Chapter 5: The Church’s Life in Christ

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
by Dallas M. Roark

Chapter 5: The Church’s Life in Christ

Bonhoeffer’s experiences with the clandestine seminary beginning in 1935 repeat a familiar refrain in the history of the church: How can the church survive under the fire of illegality?

At Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer ran a Predigerseminar, a preachers’ seminary, covering a term of about six months, concentrating on pastoral duties. The days of training pastors for the Confessing Church were the most satisfying of Bonhoeffer’s life. Gemeinsames Leben (Life Together1) is a record of this experiment. Published in 1938, the book enjoyed a popularity beyond its basic theological profundity.

Life Together deals with the practical relations of the church’s life in Christ. Between the two advents of Christ the believer lives in community with other Christians. This is a gift of God; not all can experience it, for they may be scattered, imprisoned, or alone among heathen people.


Community, for the Christian, centers in Jesus Christ. This means three things: (1) a Christian is related to others because of Jesus Christ; (2) the path to others is only through Jesus Christ; (3) the Christian is elected in Christ from eternity to eternity.2 The first point of being relates to one s need of others. Christians must have one another to give God’s word reciprocally to each other. The word given to me is more assuring than my own. Yet my word may encourage another who is uncertain of his own heart. Thus the Christian community is to bring the message of salvation to all. The second point means that all relationships with one another and God are through Christ. He is our peace, wrote St. Paul, and the avenues to others wind through him. The third point relates to the Incarnation. We are incorporated into Christ and shall be with him and one another in an eternal fellowship.

As in his early writings, Bonhoeffer is careful to emphasize the difference between the community as an ideal and as a divine reality. The church is not the product of desire, a wish dream, or visionary hopes. If the church were a result of man’s efforts, its failure would cause the founder to accuse the other members, God, and finally himself. However, the church has been created by Cod in Jesus Christ, and thankfulness is the only attitude open: thankfulness for forgiveness, daily provisions, and fellowship. Thankfulness is the key to greater spiritual resources. Without thankfulness for the daily gifts, the greater gifts of God will not come our way. Especially in the case of pastors, thankfulness is important. A pastor has no right to accuse his congregation before God. Rather, let him make intercession and give thanks for his congregation.

If the church is not an ideal, it is also not a human reality. As a divine reality it is also a spiritual entity which has its basis in Jesus Christ, whereas the basis of human realities is desire. In the church there is the community of those called by Christ. The fellowship of the human community is composed of devout souls and works along the lines of the magnetic persuasion of a leader. The fellowship of Christ is ruled by God’s Word. In the one community the Spirit rules, in the other, psychological techniques.

Bonhoeffer’s central idea is that the church as the fellowship of Christ centers on Christ rather than being a mere association of people with a common purpose. Human love and actions are related to a desire for human community. Christian love, spiritual love, comes from Christ and goes out to the other person, not directly, but through Christ. Christ "stands between me and others."3 This means that disciplining of other people is through Christ, not directly. Direct personal influence may amount to coercion, or be an impure influence in another’s life. Rather, the most direct way to another is found in prayer to Christ whose influence is greater.

The community will continue to exist only as it learns to distinguish spiritual love from human, the spiritual community from the human ideal. It "will remain sound and healthy only where it does not form itself into a movement, an order, a society, a collegium pietatis, but rather where it understands itself as being a part of the one, holy, catholic, Christian Church. . ."4 The unity of the community is in Christ, "Through him alone do we have access to one another, joy in one another, and fellowship with one another."5


Life together in the community begins with the break of day. It is proper to begin the day with worship. Worship should include thanksgiving, reading of Scripture, and prayer. To God belongs the first thought of the morning. Bonhoeffer does not lay down a rigid order of worship. But he does insist that common worship should include "the word of Scripture, the hymns of the Church, and, the prayer of the fellowship."6 His treatment shows an intense interest in the pastoral side of life.

The treatment of the Book of Psalms in worship is particularly interesting. How can one use the psalms as one’s own? Can one really pray the imprecatory psalms? 7 Bonhoeffer answers that as human sinners, expressing our own evil thoughts and vengeance, we cannot. But Jesus Christ prays all of the psalms, and because we are in him we can follow his use of them, can pray them through him. "The Psalter is the vicarious prayer of Christ for his Church. Now that Christ is with the Father, the new humanity of Christ, the Body of Christ on earth continues to pray his prayers to the end of time. This prayer belongs, not to the individual member, but. to the whole Body of Christ."8

Thus the Psalter can teach us how to pray because Jesus used it. The Psalter teaches us to pray according to the promises of God to his people. It teaches us also that prayer goes far beyond the experiences of the individual to the concern of Christ in the whole church. The imprecatory psalms should be used, not as individual and personal, but "as a prayer out of the heart of Jesus Christ that was sinless and clean."9 Because our lives are in Christ, what happened to him happened to us, and herein is our right in using these prayers. The psalms direct us to a prayer fellowship. The liturgical construction of the psalms indicates this. The prayer fellowship includes fellow believers, but even where one is in prayer alone, there Christ is with him in prayer.

Although the Book of Psalms is part of the Old Testament, the reading of the Scripture needs a separate treatment. Brief readings are not a substitute for reading of the Scripture consecutively and as a whole. A family or community should read a chapter from the Old Testament and at least one half of a chapter from the New Testament daily. The Old Testament is stressed, not as dull irrelevant history, but as part of the total story of our redemption. My redemption cannot be isolated from Israel’s passing through the Red Sea and other experiences. "And only in so far as we are there, is God with us today also."10 Bonhoeffer goes so far as to say that what happened to Israel is more important than what God intends for me today.11 The Scripture has prime importance for the church as well as for pastoral work. How shall one minister spiritually to others apart from the Scripture? How shall the church be guided without the Scriptures?

A part of worship is singing, and Bonhoeffer loved to sing. The beginning of the day with others involves singing. The Bible gives the precedent for singing. Singing gives the opportunity "to speak and pray the same word at the same time." Bonhoeffer advocates unison singing and speaks rather sarcastically of those who show off their musical skill by singing harmony. "Unison singing . . .is less of a musical than a spiritual matter."12 Why? Perhaps because one concentrates on what is sung rather than on how it is sung. Here again the corporate aspect of church singing is viewed as an act of worship.

The church in prayer relates to individual and common prayer. Both formal and free prayers have their appropriate place. The fellowship of prayer means that we pray for one another’s needs, give thanks for others’ progress, and intercede for others’ concerns.

After the day has begun with worship, the community turns to physical sustenance. Fellowship around the table means common fellowship with those of the family, or those of the community (as in the "seminary"), fellowship around the Lord’s table and, finally, the ultimate fellowship in God’s kingdom. In all three types there is the religious experience of knowing that life comes from God,13 of the festive occasion in sharing food, and of sharing food with the hungry.

The community under Bonhoeffer’s guidance was not without work. The first hour of the day belongs to God in worship, the other hours belong to God in work. Worship without work is as one-sided as work without worship. The day should be closed with thanksgiving and worship. Worship in the evening includes prayer for the community, the pastor, the poor, neglected, sick, dying, and for all people. The evening prayer should include also the confession of sin — both to God and to those against whom one has sinned — as well as seeking God’s protection through the night when man is deep in the helplessness of sleep.


Life Together moves from general to personal worship. Bonhoeffer warns of two extremes: "Let him who cannot be alone beware of community," and, "Let him who is not in community beware of being alone."14 Silence is important, but it is silent obedience to the Word of God. Aloneness is necessary, but it does not become monastic. Solitude and silence have therapeutic values. After a time of quietness, one can meet people and events in a refreshed way.

Solitude and silence are important for three purposes. First, meditation. Meditation is the time of personal reflection on brief readings of the Scripture, not in order to sermonize, but to ask the question: what does God say to me in this text? Meditation is not a time of spiritual experimenting, a think-session for novel ideas, or a time for manufacturing unusual experiences. In meditation and through Scripture one seeks God.

Second, prayer. Out of meditation on Scripture comes guidance for prayer. Praying on the basis of Scripture is a means of avoiding repetition in prayer and emptiness of soul. Positively, it enables us to speak to God about matters too personal for corporate prayer. Bonhoeffer’s advice concerning a wandering mind: pray for the subjects of the straying thoughts and use this as a means of enlarging one’s prayer concerns.

Third, intercession. To bring one’s brother into the presence of God in concern for his needs is to intercede for him. The Christian fellowship lives or dies by what it does in intercession. Intercession is the means of transforming one’s personal attitudes about other people. It is hard to hate one you talk with God about. The intercession of the Christian is a service owed to God and man. Such intercession is more meaningful and fruitful the more definite it is. The importance of this service demands that it be diligently protected by a special time that is regular.

The real test of meditation comes in the crucible of daily experience. Has it made one strong or weak? What happens to the individual affects the community. If the individual is weak, then a sickness invades the community. Bonhoeffer’s beatitude is poignant: "Blessed is he who is alone in the strength of the fellowship and blessed is he who keeps the fellowship in the strength of aloneness."15


Bonhoeffer turns next to the ministry and its problems. He analyzes the disciples’ bickering about who should be the greatest among them (Luke 9:46) from the standpoint of advantage, of personal gain, and of power. The struggle for advantage is a rejection of justification by faith in favor of self-justification.16

The Christian must learn to hold his tongue. Evil thoughts are defeated most effectively when they are never reduced to words. In the control of the tongue, personal advice to another is not prohibited, but at the same time criticism must not be offered under the cloak of advice. Criticism is generally a technique used to gain advantage over the other person. We should rather recognize the other person as free in the image of God.

The freedom of each person is necessary for the community. If the fellowship is divided by criticism into the advantaged and the disadvantaged, it will be the death of the community. The strong cannot survive without the weak, but the weak must not be regarded as inferior without their own proper work. "A community which allows unemployed members to exist within it will perish because of them."17 Each person must have purpose, use, and a contribution to make to the life of the community. There can be no superfluous people.

The ministry of meekness follows the ministry of holding one’s tongue. Learning to think of others as deserving and having more honor is meekness. Receiving forgiveness of sin teaches us that we have reached the end of our own way of self-seeking and have cast aside self-righteousness. Seeking honor is detrimental to faith, for honor-seeking is self-centered where faith is Christ-centered. Resentment in the community is the product of honor-seeking.

The meek person not only puts aside self-conceit but also associates with the lowly and in doing so declares himself to be the greatest of sinners. The meek will not excuse his own sins, but will be forgiving in regard to others. Bonhoeffer asks, "How can I possibly serve another person in unfeigned humility if I seriously regard his sinfulness as worse than my own?"18

In reaching out to others there is the ministry of listening. Learning to listen is a vital ministry for Christians and especially clergymen. More inclined to contribute to the point of prattling, the Christian must recapture the art of listening. Listening must be genuine, not the kind that is waiting with half an ear ready to pour out a barrage of answers to other’s problems. Impatient listening is a form of despising other people. Bonhoeffer decries the surrender of therapeutic listening to secular education, because it is an art committed to the Christian by God. But Christians have not been listening to others, and when we do not listen to them we do not hear God.

The ministry of helpfulness is another community activity. "This means, initially, simple assistance in trifling, external matters."19 When one is too busy to help in the lowliest of services, one is guilty of taking a career too seriously. God sends people our way to interrupt us. Their claims are urgent and we must be obedient in ministering to them. We must not be the priest who passes by on the other side reading the Bible. Bonhoeffer compares the monk’s vow of obedience to his abbot to one’s service obligation to one’s brother. In either case our time is not our own. We are God’s to serve others.

The ministry of bearing means "forbearing and sustaining."20 If the Christian does not bear the burden of his brother, how is he different from the pagan? Christ bore our burdens, and we in turn are to bear one another’s burdens. The entire Christian life is that of cross-bearing. If we refuse to bear the burdens of others, we are not bearing the cross. Bearing the other’s burdens may mean accepting him in his freedom and involving a clash with another’s personality, yet God has not given permission to remake any man in our image.

Bearing the burdens of others means we are not to judge others, and are to guard against malicious glee over another’s failure, whether that one is strong or weak. Conversely, it means that whoever needs to be lifted up will receive help. The ministry of bearing may involve forgiving the sins of one’s brother. But when the community is shattered by the sin of one, who is not at fault? It is not his sin alone, but the sin of all who have not interceded in prayer, have failed to give counsel when needed, or have neglected their ministry in the community.

It is only when we have learned to minister on the above levels that we are ready for the ministry of proclaiming. Proclaiming in this context is not related to the pulpit or the ordained ministry, but refers to the communication of the gospel from person to person.. This is the free encounter born out of a relationship where one has truly listened, served, and borne the needs of others. Without this prior ministry, Bonhoeffer declares that our message has already been contradicted.

He raises genuine questions about probing into the sacred life of another. The other person "has his own right, his own responsibility, and even his own duty, to defend himself against unauthorized interference."21 Yet God may hold us responsible for our brother’s life blood.

Against our personal hesitancy, our Christian duty is to help. The word we utter is based upon the premise of not denying our brother his needs. Can we deny help and aid to one who is, as we are, a sinner and stands in danger of judgment? Do we not grant him dignity by declaring that he can be reconciled to God? Would we be Christian to be silent while he faces destruction?

If we are to be obedient to God’s word, we cannot stand idle while our brother falls into sin. Bonhoeffer says that reproof is necessary, for "the practice of discipline in the congregation begins in the smallest circles. Where defection from God’s Word in doctrine or life imperils the family fellowship and with it the whole congregation, the word of admonition and rebuke must be ventured. Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to his sin."22

Rebuke is simply to call back to the common fellowship. The ministry of rebuking is always in relation to God. Only God can reclaim a person, but he chooses to work through us. His Word must be spoken by us, and through it God works to bring the erring brother to repentance.

When the above qualities of ministering are incarnate in a person, he will minister with authority. Bonhoeffer is critical of the personality cult so frequent in the ministry, whereby people are attached to the man rather than the office. There is authority in the office, but not in the personal glamor of the man. The description in 1 Timothy of the bishop has nothing to say about brilliance, but much about simplicity, faithfulness, sound doctrine, and Christian living. Pastoral authority arises when the ministry admits that it has no authority save that of Christ and his Word.


In the last theme, intriguing support is given to confession. >From the standpoint of Protestantism, this is a most interesting chapter. Bonhoeffer states:

The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous.23

So what do we do? We cover up our sin, and live in hypocrisy. In contrast to this kind of fellowship, the gospel is only for the sinner. We do not have to lie but we can own up to God. Moreover, we are to confess and be confessed to.

The importance of confession centers around the nature of sin. "Sin demands to have a man by himself."24 It isolates him, by desiring to remain unknown. Where there is confession, the way is open for returning to the community. In confession one gives up his evil, gives his heart to God, and finds forgiveness and fellowship. Confession should be on a personal basis between two people, not necessarily to the entire church, for in confession to one member confession is made to all. If there is confession, the sinner is never alone again.

Confession is important for it declares something about ourselves. It says that we are not afraid to be linked with Christ and the ignominy of his death. If we refuse this link we will probably refuse to confess our sins, in which case there is no help. In confession, one experiences depths of humiliation, but it is in humiliation that God conquers man. In confession there is born the joy of forgiveness in Christ.

Confession to a brother is a way of certainty. It guards against self-confession. Confessing my sin to God alone may be merely mental gymnastics whereby I grant myself forgiveness without true confession. It may also explain my feebleness in overcoming sin and the resultant relapses that occur. God’s forgiveness is spoken to me through my brother as I confess to him.

Meaningful confession must concentrate on specific sins. Therefore self-examination as preparation for confession will use the Ten Commandments. In confession one is dealing with real problems, and thus real forgiveness is sought.

To whom shall one confess? Bonhoeffer’s answer is: "He who himself lives beneath the Cross."25 Why not a psychologist? The latter knows human weakness, but not godlessness. He knows something of man’s nature, but not his sin. Only the Christian knows this and knows the need of forgiveness and can pronounce it for God.

There are two dangers in confession. One who hears confessions may regard them as routine. Only those who confess should hear confessions, thus keeping confession from becoming mere form or routine. Bonhoeffer warns the confessant against regarding confession as a pious work, for "confession as a pious work is an invention of the devil."26 But confession rightly used and understood involves God’s offer of grace.

Confession is, finally, related to the holy Communion. Jesus commanded that all should come to worship after they have reconciled themselves with their brother. Before the Lord’s Supper is received there should be general confession on the part of the fellowship. When confession is ended, forgiveness is declared and the people of God share in the fellowship of the table that will be perfected in eternity.

In assessment we must say that Bonhoeffer shows remarkable pastoral insight. Life Together may be regarded as a prolegomena to a minister’s manual. Much more would have to be developed, but it serves well as the foundation. However, certain questions need to be raised about Bonhoeffer’s views in this book. First, he has Luther’s propensity to see Christ everywhere in the Old Testament, particularly in the Psalms. This leads to considerable allegorization of the Scripture under the guise of "theological interpretation." Most interpreters of Scripture regard this as suspect, because it goes beyond the historical-grammatical-critical standard of Scripture interpretation. In this Bonhoeffer follows Luther.

Second, his comments on unison singing seem to be purely aesthetic, and, for American readers, arbitrary. We should remember, however, that German Lutheran churches do not use music for the hymnbooks in the pews, so that it is possible for someone singing parts to be actually showing off his ability, as well as being in danger of singing the wrong notes. For many people, on the other hand, singing in parts is more natural and fitting to one’s voice range. It is also possible to show off in unison singing.

Third, while Bonhoeffer has many valuable thoughts on confession, he is too one-sided in his approach. He admits that one may have "certainty, new life, the Cross, and fellowship without benefit of confession to a brother,"27 but he is concerned with those who need it. The manner of treatment may suggest that most people need confession to another. His treatment is an improvement on the usual Roman Catholic view in which confession is normally relegated to the priestly office. But is there not a danger that psychological benefits may be mistaken for spiritual relief? Does not confession displace the promise and Word of God with a word of a man?



1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper & Bros., 1954).

2. Ibid., p. 21.

3. Ibid., p. 35

4. Ibid., p. 37

5. Ibid, p. 39.

6. Ibid, p. 44.

7. The imprecatory psalms are those in which the psalmist prays that God will judge his enemies and in their destruction vindicate the psalmist for his faithfulness.

8. Ibid., p. 46.

9. Ibid., p. 48.

10. Ibid., p. 54.

11. Ibid., p. 54.

12. Ibid., p. 60.

13. Ibid., p. 66.

14. Ibid., p. 77.

15. Ibid., p. 89.

16. Ibid., p. 91.

17. Ibid., p. 94.

18. Ibid., pp. 86-97.

19. Ibid., p. 99.

20. Ibid., p. 100.

21. Ibid., p. 105.

22. Ibid., p. 107.

23. Ibid., p. 110.

24. Ibid., p. 112.

25. Ibid., p. 119.

26. Ibid., p. 120.

27. Ibid., p. 117.