5 Must-Read Statements on the Church

It’s no secret that one of my favorite theologians of all time is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His book Life Together is, in my opinion, the best book written on the nature of true community in the church. It is a must-read for many reasons, but one of the most important is the way that Bonhoeffer directly deals with something all of us face with the church: disillusionment. If you have not experienced disillusionment at some point in your involvement with the church, then you probably have not been that involved. At a time when people struggled with living their faith individually and together, when the church was rent apart by conflicting allegiances and hypocrisy, Bonhoeffer stepped forward to train young pastors to serve Christ’s church.

Here are 5 must-read statements on the Church by Bonhoeffer from Life Together. I hope you find them as challenging and encouraging as I have over the years:

  • “Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves. By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world.” [26-27]
  • “Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.” [27]
  • “Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together – the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.” [28]
  • “If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is not great experience, not discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.” [29]
  • “A pastor should not complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men….Let him pray God for an understanding of his own failure and his particular sin, and pray that he may not wrong his brethren. Let him, in consciousness of his own guilt, make intercession for his brethren.” [29-30]

[These quotations are taken from John W. Doberstein’s classic translation of Life Together. A more recent translation with thorough annotations and a helpful introduction is found in Volume 5 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works.]

The “Must” of Suffering in the Christian Life: Insights from Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Cross-Shaped Discipleship

This from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship, which I referenced in my message this past weekend, “Baptized with Water and Spirit”:

Jesus must therefore make it clear beyond all doubt that the “must” of suffering applies to his disciples no less than to himself. Just as Christ is Christ only in virtue of his suffering and rejection, so the disciple is a disciple only in so far as he shares his Lord’s suffering and rejection and crucifixion Discipleship means adherence to the person of Jesus, and therefore submission to the law of Christ which is the law of the cross.

To endure the cross is not a tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ. When it comes, it is not an accident, but a necessity. It is not the sort of suffering which is inseparable from this mortal life, but the suffering which is an essential part of the specifically Christian life. It is not suffering per se but suffering-and-rejection, and not rejection for any cause or conviction of our own, but rejection for the sake of Christ. If our Christianity has ceased to be serious about discipleship, if we have watered down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands and which fails to distinguish between natural and Christian existence, then we cannot help regarding the cross as an ordinary everyday calamity, as one of the trials and tribulations of life. We have then forgotten that the cross means rejection and shame as well as suffering. The Psalmist was lamenting that he was despised and rejected of men, and that is an essential quality of the suffering of the cross. But this notion has ceased to be intelligible to a Christianity which can no longer see any difference between an ordinary human life and a life committed to Christ. The cross means sharing the suffering of Christ to the last and to the fullest. Only a man thus totally committed in discipleship can experience the meaning of the cross. The cross is there, right from the beginning, he has only got to pick it up: there is no need for him to go out and look for a cross for himself, no need for him deliberately to run after suffering. Jesus says that every Christian has his own cross waiting for him, a cross destined and appointed by God. Each must endure his allotted share of suffering and rejection. But each has a different share: some God deems worthy of the highest form of suffering, and gives them the grace of martyrdom, while others he does not allow to be tempted above that they are able to bear. But it is the one and the same cross in every case.

The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death-we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time-death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call. Jesus’ summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ. In fact every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life. The call to discipleship, the baptism in the name of Jesus Christ means both death and life.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Collier Books, 1960), 96, 98-99.

A Necessary Tension: Bonhoeffer on Solitude and Community

As I continue to reflect on unity as we walk through our current series at Eastrook Church, “One: The Being of God in the Life of the Church,” here is a powerful quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together on the necessary tension between solitude and community:

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to God. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out. If you refuse to be alone you are rejecting Christ’s call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called. “The challenge of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another. Everyone must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone…I will not be with you then, nor you with me” (Luther).

But the reverse is also true: Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ. If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you. “If I die, then I am not alone in death; if I suffer they [the fellowship] suffer with me” (Luther).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1954).

What Happened to Dietrich?: Bonhoeffer’s Theological Shift in Harlem

Bonhoeffer_Union_ClassNot too long ago I read Reggie Williams‘ thought-provoking book, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance. This is an outstanding book and would easily fit within my top five recommended reads about the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. There is so much to say from this book, but in our present moment I wanted to share this extended reflection by Williams from one of the final chapters of the book here. In our present tensions, we must understand that a shift must occur for the church, particularly for white Christians. We must enter into the experiences of others, especially our African American brothers and sisters, in a way that changes us to become more like Jesus. It begins with seeing God more clearly, then reading the Bible more fully through other cultural lenses, then seeing ourselves and others differently in ways that leads to concrete action for the sake of the kingdom of God.

The hermeneutical process that was set in motion by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s formative German nationalist environment had been disrupted by immersion in a different community. During the Harlem Renaissance and at the beginning of the Great Depression, Bonhoeffer entered into the ‘church of the outcast of America’ in Harlem. He came to Harlem not as the professor come to give oppressed people The benefit of his knowledge; Bonhoeffer allowed himself to be vulnerable in the Harlem community, which was very different from his own German one, by an incarnational practice. In Harlem he learned from Powell’s ministry and was exposed to a black dialectical ecclesiology and to Powell’s interpretation of a model church community. That encounter exposed the limitations of Bonhoeffer’s Volk-centered loyalties, making him vulnerable to the influence of a different worldview and opening him up to important revisions in his faith. When Bonhoeffer shared with his friend Myles Horton the interrupting ‘Amens’ and ‘Hallelujahs’ that he experienced in the Abyssinian church service, Myles was surprised by the different demeanor that his German friend exhibited. It was the different Bonhoeffer, in the year following his encounter with black Baptists, whose piety sometimes appeared ‘too fervent’ to his students. One of Bonhoeffer’s Berlin students recalled the directness and ‘simplicity’ with which Bonhoeffer ‘asked us whether we loved Jesus.’ That different Bonhoeffer was the one who would later speak out against Nazi racism and become the celebrated author of Creation and Fall, Life Together, Discipleship, and Ethics.

[From Reggie Williams, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014), pp. 105-106.]

Joining Jesus in Prayer: Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Praying the Psalms

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One of my favorite theologians is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, author of Discipleship and Life Together. I encountered his writing very early in my life of faith when my older brother came home from college with Bonhoeffer’s book on discipleship. Shortly after that, I found a short book by him entitled The Prayerbook of the Bible, which transformed my reading of the Psalms by setting me on a journey of praying the psalms. Here are a few of Bonhoeffer’s introductory remarks on the psalms and prayer from that book, as a follow-up to my video update on the same topic from yesterday.

Praying certainly does not mean simply pouring out one’s heart. It means, rather, finding the way to and speaking with God, whether the heart is full or empty. No one can do that on one’s own. For that one needs Jesus Christ….

If we want to pray with assurance and joy, then the word of Holy Scripture must be the firm foundation of our prayer. Here we know that Jesus Christ, the Word of God, teaches us to pray. The words that come from God will be the steps on which we find our way to God.

Now there is in the Holy Scriptures one book that differs from all other books of the Bible in that it contains only prayers. That book is the Psalms. At first it is something very astonishing that there is a prayerbook in the Bible. The Holy Scriptures are, to be sure, God’s Word to us. But prayers are human words….

In Jesus’ mouth the human word becomes God’s Word. When we pray along with the prayer of Christ, God’s Word becomes again a human word. Thus all prayers of the Bible are such prayer, which we pray together with Jesus Christ, prayers in which Christ includes us, and through which Christ brings us before the face of God. Otherwise there are no true prayers, for only in and with Jesus Christ can we truly pray.

If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible, and especially the Psalms, we must not, therefore, first ask what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ. We must ask how we can understand the Psalms as God’s Word, and only then can we pray them with Jesus Christ….

The Psalms have been given to us precisely so that we can learn to pray them in the name of Jesus Christ….

Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure is lost to the Christian church. With its recovery will come unexpected power.

[Quotations from “Introduction” of The Prayerbook of the Bible, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 5, pages 155-162.]