Book Review: Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Published January 16, 2024


What does it mean to live together in Christian community? Few questions can be so crucial for the pastor, or for any Christian, because no calling is so inescapable; this is our calling to be the church.

It’s hard to think of any richer resource for this task than Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s nearly century-old classic, Life Together. Its mere 120 pages are packed with profound spiritual insight, distilling Bonhoeffer’s experience leading a clandestine seminary of the Confessing Church at Finkenwalde in Nazi Germany during the late 1930s. Given the extraordinary anxiety of those political circumstances, nothing is so remarkable about the book as its complete serenity—a powerful lesson to us in our own time of intense political and cultural anxiety. Whatever may be happening in the world around us, Bonhoeffer reminds that the day-to-day burdens and conflicts of Christian community should remain our top priority.

Although the central theme of the book is life together in Christian community, Bonhoeffer begins with the crucial reminder that the Christian life may not always be a life together. Some Christians in some times and places are called to a solitary discipleship—in the wilderness, in prison, on the mission field. “Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren” (20). This confession alone can radically alter our attitude toward the communities where we are called to live and serve, for we are apt to despise and grumble about those things we take for granted, never pausing to imagine what life might be like without them.

Bonhoeffer does not merely highlight the solitary Christian, alone before God, as a hypothetical possibility, however. It is in some sense the precondition for any healthy Christian community. Too often, he says (and perhaps all the more so in our rootless age), we seek community as a way of filling a fundamental psychological hole, providing some meaning that we lack. Whoever does this, he says, “is really not seeking community at all, but only distraction which will allow him to forget his loneliness for a brief time” (76). When we do this, we will cling to others and seek to control them.

“Human love seeks direct contact with the other person; it loves him not as a free person but as one whom it binds to itself. It wants to gain, to capture by every means; it uses force. It desires to be irresistible, to rule” (34). Spiritual love, however, loves others only in and through Christ: “It knows that it has no immediate access to other persons. Jesus Christ stands between the lover and the others he loves” (35).

What this means is that life together in Christian community must begin with and flow from life alone before Christ. Accordingly, in the center of his book, Bonhoeffer balances two main chapters, “The Day with Others” and “The Day Alone.” The two are inseparable: “Only in the fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in the fellowship” (77–78).

Bonhoeffer thus offers extensive advice for the practices of personal devotion, in solitude and silence, that should be part of the daily rhythms of the Christian life. Perhaps his most penetrating remarks here concern the practice of intercession, which he distinguishes from regular prayer.

In prayer, we pour our hearts to God in gratitude for his gifts to us and in supplication for him to meet our own needs. This is essential, but too often we stop there, forgetting that even our time alone with God is an aloneness for the sake of others. Indeed, it is through intercessory prayer for one another above all that we can see the way through our day-to-day conflicts with our brothers and sisters: “I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me. . . There is no dislike, no personal tension, no estrangement that cannot be overcome by intercession as far as our side of it is concerned” (86).

But Bonhoeffer has even more to say about the rhythms of corporate worship that should structure every day of the Christian life. At first, we may balk at this suggestion—isn’t corporate worship just once a week?

Well no, since for Bonhoeffer, the smallest manifestation of the church is the Christian family, and the Christian family should begin and end every day with worship together. As parents, many of us instinctively shrink from such a burdensome demand, but Bonhoeffer’s advice should encourage us rather than weigh us down. It is indeed a great privilege to be able to worship together, and Bonhoeffer offers rich spiritual and practical insights into how to use the Scriptures, the psalms, hymns, and prayers in family devotions. And if Christians have the chance to gather with more than just their family members for morning or evening prayers, as Bonhoeffer did at Finkenwalde, they should enthusiastically seize the opportunity.

Perhaps the most profound guidance in the book comes in the final chapters, where Bonhoeffer expounds how we can learn to discern and rejoice in God’s image presented to us in one another: “That image always manifests a completely new and unique form that comes solely from God’s free and sovereign creation” (93). Because the Christian brother is Christ to me (Matt. 25:40, Acts 9:4), I must listen as patiently to him as I listen to Christ, bear his burdens just as I share in Christ’s cross, and—hardest of all, perhaps—confess my sins to him as I confess to Christ.

Bonhoeffer speaks powerfully on the need for Christians to confess their sins to one another. Most of us rest content with silent confession before God or corporate confession in the liturgy. These have their place, but confession to the friend and brother is also important. “A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person. As long as I am by myself in the confession of my sins everything remains in the dark, but in the presence of a brother the sin has to be brought into the light” (116). While perhaps overstated to say that sin confessed alone leaves “everything in the dark,” I appreciate his call to mutual transparency.

For too many Christians today, we manage to enjoy the blessings neither of the day alone nor the day with others. We are too distracted by a constant stream of texts and tweets and notifications to be alone before the Lord, and we know deep down that however much we may be communicating, we are rarely standing still long enough to take part in community. Bonhoeffer’s classic offers us an urgently needed resource for getting back to the basics of what it means to be a Christ-bearer: to be Christ to our brother and to rest in Christ as he presents himself in our brother.

Brad Littlejohn, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping public leaders understand the intellectual and historical foundations of our current breakdown of public trust, social cohesion, and sound governance. His research investigates shifting understandings of the nature of freedom and authority, and how a more full-orbed conception of freedom, rooted in the Christian tradition, can inform policy that respects both the dignity of the individual and the urgency of the common good. He also serves as President of the Davenant Institute.

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