A New Book: Life Together in Unity with Dietrich Bonhoeffer

by Nick Abraham

What is community? This is the question I sought to answer in my new book, Life Together in Unity with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I was helped by Bonhoeffer to capture the Christ-centered vision of community in the Scriptures. I defined Christian community as “lifelong fellowship with other believers in Jesus, who won this gift for his people, maintains it by the Holy Spirit and the Word, and ordains it to be best expressed in local churches.” 4

After providing a working definition for community, I then spent three chapters unpacking some theological foundations for community: the relationship of Christ and the Church, the importance of union with Christ for community, and that Christian community is a reality, not an ideal.

Next, I spent three more chapters thinking through some practical implications of this theological vision for community: how can the Spirit control our communities and not the strongest emotions or personalities among us; what place do the Scriptures have in our communities; and finally, I offered some tangible ways all of this can be put into practice.

My prayer for this book is that others would join me in retrieving the wealth of Bonhoeffer’s vision for Christian community in our day. Community is near and dear to my heart not only at Emmaus, but also in my church. By God’s grace, may it continue to be so.An excerpt:

On Christmas Eve in 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) was alone. He was being held under guard in Tegel military prison in Berlin, Germany. Despite being a pastor and theologian, he was suspected by the Nazi government of involvement with actions against the state. Bonhoeffer, struggling with the disconnection he felt from those he loved, wrote to his dear friend Eberhard Bethge (1909–2000), who was married to Bonhoeffer’s niece, Renate Bethge (1925–2019): 

First, there is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so; one must simply persevere and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is a great comfort, for one remains connected to the other person through the emptiness to the extent it truly remains unfilled. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness; God in no way fills it but rather keeps it empty and thus helps us preserve—even if in pain—our authentic communion. Further, the more beautiful and full the memories, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into peaceful joy. One bears what was beautiful in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within. One must guard against wallowing in these memories, giving oneself entirely over to them, just as one does not gaze endlessly at a precious gift but only at particular times, and otherwise possesses it only as a hidden treasure of which one is certain. Then a lasting joy and strength radiate from the past. Further, times of separation are not lost and fruitless for common life, or at least not necessarily, but rather in them a quite remarkably strong communion—despite all problems— can develop. Moreover, I have experienced especially here that we can always cope with facts; it is only what we anticipate that is magnified by worry and anxiety beyond all measure. From first awakening until our return to sleep, we must commend and entrust the other person to God wholly and without reserve, and let our worries become prayer for the other person.

Here we see the raw emotion of separation mixed with a firm faith in the triune God who is with those who mourn. Bonhoeffer was not pretending as if he did not feel the pain of being separated from his friends and family. He did not try to spiritualize away the loneliness or presume God would remove it. Instead, he saw God’s grace amid the ache, knowing that it was proof of the deep and precious bond he had formed with others. 

Bonhoeffer’s friend Eberhard had encouraged him to write prayers in prison that could be distributed to his fellow prisoners for encouragement. A portion of a morning prayer described Bonhoeffer’s faithful stance: 

Lord Jesus Christ, you were poor and miserable, imprisoned and abandoned as I am. You know all human need, you remain with me when no human being stands by me, you do not forget me and you seek me, you want me to recognize you and turn back to you. Lord, I hear your call and follow. Help me!2

Bonhoeffer’s faith in the Lord Jesus was marked by intense realism. Bonhoeffer increasingly realized the gritty nature of earthly life and he was strengthened by trusting in his Lord who lived an earthly life on his behalf. One might say that Bonhoeffer looked at life, even life as a Christian, realistically. He knew firsthand that life brought about real pain, difficulties, and challenges. During this time in prison, writing letters was a source of comfort and connection. In a letter he wrote to his fiancée, he shared:

You yourself, my parents—all of you, including my friends and students on active service—are my constant companions. Your prayers and kind thoughts, passages from the Bible, long-forgotten conversations, pieces of music, books—all are invested with life and reality as never before. I live in a great unseen realm of whose real existence I’m in no doubt. The old children’s song about the angels says “two to cover me, two to wake me,” and today we grown-ups are no less in need than children are of preservation, night and morning, by kindly unseen powers.3

Even from prison, Bonhoeffer understood the vital importance of community.

  1. DBWE, 8:238. 
  2. DBWE, 8:194n1, 195.
  3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maria von Wedemeyer, Love Letters from Cell 92, 1943–1945, ed. Ruth-Alice von Bismarck and Ulrich Kabitz, trans. John Brownjohn (London: HarperCollins, 1994), 227. 
  4. Abraham, Living Together in Unity with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 4.

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. He is the author of Living Life Together in Unity with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Nick and his wife Anna have one daughter.