Together as Disciples of Jesus Christ
by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and a founding member of the Confessing
Church. He was the first of the German theologians to speak out clearly
against the persecution of the Jews and the evils of the Nazi ideology.
In spring of 1935 Deitrich Bonhoeffer was called by the Confessing Church
in Germany to take charge of an “illegal,” underground seminary at Finkenwalde,
Germany (now Poland). He served as pastor, administrator, and teacher there
until the seminary was closed down by Hitler's Gestapo in September,1937.
In the seminary at Finkenwalde Bonhoeffer taught the importance of shared
life together as disciples of Christ. He was convinced that the renewal
of the church would depend upon recovering the biblical understanding of
the communal practices of Christian obedience and shared life. This is
where true formation of discipleship could best flourish and mature. Bonhoeffer’s
teaching led to the formation of a community house for the seminarians
to help them enter into and learn the practical disciplines of the Christian
faith in community. In 1937 Bonhoeffer completed two books,
and The Cost of Discipleship. They were first published in German
in 1939. Both books encompass Bonhoeffer’s theological understanding of
what it means to live as a Christian community in the body of Christ.He
was arrested by the Gestapo in April 1943. On April 8, 1945 he was hanged
by the Gestapo as a traitor in the Flossenburg concentration camp. As he
left his cell on his way to execution he said to his companion, "This is
the end – but for me, the beginning of life."
In and through Jesus
Christianity means community through Jesus Christ
and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this.
We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ. What does that
mean? It means first, that a Christian needs others because of Jesus Christ.
Second, it means that a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ.
It means third, that in Jesus Christ we have been chosen from eternity,
accepted in time and united for eternity.
First, the Christian is the man who no longer
seeks his own salvation, his deliverance, his justification in himself,
but in Jesus Christ alone. He knows that God's Word in Christ pronounces
him guilty even when he does not feel his guilt, and God's Word pronounces
him righteous, even when he does not feel he is righteous at all. The Christian
no longer lives of himself by his own claims and of his own justification,
but by God's claim and justification. He lives wholly by God's Word pronounced
upon him whether that Word declares him guilty or innocent.
from outside ourselves
The death and life of the Christian is not determined
by his own resources, rather he finds both only in the Word that comes
to him from the outside, in God's Word to him. The reformers expressed
it this way: Our righteousness is an 'alien righteousness' a righteousness
that comes from outside us. They were saying that the Christian is dependent
on the Word of God spoken to him. He is pointed outward to the Word that
comes to him.
The Christian lives wholly by the truth of God's
Word in Jesus Christ. Because he daily hungers and thirsts for righteousness,
he daily desires the redeeming Word. In himself he is destitute and dead.
Help must come from the outside, and it has come and comes daily and anew
in the Word of Jesus Christ, bringing redemption, righteousness, innocence
Christ in the
Word of another
But God has put this Word in to the mouth of
others in order that it may be communicated to us. When one person is struck
by the Word, he speaks it to others. God has willed that we should seek
and find his living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of a
man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God's
Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and
discouraged for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth.
He needs his brother as a bearer and proclaimer
of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of
Jesus Christ. And that also clarifies the goal of all Christian community:
they meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation. As such,
God permits them to meet together and gives them community. Their fellowship
is founded solely upon Jesus Christ and this 'alien righteousness'. All
we can say, therefore, is: the community of Christians springs solely from
the biblical and reformation message of the justification of man through
grace alone – this alone is the basis of the longing of
Christians for one another.
Second, a Christian comes to others only through
Jesus Christ. Among people there is strife. 'He is our peace,' says
Paul of Jesus. Without Christ there is discord between God and man and
between man and man. Christ became the mediator and made peace with God
and among men.
Without Christ we would not know God, we could
not call upon him, nor come to him. But without Christ we also could not
know our brother, nor could we come to him. The way is blocked by our ego.
Christ opened the way to God and to our brother. Now Christians can live
with one another in peace – they can become one. But they can continue
to do so only by the way of Jesus Christ. Only in Jesus Christ are we one,
only through Jesus Christ are we bound together. To eternity he remains
the one mediator.
We are in him
Third, when God's Son took on flesh, he truly
and bodily took on, out of pure grace, our being, our nature, ourselves.
This was the eternal counsel of the Triune God. Now we are in him. Where
he is, there we are too, in the incarnation, on the cross and in his resurrection.
We belong to him because we are in him. That is why the Scriptures call
us the Body of Christ.
But if before we could know and wish it, we have
been chosen and accepted with the whole Church in Christ, then we also
belong to him in eternity with one another. We who live here in fellowship
with him will one day be with him in eternal fellowship.
He who looks upon his brother should know that
he will be eternally united with him in Christ. Christian community means
community in and through Jesus Christ.
Made ready to
God himself has undertaken to teach brotherly
love – all that men can do to add is to remember this divine instruction
and the admonition to excel in it more and more. When God was merciful,
when he revealed Jesus Christ to us as our Brother, when he won our hearts
by his love, this was the beginning or our instruction in divine love.
When God was merciful to us, we learned to be
merciful with our brethren. When we received forgiveness instead of judgment,
we too were made ready to forgive our brethren. What God did to us, we
then owed to others. The more we received, the more we were able to give
– and the more meager our brotherly love, the less we were living by God's
mercy and love. Thus God taught us to meet one another as God met us in
The basis of our
The fact that we are brethren only through Jesus
Christ is of immeasurable significance. Not only the other person who is
earnest and devout, who comes to me seeking brotherhood, must I deal with
in fellowship. My brother is rather that other person who has been redeemed
by Christ, delivered from sin and called to faith and eternal life.
Our community with one another consists solely
of what Christ has done to both of us. I have community with others and
I shall continue to have community only through Jesus Christ. The more
genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything
else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and
his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us.
Christian community is not an ideal which we must
realize – it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may
[This excerpt from Life
Together, Chapter 1 Community, was written in German by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
in 1937 and was originally published in 1939 under the German title Gemeinsames
Leben. It was first translated into English in 1954 and published by
Harper & Row, London, New York, San Francisco.].