Introduction:  

The fifth reason Dietrich Bonhoeffer can impact twenty-first century preaching and preachers is that he exemplified serving Jesus in the severest of trials. While Bonhoeffer often agonized over the role the church should play as Adolf Hitler’s polices were enacted, he continued to focus his energy on pleasing his Lord and obeying the Word of God. From the moment Hitler became chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, Bonhoeffer suffered setbacks and opposition for his commitment to Jesus and for his stance that the church should be a voice for the innocent in society.

For example, just two days after Hitler rose to power, Bonhoeffer delivered a message on the radio warning the nation that Hitler may be a “misleader”[1] who will eventually mock God. Bonhoeffer never finished this address because he was cut off the air. This may have been the first action by the new government against free speech.[2] Of course, Bonhoeffer was now in a sense a “marked man” because of his views. 

Bonhoeffer worked hard to provide the church with a backbone, even though setbacks plagued him until his death. For example on August 5, 1936, he was no longer allowed to teach at Berlin University.[3]In September of 1937, the Seminary at Finkenwalde was closed by the Gestapo.[4] On January 11, 1938, Bonhoeffer was informed that he could no longer work in Berlin.[5] On September 9, 1940, he was prohibited to speak publicly and was ordered to regularly check in with the police.[6] On April 5, 1943 he was arrested and imprisoned.[7] In July of that year, Bonhoeffer went through intense interrogation.[8]On February 2, 1945, he was sentenced to death and on April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed at Flossenberg.[9]

Bonhoeffer also faced opposition from fellow Christians who opted for a safer route. Bonhoeffer was among the first to recognize the anti-Semitism within the government. So he urged his fellow pastors to stand up and protect the Jewish people. As stated above, Bonhoeffer reasoned from scripture that Christ-followers are obligated to intervene for the helpless in society.

But this intervention was not to just protest Nazi polices; nor was it just to provide safe passage of Jews out of Germany. Again, Bonhoeffer suggested that the spokes of the Nazi wheel are to be broken by those who profess Jesus Christ.    Bonhoeffer’s viewpoint was seen as too extreme by many of his peers. He “became an enigma to many of his colleagues in the church who were attempting by political quietism, indifference, and religious compromise to survive a difficult situation.” [10]

Yet, this passivity and inaction of the church would allow for the “the insidious Nazi takeover of the churches.”[11] In 1933, Bonhoeffer pleaded with the church to remain true to biblical values. Nevertheless, in July of the same year, the Evangelical Church in Germany (composed of Lutheran and Reformed churches) elected as Reich bishop, Ludwig Muller. He was a sympathizer of Nazi polices and an “ecclesiastical counterpart to the political leadership of Adolf Hitler.”[12] Thus, within the church, Hitler had an ally who would endorse his racial policies.

The fact that Muller was elected by church delegates indicated Hitler had already cast his spell. The door was now open for national policies to become church polices. For example, the “Law for the Reconstruction of the Professional Civil Service” was passed by the German Reichstag on April 7, 1933. It contained the Aryan Clause[13] which banned Jews from serving in the government. On September 4, 1933, the Evangelical Church adopted the Aryan Clause. From that point on, pastors of Jewish descent were denied rights at ordained ministers.[14]

From Bonhoeffer’s point of view, the church had fallen into heresy. The call of Jesus for radical discipleship had been replaced by racial purity. The church had opted for “cheap grace” by skirting her responsibility to stand up for the oppressed in society. 

          Bonhoeffer could not sit back and watch the church transform into Hitler’s puppet. There had to be action. Bonhoeffer and others formed a “resistance” movement within the church to not only oppose the pro-Nazi policies within the church; but also to show unity with their Jewish colleagues within the church. This resistance was known as the Pastors’ Emergency League.”[15] This organization would eventually form the Confessing Church of Germany.” [16] 

The Confessing Church then commissioned Bonhoeffer and Hermann Sasse to formulate a confession of faith that would serve as a counter to the Nazi’s invasion into the German National Church. Bonhoeffer and Sasse would draft this confession at a retreat center called Bethel. Thus, the confession was known as the Bethel Confession”.[17] This document, in its original form was perhaps the most devastating condemnation of the Nazi point of view. Yet, the Bethel Confession went through several revisions to make it less offensive. Bonhoeffer was so disappointed in the final watered-down version that he refused to sign it.[18] 

In May of 1934, the Confessing Church adopted the Barmen Declaration”.[19] The primary author of this document was theologian Karl Barth. The delegates from nineteen provincial churches voted unanimously to oppose the intrusion of Nazi values into the German church. The Barmen Declaration included the following statement:

We repudiate the false teaching that there are areas of our life in which we belong not to Jesus Christ but to other lords, areas in which we do not need justification and sanctification through him.[20]

It was a strong and clear call to allow the church to truly be the church and to be completely devoted to Jesus. Bonhoeffer was a strong advocate of the Barmen Declaration:

Bonhoeffer himself, though not present at Barmen, would look back on that moment as an affirmation that church order was bound solely to Jesus Christ. This affirmation, for him, was a clear rejection of the heresy that a church could be allowed to suit its convictions to the dictates of politics or public opinion. The church was, to put it simply, the Body of Christ.[21]

         Bonhoeffer also pushed that the Confessing Church be recognized as the only true representative of the Evangelical Church of Germany. Unfortunately, this never became a reality because even within the Confessing Church, pastors began to waver in their original commitment to God’s word. The Barmen Confession eventually became “blunted by compromise and the seductive siren of patriotism.”[22]  

By 1936, compromise had slipped into the Confessing Church. On January 10, 1936, Bonhoeffer addressed a group of clergy at Stettin-Bredow and declared that the “church had, in short, become susceptible to skilled subversion by state propaganda. In standing still, he said, they ‘destroy the church.’ He urged them to move forward.”[23]  Over the course of time, as more pastors were imprisoned, the voice of the Confessing Church lost her boldness.   

This path of neutrality baffled Bonhoeffer because in life, either a person followed Jesus Christ or did not. This loyalty to Jesus was tested on April 20, 1938 when all the pastors in Germany were ordered to take the oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler in honor of his fiftieth birthday.[24] The Confessing Church refused to take an official stance against this oath to Hitler, but simply left the matter up to individual pastors. Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to Berlin Council of Brethren and voiced his bitter disappointment that pastors caved in to political pressures rather than obey the demands of Jesus.

           Later that year, on November 9, the church’s loyalty to Jesus was tested again when Nazi storm troopers “mobilized hordes of willing citizens to terrorize the Jewish population, breaking the windows of houses and stores and burning the synagogues.”[25] This became known as Krisallnacht (Crystal Night)[26] because broken glass littered the streets in the towns and cities “after that night of devastation and terror.”[27]  

          Bonhoeffer was stunned and angry that “only a few pastors spoke out against this latest violence against the Jews and their places of worship.”[28] The other church leaders withdrew “into a pious silence.”[29] He was also angry because it was “reprehensible” for Christians “to make the connection, as many did, between the destruction of Jewish property and the so-called curse on Jews because of their alleged participation in the death of Christ.”[30] Kelly and Nelson write that “scarcely any pastors or church leaders spoke out against these acts of blatant anti-Semitism. Bonhoeffer himself was outraged.”[31]   

Biblical Foundation: 

         Bonhoeffer simply saw his position as a matter of obedience to the Word of God. And he was aware that trials are part of the Christian life. Jesus even promised it in John 16:33: “In this world you will have trouble.” F.F. Bruce writes: “That those who are in Christ inevitably suffer tribulation in the world is the consistent witness of the NT writers.”[32]  

For example, the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 1:29: “It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.” One of the many privileges that believers receive from God is to suffer for Jesus. Gerald F. Hawthorne writes:

A Christian who is willing to stand up together with other Christians for the faith of the gospel can expect to suffer. It has always been so. Redemptive history teaches that those who believe the Word of God, who uncompromisingly speak this Word and unyieldingly live in accordance with it often pay for their courage and resolution with their lives—from the ancient prophets to Jesus.[33]

That is why the apostles saw it as an honor to be flogged by the Sanhedrin in Acts 5: “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (vs. 41). And even though they were ordered by the Sanhedrin not to speak in the name of Jesus, this did not deter them: “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ” (vs. 42). Commenting on Acts chapter five, William J. Larkin writes:

In no masochistic fashion, but with spiritual eyes to see what suffering for the name of Jesus signifies about their eternal salvation, the apostles live out the dynamic of Jesus beatitude (Luke 6:22-23) and respond to their physical suffering with joy.

As far as Luke is concerned, two things bring Christians joy: contemplating salvation and the honor of being dishonored for Jesus’ sake (Luke 10:20; Acts 8:39; 11:23; 13:48). Whether in singing hymns over the crackle of flames at stakes in centuries past or praising God while cleaning Chinese prison-camp cesspools in our own day, the hallmark of the Christian has been, and must continue to be, joy in suffering persecution (1 Peter 1:6; 4:13).[34] 

In the face of persecution, the early Christians continued to joyfully press on in the mission to spread the good news about Jesus. In Nazi Germany, this meant standing up for the cause of Jesus and crying out against the injustices in society. This also meant suffering and even dying for Jesus. To Bonhoeffer, the church in Germany had a window of opportunity to face persecution like the first century believers. Instead she withdrew when the pressure to compromise mounted against her.

Concerning this fact, Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson wrote,

Bonhoeffer was all too well aware of the cowardly retreat of the churches in the face of swift Nazi sanctions for acts of defiance to its policies. The Hitler government had inoculated itself against opposition through Gestapo terror and cruel reprisals. For Bonhoeffer, the fear of repression served no excuse for the church’s widespread failure to act; the silence and inaction of the churches made them accomplices in the crimes of the government…It was right action for the church publicly to oppose the Nazi government as it did through the Barmen declaration of faith; it was wrong to have kept silent during genocidal persecution of the Jews.[35]

Application: 

It is true that twenty-first century preachers in America do not contend with a Hitler-like leader. Nor do they live with the daily possibility that they could be arrested or even executed for following Jesus. That day may come, but in the meantime, the followers of Jesus must “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:11-12).

        The followers of Jesus are in a daily battle with Satan and his demons. These forces of evil were defeated through the cross and resurrection of Jesus from the dead, but “they are not yet harmless.”[36] John R.W. Stott writes that “our struggle is not with human beings but with cosmic intelligences; our enemies are not human but demonic.”[37]  

F.F. Bruce writes about the spiritual forces of evil which opposes Jesus and the church:

“The god of this age” who “has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4), has a host of allies, principalities and powers, here described as “the world-rulers of this dark domain” (lit., “this darkness”) and “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm.”[38]

The forces of darkness may be manifested in a Hitler or through the daily pressures we face to compromise our love and commitment to Jesus. Regardless, we are to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” (Ephesians 6:10). All the “resources the Christian soldier needs are drawn from Christ and ‘his mighty power.”[39] The very “same power that raised Jesus from the dead (1:20) and brought (the Ephesians) to life when they were dead in trespasses and sins (2:1)” is the power described in verse 10.[40] Concerning this exhortation, Bruce wrote that the believers in Ephesus were:

told one way in which this power can be effective in their lives—in enabling them to resist those forces in the world that are hostile to their well-being and opposed to the gospel[41]

Thus, preachers today are to spend significant time in prayer seeking the strength of the Lord.    

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Thank you for taking the time to read about how Dietrich Bonhoeffer can make an impact on us who preach the Word of God in the twenty-first century. I would appreciate any feedback. Please click the “Evaluation Form” at the top of the page; or leave a comment to this post; or e-mail me at bryan@harveyoaksbaptist.org.

The feedback is crucial for the completion of my Doctor of Ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Once again, thank you.

Bryan


 

[1] Kelly and Nelson, A Testament to Freedom¸14.

 

[2] Ibid.

 

[3] Ibid., 533.

 

[4] Ibid.

 

[5] Ibid.

 

[6] Ibid., 534.

 

[7] Ibid., 535.

 

[8] Ibid.

 

[9] Ibid.

 

[10] Ibid. 127.

 

[11] Ibid.

 

[12] Ibid.

 

[13] Ibid., 543.

        
            [14] Kelly and Nelson, The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 17.
 

[15] Kelly and Nelson, eds., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Testament to Freedom, 17.

 

[16] Ibid.

 

[17] Ibid., 15-17.

 

[18] Ibid., 17.

 

[19] Ibid., 20.

 

[20] Ibid., 20.

 

[21] Ibid.

 

[22] Ibid., 28.

 

[23] Ibid. 29

 

[24] Kelly and Nelson, The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 26.

 

[25] Kelly and Nelson, eds., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Testament to Freedom, 32.

 

[26] Ibid.

 

[27] Ibid., 545.

 

[28] Ibid., 32.

 

[29] Ibid.

 

[30] Ibid.

 

[31] Kelly and Nelson, The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 26.

[32] F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), 326.

 

 

[33] Hawthorne, Word Biblical Commentary: Philippians, 60

 

[34]Larkin, The NIV New Testament Commentary Series: Acts, 97.

 

[35] Kelly and Nelson, The Cost of Moral Leadership, 46.

 

[36] Richard L. Pratt Jr., General Editor, The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 1913.

 

[37]Stott: The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of Ephesians, 263.

 

[38] Bruce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: Epistles to Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, 404.

          [39]Frank E. Gaebelein, General Editor, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians; Philippians; Colossians; 1,2 Thessalonians,1, 2; Titus; Philemon (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 85.  

 

[40] Ibid.

 

[41] Bruce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: Epistles to Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians 403.