I’ve recently been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together, in which Bonhoeffer reflects on the nature of Christian community based in particular on his experiences running the Confessing Church seminary at Finkenwalde between 1935 and 1937.

The starting point for Bonhoeffer’s reflections is Psalm 133:1: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” As he observes:

It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians. … It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing. (pp.7,8)

Christian community means “community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ”. This means that, first of all, it is a community that is formed by “the Word of God in Jesus Christ”. And what Bonhoeffer has in mind here is not the written Word of Scripture, but the Word that is spoken by one Christian to another:

God has willed that we should seek him and find his living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of a man. Therefore a Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. … 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. (pp.11f.)

Because Christian community has been established by Christ purely on the basis of faith in his Word, it is a mistake to look for “some extraordinary social experience” or “some wishful idea of religious fellowship”:

By sheer grace God will not permit us to live even for a brief moment in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. (p.15)

Hence true Christian community is realistic:

Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both. (p.15)

By contrast, anyone “who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter”. Similarly, the survival of a Christian community depends on “whether it achieves sober wisdom” regarding this distinction “between a human ideal and God’s reality, between spiritual and human community”:

In other words, life together under the Word will remain sound and healthy only where it does not form itself into a movement, an order, a society, a collegium pietatis, but rather where it understands itself as being a part of the one, holy, catholic, Christian church, where it shares actively and passively in the sufferings and and struggles and promise of the whole Church. […]

There is a particular risk when we start exercising a right of selection over who enters our community, or separating ourselves from other Christians, other than where this is “necessitated quite objectively” (e.g. by “common work” or “local conditions”):

When the way of intellectual or spiritual selection is taken the human element always insinuates itself and robs the fellowship of its spiritual power and effectiveness for the Church, drives it into sectarianism. The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; in the poor brother Christ is knocking at the door. We must, therefore, be very careful at this point. (p.24)

That’s not to say that Christian community should be a dour, hairshirted experience without joy. As Bonhoeffer points out:

There is probably no Christian to whom God has not given the uplifting experience of genuine Christian community at least once in his life. But in this world such experiences can be no more than a gracious extra beyond the daily bread of Christian community life. … We are bound together by faith, not by experience. (pp.25f.)

“How good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity”: and Bonhoeffer concludes that:

…now we can rightly interpret the words “in unity” and say, “for brethren to dwell together through Christ“. For Jesus Christ alone is our unity. “He is our peace”. Through him alone do we have access to one another, joy in one another, and fellowship with one another. (p.26)