“Life Together”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Discipleship

In his well-known Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer opens his little, accessible volume showing the importance and need for community in the Christian life of discipleship. Bonhoeffer writes, “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.”[1] This is such a joy, in part, because when Christian brothers come together, they are to welcome one another as Christ has welcomed them (Rom 15:7). As such, Bonhoeffer adds, “they re­ceive and meet each other as one meets the Lord, in reverence, humility, and joy. They receive each other’s benedictions as the benediction of the Lord Jesus Christ.”[2] We see something similar in the psalms when David says, “As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight” (Ps 16:3). This, then, should be no surprise when we see so many of the saints in the NT long to be with other Christians. For example, 

“Without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you.” (Rom 1:9–10)
“We endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face.” (1 Thess 2:17)
“We pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face.” (1 Thess 3:10).
“I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” (2 John 12)

The source of this joy, however, is not merely in the people themselves, but in whom they are united to: Jesus Christ. Thus, the sort of discipleship that we have in mind happens in a particular community—a Christian community. On this Bonhoeffer says, “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.”[3] Part of what this means is “that a Christian needs others because of Jesus Christ … [and] that a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ.”[4] Therefore, Jesus holds the primary place in Christian discipleship. Any sort of discipleship that views Jesus through the peripherals is largely mistaken. Because of this sweet union to Jesus Christ, it is joyful and beneficial for Christians to dwell with one another.

This is crucial in the Christian life because Christianity makes us become more of who we are—humans made in the image of the triune God. Relationship are central to being human. But another reason communal discipleship is essential for the Christian faith is that we are not only still in via (or “on the way”), but we are sojourners and strangers (1 Pet 2:11) in a lost world. We need each other not only to be rebuked and corrected, but also encouraged. The author of Hebrews states this clearly: “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb 3:10) and “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together” (10:24–25). Further, for those who despair of their indwelling sin, and there are many of us, “the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him.”[5]

We must remember that the gospel is extra nos—outside of ourselves. This is utterly clear when Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born ἄνωθεν [again or from above] he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). The gospel originates outside of us, not in or from us. The evangelical mantra “preach the gospel to yourself” is helpful, but it only goes so far as the nature of the gospel and the human. Due to this nature, the discouraged brother sees and feels the weight of his own sin better than others. For this reason it is difficult to assuage his despair with his own gospel proclamation. Bonhoeffer thus says, “He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.”[6] In other words, because the gospel originates outside of ourselves, it is powerful and fitting to have another Christian preach the truths of the gospel to you. This, Bonhoeffer says, “clarifies the goal of all Christian community: they meet one another as bringers of the message of salva­tion.”[7] With this in mind, I now turn to what I hope to aim for in discipleship.

Bonhoeffer writes, “What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ,”[8] and thus, “Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us.”[9] Any sort of discipleship and Christian community built on anything other than Jesus is not Christian discipleship. As such, discipleship of any sort in any setting “must focus on Christ.”[10]Scriptural warrant for this is plentiful, but we can look at two texts: (1) “He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent” (Col 1:18)—everything includes discipleship. (2) “Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus” (Heb 12:2). In all that we do, being surrounded by witnesses of God’s grace (12:1), we are to look to Christ.

As we look to Jesus Christ and try to make him supreme in our lives, we aim towards a certain goal. “Disciple,” in a very strict sense, simply means follower. A disciple of Jesus, then, would thus look more and more like Jesus in following him. This should be no surprise to us for, as Bonhoeffer notes, being part of the discipling community of Jesus means “that in Jesus Christ we have been chosen from eternity, accepted in time, and united for eternity.”[11] This fits well with Paul’s idea that those who are chosen in Christ are “predestined to be conformed to the image of his [God’s] Son” (Rom 8:29). Discipleship in the Christian community thus has a certain goal: being made more and more like Jesus Christ. To do this, discipleship groups must be concerned with Christ’s person and work. This does not mean on has to understand the metaphysical mechanics of Christology and theology, but rather that each group attends to who Christ is and what he has done, such that each member of a group can regularly remind others about the truth of the gospel as well as encourage them to endure in the Christian faith.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 19.

[2] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 20.

[3] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 21.

[4] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 21.

[5] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 23.

[6] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 23.

[7] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 23.

[8] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 25.

[9] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 25.

[10] Rick Shenk, “Discipleship Groups,” 7.

[11] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 21.