole community—as we read it, preach it, sing it, pray it, and as we talk about it with one another. In our big communal gatherings, the word of Jesus Christ must be the animating core of what binds us together as a community.
However, Bonhoeffer says, in our constant ongoing relations with one another, there are four practical ways in which community is expressed as we relate to each other through Jesus Christ.
The first one is in listening—“to listen with the ears of God”, as Bonhoeffer puts it.6 In other words, we should not impose ourselves immediately on the other person—trying to control the other person or set the other person’s agenda for them—but listen carefully to what they are saying, perhaps even so that we can hear what is going on behind what they’re saying.
Secondly, in genuine Christian community, we will relate to other people with what Bonhoeffer calls “active helpfulness”: we will lay down our lives for other people in practical—and even menial—ways, because we care for the other person and what they need, rather than ourselves and what we need.
Thirdly, real Christian community will be expressed in a kind of service that bears with one another. If we relate to one another through Jesus Christ, then we relate to one another as sinners forgiven by Christ. So we bear with one another; we put up with one another’s weakness; we are patient with each other, forgiving each other just as we have been forgiven.
So we listen to each other, we help one another practically, and we put up with each other, because of who we are in Jesus Christ. For Bonhoeffer, these three forms of Christian service lead to the fourth, which he regards as the highest form of service that we have with one another in Christian community—the one to which the other three forms are aligned and to which they lead.
This fourth form of service is to open our mouths and bring the word of Christ to one another. This, says Bonhoeffer, is not like the formal word of the pulpit, which is ordered and authoritatively addresses the whole congregation. This is what he calls “the free word”, from brother to brother, the word that arises in conversation and in the midst of daily life. In this word, we bring to our brother or sister in Christ some kind of testimony, word of encouragement, admonition, encouragement or reminder of the truth that is in Jesus.
At that moment, we bring to our brother or sister the help that they need—the help that we all need, which comes to us from “outside”—that is, from God through Jesus Christ:
Help must come from the outside, and it has come and comes anew every day in the word of Jesus Christ, who brings us redemption, righteousness, innocence and blessedness. But this word God has placed in the mouth of men, so that it might be repeated among the people. When someone is struck by the word, he tells it to others. God has willed that we should seek and find his living Word in the testimony of brothers, in human mouths. Therefore, the Christian needs Christians, who speak to him the Word of God; he needs them again and again, when he becomes uncertain and fails, because from himself he cannot find help, without cheating himself of the truth. He needs the brother as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs the brother solely for the sake of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the Word of the brother; the one is uncertain, the other is certain. Therefore, the goal of all Christian community is clear: to encounter each other as bringers of the message of salvation.7
When we’re weak, when we’re failing, when we’re doubting, when we’re struggling, the Christ in our own hearts needs the word from outside—just as we did when we heard the gospel and were saved. We need the word that comes to us from God via the lips of our brother or sister—to sustain us, strengthen us, remind us, rebuke us, encourage us, exhort us and testify to us.
4. The joy of Christian community
What is real Christian community? It is not something we can manufacture through emotional closeness or any other technique. In fact, our emotional longing for community can sometimes be a facet of our inwardness and selfishness, not our desire to love others through Jesus Christ.
Real Christian community is community only in and through Jesus Christ. It is nothing more and nothing less than that.
Christian community is experienced as we listen to each other with the ears of Christ, serve each other practically with the kindness of Christ, bear with each other’s weaknesses because we know we’re all sinners before Christ, and bring Christ to each other as we speak his word to each other in multiple, different ways.
And this kind of community does foster a real and lasting joy—not only the the joy of forgiveness, justification and peace with God, but also the joy of being free from my inwardly-curved prison. I’m free to live with others and for others, as I was created to do. I’m free from having to hide who I really am. And I’m free to confess openly to others not only my sinfulness, but the gospel that brings to all of us the forgiveness and love of Christ.
1 Martin Luther, “Lectures on Romans”, Luther’s Works, vol. 25.
2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Volume 5, edited by Geffrey B Kelly, translated by Daniel W Bloesch and James H Burtness, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1996, p. 33.
3 Ibid., p. 31.
4 Ibid., p. 34.
5 Ibid., p. 43.
6 Ibid., p. 99.
7 Ibid., p. 32.