“We’re just doing life together.”
How many times have you heard this said to describe Christian community? Whether in a small group, a church, or a college Christian fellowship, somehow the phrase “doing life together” has crept into common Christian parlance. We have Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) to thank (or maybe blame) for that—well, at least one can say that the phrase has been lifted from one of his most influential books, 1939’s Life Together. Aside from being a simple way of describing the practice of Christians being in fellowship, the phrase attempts to capture the essence of the corporate Christian life: it is a life together, with Christ.
This theological foundation for Christian community is perhaps the greatest deposit left behind by Bonhoeffer for the contemporary church. He sought to show that Christian community was centered in Christ. Jesus is not an add-on to a human creation called “community.” Christian community–or one might also call it the Church–is a fellowship of people saved by the grace of God in Christ Jesus and united together by that same grace in his name. The Church does not create itself; instead, God from eternity past has formed and fashioned the church already. For God, the Christian community is already a reality, Bonhoeffer argued. This beautiful creation called Christian community is maintained by God’s Spirit and God’s Word. Therefore, Christian community in a local church is a gift to be thankfully received from a gracious and good God.
Received, Not Made
The origins of the gospel message involve reception–specifically by the apostles. As Paul writes: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3). So too, the commands for how the Lord is to be worshiped by the church are received: “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread” (1 Cor 11:23). Jesus’s position of lordship over one’s body and soul has to be received by faith (Rom 3:25, 5:17; 1 Cor 4:7; Col 2:6).
In terms of how a Christian relates to God, one might say it is more blessed to receive than to give. All that a believer has in Christ has been received. Nothing good was brought to the relationship by the believer. Therefore, the way that Christians interact with Christian community is by receiving it, not by making it. This does not mean that Christians do not work as a Christian community is formed; it simply means that Christians do not stand as creators over the community to be its lords. That position is taken by the Lord Jesus. Bonhoeffer said, “The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more assuredly and consistently will community increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.” Thus, Christian community ought to be daily received thankfully, and God will give the increase.
The potential danger in that idea, however, is for a lovely, abstract concept to end up having little to do with real life. In other words, how does one actually go about “receiving” Christian community? Lovely-sounding, tweetable thoughts are just that unless they can be lived.
The answer lies in Bonhoeffer’s assertion that Christian community is a divine reality. Since all of the Christian life flows from the well of divine reality, it stands to follow that Christian community flows likewise. In other words, when a person is saved by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus, they receive a new relationship with God, and also automatically become part of the community in his Son. Thus, while the Christian life is an exercise in living out individually who we are in Jesus Christ, the same is true corporately. So, the onus is on a congregation to live out together who they are in Christ.
Given that Christian community is born out of the gospel message, it may be helpful to consider how the gospel is received, in order to better understand how Christian community is to be received.
Receiving the gospel requires humility.
Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15). Jesus is not here advocating perennial childishness of course; rather, he is encouraging a humble, joyful, and trusting reception of the kingdom. Receiving the gospel adds such childlike people to the family of God. “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:11-13). Many, who were Jesus’s own people—his fellow Jews—did not receive him. A common response to Jesus is rejection and not reception. However, those who have humbly received him become part of the family of God.
Receiving the gospel message involves repentance and faith.
The apostle Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost reflected this as he called his listeners to repent and believe. Those who responded were then baptized, being brought into the church (Acts 2:38-41). Paul often reiterated the need to respond to or receive the word by faith (see Rom 3:25; Gal 3:2). This “hearing with faith” required an ongoing life of repentance wherein sin was to be put to death in the lives of those who have responded by faith (see Rom 8:13; Heb 10:26).
Reception of the gospel message produces action.
Paul warned the Corinthians of the possibility of their having received the grace of God in vain (2 Cor 6:1). The message of the gospel communicated by the grace of God is not meant to fall flat upon those that hear, instead, God’s grace changes its recipients. “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him” (Col 2:6). Such obedience is expected of those who have received the gospel message. This grace-empowered obedience then serves as an example to other believers to do the same. (see Phil 4:9; 1 Thess 1:6). Obedience-producing reception also pleases God (1 Thess 4:1).
Each of these biblical examples of receiving the gospel must be mirrored not simply in how we conduct ourselves in Christian community, but also how one receives Christian community in the first place. Salvation brings us into relationship with God, but it also brings us into relationship with God’s family–the two cannot be separated. Bonhoeffer stated,
“Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our community is in Jesus Christ alone, the more calmly we will learn to think about our community and pray and hope for it.”
Bonhoeffer is stating that for God, Christian community is, just as every Christian’s salvation is. As David says, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it” (Psa 139:6). No greater foundation exists for Christian community than that God spoke it into being.
Practically speaking, Bonhoeffer cautions the church against thinking that she creates Christian community, the way people would create a social club or a fraternity. Believers in Christ get to participate in the glorious fellowship they have together with the risen Lord Jesus. They receive this great blessing in the same way they received salvation. Such ongoing reception is how the Lord gives this gift of Christian community to his people. In this, God receives all the glory.
This article is adapted from an excerpt of the author’s new book Living Together in Unity with Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Lexham, 2023), which is available now for purchase.
Nicholas J. Abraham is Lead Pastor of Reformation Bible Church in Navarre, Ohio. He is also cofounder and professor of church history and biblical spirituality at Emmaus Theological Seminary in Cleveland, Ohio. He is a PhD candidate in biblical spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He and his family live in Navarre, Ohio.