Christ as community: Bonhoeffer’s antidote for Western Christianity

November 21, 2017



This article was published on November 15, 2017 in The Christian Citizen.

The core of Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology is that church is  “Christ existing within community.”[1] He introduces the phrase in his dissertation Sanctorum Communion, provides a guidebook in how to live it out in Life Together, and continues to write about it when he is 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 for those who have a desire to see more concrete expressions of their Christian faith.


Having opportunities to be 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 bunkering down on certain traditions, strategies can run the gambit 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 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 they had grown accustomed to could continue. Conservative or progressive, churches that find themselves struggling to maintain what once was adopt an insular “mind-set of religious consumerism” that keeps churches from focusing on the missional work that can bring revitalization of something new. [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 suaveness ” [4] As the foundation of Christendom erodes and falls apart, our congregations begin to fight to save what 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 the Western Christianity had approached its end. Bonhoeffer would write, “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. Bonhoeffer grew impatient with academia while studying in America. While doing his postdoctoral fellow at Union Theological Seminary from 1930-31, Bonhoeffer witnessed the struggles laity faced as he also served at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. [6]  In 1944, Bonhoeffer would write from prison to his student Eberhard Bethge and note that this 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 Living Together is an attempt to create a sustainable concrete model of Christian community by spending moments with others, in solitude, service, confession, and communion.


While there is no shortage of books or resources for contemporary churches in determining their vision and mission, Bonhoeffer pointed out the failure that this takes away from creating authentic Christian community. Bonhoeffer's view raises some difficulties for me since casting vision and working towards measurable goals is part of my leadership approach. I can see, though, how developing an inflexible vision of church can create a community based on a person’s ideas or experience and thwart genuinely Christ-centered community. As Bonhoeffer points out that 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] For David Bosch, influential missiologist and theologian writes about the need to leave behind this self-confident search for the perfect church models 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.    For 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.



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.


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