Chapter 11: The Visible Church-Community

Acts 2:38-47

Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.’ And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.


What is the proper relationship between the church—the Body of Christ—and the world as well as those who hold authority? What should that relationship look like when those who hold power and authority use it to persecute the church or to commit injustices in the world? These are the questions that Bonhoeffer tries to address in this chapter.

The first part of the chapter is a somewhat dense continuation of Bonhoeffer’s attempt to reconcile the understanding of discipleship that he draws from the gospels with the writings of Paul. This includes a somewhat tortuous tackling of Paul’s writings on slavery in the epistles, concluding with the quote from 1 Corinthians 7:20, “Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.” Bonhoeffer’s use of this text is surprising given this scripture’s long history in being used to justify slavery and Bonhoeffer’s own connection with Black churches in the United States from his time studying abroad.

Where Bonhoeffer is trying to go with this line of writing is addressing how the church is meant to respond to oppression and abuse by those who hold power. The Body of Christ is not meant to foment revolt and revolution, for attempting to overthrow those in power would be to align ourselves with the world, to choose the old humanity over the new humanity in Christ.

Rather, the Body of Christ is called to be a witness against the evils of the world and the oppression and persecution of others. How do we accomplish this? By giving over the wholeness of our lives to the Body of Christ, the church-community, which Bonhoeffer so eloquently places as existing in the space between proclamation of the word and the sacraments. We give our lives over fully to the Body of Christ even as we remain in the world, “remaining in the condition in which [we] were called,” overcoming evil with good (Romans 12:21).

What does this “good” that we are supposed to do look like? For the most part, exactly what you think it would. Caring for the suffering, providing support and shelter for those who are being persecuted, and speaking out for those who have no voice. It is this good work, this faithfulness to Jesus’ call to discipleship, that makes the church-community visible in the world. And not just visible, a witness against the evil and brokenness of the world. Most importantly, this work is done without fear for the self or the community, for as the Body of Christ, as a part of the new humanity, we live in freedom from fear, for we know that it is Jesus’ suffering in which we share.

Ultimately, this is the core of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the right response to evil. We as the Body of Christ are to take on the suffering of those who are persecuted as our own. We are to accept the indignities of the abused as our own. For Jesus came to bear the suffering of the world and we are the Body of Christ in the world now and there is much suffering to be borne.

Contextual Clues

  • Divine Authority: At times in this chapter, Bonhoeffer makes arguments that at first sound like they might be used to justify those in power with divine authority. Indeed, there were some who were making exactly those claims about Adolph Hitler and leaning on that claim of divine authority to justify the way they treated the Jews and any others who stood in their way. However, that is not the argument Bonhoeffer is making. Rather, he makes a warning that those in power must remember whose servants they are and should they fail to remember, their actions will place them outside of the Body of Christ and subject to divine judgement.
  • No Rebellion or Revolution: Bonhoeffer makes what appears to be an odd argument against rebellions and revolutions especially considering the reality of life under Nazi rule. “As members of Christ’s community, they have gained the kind of freedom which no rebellion or revolution could have brought them or could ever bring them.” (DBW IV, p238) However, this is a not-so-veiled stab at the Nazi Party who, though they claimed that their takeover of Germany in 1933 was a “revolution,” were less “free” than slaves.  

Reflection Questions

Bonhoeffer opens the chapter with the claim that, “The Body of Christ takes up physical space here on earth.”
Does the church take up a space within the world? If so, what kind of space is it?

Though Bonhoeffer does not use the term, his writing in this book, and especially this chapter, contains a certain understanding of non-violent resistance, putting him in the company of other, more prominent nonviolent activists and leaders of the Twentieth Century. What similarities do you see in Bonhoeffer with the teachings of figures like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela? How does Bonhoeffer differ from them?