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Introduction:

       The second reason why Dietrich Bonhoeffer can impact twenty-first preaching is the importance he placed on Christian fellowship. Bonhoeffer was convinced that it was impossible to be a follower of Jesus Christ apart from life in the fellowship of local believers: “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ.”[1] This was more than mere theory for Bonhoeffer because he had the opportunity to develop a community of believers while he was the director of the Preachers’ Seminary.

The Seminary was located at Zingsthof by the Baltic Sea when it opened on April 26, 1935. It relocated in Finkenwalde, near Stettin in Pomerania on June 24 of the same year. The Gestapo eventually closed the Seminary in September of 1937. During the period of its existence, Bonhoeffer desired a“genuine experiment in communal living.”[2] It was Bonhoeffer’s desire that the experiment in the Seminary would provide a foundation for the German church after the war. Bonhoeffer realized that biblical community would provide the fresh life the church would need.

This realization led to a burning desire to put the findings of this“experiment” into writing. This led to his classic book, Life Together, which was written a year after the Seminary was shut down. Bonheoffer wrote the book in only four weeks, while he stayed in the home of his twin sister,Sabine in Gottingen. The book was first published in 1939.

Biblical Foundation:

In Life Together, Bonhoeffer appealed to a variety of Biblical references that point to the fact that community with fellow followers of Jesus is a crucial element of Christianity. For example, chapter one begins with Psalm 133:1: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.” Psalm 133 is a song of ascents. That is, it spoke of pilgrims coming to Jerusalem to worship together.

An important component was that people of different backgrounds were to be united in fellowship. Derek Kinder writes that “all Israelites, including even debtors, slaves and offenders…were brothers in God’s sight. The psalm is surely singing…of living up to this ideal, giving depth and reality to the emphasized word, ‘together’.[3] Unity was a key to how Bonhoeffer understood the Church because Jesus died on the cross to secure such fellowship. The whole purpose of redemption in Jesus Christ was to save the enemies of God throughout the world, and in anticipation of eternal life, believers “are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians.”[4] 

It is a privilege because “the physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.”[5]  The early Christians understood this truth. Even before the Holy Spirit was poured out on the followers of Jesus on the day of Pentecost in the city of Jerusalem there was community for “they all joined together constantly in prayer”(Acts 1:14). This group included the eleven disciples (verse 13) “along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus and with his brothers.” 

It is significant that both genders were represented here because the cultural barrier between male and female was abolished through mutual participation in the church.[6] Verse 15 indicates that the total number of disciples was around one hundred and twenty. Thus, within weeks of the resurrection of Jesus, his people, made up of varied backgrounds, gathered waiting for the power of the Holy Spirit.

Then on the day of Pentecost, the brothers and sisters “were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1). The Holy Spirit came upon them with power. Peter, empowered with the Holy Spirit, stood before thousands and proclaimed the Good News about Jesus. The result was that about three thousand people turned to Jesus for salvation (Acts 2.41).

Among the foundational disciplines of the early church was a devotion to the “fellowship” (Acts 2.42). The Greek word for “fellowship” is“koinonia”. It means “fellowship”, “communion”, “participation”, “sharing in” and “close relationship”.[7] This “communion” is possible only because believers are united through their salvation in Jesus.

Bonhoeffer wrote:

…without Christ we would not know other Christians around us; not could we approach them. The way to them is blocked by our own ‘I’. Christ opened up the way to God and to one another. Now Christians can live with each other in peace; they can love and serve one another; they can become one.[8]

Thus, fellowship is much more than simply being together. Since Christians are joined together in Jesus, they are devoted to love and serve one another. The early believers modeled this kind of fellowship. Acts 2:44-47 gives us a beautiful picture of their fellowship: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

This devotion to one another in the early church in Jerusalem is what the apostle Paul advocated in Ephesians 4:1-3: “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”  

Verse 3 is the punch line in this statement. Paul equated walking worthy of the calling we have received with making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Application:

To Bonhoeffer, fellowship with our brothers and sisters within the church was a way for Jesus to minister to his people. Fellowship with God’s people provides opportunities to bless and serve and love others. The pastor and preacher in the twenty-first century must not only preach on the necessity of Christian fellowship, but he also must be personally devoted to the fellowship throughout the week.

A preacher who avoids people or is superficial in his relationships with church members will most likely earn the reputation of one does not really care about his people. This can eventually have an adverse affect on his preaching because the people in the pews may read into each message a lack of genuineness. Bonhoeffer was an example. While the students at the Preachers’ Seminary were not always thrilled about Bonhoeffer’s insistence that they spend time daily in scripture meditation, it was indisputable that he genuinely loved and cared for them.

As the preacher builds loving relationships with people in the church, his weekly proclamation of the word will be eagerly received because the man in the pulpit is seen as God’s spokesperson for them. Jesus made it clear that his followers were to be characterized by their love for one another. In John 13:34-35, he said, “a new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love another.”  

Francis A. Schaeffer describes this characteristic of loving one another as the “mark” of Christians “at all times and all places until Jesus returns.”[9] The pastor and preacher must set the example for the church to follow.

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[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1954),21.

[2] Kelly and Nelson, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Testament to Freedom, 27.

[3] Derek Kinder, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150 (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1975), 452.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 18.

[5] Ibid., 19. 

[6] William J. Larkin Jr., IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Acts (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995), 44

[7] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), 438-439.

[8] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 23-24.

[9] Francis A. Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1976), 8.

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1987-074-16, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.jpg

“May we be enabled to say ‘No’ to sin and ‘Yes’ to the sinner.” 

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Photo of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Nothing on Your Phone (Including TGC) Can Replace the Local Church

Theological content is easier than ever before to find. The internet has made resources for the Christian life ubiquitous—whether it be women’s Bible studies, commentaries, sermon podcasts, books, video summaries of biblical books, video reflections on tough doctrines, documentaries on apologetics questions, entire courses on preaching, or whatever you are looking for. Sure, there is also more bad Christian content than ever before—read the Christian book bestseller lists or top religious podcasts list and weep—but there is also a ton of helpful, trustworthy, doctrinally sound stuff. The world will always need solid theological resources and guidance for Christian living, and technology is making it easier to get these resources out. We should be thankful.

But as much as we should celebrate this age of abundance in Christian resources—what my colleague Sarah Zylstra calls “theological affluence”—I worry about some of its side effects. Namely: why is the rise in access to theological material coinciding with a decline in Christian church attendance? Could it be that our easy access to theological content is, in a twisted way, making us see church as unnecessary? Listening to a Christian podcast or devotional app, after all, is much easier than getting out of bed on Sunday morning and going to a church building. But is it the same?

It is not.

Two Perversions

Just as material affluence can keep us from church on Sunday because we have the means for all manner of distraction (globetrotting vacations, weekends at the lake, NFL games on our 90-inch flatscreen), theological affluence can keep us from church because we have umpteen resources to fill our theological “tank” during the week. Why would we be desperate to attend church regularly, listening to our so-so pastor’s Sunday message, when we can listen to John Stott and John Piper sermons on our commute, five days a week? Doesn’t that check the box?

Part of why this problematic thinking sounds reasonable to many evangelical Christians today is because we have long practiced a faith that is systemically corrupted by (at least) two perversions:

1. Consumer Perversion

We think of faith primarily in terms of “what I get out of it”—whether that’s a feel-good sermon, a “safe” friend group (especially for our kids), or an escape-from-hell ticket. Certainly there are gains in the Christian life (the ultimate gain!), but when we approach it as “what can you do for me?” consumers, our faith is fickle and fragile. What do we do when being a Christian starts costing us, when suffering comes, when church gets . . . uncomfortable? This consumer perversion (amplified by the overly individualistic tendencies of Western culture) makes church-hopping a thing—since there will always be a church with better coffee, better kids’ ministries, less annoying people, and so on. If church, then, is mostly about “getting” the best of whatever spiritual thing you’re looking for, you’ll always be unsatisfied—constantly trying new churches and perhaps eventually giving up or turning online. The “best” preachers and the “best” worship music are on iTunes, after all, not in your local church.

2. Gnostic Perversion

We think of faith mostly as a “content” experience. It’s in our heads and in our hearts: it’s the ideas we pick up from books, podcasts, and sermons that matter. We think of our Christianity mostly as a mental, disembodied experience. And this dovetails with the consumer perversion, since if Christianity is mostly “content,” then we can justify picky standards—demanding that a church’s preaching be intellectually stimulating, doctrinally rigorous (but not too rigorous), culturally contextualized, and so forth; otherwise, we’ll leave and search for better content at another church. You can see how this gnostic perversion might gradually convince someone that physical church (with its subpar “content”) is dispensable in an era where better-quality content is just three taps away on a smartphone.

What Only Church Offers

But Christians are not meant to be consumers; we’re meant to be servants. And Christianity is not merely content; it’s an embodied, lived community. Active, committed participation in the local church reminds us of this.

To be a Christian is to be like Christ: to serve rather than be served (Mark 10:45). You can’t do this by sitting in your car listening to a Christian podcast or gazing at a YouTube video about the Bible. In these activities you are being served. To be sure, you’re being served wonderful things! But it’s not enough. You also need to serve others, and the local church invites you to do this. The church is a place where Christians serve one another (1 Pet. 4:10), encourage one another (Heb. 10:25), love one another with brotherly affection, and outdo one another in showing honor (Rom. 12:10). The church is a community profoundly oriented around loving others and serving the world beyond itself.

The church is also an embodied community, something that cannot be replicated through books and screens. In the disembodied digital age we have the illusion of “connection” with our many social-media followers, but we’re still lonely and unknown behind all the manipulative filters and layers of facade. The local church—an enfleshed community of tangible people in regular contact and close proximity—can be an antidote to our disembodied grief. It grounds us in reality and reminds us that we aren’t just brains on sticks. We were made for physical connection with people, not just informational connection through screens.

In a lonely, disembodied world, the church offers a beautiful alternative: an embodied community where at least once a week you are in physical presence with your church family. It’s a place where the manipulative filters of life online fall away and you can be known in a truer sense, warts and all. It’s a place where our real struggles and weaknesses are harder to hide; a place where healing—emotional, spiritual, physical—can happen. It’s a place where you can do physical things together: sing, stand, sit, kneel, hug, attempt awkward bro handshakes, even eat and drink the communion elements. You can get none of this from podcasts and apps and audiobooks.

No Substitute for Church

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In 1672, about fifty miles northwest of London in Bedford, John Bunyan was released from twelve years of imprisonment. As with suffering saints before and since, Bunyan found prison to be a painful and fruitful gift. He would have understood the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, three hundred years later, who, like Bunyan, turned his imprisonment into a world-changing work of explosive art. After his imprisonment in the Russian gulag of Joseph Stalin’s “corrective labor camps,” Solzhenitsyn wrote,

I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!” I . . . have served enough time there. I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!” (The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 2, 617)

How can a man pronounce a blessing on imprisonment? Bunyan’s life and labor give one answer.

Beginning of God’s Work

John Bunyan was born in Elstow, about a mile south of Bedford, England, in 1628. Bunyan learned the trade of metalworking, or “tinker,” from his father. He received the ordinary education of the poor to read and write, but nothing more. He had no formal higher education of any kind, which makes his writing and influence all the more astonishing.

Bunyan was not a Christian believer during his growing-up years. He tells us, “I had few equals, especially considering my years . . . for cursing, swearing, lying, and blaspheming the holy name of God. . . . Until I came to the state of marriage, I was the very ringleader of all the youth that kept me company, in all manner of vice and ungodliness” (Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, 10–11).

He “came to the state of matrimony” when he was 20 or 21, but we never learn his first wife’s name. What we do learn is that she was poor, but had a godly father who had died and left her two books that she brought to the marriage: The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven and The Practice of Piety. Bunyan said, “In these two books I would sometimes read with her, wherein I also found some things that were somewhat pleasing to me; but all this while I met with no conviction” (Grace Abounding, 13). But God’s work had begun. He was irreversibly drawing the young married Bunyan to himself.

‘Thy Righteousness Is in Heaven’

During the first five years of marriage, Bunyan was profoundly converted to Christ and to the baptistic, nonconformist church life in Bedford. It was a lengthy and agonizing process.

He was poring over the Scriptures but finding no peace or assurance. There were seasons of great doubt about the Scriptures and about his own soul. “A whole flood of blasphemies, both against God, Christ, and the Scriptures were poured upon my spirit, to my great confusion and astonishment. . . . How can you tell but that the Turks had as good scriptures to prove their Mahomet the Savior as we have to prove our Jesus?” (Grace Abounding, 40). “My heart was at times exceeding hard. If I would have given a thousand pounds for a tear, I could not shed one” (Grace Abounding, 43).

Then comes what seemed to be the decisive moment.

One day as I was passing into the field . . . this sentence fell upon my soul. Thy righteousness is in heaven. And methought, withal, I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God’s right hand; there, I say, was my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was doing, God could not say of me, he wants [lacks] my righteousness, for that was just before him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse, for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed. (Grace Abounding, 90–91)

So in 1655, when the matter of his soul was settled, he was asked to exhort the church, and suddenly a great preacher was discovered. He would not be licensed as pastor of the Bedford church until seventeen years later. But his popularity as a powerful lay preacher exploded. The extent of his work grew. “When the country understood that . . . the tinker had turned preacher,” biographer John Brown tells us, “they came to hear the word by hundreds, and that from all parts” (John Bunyan: His Life, Times, and Work, 105). In the days of England’s religious toleration, a day’s notice would get a crowd of 1,200 to hear him preach at seven in the morning on a weekday (John Bunyan, 370).

Prison and a Clear Conscience

Ten years after they were married, when Bunyan was thirty, his wife died, leaving him with four children under ten, one of them blind. A year later, in 1659, he married Elizabeth, who was a remarkable woman. The year after their marriage, however, Bunyan was arrested and put in prison for not conforming to the High Church standards of Charles II, the nation’s new king. Elizabeth was pregnant with their firstborn and miscarried in the crisis. Then she cared for the four children as stepmother for twelve years alone and bore Bunyan two more children, Sarah and Joseph.

For twelve years, Bunyan chose prison and a clear conscience over freedom and a conscience soiled by the agreement not to preach. He could have had his freedom when he wanted it. But he and Elizabeth were made of the same stuff. Though he was sometimes tormented that he might not be making the right decision in regard to his family, when asked to recant and not to preach he said,

If nothing will do unless I make of my conscience a continual butchery and slaughtershop . . . I have determined, the Almighty God being my help and shield, yet to suffer, if frail life might continue so long, even till the moss shall grow on mine eyebrows, rather than thus to violate my faith and principles. (John Bunyan, 224)

In 1672 he was released from prison because of the Declaration of Religious Indulgence. Immediately, he was licensed as the pastor of the church in Bedford, which he had been serving all along, even from within prison, by writings and periodic visits. A barn was purchased and renovated as their first building, and this was where Bunyan ministered as pastor for the next sixteen years until his death. (There was one more imprisonment in the winter and spring of 1675–76. John Brown thinks that this was the time when The Pilgrim’s Progress was written.)

In August 1688, Bunyan traveled the fifty miles to London to preach and to help make peace between a man in his church and his alienated father. He was successful in both missions. But after a trip to an outlying district, he returned to London on horseback through excessive rains. He fell sick of a violent fever, and on August 31, 1688, at age 60, he followed his famous fictional Pilgrim from the City of Destruction across the river into the Celestial City.

‘Jesus Was Never More Real’

The question, then, that I bring to Bunyan’s suffering is: What was its fruit? What did it bring about in his own life and, through him, in the lives of others? Knowing that I am leaving out many important things, I would answer that with just one observation: his suffering drove him into the word and opened the word to him.

Prison proved for Bunyan to be a hallowed place of communion with God because his suffering unlocked the word and the deepest fellowship with Christ he had ever known. He wrote,

I never had in all my life so great an inlet into the Word of God as now [in prison]. Those scriptures that I saw nothing in before were made in this place and state to shine upon me. Jesus Christ also was never more real and apparent than now. Here I have seen him and felt him indeed. . . . I never knew what it was for God to stand by me at all times and at every offer of Satan to afflict me, as I have found Him since I came in hither. (Grace Abounding, 121)

Bunyan especially cherished the promises of God as the key for opening the door of heaven. “I tell thee, friend, there are some promises that the Lord hath helped me to lay hold of Jesus Christ through and by, that I would not have out of the Bible for as much gold and silver as can lie between York and London piled up to the stars” (Works of John Bunyan, vol. 3, 721).

One of the greatest scenes in The Pilgrim’s Progress is when Christian recalls, in the dungeon of Doubting Castle, that he has a key to the door. Very significant is not only what the key is, but where it is:

What a fool, quoth he, am I, thus to lie in a stinking dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty! I have a key in my bosom, called Promise, that will, I am persuaded, open any lock in Doubting Castle. Then said Hopeful, That is good news, good brother; pluck it out of thy bosom, and try.

Then Christian pulled it out of his bosom, and began to try at the dungeon door, whose bolt (as he turned the key) gave back, and the door flew open with ease, and Christian and Hopeful both came out. (The Pilgrim’s Progress, 132)

Three times Bunyan says that the key was in Christian’s bosom, or chest. I take this to mean that Christian had hidden it in his heart by memorization and that it was now accessible in prison (though he had no Bible available) for precisely this reason. This is how the word sustained and strengthened Bunyan.

He Bled Bible

Everything he wrote was saturated with the Bible. He pored over his English Bible, which was all he had most of the time. Which is why he can say of his writings, “I have not for these things fished in other men’s waters; my Bible and Concordance are my only library in my writings” (John Bunyan, 364). The great London preacher Charles Spurgeon, who read The Pilgrim’s Progress every year, put it like this:

Prick him anywhere; and you will find that his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his soul is full of the Word of God. (Autobiography, vol. 2, 159)

This, in the end, is why Bunyan is still with us today rather than disappearing into the mist of history. He is with us and ministering to us because he reverenced the word of God and was so permeated by it that his blood was “Bibline” — the essence of the Bible flowed from him.

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Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

By Megan Briggs

eternal securityWhile at the Sing! Conference in Nashville, Tennessee, John Piper addressed a subject heavy on the minds of many Christians who identify with the reformed part of the evangelical church. Piper spoke to Josh Harris’ announcement that he has “fallen away” from faith. The theologian and pastor, who knows Harris personally, said it’s foolish to think that only some of us are capable of committing apostasy, but that doesn’t mean that God isn’t sovereign and that the doctrine of eternal security isn’t true.

“At 73, I go to my knees almost every single day and say ‘Hold on to me!’” Piper exclaimed during a Q+A session at the conference. “If God doesn’t keep me, if he takes his hand off of me this afternoon, I will commit apostasy,” he said.

What About the Doctrine of Eternal Security, Though?

The doctrine of eternal security essentially says that once a person comes to know and accept the saving grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ, they cannot become “unsaved.” This doctrine is also known as “once saved, always saved,” and Piper says he believes in it. However, he admits saying “I believe in the doctrine of eternal security” and “I could go to hell this afternoon” presents a very troubling juxtaposition. One wonders how both statements could be uttered in the same sentence.

Piper argues the answer lies in another doctrine, one he sees “on every page of the Bible.”  Piper articulates the sovereignty of God this way:

Nothing you do originates the decisive act or impulse that saves you. Nothing you think, nothing you will, nothing you do originates the act of the soul or the act of the body that causes God to elect you, predestine you, call you, keep you, or glorify you. All of it is a free gift.

While this doctrine teaches us there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, it also implies we are ultimately not in control of whether we fall away. When considering whether or not one could commit apostasy, Piper argues that nobody should have the mindset “I could keep this from happening.” The sovereignty of God teaches us that only God can keep us from falling. If this thought is hard to wrap your mind around or shifts your thinking, Piper admits the thought can throw you “really off balance.”

Self-Stability vs. God-Stability

Since we cannot simply will ourselves not to commit apostasy, this is where we need to shift from being self-stable to being God-stable, Piper says. To replace one’s sense of self-stability with God-stability requires some Bible knowledge, prayer, and “some deep soul work.”

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The Rhythm of the Christian Life

Abilene: Leafwood Publishers, 2019.
Available at Amazon.com.

This book by my former PhD student Dr. Brian Wright resources Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together for a pattern of modern discipleship.

The foreword is by Timothy George!

Blurb: Most of us think that if we could simply balance our lives better, we would be happier. But what we actually need is to rediscover the rhythm. As Christians, our whole life consists of loving God and loving others, just like Jesus did. In this book, Wright invites us to find true joy as we embrace these two core realities and discover how they are meant to work in tandem. Explore The Rhythm of Christian Life and recapture the joy of life together as God always intended.

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Worshipping with the African American congregation, the 24-year-old German began to see things “from below” – from the perspective of those who suffer oppression.

MLK Memorial

The Martin Luther King, Jr, Memorial in Washington, DC. PICTURE: Brian Kraus/Unsplash

“Empowered by God, Christians like Bonhoeffer have become a shining light in a world of sin, by speaking up and starting social movements that have brought injustice to an end.”

This encounter led to his personal conversion – from being a theologian focused on the intellectual side of Christianity to being a dedicated man of faith, resolved to carry out the teachings of Jesus.

That young man was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

A pastor and theologian of great intellect, he went on to repeatedly speak out against Hitler’s persecution of Jews, declaring that the church must not simply “bandage the victims under the wheel, but jam the spoke in the wheel itself”.

Despite persecution, Bonhoeffer insisted that Christ, not the Führer, was the head of the Church. His involvement in the attempted assassination of Hitler led to his arrest and eventual execution.

Empowered by God, Christians like Bonhoeffer have become a shining light in a world of sin, by speaking up and starting social movements that have brought injustice to an end.

Think of some of the most successful social movements in history: Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the United States; Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa; Gandhi and the independence movement in India; Oscar Romero in El Salvador; William Wilberforce and the abolitionist movement – the list goes on.

These movements all had a spiritual base. More specifically, they had Christian faith at the centre of them. Even Gandhi, who wasn’t a Christian, based much of his non-violence on the Sermon on the Mount. He said it was the greatest teaching that has ever been given.

Why are social movements with a strong Christian foundation so successful? For a start, they go beyond just protesting. They offer an alternative, one that puts human dignity at the forefront. It is the kingdom of God alternative.

Working for the kingdom of God involves transformation of every part of human existence. This includes of course the human heart which Jeremiah describes as deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9).

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How Would Bonhoeffer Vote?

LESS THAN A MONTH before the 2016 presidential election, evangelical journalist and biographer Eric Metaxas made the case in The Wall Street Journal that, though they might find his morals odious and his behavior unconscionable, American evangelicals had no choice but to vote for Donald Trump. Metaxas admitted that Trump’s lecherous Access Hollywood hot-mic audio comments, which the Washington Post had made public five days before, might be a deal-breaker for some religious voters. But Trump’s opponent, he argued, had “a whole deplorable basketful” of deal-breakers, and, purity be damned, Christians were obligated to stop her from reaching the Oval Office.

To make his point, Metaxas needed a weighty moral example, a name that had currency among churchgoers. Attentive observers of American Christianity could almost have predicted his choice. “The anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer also did things most Christians of his day were disgusted by,” Metaxas wrote, implying that pulling the lever for Trump was analogous to conspiring against Hitler’s regime, while voting for Hillary Clinton was roughly equivalent to joining the brownshirts. As everyone knows, evangelicals bought what Metaxas was selling.

This was far from the first time the Berlin theologian and pastor’s name was used to gain leverage in American politics. The Bonhoeffer of Metaxas’s 2010 best seller, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, had all the theological orthodoxy and manly grit an evangelical could want. Conversely, though Charles Marsh’s 2014 biography, Strange Glory, was exquisitely crafted and meticulously researched, his Bonhoeffer looked suspiciously like an American liberal Protestant with some inclination toward activism and progressive politics. He even spent the years he was incarcerated in the Nazi military prison at Tegel (1943–1945) suffering from unrequited love toward his best (male) friend, Eberhard Bethge, rather than pining for his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer.

More recently, both conservative and progressive journalists, pastors, and academics have entered the fray, claiming that either the Obergefell v. Hodges decision to legalize gay marriage (the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ronnie Floyd) or the election of Donald Trump (Sojourners magazine) constitutes a “Bonhoeffer moment,” one in which Christians must resist cultural or governmental authority in order to obey God. The debate about who has the right to claim Germany’s most famous resistance figure has become so fierce that last year Rhodes College professor Stephen Haynes penned The Battle for Bonhoeffer to address the United States’s recent reception of his theology.

With so many American Christians wielding his name in this cultural proxy war, one might assume Bonhoeffer’s political commitments were common knowledge among college-educated believers. One would be wrong. Books on Operation Valkyrie and Bonhoeffer’s association with the July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler are a dime a dozen. English-language studies that touch on Bonhoeffer’s work on behalf of the Jews or his interest in the American Black church appear frequently enough. But if one sets out to peg Bonhoeffer as an ally of either American Democrats or Republicans, only a deep dive into current scholarship will offer any clarity.

That, of course, is because Bonhoeffer lived in a very different time and culture. He grew up among the Berlin Bildungsbürgertum — the city’s cultural elite — in the western suburb of Grunewald. Many academics lived in this upscale neighborhood. Dietrich’s childhood ambition to pursue a doctorate would not have seemed entirely abnormal in that environment. By his teenage years, his father, Karl Bonhoeffer, had become one of Germany’s most famous psychiatrists; the eminent church historians Ernst Troeltsch and Adolf von Harnack were regulars at neighborhood gatherings. However, these were hardly liberal, American-style academic circles. Most found themselves in agreement with their government’s bellicosity when war broke out in 1914. In fact, many were passionate advocates of imperialism; Harnack even acted as a speechwriter for Kaiser Wilhelm II.

A different political mood prevailed in the Bonhoeffer family. Dietrich’s older brother, Karl-Friedrich, joined the Social Democrats after a conversion to socialism during the war. The other siblings drifted toward the German People’s Party and similar parties. Theirs was a bourgeois politics sympathetic with the more open and liberal atmosphere of the Weimar Republic of the 1920s, a stance that may help explain why so many in the Bonhoeffer family would later play active roles in the resistance.

Dietrich, however, stood mostly aloof from wranglings over political ideology. His friend Eberhard Bethge has written that in the 1932 elections Dietrich supported the moderate, lay Catholic Center Party because he thought their international ties — that is, partly ties to the Vatican — could provide “stability and independence” in a rather unstable time. This was an extraordinary step for a German Protestant minister, yet in one sense it fits Bonhoeffer perfectly. His foremost political concerns were never about economics, war and peace, or even the treatment of minorities, though obviously these things were not unimportant to him. Above all else, Bonhoeffer cared about the preservation of the gospel message and the freedom of the Christian church from political and cultural entanglements that might obscure its message. The intricacies of politics, he firmly believed, were not the business of the Protestant pastor or theologian.

“There is no doubt that the church of the Reformation is not encouraged to get involved directly in specific political actions of the state,” Bonhoeffer wrote in his 1933 essay “The Church and the Jewish Question.” “The church has neither to praise nor to censure the laws of the state. Instead, it has to affirm the state as God’s order of preservation in this godless world.” There were rare exceptions to this rule of nonintervention, of course, and the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany was clearly one of them. That was not, however, simply because the Nazi government was engaging in morally repugnant deeds and implementing unjust laws, but because those deeds and laws had driven the church into a status confessionis, a situation where the very truth of the gospel was at stake.

Republicans more anxious about safeguarding religious freedom than President Trump’s peccadillos may read these lines and believe they have found a kindred spirit. When they encounter Bonhoeffer’s conclusion in his Ethics that abortion is “nothing but murder” and discover his intense impatience with American liberal theology, they might feel themselves justified in christening the Obergefell decision a status confessionis — roughly what today might be called a “Bonhoeffer moment.” Perhaps those who are potential targets of an anti-discrimination lawsuit feel especially justified in doing so.

Yet when Bonhoeffer came to Union Theological Seminary in New York for the 1930–’31 academic year and, again, for the summer of 1939, he had some harsh words for those obsessed with religious liberty. “The American praise of freedom is more a tribute to the world, the state, and society than it is a statement concerning the church,” he wrote. “But where the gratitude for institutional freedom must be paid for through the sacrifice of the freedom of [gospel] proclamation, there the church is in chains, even if it believes itself to be free.”

Bonhoeffer, it would seem, may have found the conservative panic over Obergefell more faithless than politically feckless. He may have thought their “Bonhoeffer moment” more about self-preservation and power politics than gospel proclamation.

American progressives might feel even more justified in appropriating Bonhoeffer’s legacy. After all, the first thing most people learn about the Lutheran theologian is that he resisted a tyrannical government that systematically oppressed minorities. And, as many on the American left argue, the Trump administration has at least tried to do just that. These progressive believers might buttress their case by lauding Bonhoeffer’s courageous philosemitic efforts or citing the Sundays in 1931 he spent with the Black community at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. And when they read the blistering criticisms of “otherworldly” faith in his essay “Thy Kingdom Come!” or discover his hope for the future development of a “religionless Christianity” in his final letters, enthused Democrats might be ready to enlist Bonhoeffer’s help in the 2020 election. Those “Bonhoeffer moments,” after all, will come in handy on the campaign trail.

Yet letters and documents from his year in the United States reveal a Bonhoeffer at odds with the progressive American version as well. The historical Bonhoeffer was sometimes appalled by the oppression of African Americans, but he spent much more of his time filling letters and essays with criticisms and even contempt for American liberal Protestantism and progressive politics.

“God is not the immanent progressive ethical principle of history; God is the Lord who judges the human being and his work, he is the absolute sovereign (God’s kingdom is not a democracy!),” Bonhoeffer fumed in a memo about American Christianity. “The ideal of international, democratic, collectivist life together on the basis of the value of individuals (notice the inner contradiction!) is not identical with the kingdom of God.”

For Bonhoeffer, American liberals had misunderstood an essential part of Christianity: no matter how hard we try, human beings cannot inaugurate the kingdom of God. The best believers can do before that bright day in which Christ returns is preserve human rights, political stability, and a modicum of justice and proclaim the gospel message whether or not they find it politically expedient.

So how would Dietrich Bonhoeffer vote in 2020? Which side would he back in the United States’s vituperative, divided political landscape, and which would he think has the right to claim their political program as a righteous reaction to a “Bonhoeffer moment”?

For the rest of the article…

October 2019
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