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Life Together

November 6, 2007

I turned in the following last week in fulfillment of an assignment for the “Counseling in the Local Church” class I’m taking.  It’s a one page response to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together.   Discussion is welcomed and encouraged.

I read life together when I was in seminary but other than the saying “he who cannot be alone should fear community and he who is not in community should fear being alone”, the only thing I remembered from the book was that I liked it.  Upon this second reading, I feel blown away.  Just the first page changes so much in my thinking.  What Bonhoeffer is saying is consonant with recent calls to be “missional”.  We live in the age of the church militant, we are not yet the church at rest.  When we experience the joys of fellowship in this world, we should be thankful.  But we should not expect so much of that in this world.  It’s just a foretaste of the communion of saints we will have in the age to come.  Those moments are foretastes of heaven, but they are not the norm for Christian fellowship in this world.  Often our fellowship in this world kind of stinks due to ongoing indwelling sin, but we’d better get used to that for a little while longer.

In this world we should aim at serving fellow sinners and not at some ecstatic experience of brotherly intimacy.  Christian brotherhood is a reality, not an ideal to shoot for.  I am your brother, even when I’m being a jerk to you.  You are my brother or sister even when you are sinning against me and I am called to serve you anyway as best as I can, which isn’t all that great given my own sinful heart.  But this perspective leads not to cynicism.  On the contrary, false expectations continually dashed lead to cynicism.  Bonhoeffer’s perspective leads to realistic persevering service of fellow sinners in the church.

We should come to fellowship with a sinners serving sinners attitude and not with a “I hope someone really understands me this time” attitude.  If we take a sinners serving sinners attitude those sweet moments of fellowship will come.  A few of them anyway.  Maybe.  Or maybe we’ll get thrown into a prison camp for our beliefs before we “really connect” with our brothers and sisters.  That’s OK.  The age of knowing even as we are fully known is still to come.  This is the age of loving our enemies.  

Frankly, I feel a little angry as I take in the truth of Bonhoeffer’s words.  Has not every pastor heard many times that “his” congregation is just not friendly enough?  Is not failure to “connect” with the fellowship the main complaint heard when people leave a church?  Bonhoeffer says there is in fact no immediate fellowship between believers, it’s always mediated through Christ.  We love our brothers in and through Him and for His sake.  We are about His redemptive agenda, not the fulfillment of our own relational needs. 

But then I am rebuked for my anger at malcontent brothers and sisters who improperly crave idealistic fellowship.  For a congregation has not been entrusted to me in order that I should become its accuser before God and men.  My own frustration with the complaints of the flock is a indication that I have my own unrealistic fellowship fantasy that is being shattered by God. 

15 Comments leave one →
  1. November 6, 2007 10:28 pm

    It is a great little book, particular the idea of a community of sinners. Perhaps we should include some chapters as part of a new members class so people’s expectations might become adjusted by truth.
    I’m glad you had to re-read it!

  2. November 11, 2007 5:01 pm

    I think I get the point that fellowship between believers is mediated through Christ. It is a unique relationship between belivers who may not share anything except the Spirit.

    But fellowship is not community or friendship or hospitality or intimacy. Fellowship is not love or respect or service or understanding or communication. Certainly, these things may be part of fellowship. But these are elements of life that, while not unique to believers, should be found in spades in the church.

    Perhaps the malcontents are craving these things.

  3. Egana permalink
    November 11, 2007 10:56 pm


    I too crave these things. And something I am finding is that sometimes I simply want them too much. I want them more than I want to be helpful. I want them more than I want to serve my family. I want them more than I want to give them.

    And then when I don’t get them, I get angry, and resentful, and self-pitying. And guess what? NO ONE WANTS TO BE AROUND ME when I am like that, so then it perpetuates itself.

    I am finding that I want those things much less intensely when I am feeling full and satisfied and supplied by Christ. And when I am full, then I am happy, peaceful, and graciously merciful. Then I find myself looking around at the people around me, and I am looking for ways to encourage them, to love on them, to enjoy being with them.

    So, although as an “ENFP” being happy and helping others be happy is a pretty big deal for me, my happiness doesn’t depend on myself or on others. It really depends on Christ. Although I have longed for a deep “best friend” relationship for years, the Lord continues to withhold that blessing from me. Yet he keeps making me happy without it. I never would have believed it if I hadn’t lived it.

    (well, most of the time I am happy …see above sentences regarding my times of anger, resentment, and self-pity.)

    So, without knowing any details from the “malcontents,” I must admit my flesh is ALWAYS discontent. I don’t think my actual WANTING these good things is the problem. I think that the INTENSITY of my desires for love, respect, service, understanding, communication, etc. is the problem, as evidenced by my fleshly responses when said desires are not met to my satisfaction.

    And then, when I am happy in Christ, I find that I am abounding in these things, both receiving and giving them in return. So I think that, if the Church as a whole seems lacking in these things, it must be that the Church as a whole is not happy in Christ.

  4. November 12, 2007 10:36 am

    “But these are elements of life that, while not unique to believers, should be found in spades in the church.”

    So we might hope. But because of indwelling sin in the lives of believers, the truth is that these things are not found in spades in the church. They are found in droplets. Droplets of mercy for which we should be thankful while for the showers we plead.

    In the meantime, what are we to do? This is where the first page of Bonhoeffer’s book so blew me away. We are to remember that we are the church militant, not the church triumphant. We are to do mission together. The church always has an inclination to gather and build Babel, but God keeps urging us to scatter. (see the parallels b/w Babel and Pentecost and Acts 1:8 and 8:1). I believe that community is one of those things that God will “add to us as well” as we seek first His kingdom. We are not only to do “community service” we are to be a “community of service” Great fellowship is found in missionary camaraderie. Aim at mission, get community. Aim at community, lose both.

  5. Egana permalink
    November 12, 2007 2:21 pm

    “Aim at mission, get community. Aim at community, lose both.”

    I am going to need to think about that…

  6. Egana permalink
    November 12, 2007 2:22 pm

    still thinking…

  7. Egana permalink
    November 14, 2007 4:58 pm

    I think you might be right. Many unbelievers aim at community; some succeed, some don’t. But certainly you cannot aim at community and get mission. That just doesn’t make sense.

    I think I need to nail down a definition of “fellowship” to know exactly what we are talking about.

    I can certainly experience “community” with unbelievers.

    But can I experience “fellowship” with them? What is the difference? Is fellowship something extra that the Holy Spirit brings when 2 or more are gathered in His name? Or is it something else?

    Or is fellowship simply a christiany word for community?

  8. November 14, 2007 11:17 pm

    I think the definition needs to be clearly stated. From Websters we get:

    1: companionship, company
    2 a: community of interest, activity, feeling, or experience b: the state of being a fellow or associate
    3: a company of equals or friends : association
    4: the quality or state of being comradely

    Are we describing fellowship as simply being in the association of other Christians? sharing the same interest in Christ? or companionship and being comrades (which means an intimate friend and fellow soldier)? I think at various times we use all these meanings and more. In reality, I think many of us experience it to a small extent. We all desire to be known intimately and loved deeply and that is only fulfilled by God.

    In response to mothergrace’s comment, I think Christian fellowship should encompass and transcend many of the experiences listed. While I can’t think of an example of the friendship, understanding, or communication (on a broad scale rather than in individual relationships) given in the NT, the early church fellowship included hospitality, service, and community. (Acts 2:42-47) And also not so much (1 Cor 1: 10-17). Much of the NT writing includes warnings and instruction on unity, speaking ill of one another, etc. Our experience of not having these qualities in abundance is not new but still part of the ideal of fellowship.

    As to Mike’s statement “Aim at mission, get community. Aim at community, lose both.” I think it’s part of the age old struggle. If I am serving myself (my desire to be surrounded by people who love me), then I will always be disappointed. Even in outwardly serving others I can do it in a self-centered manner (Gee, look at how wonderful I am, being all kind and serving you in love! *pats self on back*). So it is important that we keep seeking God and serving others in the love Christ provides. People always find that attractive. And novel.

  9. November 15, 2007 10:12 am

    Here’s a definition of fellowship from the BDAG Greek-English lexicon

    1. close association involving mutual interests and sharing, association, communion, fellowship, close relationship

    2. attitude of good will that manifests an interest in a close relationship, generosity, fellow-feeling, altruism

    3. abstr. for concr. sign of fellowship, proof of brotherly unity, even gift, contribution

    4. participation, sharing in something.

    And here’s a quote from Bonhoeffer

    “He who loves his dream of community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter…. if we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even when there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we keep complaining that everything is paltry and petty, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow.”

  10. November 15, 2007 10:44 am

    Thanks, Mike! That last quote is so . . . pithy. It is so much like Proverbs 14:1

    The wisest of women builds her house, but folly with her own hands tears it down.

  11. Reepicheep permalink
    November 15, 2007 11:17 am

    IMHO I would consider “malcontent” to be a highly inflammatory and judgmental word to describe brothers and sisters in Christ who “don’t get it” in regards to Bonhoeffer’s definition of fellowship.
    I guess I’d better get my flak jacket on :)

  12. November 15, 2007 11:36 am

    Sorry, not intended to inflame. Notice the word “malcontent” occurs right after the phrase “I am rebuked for my anger” so I was trying to be self-critical about even thinking the word.

    And I wasn’t using the word “malcontent” to refer to people who don’t understand Bonhoeffer. I was only referring to people who are, well, malcontents. :-)

    malcontent \mal-kuhn-TENT; MAL-kuhn-tent\, noun:
    1. One who is discontented or dissatisfied.

  13. November 15, 2007 1:53 pm

    Egana asked if fellowship is just a Christiany word for community. No, it’s more than that. The Greek word means sharing in common and what we share in common is Christ (see def. 4 above from BAGD). But it is more than just sharing Christ in common. We who share Christ in common are supposed to share all things in common as well. Which doesn’t mean, of course, that we share all the same interests and opinions. It means that we bear one another’s burdens. Koinonia specifically refers to meeting the financial needs of believers in Romans 15:26, for example.

    Fellowship is a great thing. Perhaps another way of saying Bonhoeffer’s point is “don’t let your love of the idea of brotherly love keep you from actually loving your brother”. Don’t let your longing for ideal community keep your from doing practical fellowship. Or don’t be like Linus from Peanuts who said famously, “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand.”

  14. Egana permalink
    November 15, 2007 6:39 pm

    “don’t let your love of the idea of brotherly love keep you from actually loving your brother”.

    I think this is very interesting…

    I am all too easily seduced into loving the IDEA of a thing instead of the thing itself…

  15. Egana permalink
    November 15, 2007 7:04 pm

    heh… shouldn’t have hit “submit” so quickly, I’m not done yet…

    It just occurred to me that if I let myself fall in love with my own idea of a thing (husband, child, church, work, organization, liberal cause, etc.) then when the reality doesn’t meet up with my beloved idea, I FEEL very justified in my disappointment, anger, outrage, jealousy, etc.


    I bet my sweet Gorf would be really like me to love the real him instead of the idea of husband I have floating around in my head… and my children… and my friends… and my family… yikes, the list goes on and on doesn’t it?

    (the mind is such a wicked place… “oooh, but the real thing isn’t worthy of love,” it wheedles…

    Silence, dog! Stop snapping at the heels of truth and begone!)

    Of course we aren’t worthy of love. The tiny bits of love we give and get from each other are actually such an amazing miracle. That’s why God had to love us first.

    p.s. I had someone stop a minute a few days ago and ask me how things were going. Then they stayed and listened to a longish answer, asked questions, showed empathy, and encouraged me in their patient attention. This person was busy, had kids waiting in the car, and didn’t have to wait around listening to me talk about my sinus infection, or our yet-unsold house languishing on the market, or our financial woes, or my own selfish crankiness toward Gorf. But they did. They listened to me as though all those things were actually important somehow.

    THAT’S love. Not some slavish idea or ecstatic rapture.

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