Finkenwalde: A Model of Christian Community

The Cambridge Dictionary defines community as “all the people who live in a particular area, or a group of people who are considered as a unit because of their shared interests or background”. [1] A Christian community includes people from various backgrounds and interests. Dietrich Bonhoeffer offered a helpful definition of the Christian community when he stated, “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this.” [2] Bonhoeffer’s definition emphasizes the centrality of Jesus in Christian community. His understanding provides a foundation for how community is understood and practiced in the church today.

Bonhoeffer taught on Christian community and provided an example of what it looks like through his service to the Confessing Church and the illegal seminary in Pomerania. He traveled extensively before his time of service in Finkenwalde where he shared a common life with twenty-five vicars who lived in poor conditions. [3] Eric Metaxas provides readers with a fascinating observation that “Bonhoeffer had in mind a kind of monastic community, where one aimed to live in the way Jesus commanded his followers to live in his Sermon on the Mount, where one lived not merely as a theological student, but as a disciple of Christ.” [4] That understanding of Christian living permeates much on Bonhoeffer’s writing as well as his ministry. Before I move on, I think it helps to consider several characteristics of the seminary community Bonhoeffer led.

Elements of Bonhoeffer’s Community at Finkenwalde

There are certain elements that must be present in a genuine Christian community. I will provide some essential characteristics for Christian community later. Some of these characteristics were present in Bonhoeffer’s community. The elements of the communal life included the Word of God, prayer, music, and genuine respect for fellow Christians. Let’s first consider the centrality of the Word of God in Bonhoeffer’s community of faith.

The Word of God

Bonhoeffer expected a careful observation of the spiritual disciplines among his students. They were required to read both testaments in the communal service. Metaxas notes that “One meditated on the same verse for an entire week, a half hour each day.” [5] The students were apparently encouraged to treat each passage as though it was God’s word to them personally. This writer is tempted to engage in a separate study of how Bonhoeffer understood the word of God or how his understanding might be similar or different from a contemporary evangelical understanding. Here it is sufficient to note that the Bible was an essential component of Bonhoeffer’s community. Prayer was also an important element in the Finkewalde community.

Prayer

Bonhoeffer stressed the importance of the Word of God and he also emphasized the importance of prayer in the Christian community. In fact, he wrote about the value of praying the Psalms. He said, “The more deeply we grow into the Psalms and the more often we pray them as our own, the more simple and rich will our prayer become.” [6] Bonhoeffer encouraged his students to pray fervent prayers as they sought to live in the way of Jesus and implement the Master’s example of prayer into their lives.

Music

In addition to the word of God and prayer, music was also an important element in the Finkenwalde community. Bonhoeffer was from a musical family and had a deep love for music. His love for music trickled into the community life at the seminary. Metaxas notes that the students gathered everyday “around noon to sing hymns or other sacred music”. [7] Pastor Bonhoeffer believed that singing together broadened the spiritual horizon of everyone present and enriched the whole Christian fellowship. [8]

Respect for One Another

The Bible, prayer, singing, and respect for one another characterized the seminary community at Finkenwalde. Bonhoeffer led his students to avoid gossip about fellow brothers. He taught them to never speak about a brother in his absence. [9] A Biblical priority for Christian community is the oneness believers are afforded in Christ. Bonhoeffer knew that gossip destroys unity in the body of Christ. We have much to learn from this example!

Conclusions

Christians gather in community as “bringers of the message of salvation”. [10] Christian community is distinct from other communities because of Jesus. A general community is comprised of people with similar interests and backgrounds but a Christian community is comprised of persons of different ethnicities, political affiliations, and backgrounds who are united in Jesus. This kind of community is established on the basis of Christ’s atoning work for all. Bonhoeffer’s seminary community at Finkenwalde provides an example of what Christian community should look like.

The Christian community needs to reconsider the historic and biblical teaching on community. People are lonelier than ever before and do not sense a genuine closeness to other people or God. It is the responsibility of the Christian church to provide a meaningful community. Mark Dever and Paul Alexander[11] provide us with five aspects of a living and active Christian community:

  1. A Christian community is covenantal. It is a community of believers who have become part of the New Covenant in Christ’s blood and, as a result, have covenanted together to help each other run the Christian race with integrity, goodness, and grace.
  2. A Christian community is careful. We should seek to obey Gods word in every aspect of our life together.
  3. A Christian community is corporate. The body of Christ is a corporate entity and we should avoid individualism.
  4. A Christian community is cross-cultural. It is for everyone.
  5. A Christian community is cross-generational. People of all ages should relate to one another for mutual encouragement and edification.

The Christian community is one of love. Love must be present for a genuine community to be present. Christians encourage one-another, delight in fellowship, and pray, serve, and witness together. We have much to learn about Biblical Christian community. The example provided by Bonhoeffer at Finkenwalde merits deep consideration as do the words of Acts 2:42-47.

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. 44 Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. 45 They sold their possessions and their property and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with joyful and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. Every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Acts 2:42-27, CSB 

[1] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/community accessed May 31, 2019.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community, (HarperOne: New York, 1954), 21.

[3] Ibid., 11.

[4] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, (Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 2010), 263.

[5] Metaxas, 268.

[6] Bonhoeffer, 50.

[7] Metaxas, 267.

[8] Bonhoeffer, 61.

 [9] Metaxas, 270.

 [10] Bonhoeffer, 23.

[11] Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel, (Crossway: Wheaton, 2005), 110-112.

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