In 1937 the church struggle (Kirchenkampf) was ostensibly over. The Deutsche Christens had triumphed over the Confessing Church. The church Dietrich Bonhoeffer grew up in no longer resembled itself. Most of Bonhoeffers professors and theological mentors at the University of Berlin had pledged fealty to the Fuhrer. The Evangelical Church of the Old Prussian Union, the church that had originally ordained Bonhoeffer, was being claimed by the Reich Church, and their leader, Reich Bishop Ludwig Mueller. In 1936, Hitler became impatient with Mueller’s efforts to bring the Confessing Church back into the fold of the German Christian Church. His solution was to confiscate all Confessing Church funds, take control of all church finances, nationalize church governance, forbid churches from taking up offerings, and arrest outspoken pastors. This was the final nail in the coffin for the underground seminary in Finkenwalde, where Bonhoeffer had taught, trained, and mentored several confessing church pastors. Bonhoeffer was a pastor without a congregation, a theologian without a church, and a teacher without students. Bonhoeffer loved the church and the country he had grown up in. He had been betrayed by both. Everything had gone wrong.
Bonhoeffer started writing Life Together exactly one year after the gestapo closed and destroyed the underground seminary. The two years as the primary teacher at the seminary had a profound impact on his life and his theology. His most famous book, Discipleship, is what he taught at Finkenwalde. Life Together is what he learned. To understand what stands underneath Life Together we must go back. Was Bonhoeffer’s vision of the church flawed from the beginning? How should we understand the church? What exactly does Bonhoeffer mean when he writes that the church is Life Together? What ideas and visions of the church is he trying to refute? What church is he trying to cling to?
From Institution to Assembly
At age 13, Bonhoeffer memorized Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles. Along with many other Germans, he thought it was preposterous that Germany should have to take full responsibility for all the loss and damage from the first world war. The first world war cast a shadow over how Bonhoeffer felt about Germany. His oldest brother died in the war and the brother he was closest with had been wounded. Inflation was so bad in post-war Germany that in 1924, when Dietrich’s father cashed in on his fully mature life insurance policy, he was able to treat his family to a small basket of strawberries. It is unclear how much responsibility Bonhoeffer felt Germany deserved for the first world war. What is clear, is that the perceived unfair treatment of Germany by the allies fueled the patriotism of many Germans, including a young Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This had many important implications for how Bonhoeffer saw the church in his younger years.
I hope this story is not too relatable for our congregation. Dietrich’s youngest sister and her two older brothers had been deeply impressed by the celebration of the Lord’s Supper following her confirmation. The three youngest Bonhoeffers asked their mother if they could attend the following week. Their mother replied, “One doesn’t go that often.” Young German girls and boys were confirmed into whichever church they belonged, because that is what young German girls and boys did. The church in Germany was an institution. Even as church attendance declined steadily for most of the late 19th and early 20th century, Germans still identified with the churches of their parents and grandparents. It was the place that had produced Luther. The church had a great legacy, and it served an important social and political function in Germany even during periods when people did not “go that often.”
The Bonhoeffers thought the church was ‘old hat.’ They did not take it very seriously. When Dietrich told his family, he would be pursuing theological studies he was met with contempt and derision. Most of it was good natured. There is a sense that his family thought he was wasting his brilliance on a non-serious subject matter. That started to change when Bonhoeffer was awarded his first Doctorate of Theology at the age of 21. He wrote Sanctorum Commmunio (Communion of Saints) as his dissertation. Karl Barth called it a “theological miracle.” In Life Together, he revises some of his ideas in Sanctorum Communio. Yet, the foundational argument that the church is not an institution, it is a concrete body of believers, united in Christ, is present even in Bonhoeffer’s earliest writing.
Bonhoeffer’s relationship to the church transformed from a purely intellectual matter into an existential matter as he began to attend Catholic worship services during a trip to Rome. After a Vespers service he wrote, “Something of the reality of Catholicism began to dawn on me—nothing romantic etc.—but I think I’m beginning to understand the concept of ‘church’.” What drew him to these worship services was not an argument about what the church was in the abstract. He had the sense that he was experiencing the church, rather than talking or writing about it. He writes, “It was worship in a true sense.” The church was becoming something different for Bonhoeffer. It was no longer an argument or an institution.
He was struck by the difference between the worship experience and the catholic dogma that informed it. After a discussion with a young Italian studying for the priesthood, Bonhoeffer writes, “I am once again much less sympathetic to Catholicism. Catholic dogma veils every ideal thing in Catholicism…There is a huge difference between… ‘church’ and the ‘church in dogmatics.’” Right before he left to begin his doctoral studies at the University of Berlin, he attended St. Peters one last time. The entire congregation sang the antiphon. It made an enormous impression on him. In Life Together, there is a section on congregational singing and its importance. After reading what Bonhoeffer writes, it is obvious his experience at St. Peter’s influenced his understanding of what ‘church’ means.
In 1927, just after the completion of his dissertation, Bonhoeffer pastored at a church in Barcelona. In a sermon during his time there, he begins by reflecting on what he discovered in Rome. “There is a word that evokes tremendous feeling of love and bliss among Catholics who hear it. A word that stirs in them the most profound depths of religious feeling, from awe and dread of judgement to the sweetness of God’s presence, but assuredly also awakens feelings of home for them, feelings that only a child feels for its mother, of gratitude, reverence and self-surrendering love, the feeling that comes to us when, after a long time away, we enter our childhood home again…Yes, ‘church’ is the word whose glory and greatness we want to examine today.” Bonhoeffer’s experience in Rome gave him the question he would ask until the day he died. “What is the church?” His doctoral studies at the university of Berlin would give him the theoretical foundations to answer that question. It was not until his experience at the underground seminary in Finkenwalde, that he had would live out those foundations, together, with others.
“The Prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body; they receive and meet each other as one meets the Lord, in reverence, humility, and joy (20).” The church is Life Together, a sign of grace that we acknowledge in one another. The faithful response to this grace is a life of freedom lived for others. The church is not something to be coveted or protected. It is not an institution to express grievances or a platform for self-expression. It is not even the place where you find your identity. It is the place where you lose it and are given the universal identity that we all share in Jesus Christ. This was the theological insight that informed Bonhoeffer’s preaching, thinking, and resisting. It was what made the church ‘real’ for Bonhoeffer.
This newfound freedom and theological insight would get Bonhoeffer into trouble. The confessing church leadership, and most notably Martin Niemoller, could not deny Bonhoeffers brilliance. Yet, his uncompromising dedication to the church meant he was a headache for those who were looking to find middle ground. This presents a challenge for us today. Should the church compromise when doing so makes it not ‘the church?’ After all, the church does not exist to perpetuate its own existence. It exists as a gift for others.
Church attendance increased in Germany in the 1930’s. A fact that is hard to swallow. As national pride grew, so did church attendance. The more Hitler paid attention to the church the more it grew. The church Bonhoeffer grew up in was so afraid of schism and the loss of relevancy that it continued to relent to Nazi pressure. Early in 1933, Hitler called for new church elections. It was unconstitutional, but nobody made much of a fuss. The Nazi-supported Reich Church won in a landslide. The Reich Church was more popular. At that time, Bonhoeffer was in his late 20’s and well respected. He advocated for disavowing the Old-Prussian Church as heretical and tried to organize a pastor strike. Bonhoeffer wanted all pastors who were critical of the Nazi influence in the church to refuse to do baptisms, weddings, and funerals. The confessing church leaders decided against it and instead recruited Bonhoeffer to write a confession against the influence of Nazism in the church. He wanted action. He wanted the church to be ‘real’ and ‘concrete,’ but he agreed to write it anyway. What he turned in was powerful and direct. Confessing Church leaders watered it down to the point that Bonhoeffer refused to add his name to what would come to be known as ‘The Bethel Confession.’
The Nazi command had no intention of keeping with the longstanding tradition of Luther’s Two Kingdoms Doctrine. It had been a 400-year-old tradition in Germany that the church and the state represented to distinct revelations of God’s will. Both were instituted by God and should remain autonomous. The Bethel Confession incident showed the Nazi party that the church was not going to put up much of a fight. This led to two important incidents that kicked off the church struggle, started the Confessing Church, and led Bonhoeffer to become disillusioned about the church he had grown up in. The first was the Church’s ratification of the Aryan paragraph. The new policy meant that any leader in the church who was of Jewish decent would be removed from their post. Apparently, it was lost on the German Christians that this meant the original 12 apostles would have been disqualified from leadership. The second, was at a massive church conference of over 20,000 German Christians who requested that the church remove the Old Testament from the Bible. The request had overwhelming support. After the Conference, Bonhoeffer joined the Pastor’s Emergency League, the forerunner to the Confessing Church. Bonhoeffer was calling the church to do one thing, be the church. Many in the Confessing Church thought the primary goal should be to reunify the German Church. For the church to be the church they must act concretely, in history. How could the church call itself the church if they failed to respond faithfully to God’s grace?
This is the key insight in Life Together that weaves its way through the entire book. In Germany, in the 1930’s, Bonhoeffer thought the church failed to act when it was necessary, because the church was ascending to an institutional player. This ascension came with growth and influence. This newfound influence meant that the church would do anything to try to hold onto it. In Germany, the influence of the church had been spiraling downward for several decades. Now it had reclaimed its central position as the spiritual wing of the Reich. The leader of the church was called the Reich Bishop.
Joseph Goebbels’ hesitated to mandate that the swastika flag be placed in German churches out of fear that the party would lose support from German Christians. The opposite happened. The church felt left out. The flag was going up in all the other proud German institutions, why not the church? Even before 1933, congregations appealed to their local clergy leaders to proudly fly the swastika in their churches. Bonhoeffer knew that if the church was going to realize itself, they had to reclaim their life together as one body under the leadership of Christ.
At Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer goes to great lengths to put Christ at the center of everything he teaches the seminarians. Life Together reads like a justification for these practices. In Life Together, Christ mediates everything one can think of: meals, hymn singing, solitude, scripture reading, laboring, listening, praying, leadership, servanthood, and everything else. The church must be reminded of the words of Jesus, as Jesus commissions them in the final words of the Gospel of Matthew. “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” These words were not written to be individualized. This was Jesus commissioning the Church.
The embodiment of life together is the church at work with Christ at the center. It is not an ascent to some perfect institution. Instead, it is giving in to become a thankful recipient of God’s grace. For Bonhoeffer, this is the only way for the church to be realized on earth. He writes, “Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hinderance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. 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.”
I have a confession to make. On several occasions since March 15, 2020, I have said, “the church is closed.” That is bearing false witness. It is not true. I have heard many members sincerely express concern by saying, “I am worried about our church.” Reading Life Together forces us to consider what we mean when we say those things.
Two things have become apparent since our last Lenten season. The first is grappling with what the word church means. What does it mean?
The second is that different groups of church goers who claim the identity, Christian, seem to disagree about almost everything. Couldn’t we fairly call this a church struggle in America? Both questions are asking the same question in a different way and with a different context. What is the church? The question is not meant to indict anyone, neither is Life Together.
Instead, Life Together is an invitation. The church as Life Together, the church Bonhoeffer is hopeful for offers us this: “The more genuine and deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity.”
Bethge, Eberhard, and Victoria Barnett. 2007. Dietrich Bonhoeffer ;a biography: theologian, Christian, man for his times. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, and Clifford J. Green. 2013. The Bonhoeffer reader.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1954. Life together. London: SCM Press.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Douglas W. Stott, and Isabel Best. 2012. The collected sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. [Volume 1] [Volume 1]. Minneapolis, Minn: Fortress Press
Pugh, Jeffrey C., and Martin E. Marty. 2009. Religionless Christianity Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Troubled Times
Schlingensiepen, Ferdinand, and Isabel Best. 2012. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945: martyr, thinker, man of resistance.