Loving each other in Christ

The first chapter of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together explores what the idea of Christian brotherhood means.  For him, it all comes down to our unity in Christ because of our salvation through His righteousness and under His authority.  Indeed, Christians are united through all eternity in Christ.  These realities allow us to love each other through Christ.  One of Bonheoffer’s major goals in this was to distinguish between human expectations of community and true Christian community.  We may have ideals coming into a community of believers, he writes, but God’s grace will sweep them away when people must actually learn to live with each other’s sins and weaknesses.

The best antidote to disappointment is to be thankful for the very real Christian community that we do have and focus on our own need for growth.  Otherwise, the disappointed person “becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself” (28).  Instead, we should welcome the death of our visions for what community should be so that God’s definition of it can triumph.  An example of God’s definition comes later in the chapter when he talks about love: “What love is, only Christ tells in his Word.  Contrary to all my own opinions and convictions, Jesus Christ will tell me what love toward the brethren really is” (35).  Therefore God’s definition of right community, revealed in the Bible, trumps all of our natural impulses and emotions: it may even require ending fellowship for the sake of truth “despite all the protests of my human love” (35).  A good summary statement comes at the end of one of his sections:

Christian brotherhood is not an idea 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. (30)

Bonhoeffer also contrasts divine love and human love.  The central concept in this discussion is we can love each other spiritually rather than humanly.  He relates this distinction to the Bible’s differentiation between  “pneumatic” (Spirit-driven) and “psychic” (man-driven).  Central to his understanding of loving each other is the idea that we love others only through Christ.  Spiritual love serves, whereas human love desires.  I think that the contrast and the implications are best summarized in this paragraph:

Because Christ stands between me and others, I dare not desire direct fellowship with them.  As only Christ can speak to me in such a way that I may be saved, so others, too, can be saved only by Christ himself.  This means that I must release the other person from every attempt of mine to regulate, coerce, and dominate him with my love.  The other person needs to retain his independence of me; to be loved for what he is, as one for whom Christ bought forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  Because Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christ’s; I must meet him only as the person that he already is in Christ’s eyes.  This is the meaning of the proposition that we can meet others only through the mediation of Christ.  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. (35-36)

So in loving each other spiritually we allow each other freedom rather than seeking to transform each other by our own actions.  I’m not entirely sure what he means in the last sentence and how he would apply this vision of love to nonbelievers.  I may get a better sense of this as I read further.

UPDATE (2/7/10): I corrected a couple of typos.

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3 comments

  1. Yeah, I could use more particulars and examples to better understand Bonhoeffer’s point, but I do appreciate what seems to be a call for interpersonal liberty rather than control, perhaps in contrast to the idealized communes of socialism?

    In trying to make sense of Bonhoeffer’s framework, I interpret him as saying that relating to each other through Christ means that we can turn our cares over to God and grant each other greater freedom because we trust in the working of God rather than needing to impose directly upon one another. Am I understanding him correctly?

    Hopefully, Bonhoeffer will address the boundary conditions of such freedom so we can better understand his meaning.

    Thanks for the post, Scott.

  2. Yes, I’m interested to see if he offers some examples with his principles. I think that the main point is that God ultimately defines Christian community in the Scriptures. Christian community is not like the “idealized communes” or even like a monastic order of the super-spiritual because those are human definitions rather than God’s idea of the body of Christ composed of people who live everyday life together. I also appreciated the freedom that comes with this idea that can prevent us from turning each other into “projects”; instead, believers are God’s projects as he shapes them into the likeness of Christ over time.

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