Christ as community: Bonhoeffer’s antidote for Western Christianity

By the Rev. David Van Brakle

The core of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology is that church is “Christ existing within community.”[1] He introduces the phrase in his dissertation “Sanctorum Communion” and provides a guidebook in “Life Together.” He continues to write about it in prison, stating, “The church is church only when it is there for others.”[2] Bonhoeffer’s theological and pragmatic claim that Christ exists as community speaks to congregations that are struggling to operate with older models, Christian communities that attempt new structures, and those who have a desire to see more concrete expressions of their Christian faith.

Having been part of a variety of Christian communities, spanning from conservative to progressive within Evangelical and liberal congregations, has shown me that we might differ on theological points, yet respond similarly to the impact of declining Christendom. From wanting to develop more contemporary approaches to attract an outside community to hunkering down on certain traditions, strategies can run the gamut in each congregation. My conservative laity typically wanted to list our beliefs, so that people would know that we were not like those other “convictionless” Christians. My progressive laity often wanted to find ways to show that we were not like those “exclusive” and “narrow-minded” Christians.

Regardless of theological leanings, there was a similar desire to find ways that could attract new members so that the model of the church to which they had grown accustomed could continue. Conservative or progressive, churches that find themselves struggling to maintain what once existed adopt an insular “mind-set of religious consumerism” that keeps churches from focusing on the missional work that can bring revitalization.[3] Darrell Guder, who works with churches to find patterns that promote missional communities, finds a common theme within Western churches. He writes, “The church is basically inwardly oriented, focused on itself and its members and on their savedness.”[4] As the foundation of Christendom erodes, our congregations begin to fight to save what once was at the cost of opening space to what can emerge.

The traditional Christendom model of our Western churches clashes with the model of Christian community that Bonhoeffer presents. Finding himself more disillusioned with the institutional church as he witnessed German Christians unable to resist the Nazis, Bonhoeffer believed that Western Christianity had approached its end. Bonhoeffer writes, “I am becoming more convinced every day that in the West, Christianity is approaching its end — at least in its present form and its present interpretation.”[5]

Bonhoeffer felt this tension of institutional-theoretical interaction with the church and a desire for concrete Christian community earlier in his career. He grew impatient with academia while studying in America. While doing his postdoctoral fellow at Union Theological Seminary, 1930–1931, Bonhoeffer witnessed the struggles laity faced as he also served at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.[6] In 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote from prison to his student Eberhard Bethge, noting that the time abroad was a pivotal moment for “turning from the phraseological to the real.”[7]

Church was not an abstract concept for Bonhoeffer. Christian community for Bonhoeffer “is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ, in which we may participate.”[8] The layout in Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together” is an attempt to create a sustainable concrete model of Christian community by spending moments with others, in solitude, service, confession and communion.

Bonhoeffer suggested that searching for a specific idea or model on which to base a church can detract from creating authentic Christian community. This view raises some difficulties for me since casting vision and working toward measurable goals is part of my leadership approach. I can see, however, how developing an inflexible vision of church can create a community based on a person’s ideas or experience while thwarting genuinely Christ-centered community. As Bonhoeffer writes, the person who “enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly.”[9]

Bonhoeffer’s antidote for Western Christianity is this idea of being and participating in community together, not for the sake of one another but the sake of Christ. “We gather and create community,” Bonhoeffer writes, “not out of love for one another, but for the love for Christ’s sake.”[10] Influential missiologist and theologian David Bosch writes about the need to leave behind this self-confident search for the perfect church model and to begin looking for patterns that witness to God’s spirit transforming congregations into missional communities.[11]

Bonhoeffer’s desire for communities that reflect Christ existing within community in concrete ways mirrors a contemporary movement within Western Christianity for a new church. Those stuck in an idea of what church should look like could miss out on transformative Christian community. Those who are willing, however, to be open to new experiences and expressions of faith can find themselves participating in a community of deep transformation as they experience Christ together in new and fresh ways.

The Rev. David Van Brakle is a pastor of The Wilmette Community Church in the Chicagoland area.

[1] Jennifer M. McBride, “Christ Existing as Concrete Community Today,” Theology Today 71, no. 1 (April 2014): 92.
[2] DBWE 8:503 quoted in McBride, 92.
[3] Darrell L. Guder, “Walking Worthily: Missional Leadership after Christendom,” The Princeton Seminary Bulletin 28, no. 3 (2007): 253.
[4] Ibid.
[5] DBWE 13:81 quoted in Clifford J. Green and Guy C. Carter, Interpreting Bonhoeffer: Historical Perspectives, Emerging Issues (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 186.
[6] Willis Jenkins and Jennifer M. McBride, Bonhoeffer on the Road to King: Their Legacies and Import for Christian Social Thought (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 126–27.
[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 8: Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. John W. DE Gruchy (Minneapolis: MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 358.
[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community, ed. John W. Doberstein (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1954), 30.
[9] Ibid, 27.
[10] Ibid, 34.
[11] Guder, “Walking Worthily,” 266.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.