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Editors’ note: 

The following is an excerpt adapted from Paul House’s new book Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together (Crossway, 2015).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship expresses what sort of students and faculty should constitute seminaries that are communities of costly grace emphasizing God’s grace, God’s call, and God’s standards for shepherds. Life Together describes what Bonhoeffer wanted these communities of Christ’s body to do together and explains why he wanted them to do it.

Bonhoeffer was not out to establish a new brand of Protestant monasticism in Germany. The means mattered to him, and he kept students practicing them, but he linked these means to the end result, which mattered most. He was trying to shape shepherds for local church communities of costly grace. Such pastors needed to understand how to preach, pray, read God’s Word, serve God’s people, and live in family-type community with other believers. He believed seminaries that form such persons are special visible ministries of the body of Christ.

Bonhoeffer thought these communities should strive to reach at least three goals.

1. The Proper Grounds for an Incarnational Community

His first goal was to form a community on proper grounds. Described in The Cost of Discipleship, this community would be like the one Jesus formed with his disciples. It would exist to shape shepherds who in turn help churches develop into communing brothers and sisters in Christ. Daily worship, prayer, and meditation were means of shaving off remaining edges of selfishness, ambition, wrongheaded individualism, and theological arrogance. When used this way, these practices helped students stop longing for a community to be a selfish psychological crutch or longing for solitude to the exclusion of others. Seminarians needed to understand the proper grounds of community so they could aid congregations in doing the same. Everything in ministry, from preaching to pastoral care, would thereby benefit.

Today we must ask ourselves if forming seminary communities for the purpose of shaping biblical churches is a conviction or a preference. Every seminary no doubt at least prefers for this to be one byproduct of its work. But if it’s a conviction, it will shape admissions, faculty recruitment and development, fundraising, curricular development, and co-curricular activities such as chapel, mentoring groups, student life, lectureships, and special events. Prospective students will be told that theology determines practice, that receiving personal therapy and reaching personal academic or ecclesial career goals don’t drive the seminary, and that caring for others is an expectation, not an option. Students, faculty, and staff will gladly embrace life together through common worship, prayer, burden bearing, and even hearing confession as needed. These won’t be optional experiences, and they won’t be done flawlessly or seamlessly. Those not wishing to share in this ethos shouldn’t join the community. Students, faculty, and staff will also know they will have positive time alone. Their personalities will not be set aside, but honored. There will be time to think, read, serve, recreate, and relate. They won’t be expected to lose themselves as they serve the community.

Discipline will be needed to form such a community. Granting too many exceptions in admissions and too many exemptions from daily community life creates a protest group (quiet or not) that undermines community. Each community can decide how often to meet and how to care for one another. I believe Bonhoeffer would think each community is free to take the steps it deems appropriate. But each group will need some explanation, encouragement, and enforcement, lest grace and freedom become laziness, license, or self-indulgence in academics or entertainment. He was certainly willing to take such preventive steps.

2. Bible-Formed Shepherds in Churches and Seminaries

Bonhoeffer’s second goal was to send out pastors who were Bible formed and thus able to pray, preach, humbly confess sins and hear others do the same, offer pastoral care, and be a brother or sister to other believers in church communities. Such persons obey God. As Wolf-Dieter Zimmermann, a student in the third course at Finkenwalde, noted, the seminarians were to learn that the Bible is not simply a subject to be “dissected into different sources and layers. The power of the Word, just as it is transmitted, is only felt by him who bows before that Word.” In short, Bonhoeffer desired to shape servants of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Bonhoeffer had no desire to produce denominational operators, or even what today’s American culture defines as “visionary leaders.” This desire required teaching every community member to work, and to work at whatever needed doing. It required that everyone hear long portions of God’s Word, meditate on short portions, study theology closely, hold his tongue, and intercede for others. It required setting aside competition and the longing for, or to be, “leaders” defined by non-biblical standards. The means are all related to the goal.

In my opinion, few areas of seminary life today need more revision than what normally passes under the title of “leadership development.” It’s hard to find biblical passages that call for “leadership” in anything approximating what that term implies in American life. Models for pastors as CEOs or community activists do not exist in the Bible. To find them there, one has to begin with such concepts of leadership and then try to tie Bible verses to them in a non-contextual or barely contextual way. Pastors whose goal is to brand their ministries, build their reputations, manage a complex organization, become popular enough or singular enough to have off-site video churches, command six-figure book contracts for products mainly ghostwritten, and have thousands of followers on social media outlets don’t match anything in the pastoral epistles. They match the “super-apostles” who opposed Paul in Corinth. A pastor may need to do some of these things, but if he cannot do them as a Bible-formed, praying servant of a community, he is not on the right path.

The same is true of seminary faculty and administration. Seminaries are part of a small and virtually unnoticed slice of American education. There’s no real power to be gained from becoming a “great leader” along the lines established by American culture. Seminary teaching and administrating is service, pure and simple. These provide a prime opportunity to die to self. Seminary faculty and administration must avoid embodying the old joke that says the battles in academia over position, prestige, and office space are so vicious because the stakes are so low.

It’s probably quixotic to suggest that leadership is a word not worth using to describe pastoral work. Nonetheless, at the very least the word servant must preface it. Many fine university and seminary colleagues I have now and have had in the past grasp and teach this point. It’s worth recalling that Paul asks people to imitate him as he imitates Christ, and to follow Jesus, not any human leader (1 Cor. 1:10–17; 11:1). Jesus comments that believers have one leader and one Lord—Jesus Christ himself (Matt. 23:8). The German Confessing Church was correct to assert that pastors need to be brothers and sisters, not lords, to one another and to their congregations.

3. Visible Example of the Body of Christ

Bonhoeffer’s third goal was to have a seminary that provided a visible example of the body of Christ. The body of Christ does the will of the Father in heaven.

  • It worships him;
  • it listens to his Word;
  • it does the daily work of learning and serving;
  • it prays to him for one another;
  • it cares in person for each person, whether that means speaking or being silent;
  • it uses its gifts wisely;
  • it accepts support from those who love it;
  • it offers hospitality to others;
  • it goes about its daily work and returns to meet again;
  • and it spreads the gospel of redemption in Jesus Christ beyond its boundaries.

One could add to this list, but the point is clear: the body of Christ takes up positive space in the world. It seeks the face of others because it seeks the face of God. It sees the face of God in the face of others (Matt. 25:31–46) as it waits to see Jesus face-to-face.

This visible nature of the seminary community appears in many places, but Bonhoeffer focuses on the community’s life together in worship. His vision for this worship is regular, simple, Word-centered, musical, prayerful, required, and formational. It doesn’t give a forum for famous pastors the seminary has invited because their recommendations can help seminary enrollment. It doesn’t allow musicians to showcase their skills at the expense of collective singing. It’s not a place for professors to give another lecture. It believes that a seminary community can surely listen to a chapter and a half of Bible reading and not get irritated, as if hearing God’s Word is less practical and important than voicing our own ideas. It believes every community member needs to make a reasonable commitment to be there together, for the seminary is a familial community—not a place where classes, people, and worship run on parallel tracks.

Servants for the Body

These three goals are interconnected. A community cannot reach the third goal if it neglects the first two, unless by God’s grace such happens without the seminary’s help.

If seminaries recruit students, staff, and faculty by promising to make them great individuals able to meet their own individualistic professional goals, they will have a hard time achieving any semblance of community or servants of Christ and his body.

If seminaries offer classes at times of the day and in block formats that eliminate the likelihood of students, faculty, and staff engaging in personal relationships and corporate worship, they shouldn’t be surprised to encounter selfish pastors leading the churches they and their loved ones attend. They shouldn’t be surprised to find that such pastors encourage church members to treat “choosing a church,” especially their church, like choosing any other consumable commodity.

After all, their seminary experience helped train them to think like consultants and organizers, not humble servants of the body of Christ.