Bonhoeffer’s Take on Christian Unity

Thursday is for Discipleship

Have you ever noticed that some Christians are annoying? Of course you have. Have you ever noticed that sometimes you are that annoying Christian? I hope you have.

I used to tell people (jokingly) in our church that we purposefully put one annoying believer in every small group, just to give them challenges to learn how to really love one another.

The reality is that without some challenge, our love for one another remains superficial and unremarkable. But what we want, what the world needs to see in us is a remarkable, beyond-human-capacities kind of love (John 13:34-35). And when they do, they will know that God is among us (1 John 1-5). We need to develop the ability to love one another beyond either the disappointing or appreciated performance of one another.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer had tremendous insight into the effect of love-beyond-performance in the context of Christian discipleship. 

“One is a brother to another only through Jesus Christ. I am a brother to another person through what Jesus Christ did for me and to me; the other person has become a brother to me through what Jesus Christ did for him. This fact that we are brethren only through Jesus Christ is of immeasurable significance. It is not only the  person who is earnest and devout, who comes to me seeking brotherhood, that I must deal with in fellowship.* My brother is rather that other person who has been redeemed by Christ, delivered from his sin, and called to faith and eternal life. It is not what a man is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality or piety, that constitutes the basis of our community.* Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to  both of us. [1]
In Christian brotherhood everything depends upon its being clear right from the beginning, first, that Christian brotherhood is not an ideal, but a divine reality. Second, that Christian brotherhood is a spiritual and not a psychic reality. [2]

[1] *I have provided my own translation of these two sentences to update and make clearer  Bonhoeffer’s meaning from the Doberstein translation of 1954. The bold emphasis has been added as well.

[2] By “psychic reality” Bonhoeffer means, “experiential.” Christian brotherhood is more than the feelings of brotherhood. It is a spiritual truth on the order of what it means to be “in Christ.” I am in Christ whether I feel like it or not by virtue of what Christ has done for me and to me.

If living “with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us” [as fellow Christians]” what is the greatest obstacle to making disciples shaped by this understanding?

3 thoughts on “Bonhoeffer’s Take on Christian Unity

  1. I believe that the greatest obstacle is remembering that the speck of sawdust in my brother’s eye is a plank in my own. It is a lack of attaining a proper sense of humility, a lack of self-appreciation, in my self; that of walking humbly before my God of Micah 6:8. I need to be thankful that I receive the blessing of serving my brother instead of being aggravated that he does not express gratitude that I have deigned to serve him.


    1. Thanks John, that is a very helpful line of thought. G.K. Chesterton said, “You can tell of a man’s advance in humility by how low he is able to bow.” Service to my brother, redeemed by the blood of Christ, is always without exception a privilege. The problem is training my heart to believe and obey. Appreciate you.


  2. Also, the issue of being able to repeatedly forgive one another as we have been forgiven by our Father through His Son, Jesus. Disciples will hurt one another, it is a given, because we are human. I see the body of Christ weakened by not forgiving one another, leaving a congregation rather than work out issues in light of our salvation.


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