Life Together for a Church Apart: Lessons from Bonhoeffer for COVID-19.

by Marshall Griffin March 24, 2020

Two weeks ago, I had never even heard of the term “social distancing.” Today, traffic is sparse, shops are shuttered, and “these are my work sweatpants” has become an acceptable phrase.

While grappling with what these changes mean for our church, I returned to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic contemplation of Christian fellowship, Life Together. My aim was not so much to find a practical guide, but rather to refresh my vision of our community in Christ as we enter into a season of physical separation. I hope the insights I found there will prove as helpful and encouraging for you as they have been for me.

Christian Community is a gift and is not to be taken for granted.

“It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians,” writes Bonhoeffer. While separation from our brothers and sisters in Christ may be a new experience for some of us, it is quite familiar to others.

Large public gatherings were not always the norm for New Testament believers, who often met in houses and wrote from prison cells. In 1 Thessalonians in particular, Paul laments the obstacles preventing him from being with a church that he loves dearly (2:17-18).

Even today, not everyone has the privilege of regularly being in the presence of fellow Christians. The sick, the imprisoned, those whose jobs require shift work, and especially believers in countries where public worship exposes them to intense persecution – these men and women know all too well that being with one another is not a guarantee, but a gift. We should thank them for their witness to that reality.

As Bonhoeffer puts it, “It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift from the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us…Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart.”

I need the Word of Christ in you.

Reflecting on our dependence upon the “alien righteousness” of Christ for our salvation, Bonhoeffer states that “the death and life of the Christian is not determined by his own resources…Help must come from the outside, and it has come and comes daily and anew in the Word of Jesus Christ, bringing redemption, righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.”

We depend daily upon the Word of God and the life-giving truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In his wisdom, God has given us the honor and the responsibility of speaking that Word to one another. We need our brothers and sisters daily to bear witness to the power, the goodness, and the lovingkindess of our Savior.

Certainly, anyone who has followed Jesus for any length of time has acutely felt this need. We all experience times of discouragement, disappointment, and uncertainty. We know God’s Word, but our circumstances or our sin make it hard to feel hopeful on our own. God has called us to meet one another in these dark nights, bringing torches to rekindle flickering faith.

“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” writes Bonhoeffer. “They meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.” Church, we need each other. My heart needs the Word of Christ in you.

Discovering God’s gift by surrendering our dreams.

Regarding obstacles to true fellowship in Christ, Bonhoeffer pulls no punches on one particular offender: the idealistic demands of well-intentioned Christians. It is natural for each of us to enter into community with our own ideal of what it should look like and how to make that happen. However, “God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.”

While we may be sincere, our “wish dreams” for our community are in fact a hindrance to experiencing the genuine fellowship God desires to give us. Bonhoeffer explains that, “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”

You see, when we approach our community primarily to fix its problems, pursue our ideals, or just to have things our way, we are not then receiving a gift from God, but placing demands on others, on ourselves, and even on our Lord. This is not to say that we should never advocate for change or growth in our churches or our relationships; but when our posture towards our community is one of accusation and fault-finding, we will bear only the fruits of resentment and bitterness in ourselves and others. We have departed from the gospel when we demand obedience to our new law.

Our primary posture towards our community should instead be one of gratitude. As Bonhoeffer tells us, “We enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients.” Within this spirit of thankfulness, true participation in God’s gracious gift of community lies.

As COVID-19 began to spread across our nation and it became clear that local congregations would not be able to gather publicly for some time, I saw a few people voicing worries that after weeks away from church gatherings, many simply wouldn’t ever return. What if the opposite proved true?

What if God used this time to bond us closer together than ever in his Spirit, the true foundation of our unity? What if we rose to the occasion and served our neighbors above and beyond any of our previous efforts? What if this was a season of shattering our “wish dreams” and replacing our discontentment, entitlement, and neglect with true longing and gratitude for one another?

In thankfulness and hopefulness, let’s receive what our gracious God has for us and for our life together in this time.