In Life Together, Bonhoeffer seems really interested exploring the implications of the idea that we’re individual people justified in Christ who are bound together in Christ (I discussed some this here). While his words offer a challenge to the radical individualism of our culture, he does not erase individuals but rather roots the value of individuals in God. He writes that we often have a tendency to engage in “self-justification,” which can lead to criticism of others and easily taking offense at others, rather than resting our justification by God’s grace. Confidence in our justification by grace means that we can forgive others in light of God’s forgiveness and see them as people who display “the richness of God’s creative glory” (93).
For Bonhoeffer, a major part of living with other Christians is recognizing that we cannot and should not control them to shape into what we wish them to be; they are God’s people as we are. This means that they are not our projects, but God’s projects, just as we are. Therefore, even when we must confront a believer in his or her sin, it must be in the knowledge that God and His Word judge them, not us.
Life Together doesn’t get into the issue of how we can love non-Christians, and there are sometimes that the version that I read sounded universalistic (whether because of the original or the translator). But from my reading, the rest of the book wouldn’t support that interpretation of those passages. I tried to think about how Bonhoeffer’s paradigm for loving other Christians might apply to loving non-Christians, and I think that the teachings about love in Life Together can be extended in two ways. First, the unbeliever is still an individual independent from us whom we cannot and should not control. Like our fellow Christians, we should not want to mold this person but rather we should pray that God will do it; an unbeliever is no more our personal project than a fellow believer is. Second, just as we relate to our fellow Christians through Christ, we can recognize that we have nothing to offer the world except through Jesus Christ. Even our talents and service we offer in Christ’s name. And so we hope to be used by God to bring those who are alienated from Him into relationship with Him through Jesus.