Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Do you love reading books but need help to dive a little deeper? Do you enjoy reading but find yourself overwhelmed on where to start? Outside of Scripture, one of the greatest ways to grow together is to read great books together. As believers, we not only want to read good books, but we want to invest our time in the best books. In fact, C.S. Lewis recommended a needed practice for us today.
“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”
For this reason, this guide has been created to walk you through Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The goal of this guide is to help us dive deeper into the content of this classic so that we can apply it to our hearts and homes. Feel free to use the reading guide personally, with your life group or discipleship group, or even with family and friends.
– Ben Telfair
June 14th, Chapter 1: “Community”
June 21st, Chapter 2: “The Day with Others”
June 28th, Chapter 3: “The Day Alone”
July 5th, Chapter 4: “Ministry”
July 12th, Chapter 5: “Confession and Communion”
To access the reading guide, scroll down and click the orange plus sign (+) next to the chapter you wish to read.
About Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s (1906-1945) life and writing have been an incredible gift to the Church. Born into a family of seven children, Bonhoeffer grew up in Berlin, Germany, where his father was a well-known physician who occupied a chair of psychiatry. At the age of sixteen, Bonhoeffer wanted to give his life to the study and teaching of theology.
In 1939, at the age of 33, Bonhoeffer had already accomplished much in his academic career and guest lectured in the United States. Due to what was taking place in Nazi Germany, his friends tried to get him to stay in America to further his life and work both for the academy and the Church, but Bonhoeffer had already made up his mind and returned to Germany.
In April of 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested, along with his sister and her husband, and taken to a military prison. While in prison, Bonhoeffer continued to write and minister to the people of God. Two years later in April of 1945, Bonhoeffer was taken by the guards to be executed. Before going with them, he said, “This is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life.” For Bonhoeffer, his life echoed the words of the Apostle Paul: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:29).
First published in 1938, Life Together is Bonhoeffer’s reflection on cultivating gospel community with his fellow seminarians in Finkewalde from 1935- 1937. As Bonhoeffer instructs them in these five short chapters of what it means to practice life together in Christ, he instructs us today to do the same. In our cultural moment, we need gospel community more than ever. As you read this classic, although some practices may not be repeatable given our time and place, the gospel principles are certainly transferrable.
Chapter 1: Community
CHAPTER 1: COMMUNITY
Christianity is community in Christ as life together under the Word.
What is Christian community and why do we need it? In this opening chapter, Bonhoeffer wants to invite us to see beyond individualistic discipleship to the beauty of Christianity as “life together under the Word” (17). Once we do, we will no longer take community for granted but receive it with gratitude.
1. Are you experiencing the joy of Christian community? Before defining community, Bonhoeffer describes the joy of community. He says, “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to
the believer” (19). In doing so, he is asking each of us, have you experienced the incomparable joy and strength of community? If you haven’t, why not? If you have, thank God by declaring “It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community” (20).
2. We cannot have Christianity without community. What is Christianity? In our individualistic, self-made, privatized culture, we need to remember that “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ” (21). When becoming disciples, we first learn that Christianity is not about us but Christ and then we learn that Christianity is not about just us and Christ, it is about the household of faith. As challenging as this may be at first, it is meant to comfort our souls because “we have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity” (26).
3. Before we can understand what builds up a community, we need to beware of what will harm it. The greatest danger to genuine community is our “wish dream” of that community (27). We can think of the “wish dream” as a list of demands on that community. Demands that even the community and we ourselves might not be immediately aware of. Why is this “wish dream” so dangerous? It keeps us from enjoying community because we are trying to accomplish or obtain something from the community. The remedy is to practice gratitude by continually thanking God for the gift of community, enjoy the community as it is, and strive to put people before preferences. When we do this “we enter that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients” (28).
“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. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.” (20)
Why is it impossible to have Christianity apart from community?
How have you experienced the joy of Christian community with other believers?
What practical steps can you take to put Christ and not the community at the center of the fellowship?
Practice: Prayerfully examine your heart to weed out any “wish dream” you have of community.
Chapter 2: The Day with Others
CHAPTER 2: THE DAY WITH OTHERS
Spiritual rhythms are essential for not only growing the Christian but also the Christian community.
In this chapter, Bonhoeffer guides the community in five biblical practices that God has given his people. These practices are given to us to grow us as his people. It should be noted that although everything in this chapter may not be directly repeatable, such as meeting together every morning and evening, they are still transferrable to family worship and weekly gatherings.
1. Prayer. In his graciousness, God has given us the Psalms, as Bonhoeffer states, “The Psalter is the great school of prayer” (47) in which every Christian needs to be enrolled and stay enrolled. One of the best ways to learn to pray is by praying the Psalms individually and collectively.
2. Scripture. By reading Scripture daily, we are deepening our relationship with God and, therefore, deepening our ability to help and encourage the household of faith. We read the Word not for facts or feelings but to behold the faithfulness of God in Christ. In doing so, we remember that “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God and Father of Jesus Christ and our Father” (54).
3. Singing. Singing is often a neglected, yet needed, spiritual discipline. Through singing, we have the blessing of praising God and praying the promises of God both individually and collectively. Singing is not ultimately about musical ability but spiritual unity (60-61). Therefore, singing is spiritual discipline that should not be neglected privately or corporately.
4. Table fellowship. First, table fellowship reminds us that we are not merely friends but family because the table “binds the Christians to their Lord and one another” (67). Second, the table reminds us that “our life is not only travail and labor, it is also refreshment and joy in the good of God” (68). Third, the table lovingly obligates us to one another because “it is our daily bread that we eat, not my own” (68).
5. Work. Of all five spiritual rhythms, most of our time will be given to work (Ps.104:23). As a Christian, our work is not done mindlessly or selfishly, but prayerfully before the Lord. When we prayerfully carry out our work “even the routine mechanical work will be performed more patiently when it is done with the knowledge of God and His command” (71).
“How shall we ever help a Christian brother and set him straight in his difficulty and doubt, if not with God’s own Word? All our words quickly fail.” (55)
- Why are spiritual rhythms essential for not only growing the Christian but also the community?
- Of the five practices listed, which do you enjoy the most and which do you struggle with the most?
- As a community, which of the five practices do you need to grow in collectively?
- Practice: What one practice do you need to prayerfully focus on this week?
Chapter 3: The Day Alone
CHAPTER 3: THE DAY ALONE
The day alone is essential for the day together, both for the Christian and the community.
In the last chapter, Bonhoeffer guided us in the practices of the day with others. In this chapter, he guides us in the purposes and practices of the day alone. In doing so, he shows how both the day with others and the day alone are necessary for growing the community.
1. The need for the day alone. The day alone forces us to examine why we seek community. The Christian community is not a distraction for our loneliness but a fellowship growing into Christlikeness. Viewed in this way, the day alone is essential for the day together because “only in the fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in the fellowship” (77-78).
2. The purposes of the day alone. The first purpose of the day alone is meditation. Meditation is not the absence of thought but the discipline of being “alone with the Word” (81). In doing so, the Word “strives to stir us, to work and operate in us, so that we shall not get away from it the whole day long” (83). The second purpose of the day alone is prayer. As we meditate on the Word, we then
pray the Word because “in this way we shall not become the victims of our own emptiness” (84). The third purpose of the day alone is intercession. In prayer we pray for ourselves, in intercession we pray for others. Intercession is not only necessary but is also “the happy discovery for the Christian” because division cannot thrive where intercession is flourishing (86).
3. The danger of the day alone. We may be alone at times but there is never a time when what we do affects us alone. The danger of the day alone is believing this lie. The only way to overcome this danger is to remember that “we are members of a body, not only when we choose to be, but in our whole existence… This is no mere theory; it is a spiritual reality” (89).
“The individual must realize that his hours of aloneness react upon the community. In his solitude he can sunder and besmirch the fellowship, or he can strengthen and hallow it. Every act of self-control of the Christian is also a service to the fellowship.” (88-89)
- Why is the day alone essential for the day together, both for you and the community?
- Of the three purposes of the day alone, which one do you need to grow in the most?
- Where or when do you forget that even when you are alone you are never truly alone?
- Practice: Spend fifteen minutes in silence and solitude this week.
Chapter 4: Ministry
CHAPTER 4: MINISTRY
Justification by grace not only saves us, it enables us to serve others.
In this chapter, Bonhoeffer both warns us of the greatest threat to community and reminds us of the greatest blessing to community. He warns us against self-justification which demands that others serve us. He also reminds us of the blessing of justification by grace which aims to serve others. After his warning and reminder, he provides us with
seven key ministries to help us serve others.
1. The ministry of holding one’s tongue. What we don’t say is just as important as what we do say. Self-justifying words seek to win an argument whereas gracious words seek to build up. In holding one’s tongue “each individual will make a matchless discovery” of enjoying not controlling others (93).
2. The ministry of meekness. Meekness is not viewing ourselves poorly, but properly. We think of ourselves properly when we remember how we have been forgiven in Christ (1 Tim 1:15). In meekness, the Christian knows “that it is better to serve our neighbor
than to have our own way” (95).
3. The ministry of listening. If we want to love well, we need to listen well. “Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them” (97). In listening to God, we learn to obey. In listening to others, we learn to serve.
4. The ministry of helpfulness. Busyness is the enemy of helpfulness. Busyness says, “My schedule won’t allow me to help.” Helpfulness says, “It is my joy to help as I have been helped.” Helpfulness “does not assume that our schedule is our own to manage” (99).
5. The ministry of bearing. If we want to experience community, we need to “experience the burden of the other” (101). Bearing is not merely something we do; it is something we do for each other. Just as God carries our burdens (Isa 53:4-5), we are to care for each other’s burdens (Gal 6:2).
6. The ministry of proclaiming. We need to both study God’s Word together and speak God’s Word to one another (Col 3:16). Notice the order, we receive the Word best when these are taking place because we can “speak to one another on the basis of the help we both need” (106).
7. The ministry of authority. In the world, authority is about power. In the Christian community, authority “is dependent upon brotherly service” (108). For the community to thrive, it “does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren” (109).
“Once a man has experienced the mercy of God in his life he will henceforth aspire only to serve. The proud throne of the judge no longer
lures him; he wants to be down below with the lowly and the needy, because that is where God found him” (94).
- Why is justification by grace not only necessary for our salvation but our service to others?
- Of the seven ministry practices listed for the community, which challenges you the most?
- How does self-justification show up in your relationships to others? What impact does it have?
Chapter 5: Confession & Communion
CHAPTER 5: CONFESSION & COMMUNION
Confession is not a law, it is an offer of divine help.
In this final chapter, Bonhoeffer shows us the need for and the blessing of confession. For some of us, confessing our sins to one another sounds strange. For others, it sounds terrifying. For all of us, we need help to see confession not as something we are forced to do but as a gift that God has given to free and form His people.
1. The need for confession. If we are going to practice confession, we first need to see the need for it. Are we more afraid of confessing our sin or being alone with our sin? If we are more fearful of the former, Bonhoeffer warns us, “He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone” (110). We need not be fearful of confession because just as God loved us enough to help us in Christ, we ought to do the same for one another through confession.
2. The benefits of confession. There are three benefits to confession. First, confession breaks through to community. Want to have deep relationships? Practice confession. Why? We must remember that “sin demands to have a man by himself ” but it is “in confession the light of the Gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart” to restore us and to restore us to fellowship (112). Second, confession breaks through to the cross. Want to grow in humility? Practice confessing your sins to another. Why? Because “confession in the presence of a brother is the profoundest kind of humiliation. It hurts, it cuts a man down, it is a dreadful blow to pride” (114). Where there is confession, there is no self-justification. Third, confession breaks through to certainty. Want to have assurance of faith? Practice confession. Why? Confessing our sin to a trusted “brother breaks the circle of self-deception. A man who
confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person” (116). After studying the benefits of confession, we can’t help but ask ourselves, “Who can refuse, without suffering loss, a help that God has deemed it necessary to offer” (118)?
3. The danger of confession. Although we need to practice confession, we need to be wise to whom we confess. How do we do this? We need to look for those who have been humbled by their own sin because “anybody who has once been horrified by the dreadfulness of his own that nailed Jesus to the Cross will no longer be horrified by even the rankest sins of a brother” (118).
“Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone
with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!” (110)
- What fears keep you from practicing mutual confession?
- How is it freeing and forming to remember that we are all sinners in need of confession together?
- Practice: Pray that God would send you a trusted friend to practice mutual confession.