How do we cultivate Christian community during days of disease, social distancing, and deeply divided opinions? Unable to gather together for worship, or in some cases even to leave their homes, most Christians have gone online in a desperate attempt to find some sense of fellowship in the body of Christ. Sermons are being live-streamed, pastors are posting devotions, and members of a congregation stay in touch via means such as WhatsApp and Zoom. We all admit that it is less than ideal, but better than nothing.
Although the internet has been a helpful tool during the Covid-19 crisis, it has also provided a platform for a dizzying number of conspiracy theories, political protests, and medical manifestos. American Christians in particular seem to use social media to promote their personal views about the virus at least as much as they use it to promote the gospel. While having the freedom to speak publicly to an issue is a beautiful thing, it also comes with a weighty responsibility for believers. We are called to protect the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:1-7). Sadly, it is all too easy to love our opinions more than we love our neighbor, forming virtual alliances with those who agree with us and treating like enemies those who don’t.
Perhaps this is what makes Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s 1938 work, Life Together, so timely for Christians living during a pandemic. Its message helps us recover a biblical understanding of Christian community, even during very abnormal times. Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together while teaching and living at an underground seminary for the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany. In a day when many of his countrymen were uniting under fascism and hate, Bonhoeffer wrote of believers’ unity under the Word. He begins his little book by quoting Psalm 133:1: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” Against the bleak backdrop of the Third Reich, when very little appeared good and pleasant, Bonhoeffer expounds on the goodness and pleasure of true Christian fellowship.
Nowadays, Christian community is a highly elastic term. It can refer to anything from a homeschool co-op to members of a dating website. We tend to view Christian community as a voluntary association created by likeminded individuals who share enthusiasm for a particular issue or practice. The first thing we must remember, however, is that we do not create Christian community, Christ does. It is a divine reality, created by the Lord Jesus through his Word and Spirit. “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ,” says Bonhoeffer. “Not what a man is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality and piety, constitutes the basis of our community. What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done for us” (21).
Christ not only reconciles us to God, but also to our brother. Our union with Christ includes union with Christ’s body. There is no personal relationship with Jesus, the Good Shepherd, apart from his church, the sheep. Since Christ has not only reconciled us to God but also to one another, we are now united in fellowship as those “from every tribe and language and people and nation” around the throne of the Lamb (Rev 5:9). Christian community, therefore, does not take its cue from this present evil age, dividing people according to political parties, race, gender, age, tax bracket, or opinions about wearing masks in public. In Christ, these walls are removed (Gal 3:28). He is the basis of our new identity and new community. “Now Christians can live with one another in peace; they can love and serve one another; they can become one. But they can continue to do so only by way of Jesus Christ” (23-24).
Pastors in particular need to bear this mind as they use social media, especially during the present crisis. Posts and tweets from a pastor that broadcast his beliefs of how Covid-19 is no deadlier than the common flu or how the government’s response has been overblown do nothing to protect the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the world are grieving the death of loved ones, suffering economic loss, and living in fear. As a public servant (minister) of the Word, the pastor is sorely needed in these days of hopelessness. His job is not to play political commentator or medical expert, but to preach the gospel, proclaim hope in Christ and comfort people with the truth. He is an ordained emissary called to serve the community created by Christ.
The New Testament does not recognize an individualistic form of Christianity which allows a believer to live his life like a spiritual drifter, detached from an ordinary congregation gathered together under the Word. Instead, Christ has established the local church as the primary and essential place where community life is experienced and made visible. Receiving the ministry of the Word together, “We become a part of what once took place for our salvation,” as Boenhoffer puts it:
Forgetting and losing ourselves, we, too, pass through the Red Sea, through the desert, across the Jordan into the promised land. With Israel we fall into doubt and unbelief and through punishment and repentance experience again God’s help and faithfulness…We are torn out of our own existence and set down in the midst of the holy history of God on earth. There God dealt with us, and there He still deals with us, our needs and our sins, in judgment and grace (53).
The history of salvation is a story to be heard together, as a community. It shows us that we are part of something much larger and far more vital than our own private experiences and political opinions, with which we are so preoccupied.
It is in fact more important for us to know what God did to Israel, to His Son Jesus Christ, than to seek what God intends for us today. The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important than the fact that I shall die, and the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, shall be raised on the Last Day. Our salvation is “external to ourselves.” I find no salvation in my life history, but only in the history of Jesus Christ (54).
Of course, during a lockdown, there are limits to how much we can cultivate community life through the means of grace. We can livestream sermons, but we cannot livestream the sacraments. The Lord’s Supper is a family meal to be received “when you come to together as a church” (1 Cor 11:17-34), says the apostle Paul. The temporary restrictions placed on public worship services during this pandemic have caused us to appreciate even more the generous gifts Christ provides to his church when he spreads a table before us in the wilderness. We long for the day when we can again assemble as living stones forming the holy temple of Christ. Community life cannot be cultivated better than by being served by Christ through Word and Sacrament.
And yet, there is a place for being alone in the Christian life. The individual member of the Christian community should still cultivate the spiritual disciplines of meditation, prayer, and intercession. Every believer can benefit from times of solitude and silence. “Many people seek fellowship because they are afraid to be alone,” says Bonhoeffer. “The person who comes into a fellowship because he is running away from himself is misusing it for the sake of diversion, no matter how spiritual this diversion may appear” (76). Such folk are usually disappointed with community life in the church and blame the fellowship for what is really their own fault. “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community” (77). But the reverse is also true, says Bonhoeffer: “Let him who is not in community beware of being alone…Each by itself has profound pitfalls and perils. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair” (78).
Community Life is Committed to One Another
Because we are members of one another in Christ, community life requires us to tame our tongues and develop listening ears. Our speech and conduct form the ministry that every member has toward the rest of the body. This includes our behavior online. Our brother’s and sister’s spiritual wellbeing is more important than our desire to rant on Twitter or Facebook. When I fail to be gracious and sympathetic toward a brother or sister in Christ with whom I disagree, or when I disdain the congregation for its failure to live up to my expectations, I am essentially saying that my idealistic dream of Christian community – a world in which everyone thinks like me – is better than the one which Christ has actually established through his life, death, and resurrection.
Bonhoeffer helps us see how this type of sin is toxic to the communion of saints:
He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself (27-28).
Although the church confesses the same creed, it is not a club or a collection of people who think and look alike. It is nothing less than the family of God purchased by the blood of Jesus. United to one another in Christ and acknowledging “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph 4:5), our differences from each other help us lose our blinders and provide us with greater opportunity to grow in grace. Each member of the body does its part. Not only do the young in the congregation need the wisdom of the elderly, and the wealthier members need the spiritual gifts of the poorer, but we also benefit from the service, observations, and correction of fellow believers who are different from us in ethnicity, political conviction or cultural practice. It is God, not our dreams and ideals, who has bound us together in fellowship and made us a family in Christ. We come to the church, therefore, not as demanders, but as thankful recipients, committed to one another in love and the bond of peace.
Rev. Michael Brown is a URCNA missionary to Milan, Italy where he serves Chiesa Riformata Filadelfia as pastor.
 Page numbers reference Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community (New York: HarperCollins, 1954).