In 1935, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was preparing to study pacifism with Gandhi in India when God called him to lead a clandestine seminary in Finkenwalde, Poland. Out of this experience came Life Together (1938), a wonderfully rich reflection on the nature of Christian fellowship and its role in spiritual growth. I have often used this little book in one-on-one mentoring relationships, and I have assigned it in classes because it counters what I can only call a severe individualism that too many Christians have adopted from the broader Western culture. Against this mindset, Bonhoeffer makes it clear that Christian fellowship entails a relationship of accountability and dependency.
In the first chapter, called simply, “Community,” Bonhoeffer presents the Christological foundation of Christian community. We are a community not simply because we are organized into a group—which would be true of any human society—but because the Spirit makes us all one in Christ; “Because Christian community is founded solely on Jesus Christ, it is a spiritual and not a psychic reality. In this it differs absolutely from all other communities.” Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on the reality of Christ in the community leads to what is perhaps my favourite quotation in the entire book: “The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother.” It is impossible for me to read this statement without being reminded of the many times in my life when God has spoken to me through the words of another Christian (my wife, Myra, especially comes to mind), probably because I had refused to listen to Christ speaking within my own heart.
My favourite New Testament passage that challenges individualistic Christianity is Hebrews 10:19-25. Verse 24 states, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (NIV). I’ve always liked the NIV use of “spur” here. The King James, “provoke,” is also good. The New Testament does not picture the church as a place where Christians will always find comfort. We do not always need a pat on the back; sometimes we need a kick in the pants. This kind of “life together” requires a different way of thinking. It calls us to accept our accountability to one another. When a fellow believer “provokes” you, it may well be the voice of Christ you are hearing. We answer to each other for the way we live our lives.
I used to think that the reason church discipline is rarely practiced in the contemporary church is that contemporary Christians simply don’t know how to do it correctly. Well, that is partially true. But the reason they don’t know how to do it has a lot to do with an individualism that has permeated the church from the modern Zeitgeist—a mindset of “private religion” and “tolerance” rather than accountability and dependency. The world teaches people to mind their own business; the New Testament teaches Christians to answer to each other for the way they live their lives. Life together in Christ certainly means compassion and patience with each other, but it also means provoking, challenging, and spurring one another on toward love and good deeds.