Service according to Bonhoeffer

One of the best chapters in Bonhoeffer’s Life Together (originally published in 1939; Wikipedia) is the fourth chapter, the one called “Service.” (I’m using the Reader’s Edition, which I abbreviate DBW-RE.)

He has great thoughts on Christian community, the diversity of people. But he means a type of diversity different what what we (21st-century Americans) usually think of with that term: Bonhoeffer mentions diversity in terms of strong and weak, talented and untalented, simple and difficult, devout and less devout, sociable and loners. This diversity represents “the richness of God’s creative glory” (p. 71).

Now other people, in the freedom with which they were created, become an occasion for me to rejoice, whereas before they were only a nuisance and trouble for me.

Life Together, DBW-RE, p. 71

This idea resonated with me. I have certainly felt other Christians to be aggravating, or disappointing, and I wished they were more like me. Bonhoeffer talks about resisting the urge to stamp Christians in my image rather than allowing God to stamp them in his image. He reflects on how the discipline of the tongue is essential to community.

Strong and weak, wise or foolish, talented or untalented, pious or less pious, the complete diversity of individuals in the community is no longer a reason to talk and judge and condemn, and therefore no longer a pretext for self-justification. Rather this diversity is a reason for rejoicing in one another and serving one another.

Life Together, DBW-RE, p. 72

In a Christian community, everything depends on whether each individual is an indispensable link in a chain. … it is a good idea that all members receive a definite task to perform for the community, so that they may know in times of doubt that they too are not useless and incapable of doing anything. Every Christian community must know that not only do the weak need the strong, but also the strong cannot exist without the weak. The elimination of the weak is the death of the community.

Life Together, DBW-RE, p. 72

Of course, all of this is idealistic, easier said than done. But I have little doubt that the vision here of the diversity of people in the church is the same vision as the apostle Paul, especially in 1 Corinthians 12, or Romans 12, but also in places like Ephesians 4, or really, all over the place. We will never achieve this kind of community if we don’t make it our ideal first.

I also love Bonhoeffer’s reflections on Paul’s assertion in 1 Timothy 1:15 that he is the chief of sinners. In Bonhoeffer’s reading, Paul’s assertion becomes a model for us, an example for our to view our own sins as the worst.

There can be no genuine knowledge of sin that does not lead me down to this depth. If my sin appears to me to be in any way smaller or less reprehensible in comparison with the sins of others, then I am not yet recognizing my sin at all. My sin is of necessity the worst, the most serious, the most objectionable. Christian love will find any number of excuses for the sins of others; only for my sin is there no excuse whatsoever.

Life Together, DBW-RE p. 74

According to Bonhoeffer, there are four primary “services” that Christians should render to their brothers and sisters. The most important, Bonhoeffer says, is the service of the word (p. 75), that is, speaking the word of God to people. But he delays speaking about this type of service until he can expound on the other three, which, though perhaps not quite as important, are still vital to the functioning of the community. These other three services are:

  • listening (pp. 75–76)
  • active helpfulness (pp. 76–77)
  • bearing with one another (pp. 77–80)

Finally, he talks about the service of the word (pp. 80–86).

I found Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on these types of service so arresting that I will use another post to talk about them.

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