Life Together When You Can’t Be Together

My friend Chris Thomas, a pastor in Queensland, Australia, has been doing some online readings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. It also happens to be the scheduled reading for the month of May by my residents in the Pastoral Training Center at Liberty Baptist. Last year was the book’s 80th anniversary of publication (66th anniversary in English), and I don’t think many of us would have anticipated the tension then of one year later reading about “life together” in a season of intentional un-togetherness.

Outside the Bible, Life Together is the most influential book I’ve ever read. I encountered it at a crucial time in my theological and ecclesiological journey, and it turned me inside out. Since then I’ve probably re-read it six or seven times, and its effect has not lessened on my thinking about the gospel and the community the gospel forms, shapes, and empowers. Indeed, some truths of Life Together endure even when we can’t be together. Here are a few:

1. Beware of the wish-dream.

This is a key lesson I reiterate with my ministry students at Midwestern Seminary and with my residents at Liberty Baptist. And with any pastor whose ministry I have the privilege of speaking into. Peter tells elders in 1 Peter 5 to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you.” What other flock might there be, you ask? Well, there is always the flock you want, the flock you want your flock to actually be. Bonhoeffer writes:

This applies in a special way to the complaints often heard from pastors and zealous members about their congregations. A pastor should not complain about his congregations, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men. When a person becomes alienated from a Christian community in which he has been placed and begins to raise complaints about it, he had better examine himself first to see whether the trouble is not due to his wish dream that should be shattered by God; and if this be the case, let him thank God for leading him into this predicament.

I took that to a heart as a pastor. We all ought to take it to heart today. If this season of social distancing and stay-at-home orders does anything for us, it may be that it is leading us into the “good predicament” of having our wish-dream shattered.

When we focus on the wish-dream church, we fail to love the church we actually have, the church which God in his wisdom saw fit to place us into. Now we get to see the church for who she really is.

2. We meet each other as bringers of the gospel.

This is the crucial point of “doing life together”—that we would welcome and accept each other as Christ has welcomed and accepted us (Rom. 15:7). We come to the experience of Christian community with our need (our sin!) and our knowledge that Christ forgives, redeems, sustains. This is how Bonhoeffer puts its:

[T]he Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. 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. And that also clarifies the goal of all Christian community: they meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.

Most of us acknowledge that livestreaming services and Zooming small groups are no real replacement for “the real thing.” And yet there is one thing we are not stopped from doing even now: encouraging each other with the goodness of grace. We can continue to do that—and we should—through as many avenues as we can. And right now, as we begin to feel our weakness and our loneliness more keenly, it is even more pressing that we meet each other, even if online, not with shallow pick-me-ups and moralistic pep talks but with the power of the gospel.

3. Love never ends.

Something odd happens when we only relate to one another via social media, through email, or other electronic means. The distance affords us a kind of bravery of the internal self. We accuse more easily. We judge more sternly. Our fingers are not as held as easily as our tongues, which are themselves a fire (James 3:6).

There is another enduring lesson in Bonhoeffer’s little book that may serve as a warning and exhortation for these days:

Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become. It takes the life of the other person into its own hands. Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men.

Who are we called to relate to? “The true image of the other person.” Not the avatar. Not the virtual image either they project or we assume. We are called to love the real person behind the keyboard. We can do this even now in how we speak to each other, and frankly, to use Bonhoefferian language, how we hold each other in our hearts.

4. Distance cannot ultimately sever our unity.

“We belong,” Bonhoeffer writes, “to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.” Of course, the local gathering is really irreplaceable. But our unity together as followers of Jesus isn’t forged by buildings or services—it is powered by the Holy Spirit who has reconciled us together in Christ (Eph. 2:22). It is important that for all the encouragement toward relational proximity Bonhoeffer urges in Life Together, that he continually comes back to the spiritual communion of saints, our shared mystical union with Christ. He writes further:

Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our fellowship is in Jesus Christ alone, the more serenely shall we think of our fellowship and pray and hope for it.

In fact, our deepening understanding of this spiritual truth helps us long even more for a return of the gathering together. Anyone who thinks livestream services and “virtual community” is just business as usual has not understood the spiritual. As we are providentially hindered, what we are using may be acceptable, but it is not enduringly sufficient. Let these days be cause to help us pray fervently to re-experience what Bonhoeffer calls the “privilege to live in the daily fellowship of life with other Christians.”