When a book titled Life Together landed on my desk as a college student, the subtitle promising “a discussion of Christian fellowship,” to say the least I was skeptical. Wary of Christian culture and preferring to remain on the fringes, I saw fellowship primarily as a means of enclosing oneself in self-affirming circles. I was weary of feel-good religion; I was also bothered by the charade of unity carried on in pluralistic crowds. But the book was given to me, and the giver was insistent that its author, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was someone who would turn skepticism and self-affirmation on their heads.
Life Together was written in the thick of a mounting Nazi regime during Bonhoeffer’s unique experience with 25 vicars in an underground seminary. It took me only a few pages to realize that he was speaking with weighted words on a topic I had long judged as fluff. Almost immediately I was uncomfortably aware of the skepticism that kept me on the outskirts of community, clutching an impaired image of the Christianity I professed. “Christianity,” Bonhoeffer announced in the first few pages, “means community through Jesus Christ, and in Jesus Christ.”(1) The two are inseparable.
In the community of believers, the Christian is said to be encouraged and admonished, uplifted and stretched (a few of the reasons I suspect many try to avoid it). As the priests called out to the crowds in the book of Nehemiah, the Christian is called to attention, called to remember in community the one who unites us: “Stand up and praise the LORD your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting,” said Nehemiah. In community, the Christian is repeatedly shown that Christ has called us to die to ourselves and live in him—together. An invitation to be three.
Bonhoeffer thus reminds the cynical not to overlook the opportunity of Christian fellowship. “It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the cross he was utterly alone.”(2) Being in the presence of other believers is indeed a hopeful gift. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus repeatedly cried out to his disciples that they stay awake and keep watch with him. While in prison, the apostle Paul called for Timothy, his “true child in the faith,” to come and visit.
Christian fellowship is vital—though not as an end in itself, but in and of the God we profess. Thus we must not avoid being a part of a believing community, but neither should we believe that gathering is the extent of the call. Christ’s call to the disciples was a call to community even as it was a call to a common vision to reach the world with the reality of God’s love. Before going to the cross, he asked the Father that “they might be one even as we are one… so that the world may know that you sent me” (John 17:11). Surrounded by a world of belief, the collective praise of the Son is a compelling testimony of God’s presence to a world the Father longs to reach.
Consequently, even as Bonhoeffer himself recognized the privilege of living with fellow Christians, he chose to live in the midst of enemies as well. Given the opportunity to move outside of Nazi Germany, he declined.
God’s people remain scattered throughout the nations, but held together in Jesus Christ. This is part and parcel of the invitation of Christ. Even as God places people around us that we can learn from and grow with, the reach of a believing community goes beyond physical presence. Hearing a song written by Fernando Ortega recently, “Take heart, my friend, the Lord is able,” I was stirred by words God knew I needed to hear, and moved to worship with the songwriter himself. “Where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus told them, “there I am among them.” United to Christ, we are invited to be members of a community beyond our imagination because of the one in our midst. And thus we can be encouraged by the believer beside us or a person we have not met, and heartened at the God who knows us both. A thousand voices tuned to the same instrument are automatically in tune with each other. And so we take heart; Christ is among us as we sing.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper and Row, 1954), 24.
(2) Ibid., 17.