Why Embodied Formation?

The community of the holy Lord’s Supper is above all the fulfillment of Christian community. Just as the members of the community of faith are united in body and blood at the table of the Lord, so they will be together in eternity. Here the community has reached its goal. Here joy in Christ and Christ’s community is complete. The life together of Christians under the Word has reached its fulfillment in the sacrament.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer1

What is the goal of Christian community? Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) said that Christian community finds its fulfillment in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. After the Christian community has been called to worship, confessed their sins, heard the gospel promise of forgiveness, sung praises to the triune God, read Scripture together, prayed, and heard the Word preached, they come to the table together. The great act that the Lord Jesus gave to his church to display the gospel is more than a mere act but is instead a depiction of something far deeper. Believers, those made alive together with Christ (Eph 2:5), are not only brought into union with the Lord Jesus (Rom 6:4), but are also brought into union with all of God’s people (1 Pet 2:10). The Lord’s Supper is an opportunity to celebrate this. Thus, we could say that the Lord’s Supper being the goal of Christian community is how the church continues to give glory together to the Godman, in whose name we come together.

We at Emmaus Theological Seminary (Emmaus) want to bring the same spirit of Christian community to how we think about theological education. We  are not a church, but we do come together in the name of the Lord and Savior of the church. We have shared goals with local churches, because we want to see healthy churches led by well-trained pastors and filled with well-equipped servants. We exist for the church. We come together from various churches in the name of Christ and learn together with other brothers and sisters to this end. What, or who brings us together, is the Lord Jesus. As Bonhoeffer said, “Our community consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us.”2 We celebrate the same union with the Lord of the church as all believers do in their churches. We value being together just as the church is commanded. 

Due to God’s common grace, we now have access to a host of technologies that allow us to stay connected. The whole world became much more familiar with these technologies during the recent shutdown and pandemic. While we thank God for giving us access to such technologies, many have come to understand that digital connection with others is not the same as embodied connection. By embodied, I mean physical connection with flesh-and-blood people.

But wait, are not the New Testament epistles examples of distance education?3 Take, for example, Paul’s letters, which he wrote to churches he was not presently with and even some that he had not yet met (e.g. Romans). Are these letters not evidence that God approves of distance education? Yes and no. The Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write his various epistles, which we have preserved for us in the Bible. The content of those letters was intended to bring the lost to know the gospel and train up those who were now living in light of the gospel (see 2 Tim 3:16-17). But the recipients were not individuals waiting for their personalized newsletter from the Apostle Paul. The recipients were churches, communities of people receiving revelation and instruction together. They were to be like good Bereans (see Acts 17:10-11), who would learn, understand, and grow together as a community. Furthermore, Paul frequently mentioned his intention to be with these churches and his disappointment when he could not . So, the content of the education may have come from a distance, but it was meant to bear fruit in the midst of communities.

Bonhoeffer had this same kind of Berean-like community in the underground seminary he ran at Finkenwalde. Under threat from the Nazi government, the Confessing Church, which opposed the Nazi influence on the church, started their own seminary to train up pastors. Bonhoeffer and his students not only learned together, but they lived together. The Finkenwalde experience, while it lasted, was a true Christian community. It was later shut down by the Nazi government once it was discovered. But in the time that it existed, Bonhoeffer lectured on, lived, and wrote his two most well-known books, Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship. Both of these great works detail a Christ-centered, others-focused Christian existence all in the context of learning. 

Bonhoeffer is a valuable example for us because Finkenwalde did not exist forever. The way that Bonhoeffer lived with and instructed his students changed when the realities of the fallen world and other responsibilities came crashing into the idyllic Christian community in Pomerania. In the same way, our fallen world pulls us in multiple directions and the responsibilities of life often direct our paths. Therefore, we come to theological education realistically. You probably cannot move to that school you have thought about attending. You have a job. You have a family. All of those things come with responsibilities. You know yourself and if you just did school online, you would not be able to be as disciplined as you would need to be. But, you have a church. At that church you have Christian brothers and sisters; maybe even some who are interested in theological education as well. And your church is where we at Emmaus want you to focus.

Our pattern of setting up hubs at like-minded local churches provide one layer of embodiment as a school. You would be attending class in physical community with other students at a local church. Once a semester, you would come together in our Communio Intensive with all of our students for a weekend to share a meal, be encouraged, develop relationships, hear from seasoned pastors and teachers, and even stay to worship with one of our local churches if you are able. In our hubs and Communio Intensives, we try to capture the goal of Christian community that Bonhoeffer expressed. We gather to give glory to God for our union with Christ and with one another in him. We gather, like the church, to be formed more and more into the image of Christ (see 2 Cor 3:18, 4:4; Col 3:10). Bonhoeffer reminds us, “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.” And so we gather.

  1. Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible, ed. Gerhard Ludwig Müller, Albrecht Schönherr, and Geffrey B. Kelly, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch and James H. Burtness, Vol. 5, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 118.
  2. Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible, 34.
  3. See John Cartwright, Gabriel Etzel, Christopher Jackson, and Timothy Paul Jones, Teaching the World: Foundations for Online Theological Education (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2017).

Nick Abraham (DMin, PhD ABD,  Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Vice-President of Church Relations and Co-founder of Emmaus Theological Seminary, where he teaches in the fields of Biblical Spirituality and Church History. Nick also serves as Lead Pastor at Reformation Bible Church in Navarre, Ohio. Nick and his wife Anna have one daughter.

Photo by M. Monk