Deitrich Bonhoefer on community

“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. God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.”

I found this quote on another blog and it really struck me.  (Can anybody help me out on the ettiquette in a case like this?  Should I have asked permission to “steal” the quote they found?)

Bonhoefer either wrote or was trasnlated in a manner that was a bit provocative.  But his words are incredibly important, both to me in my role as small groups guy and for people participating in Christian communities.

Just recently I was in a discussion about walking a balance between not wanting to meddle to much into the natural, organic existence of relationships.  The more structure and support I create the more artificial the relationships become.  In Bonhoefer’s words, the more visionary I am the more we lose authenticity.
There is relevance for the billions of people on planet Earth who are not involved in small group ministries, here.  It’s so easy for us to long for different sorts of relationships.   To look at the people we are “stuck” with (whether this is by accident of birth, location, past decisions, or knuckleheaded small group directors) and wish they were different.

I find it a bit ironic: Bonhoefer was one of the few Protestants who spoke out against the Nazis.  This lead to his death.  If Christians had acted more like a real community and stepped up with him, perhaps things would have turned out differently. 


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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

8 thoughts on “Deitrich Bonhoefer on community”

  1. hey jeff,

    i’d like to take a moment to encourage you to focus solely on the first sentence of the quote. it would seem at first blush that Bonhoefer was intimate with Scriptural exortation to beware of “a form of godliness yet without God.” it is part of the great human condition to desire a world of our own creation, in our own image. it’s a dastardly world where man is king and seeks glory for himself. sometimes it’s a real small world consisting of one, and sometimes it’s a whole country or global community.

    it isn’t hard to imagine all the places we do this godliness thing. at the relationship level with God i believe it’s foundational. each of us struggles to have authentic communion with God in Christ, first and foremost. to the extent that the Christian community succeeds in nurturing the proper order of a living faith, so too will that community grow and thrive. you might be surprised at how many people occupy churches that are feigning a saving faith in Jesus. it ought to be the mission of intentional fellowship (like lifegroups) to encourage that relationship with Christ.

    here’s the rub: what form or philosophy works best. i like “to know Him is to love him.” and i don’t mean to mix blog posts, but the book you’re presently reading sounds smart by half. true, knowledge puffs-up, but God’s people also perish for lack of it. a healthy, well-balanced plan of knowledge and ministry will lead to an undertstanding of God’s vision and short circuit the self-agrandizing dreams of men.

    Bonhoefer obviously got it. his motivation wasn’t social justice or to create a better world, but was simply and solely to glorify and honor Christ. we would be wise to learn from his example. if we endeavor to put first things first as he did, we may be called to lose our lives for Christ’s sake as he did, and it won’t be so hard because we’ve already done it.


  2. Hi Garret
    As always, your comments are insightful and thought provoking. I cut and pasted your comment on Andy Standley and put it over there.

    I wonder if I can do a little hair-splitting though: “his motivation wasn’t social justice or to create a better world, but was simply and solely to glorify and honor Christ.”
    It seems to me that he saw social justice and creating a better world as a means to the end of glofying and honoring Christ. These things weren’t his deepest motivations, I think, so strictly speaking you’re right.
    However, sometimes, people sometimes say “we shouldn’t be motivated by social justice” and then make the move to “we shouldn’t engage in acts of social justice”… I’m curious where you fall.


  3. “social justice” is a relative endeavor. it is therefore messy. one man’s social injustice is another’s unintended consequence of striving in an imperfect world. i have observed that in today’s social economy the personal crusade has become a marketplace for global mandate. everybody wants to fix something or somebody and they want the whole world to acquiecse or get on board.

    it’s terribly noble to work toward righting wrongs. where we often trip up in this post-modern world is agreeing upon those rights and wrongs. and on the occassion we do agree, concensus on a cure is ellusive.

    in Bonheofer’s Germany it wasn’t hard to see the wrong. or was it? he could have chose to stand up to excessive military spending, or the invasion of Poland and France. yet, he stood up against the genocide of the disdained and the unwanted. he did this because God says there are no unwanted or disdained in His economy. so i disagree with you that Bonheofer “saw social justice and creating a better world as a means to the end of glofying and honoring Christ”, rather i see glorifying and honoring Christ as the means to the end that is a better world full of social justice. it is precisely the change of heart that Christ regenerates in a person that leads them to do the right thing for Christ’s sake. trying to change the world against it’s wishes is a tyranny with unintended consequences.


  4. I agree that there might be disagreements around which “personal crusades” are worthwhile. Sometimes these will get messy.
    I think Scripture abounds, though, with precedents that ought to atleast frame this conversation, even if they don’t fully resolve it.
    Whole books could (and have) been written about this issue, but it seems to me a few starting points in navigating the issue:
    * Jesus was all about comforting the afflicting and afflicting the comfortable.
    * Jesus seemed to share Issaah’s (and other prophets) interest in the widow and the orphan– perhaps this can more broadly be taken to mean the dispossed.
    * Despite the fact they did not often act evangelically, Hebrew law makes a remarkable number of allowances for the foreigners living among them.

    There are struggles in all this– as I’ve blogged elsewhere, Jesus words are incredibly politically but through out his life he seemed rather strikingly apolitical. It’s hard to know how to translate this into a representative democracy.


  5. i have never been saisfied with the arguement that Jesus’ words are political. if one takes a particular view of the historical Jesus as an interrelational figure exercising power and influence over his disciples then yes, that’s a controlling premise in the debate. but i reject that out of hand and won’t argue that perspective because it rests squarely on the rejection of the Biblical Jesus. if one believes that Jesus is dispossessed of his declared divinity then they’re limited to view his words and life through a narrow political lens; and then his actions don’t make any sense at all.

    you are correct: Jesus did come to comfort the afflicted. the consuming affliction was then as it is now.
    it is the condition of the depraved more than of the deprived.

    there’s a causality that ought not be overlooked. brokeness of all kinds is a result of sin. not the kind of blue-law sin we’ve grown accustomed to pillory and despise, but the kind of rebellion that is the human heart (both the hearts of the comfortable and the dispossessed). just as the great oppressor of the Hebrews was misplaced affection for their piety and traditions and general stuff, so too we are afflicted by our penchant to violate the first and greatest command of God. it is the reason Jesus summed up the heart of God in those two commandments, and it’s no accident he put the one first and the other second. you reverse those and the greatest command becomes a casualty of religious, secular, and political movements.

    Jesus was not a respector of persons. he saw everyone as God sees them. he treated them and spoke to them according their need. sometimes it was brutal and difficult to receive, but it was always honest and appropriate. his message was the same for everyone yet everyone was not in the same circumstances. some were humble and accepted him, others rejected. today his message has not changed or become irrelevant because people really haven’t changed either.

    i’m intrigued by your use of the word “dispossessed”. i’ve used it already in one context, but i’m more curious about yours. could you take a few moments to expound.

    as far as the treatment of foreigners. i’m not as well versed on that topic as i’d like to be. i’ll do some research. what i remember about the attitude of the Hebrews to foreigners is a mixed bag of allowances and limits. they were never cavalier about roles, rules, and boundaries however.


  6. As always, Garret, you give me lots to chew on. I agree with you regarding the historical vs. the biblical Jesus. Back in the days before I was a Christian, I had the oppurntinity to take some classes and get to know some of the bigwigs in the whole historical Jesus debate. Your critique is dead on: the whole thing is rigged from the word go. They enter into with secular assumptions, and then act surprised when they come out with secular conclusions.

    It’s my opinion that the depraved often are deprived, and the deprived often end up depraved. I agree with you that the world’s brokeness is a result of sin… However, I see this brokenness and sin as having two aspects. There is the individual level of brokenness and sin. This is the one that we Christians spend so much energy focused on… and I’m inferring that this is the one you’re focused on.
    But there is also a societal, collective aspect to brokenness and sin. When I study the prophets I note that sometimes they call out individuals, but other times, they are calling out systemic injustices.

    I don’t know if this line of thought goes anywhere, I’ve just started kicking it around, but I wonder if individual sin and brokenness lead to depravations, where as societal brokeness and sin lead to deprivations.

    “Dispossesed” hmmm. I can’t say that I honestly gave it much conscious thought before I used it. I wonder if it’s a word I should be more careful of. When I used it I had the marginalized in mind, people whom the system does not care for. The “possessed” which I apply the “dis” to isn’t so much possessed of material goods. I think I’d break the word down thusly:
    dis= not (obviously)
    possessed = having (i.e. possessing) status, recognition, etc.

    (An interesting thing, perhaps merely a linguistic accident: the term ‘dispossessed’ we associate with Jesus, where as the “possessed” we associate with those taken over by Satan.)


  7. first, about your last parenthetical point: linguistic accidents are often the crux of conflict in verbal pugilism. i can’t tell you how often i look words up to simply understand the common definition(s). i wish we were more careful to make sure the words we use reflect what we mean. i think that’s been one of the major reasons i haven’t been able to write for such a long time. even as i’m writing it’s a struggle to make my fingers match my thoughts.

    so i hope you can forgive or at least understand my style, and my incessant desire for you to ellaborate. it isn’t so much that you’re not communicating, i just need a little more from time to time.

    the reason i asked for more on ‘dispossessed’ is because i understand it to mean that someone has been deprived of a RIGHT to property or possession. i really don’t wish to get into a huge debate over rights. at the very least this might not be the stream for it. it does however, remove a bit of the film from the window to your soul. as i study your blogsite i learn a little more about what drives you, what your motivations are, and your worldview. i should thank you for the opportunity you give me and all who visit to get to know you. it’s refreshing that you’re as open as you are.

    platitudes aside.

    the paragraph above that begins with this sentence intrigues me:

    “It’s my opinion that the depraved often are deprived, and the deprived often end up depraved.”

    depravity is the expression of immorality.
    deprivation is the result of someone taking from you or robbing you.

    essentially you’ve said the same thing twice. you’ve effectively blamed the immorality and wickedness of certain people (how many i don’t know) on the condition of their being denied something owed them. i’m wondering if your suggesting that they are excused. or perhaps you’re trying to infer that if their deprived condition were to be assuaged they would then be motivated to pursue a more upright existence.

    there is a darker side. i believe this dark side is one edge of the Gospel sword. sin is conceived in the heart. it is the desire of man to get for himself that which he feels he is owed – regardless of his deprivation! a man/woman always feels deprived of something. it is the root of rebellion and sin. this is the lesson of the garden of eden. we would be wise not be tricked again either personally or societally into believing that we have but to satisfy or justify one more longing to improve on God’s plan.

    a proverb says, “Lord, don’t let me be so poor that i would steal, or too prosperous that i would forget you.” the reality is that some people are that poor and we should heed Paul’s exhortation to “always remember them”; not just in prayer but in action. but just as God desires a willing relationship of fellowship and obedience from us as from Adam and Eve, he doesn’t likewise wrest from us the resources to help the poor. He prospers some and not others. i don’t know why exactly other than perhaps to encourage the haves to be a blessing.

    in the same way the have nots are not immune from envy. unless you’re a Haitian there’s always someone poorer than you. but even the poorest of the poor are prone to shake their fist at someone who’s dispossessed them. aren’t they really shaking their fist at God? He determines the times and places in which men should live. it’s He who allows leaders to rise and fall. it’s God who by the quickening of his Holy Spirit offers us a change of heart to become givers for his glory. one thing God doesn’t do, he doesn’t change the hearts of people en mass. each one is called to repent – not every one.

    when there’s societal brokeness it’s because individuals in sufficient number at all levels are broken. when the prophets took aim at the Hebrews it wasn’t because they were being dragged away into all sorts of debauchery against their collective wills. if God saw fit to dispose of a wicked generation or two he always left a faithful remnant. this is how it will be again when God’s patience is exhausted – when the time is right.

    as for systemic injustices: be very careful to distinguish between a right and what’s right; and don’t let a hungry dog protect the chickens from a fox. (more on this later)


  8. I think it’s easy to be much harder on ourselves than others are on us, about our communications… We see the gulf between what we wanted to say and what actually got said, and feel frustrated by this, but sometimes, what we said wasn’t half bad…Most of the time I find you clear & insightful (and once in a while wrong, ha-ha) And asking me to elaborate is not only flattering, it’s actually really useful. Often times, in the course of elaborating, I discover that I don’t believe what I thought I did.

    The issue of blaming, personal responsibility, whatever is huge. I don’t know how to resolve it.
    I do know that the political left tends to treat the concept as if it doesn’t exist, and that the political right tends to treat the concept as it’s the only meaningful type of responsibility that there is.
    Let’s put some bones on this and make it specific:
    I have a student who always takes her shoes off in my class. She a tough kid, and she can drive me crazy if I’m not careful. She lives with her granmother in a run-down trailer park.
    There’s all sorts of sanitation issues and health issues, of course, with taking shoes off. There’s also a component of power games involved, the student doing this on the sly, getting one over on me, showing that I’m not the boss.
    This was a power struggle for a while.
    Then a colleague told me that her shoes don’t fit. She has these horrendous blisters that the nurse had to apply first aid to.
    Is she responsible for not telling me why she’s taking her shoes off?
    Am I responsible for not looking beneath the surface and wondering what’s going on? (I’m a Special Ed. teacher and work with emotionally disturbed adolescents; there’s a little more expectation that I would look beneath the surface than an a general-ed teacher.)
    Is her mother responsible for abondoning the student?
    Is her grandmother (now her legal guardian) responsible for not providing for her needs?
    Is the school administration responsible for not having some sort of adjustment counselor available to help this need get met?
    Is the current political administration responsible for not making more funds available so basic needs like clothing are met?
    Are past administrations to blame for playing a role in setting up a situation where a mom would have a child she’s ill-equipped for?

    It seems like most often, people like to answer “No” to most of the questions above; they want to locate one person as the responsible party.
    I say that the answer is “yes” to all of the questions above. All of them are responsible, including myself. There’s probably a hundred more questions I could ask that would widen responsibility even further.

    Entitlement is a huge problem. I’d be the last to deny that. And the entitled person is at fault. But so are the people who put the systems in place that breed entitlement, there is some responsibity on both parties in this deal.

    I do think that maybe you and I do have a fundamental difference in theology that’s manifesting itself.
    I believe that God is a master at working with the situations we create to manifest his glory; I believe that these are not the situations he would have wanted, but he works his magic in them anyway… This theology is supported by figures like Joseph, who tells his brothers that what they intended for evil God worked out for good.

    in a perfect way to things which we humans initiate.
    If I understand you correctly, I think you’d take the position that God is more proactive and has a more active roll in setting about the current state of affairs.
    This is something of a spectrum. Probably when we die we’ll both smack our foreheads in recognition of how silly our human little constructs were.

    You’re absolutely right about God working in individuals. But I believe societies can create environments which are more or less conducive to the Holy Spirits work. And I believe some individuals have more influence than others into the creation of these socieities.

    I gather a healthy skepticism in you around the concept of rights themselves. I don’t have a strong opinion either way. And certainly it’s true that many things are paraded as critical needs which are a little more optional.

    People complain about food stamp recipients having cable TV. This is a valid criticism. Responsibility should go to the food stamp recipient for this decision. But I’m always interested in widening this picture, a little bit, and exploring the fuller context.
    What has the society done to nurture the following beliefs:
    1)Television is a requirement
    2)food is optional
    3)It’s not worth it to earn money

    I believe we should be sorrowful that the system failed twice in these situations: first, the people are without food; secondly, the people are without guiding principals.


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