Tag Archives: stanley hauerwas

The Kingdom Effect On Human Sexuality

A couple weeks ago I began preaching through a 9-week sermon series entitled, The Kingdom Effect: How Christ & the Kingdom Changes Everything.

The series is building off the idea of the butterfly effect, and the mustard seed as Jesus taught about in Matthew 13:31-32. The point being that something small and seemingly insignificant can make a huge impact and have lasting effects. The intent of the series is to survey the sweeping impact Christ and the Kingdom makes on us and the world.

Here is an outline of the series:

The Kingdom Effect…

  1. On the Individual
  2. On Human Sexuality
  3. On Marriage (One Flesh Unions)
  4. On Family
  5. On the Church, pt1
  6. On the Church, pt2
  7. On Society & Culture
  8. On Worldly Powers
  9. On the Future (of Heaven & Earth)

The first sermon addressed the new identity that believers receive upon repentance. The flesh or “sinful nature” is a lie that has been hurled upon us as a result of the Fall. I discussed this in my last post, Farewell to the Flesh.

As Paul wrote, the “pattern of the world” seeks to conform us to an identity of flesh and a distorted way of living in the world. But Christ has the power to transform us by changing the way we see and think about ourselves as “new creation” living in the present evil age. The Kingdom Effect begins with you!

Last Sunday I extended the first message to include human sexuality.

In the following post, I will touch on a few points from the sermon “On Human Sexuality” and elaborate on others.

Sexual Confusion Meets New Identity

Contrary to some of the cultural messages we receive today, we are not neutered souls residing in bodies that are inconsequential to personhood. We are a union of spirit/soul and body (Gen 2:7), and God made us male and female (Gen 1:27). The “real you” can only be discovered by first recognizing this union in God’s created order, even in our brokenness.

We seriously need to recognize this today. While we have been made in God’s image, we are broken and not as we should be. Christ and the Kingdom’s effect is to dispel the lies and deceptive voices that would have us root our identity in anything other than the person of Christ—the perfect image of God.

In coming to know Christ we discover that he is Lord of spirit, soul, and body. We are not our own, we were bought at a price. Our bodies belong to him for they are “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:18-20).

It’s clear in the Old and New Testaments that sex is good within a monogamous marriage between male and female. While biblical characters often deviated from this pattern, the design is there, and it’s affirmed by Jesus.

In Matthew 19:4-6, Jesus says a man is to “cleave” or to be united with his wife as one flesh, referring back to Genesis 2:18-24. Paul also references this passage in Ephesians 5:25-31. This is the divine design: Sex is good and to be enjoyed between a husband and wife for life.

Neuroscience has been confirming this for several years now. Chemicals in the brain (neurotransmitters & hormones) are produced in us to “bond” us to one sexual partner, even producing a sense of fidelity. When a person defiles the body through pornography (detached from bodily union) and promiscuous sex (bonding & de-bonding), or other sexually deviant behavior, the brain and body are utterly shocked by the experience. I explain further in my sermon.

So this isn’t antiquated Hebrew religion talking. No, the idea of sex being between a man and woman in marriage is built into God’s design for human sexuality. Therefore, everything else is in time destructive to individuals and society at large for it goes against the natural order of things (Rom 1:18-32).

[Watch this TED talk on the terrible consequences of viewing pornography.]

This dysfunction ultimately leads to addictions, mental and emotional instability, and even more unhealthy thinking and behavior. And the physical side of this sexual confusion and chaos is putting oneself at risk for STDs.

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.”  Paul, 1 Corinthians 6:12-14 NIV

Paul says the body isn’t meant for sexual immorality (Gk: “porneia”). Paul uses porneia in his letters as an umbrella term to speak of all sexually deviant behavior outside of the one flesh union of husband and wife (1 Cor 7:1-16,39). The culture may think “casual sex” or having “the right” to do whatever sexually is liberating, but the Scripture teaches that it’s quite the opposite.

We may not claim as a “right” what God has not given to us.

I submit to you that I think a good bit of the culture’s sex-drive is only symptomatic of a deep longing and desire for real intimacy. Seen from this perspective, the church’s response should be different than years past.

God’s design isn’t meant to harm us or to keep us from human wholeness. But this has become difficult for folks, even in the church, to hear and to heed. Sexual fulfillment has become an idol in the culture and the church.

“The idol of sexual fulfillment has two faces: One face says that each person has the right to be sexually satisfied and that having sex is a necessary part of happy, mature adulthood (or even adolescence). The second face is a Christian one that says the reward for premarital sexual virtue is great marital sex.” Jenell William Paris, The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex is Too Important to Define Who We Are

As strange as it may sound in our hyper-sexualized culture, sexual experience isn’t necessary for human wholeness, but being in covenant relationship with others in the church is vital to our health as image-bearers who have embraced a new identity in Christ. We don’t need marriage or sex to be happy.

Will we idolize sexual fulfillment, finding our identity in our sexual impulses and attractions, or will we let Christ and the Kingdom have their effect on us?

Marriage, Sex & Singleness

Jesus radically “redefined” marriage by placing it within the mission and purpose of the church and the Kingdom, but not by undermining Genesis 2:18-24. Instead, where the OT command was to marry and make babies, the NT command is to pledge to the Kingdom and make disciples (spiritual babies).

For those called to this biblical marriage, you and your family are to now serve the Kingdom, not your own interests. And for those persons who, for whatever reason, don’t enter marriage, Jesus has exalted singleness.

Jesus said that some should choose to “live like eunuchs for the kingdom” and be single (Matt 19:11-12). He’s not only making an argument for the legitimacy of his own celibate life, he is encouraging others in the same way.

The Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus has brought about a new relational and familial dynamic to the world through the Body of Christ. It declares that no one is destined to live a life of “singleness” apart from fulfilling relationships.

“The church is composed of the single and the married. Both are called to a life of faithfulness. All are called to be friends, defying the loneliness that threatens anyone not married.” Stanley Hauerwas

Singleness isn’t a disease that needs a cure. Some, like Jesus, may choose to live as eunuchs for the Kingdom, for one reason or another. The church needs to quit idolizing sex and marriage, along with the biblically confused in the church who press for political changes. It’s not the Kingdom way.

Sex is good within the context of a marriage that Christ affirms, but it will not bring fulfillment when there is desire for intimacy that runs deeper than sexual release. Sex only works as relational glue in a Christ-centered marriage.

Church, let us rise up and create communities where our deepest desire for intimacy with the divine and others (male and female) is being met within the family of God. It’s all a part of the Kingdom effect.

Both the married life and the single life are hard. Remember this: neither married life or sexual licentiousness guarantees intimacy. We are broken and only Christ offers living water that quenches the thirst (Jn 4:13-14).

Let this Water be found in our local churches, overflowing our lives in grace, among the married and those who are eunuchs for the Kingdom. This is our counter-cultural response to a sex-crazed and intimacy-deficient world.

D.D. Flowers, 2014.

 

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Finding the Naked Anabaptist

Most of my readers know that I grew up a Southern Baptist. I went to a Baptist university for my undergrad, and served in two SBC churches. Seven years later, I can say that I no longer think of myself as a Southern Baptist, for several reasons.

Primarily, it’s because I have found that I’m more closely aligned with another historical tradition in theology and church practice—Anabaptism.

I first encountered Anabaptism in college. I learned that the Baptists actually have historical roots going back to the 16th century Anabaptist movement.

John Smyth was an English separatist who planted the first Baptist church in Amsterdam. Before his death he had moved to receive believer’s baptism by the Mennonites, an Anabaptist group named after Menno Simons.

Smyth’s friends, Thomas Helwys and John Murton would return to their homes to form the first Baptist church in England. For my Baptist friends, the Baptist church was a mix of Protestant and Anabaptist ideas. It was Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Menno Simons all under one roof.

Roger Williams was responsible for planting the first Baptist church on American soil. He rejected the theocratic view of the Calvinistic pilgrims, detested the idea of a Christian nation, and argued for religious liberty and separation of church and state––an idea that the Anabaptists had been ruthlessly persecuted for a century earlier.

So who were the Anabaptists? And what is Anabaptism? 

The Anabaptists were a scattered and diverse group of 16th century separatists who first originated in Switzerland. The self-identified “Swiss Brethren” called for a “radical reformation” of the church that went far beyond the reform movements known as Protestantism.

The early Anabaptists rejected infant baptism as a civil rite, which denied the church’s relationship to the state, and called for strict adherence to the teachings of Jesus following a believer’s baptism.

Since it appeared they were being baptized a second time, their opponents called them Ana-baptists (re-baptizers).

These radicals claimed that Protestants only wanted a “half-way” reform because they refused to put down the sword and follow Christ in non-violence. They posited that the Reformers only rested in grace, but did not walk in resurrection life. Obeying Christ is the evidence of a changed life.

The Anabaptists denounced the emperor Constantine as “the great dragon” for fusing the cross and the sword in the 4th century. They called for a restoration of NT church life. This undermined the very foundations of Christendom (church militant and triumphant), and made them enemies of both Protestants and Catholics who held to the power of the sword.

Many Anabaptists were martyred during the 16th century. Their ideas would live on in the Mennonites, the Amish, and the Brethren in Christ.

The Naked Anabaptist

Enter Stuart Murray, chair of the Anabaptist Network and PhD in Anabaptist hermeneutics. Stuart is the founder of Urban Expression, a pioneering urban church-planting agency, and has spent the last fourteen years as an urban church planter in East London.

His recent publications include: Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World (2004), Church after Christendom (2005), Changing Mission (2006), and The Naked Anabaptist (2010).

In his book, The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith, Stuart sets forth a fresh vision of the core convictions held by Anabaptists today.

Greg Boyd, pastor of Woodland Hills in St. Paul, has written the forward to The Naked Anabaptist. [It’s worth mentioning that his church is presently considering aligning themselves with an Anabaptist denomination.]

Stuart says that Anabaptism is being (re)discovered by folks from many different traditions. In fact, you might be an Anabaptist and just not know it.

“We believe that the Christendom era has bequeathed a form of Christianity that has marginalized, spiritualized, domesticated, and emasculated Jesus. The teaching of Jesus is watered down, privatized, and explained away. Jesus is worshipped as a remote kingly figure or a romanticized personal savior. In many churches (especially those emerging from the Reformation), Paul’s writings are prioritized over the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. And in many Christian traditions, ethical guidelines derived from the Old Testament or pagan philosophy trump Jesus’ call to discipleship.” The Naked Anabaptist p. 55-56

What does Anabaptism look like stripped down to to the bare essentials? Listen to Stuart discuss the core convictions of the Anabaptist Network.

Stay tuned for a Q&A with Stuart Murray next month on Anabaptism.

Suggested Anabaptist Reading:

D.D. Flowers, 2013.


Christ, Community, & Christian Ethics

Christ, Community, & Christian Ethics:             The Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Since his death, and especially in the last two decades, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) has stirred the hearts and minds of Christians worldwide. It is through his life and writings that he has earned a place in history as one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century. Bonhoeffer presented a stimulating challenge to a church that had colluded with the secular powers, and that had lost the will to resist evil with Christian discipleship.

Bonhoeffer is popularly remembered for his attention to Christ’s demands in the Sermon on the Mount. He provocatively discussed these demands in his book Discipleship. He wrote, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.”[1] However, it is his works on Christology, ecclesiology, and theological ethics that readers have appreciated Bonhoeffer as an innovative Christian thinker.[2] Above all it was Bonhoeffer’s ingenuity amidst a crippled church and his resilience in the face of an evil political regime that has led to his enduring legacy as a Nazi resister.

It is the purpose of this paper to survey the literary and theological contributions of Bonhoeffer by: (1) briefly discussing his particular situation and context, (2) appraising his ideas born out of social, cultural, and political adversity, (3) offering praise and critique of his unique contributions to Christian faith and living. More specifically, this paper will highlight those literary works of Bonhoeffer that reveal the thinking behind his actions as a disciple of Christ. This paper will conclude with a sensitive critique of Bonhoeffer’s theological ethics.

THE WORLD OF DIETRICH BONHOEFFER  

Nazi Germany and the Confessing Church

Adolf Hitler ascended to power in Germany in January of 1933. The German Christian Church eventually fell complacent, even submissive to the ideals of the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer shortly after became a founding member of a new church, a “Confessing Church” formally founded at Barmen in May of 1934. Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church dedicated itself to remaining free of the anti-Semitism that had plagued Germany.

The Barmen Declaration, principally authored by Swiss theologian Karl Barth, plainly stated what the German church had always believed according the Scriptures. Therefore, it rejected the state’s takeover of the church, it repudiated the anti-Semitic agenda of the Nazis, and it denounced other heresies set forth by German Christians.[3]

The following excerpt directly addresses extreme nationalism:

We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the Church’s vocation as well. We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State. The Church’s commission, upon which its freedom is founded, consists in delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ’s stead, and therefore in ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and sacrament. We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans (Theological Declaration Concerning the Present Situation of the German Evangelical Church, 8.23-27).[4]

The Confessing Church received increasing pressure from the Gestapo, and Bonhoeffer soon found himself in the minority as the Evangelical Church turned away from the Gospel of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah. In August of 1937, the Confessing Church was declared illegal. The following month, the Gestapo shut down the church’s Finkenwalde seminary. Twenty-seven of Bonhoeffer’s students were arrested, others were forced to join the army. In January of the next year, the Gestapo banned Bonhoeffer from Berlin, and the Nazis began burning down churches.

Union Seminary and the Harlem Experience

Bonhoeffer first visited the United States in 1931 to study at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He developed a friendship with four Union students: Jean Lasserre (French), Erwin Sutz (Swiss), Paul Lehmann (American), and Albert Franklin “Frank” Fisher (African American).

Jean Lasserre, a devout pacifist, was a major influence on Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the Sermon on the Mount. It is true that Bonhoeffer likely read the antiwar novel All Quiet on the Western Front in seminary, but it was the viewing of the film with Lasserre that brought a lasting change in Bonhoeffer. Eric Metaxas writes:

The sadness of the violence and suffering on the screen brought Bonhoeffer and Lasserre to tears, but even worse to them was the reaction in the theater. Lassarre remembered American children in the audience laughing and cheering when Germans, from whose point of view the story was told, were killing the French. For Bonhoeffer, it was unbearable. Lassarre believed that on that afternoon Bonhoeffer became a pacifist. Lassarre spoke often about the Sermon on the Mount and how it informed his theology. From that point forward it became a central part of Bonhoeffer’s life and theology, too, which eventually led him to write his most famous book, The Cost of Discipleship.[5]

While Lasserre helped to shape Bonhoeffer’s thinking on non-violent resistance, it was Frank Fisher an African American from Alabama that would have the greatest influence on Bonhoeffer’s life and theology. Bonhoeffer was not all that impressed with many liberal churches in New York that had given up the centrality of Christ for social activism, but he was captivated by the experience of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

Fisher introduced him to the African American community that sang and preached Christ with great passion and conviction. It was there at Abyssinian that Bonhoeffer heard Christ-centered preaching that fueled action for social justice on behalf of the oppressed Negro people. At the time, Bonhoeffer had never seen such bigotry and racism.

Bonhoeffer once remarked that there was no “analogous situation in Germany” that compared to the treatment of blacks by whites. “It is a bit unnerving that in a country with so inordinately many slogans about brotherhood, peace, and so on, such things still continue completely uncorrected,” said Bonhoeffer.[6] His experiences in Harlem would prepare him for what he would soon encounter in his own country with the Jews.

Bonhoeffer would return to America a second time in June of 1939 to take a teaching position at Union Theological Seminary, as he avoided the military call-up issued by Germany. But Bonhoeffer was deeply troubled as he contemplated the will of God for his life and for Germany in such a dark hour under Hitler. In a letter to Reinhold Neibuhr, he wrote:

I have had time to think and to pray about my situation and that of my nation and to have God’s will for me clarified. I have come to the conclusion that I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.[7]

After only twenty-six days in New York, Bonhoeffer resigned and returned to Germany the following month. He committed himself to endure the hardships of his people during wartime.[8]

From Pacifist Pastor to Nazi Resister

World War II began on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. In October of 1940, the Gestapo banned Bonhoeffer from speaking in public, and soon after was forbidden to publish his writings. Bonhoeffer had already been receiving inside information for some time from his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, who worked with Military Intelligence, and was part of a growing resistance to Hitler.

After having been silenced by the Gestapo, Bonhoeffer would learn of new horrifying details about the Third Reich that prompted him to begin taking an active role against Hitler for the sake of Germany and the church. He was convinced that Hitler must be removed from power.

Hitler was unveiling an evil plan, which he had been waiting to act on since his rise to power. “Hitler received moral support for his claim to be the God-given executor of historical justice, and only a small remnant was able to perceive, precisely here, Satan in the form of an angel of light,” wrote Bonhoeffer.[9]

In July of 1940, Bonhoeffer made the decision to serve as a “V-Man” (Verbindungsmann, or confidential agent) for Military Intelligence under another lead military resister, Admiral Canaris. Metaxas writes:

Canaris and the others in German military leadership thought that Hitler’s bestial nature was unfortunate, but they had no idea it was something that he cultivated and celebrated, that it was part of an ideology that had been waiting for this opportunity to leap at the throats of every Jew and Pole, priest and aristocrat, and tear them to pieces. The German generals had not seen the dark river of blood bubbling beneath the surface of the new Germany, but suddenly here it was, gushing like a geyser. Despite all the hints and warnings, it was too gruesome to be believed.[10]

Bonhoeffer’s sister-in-law once wrote to him saying, “You Christians are glad when someone else does what you know must be done, but it seems that somehow you are unwilling to get your own hands dirty and do it.”[11]

To be clear, it wasn’t out of pressure that Bonhoeffer joined the resistance and decided to get his “hands dirty” in the process, it was out of conviction. Eberhard Bethge, friend and biographer, remembers Bonhoeffer’s shift “from confession to resistance” when they were together during a call to salute Hitler: “Bonhoeffer raised his arm in the regulation Hitler salute, while I stood there dazed. “Raise your arm! Are you crazy?” he whispered to me, and later: “We shall have to run risks for very different things now, but not for that salute!”[12] Bonhoeffer embraced the double-life, the lies, and the deception that goes along with being a conspirator and Nazi resister, and he felt strongly it was the will of God for his life.

Bonhoeffer continued writing and pastoring while he kept his front as Abwehr agent with the Nazi regime. He was engaged in a “high-stakes game of deception upon deception”—convinced that he was being obedient to God. Metaxas writes: “Bonhoeffer was not telling little white lies. In Luther’s famous phrase, he was “sinning boldly.”[13]

The resistance made several attempts to assassinate Hitler, but all attempts failed. Bonhoeffer did manage to help Jews escape Germany and keep pastors out of the military. He made frequent trips abroad in order to communicate with the allies that there was a real resistance to Hitler.

The Nazis were bearing down on the Confessing Church and all those who conspired against them. It was shortly after one resister’s failed attempt to detonate a bomb in his overcoat while in the presence of Hitler that the Gestapo began to close in on the conspirators. In April of 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested with the rest of the resistance. The Nazis knew of his efforts to help Jews while under the guise as an Abwehr agent. And they would later discover Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the assassination plot.

Bonhoeffer was incarcerated at Tegel prison in Berlin for two years, with a short stint at a Gestpo prison for interrogations. He continued to write letters and papers from prison.[14] He encouraged the inmates there, and even established a relationship with a solider that wanted to escape with Bonhoeffer.[15] But he refused to escape and put the lives of those he loved in further danger. Finally, he was taken to Flossenbürg concentration camp, marched naked to the gallows, and executed for high treason on April 9, 1945. He was 39 years old. His final words were, “This is the end. For me, the beginning of life.”[16] Less than a month later, the war was over.

IDEAS BORN IN ADVERSITY

The Centrality of Christ

In the Summer of 1933, Bonhoeffer gave a series of lectures on Christology at the University of Berlin. Prior to these lectures, he had already been in dialogue with his students about the role Christ plays in all matters of life, including matters of the state.

What was the church going to do about the growing threat of the Nazi regime? How would she respond on behalf of the poor and the oppressed, racist social policy, and the prospect of war? For Bonhoeffer, making Christ central means living in the world, it means social action.

[Bonhoeffer] decried the church’s hesitation to hear Christ’s gospel in movements toward social justice. Crass opportunism coupled with cowardly passivity had rendered the church irrelevant to average workers who had as little use for a capitalist Christ impervious to their needs as for a church rallying the troops around the flag of privilege.[17]

The church in Germany had compartmentalized her faith to a great degree. She had joined the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. It was later during Bonhoeffer’s incarceration that he would reflect on his time as a “world come of age.” Jeffrey Pugh writes, “By this Bonhoeffer had in mind a world of increasing maturity that was able to arrange itself very well without the tutelage of religion or God.”[18] Therefore, Bonhoeffer envisioned a new sort of Christianity, with Christ at the center—a new brand of “religionless” Christianity. The only way to get at this kind of faith is to have a real, holistic encounter with the living Christ.

The eternal Christ cannot be shaped to fit our own agendas. As Bonhoeffer said in his lectures, “There are only two ways possible of encountering Jesus: man must die or he must put Jesus to death.”[19] Bonhoeffer believed that the person and work of Christ is central to Christian faith. He said, “This complete Christ is the historical Jesus, who can never in any way be separated from his work.”[20] Christology and soteriology cannot be separated and continue to be true Christian faith.

The soterian (salvation) gospel alone, divorced from obedience to the teachings of Christ, is no gospel at all. Bonhoeffer stated, “It is through the work that I recognize the gracious God. My sin is forgiven, I am no longer in death, but in life. All this depends upon the person of Christ, whether his work perishes in the world of death or abides in a new world of life.”[21] According to Bethge, the Christology lectures in the Summer of 1933 were “the high point of Bonhoeffer’s academic career.”[22]

Christ in Community

Bonhoeffer believed that truth is a person (Jn 14:6). He said, “Truth is not something in itself, which rests for itself, but something that happens between two. Truth happens only in community.”[23] The discovery of God’s will in Christ happens in the context of community. His doctoral dissertation, at the age of twenty-one, was entitled, Sanctorum Communio (The Communion of Saints), and was first published in 1930.[24] Karl Barth called his work a “theological miracle.”[25]

From the very beginning, Bonhoeffer was captured by the sociology of the church, “Christ existing as community.” The Volkskirche (church-of-the-people) would lay in stark contrast to Hitler’s new Germany. For Bonhoeffer, without the church, the communion of saints, all that exists is a community of sinners. That community is broken and incapable of existing for the good of humanity. Only by embracing Christ in community can the world be healed—reconciled to God and to each other.

Bonhoeffer writes, “Community with God exists only through Christ, but Christ is present only in his church-community, and therefore community with God exists only in the church.”[26] In his Life Together (1938), Bonhoeffer writes, “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ.”[27]

God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of a man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure. And that also clarifies the goal of all Christian community: they meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation. As such, God permits them to meet together and gives them community.[28]

This community is bound together in Trinitarian love, a spiritual love. Bonhoeffer contrasts this spiritual love with a human love—a love with conditions and boundaries—a self-love. He writes, “Human love produces human subjection, dependence, constraint; spiritual love creates freedom of the brethren under the Word.”[29] Christ existing as community is manifested in a church that is sustained by a spiritual love, even using that love as its only weapon.[30]

Like the church’s true leader, the communion of saints overcomes through cross-bearing. Bonhoeffer writes, “It is the fellowship of the Cross to experience the burden of the other. If one does not experience it, the fellowship he belongs to is not Christian. If any member refuses to bear that burden, he denies the law of Christ.”[31]

In Bonhoeffer’s view, the church in Germany was guilty of rejecting an incarnational communion of Christ on the earth, and for the earth. The hour was late. The church should seize the moment and boldly profess that Christ alone is Fuehrer, and his Volkskirche is the only life-giving community on earth, or be condemned by her silence.

Theological Ethics

Bonhoeffer was one of the first evangelical theologians to recognize the great evil taking place within the Third Reich, especially as it concerned Hitler’s policies against the Jews. Hans von Dohnanyi warned Bonhoeffer that Hitler was making plans to persecute the Jewish people.[32] Before the Third Reich released the Aryan paragraph, discriminating against Jews, Bonhoeffer presented an essay on The Church and the Jewish Question—a call for the church to take action.

He proposed that there were three possible ways the church could respond toward the state: (1) admonish the state’s actions, (2) help the victims regardless of their religious affiliation, (3) not only bandage the victims under the wheel of the state, but “jam a spoke in the wheel itself.”[33]

What exactly did Bonhoeffer have in mind at this time? It is hard to say. While he was certainly insinuating direct political action, it does not appear that Bonhoeffer was thinking of an assassination plot at this time. There is no indication that he had given up his views on pacifism. However, it appears that his ethics were evolving.[34] Bonhoeffer said the church is the “boundary of the state” and must hold the state accountable as God’s instrument of righteousness.[35] This would have no doubt smacked of revolution.

Metaxas writes: “Bonhoeffer’s three conclusions… were too much for almost everyone. But for him they were inescapable. In time, he would do all three.”[36] Geffrey Kelly writes: “Church timidity on this issue was one of the reasons he joined the political resistance movement.”[37] A few years later, after being fully convinced that the church was either unwilling or incapable of responding to the actions of the state, Bonhoeffer would find an opportunity to “jam a spoke in the wheel” of the Third Reich.

When Bonhoeffer returned from America in 1939, he knew that war was inevitable. Dohnanyi had given him disturbing evidence of the evil holocaust well underway. One month before the war officially began, Bonhoeffer became a civilian agent of the Abwehr. Disguised as Nazi military intelligence, Bonhoeffer would aid the escape of Jews and join in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He then began writing Ethics at Klein-Krössin. It is in this book that we glean insights into Bonhoeffer’s thinking. For Bonhoeffer, his actions begin with the will of God.

The will of God may lie very deeply concealed beneath a great number of possibilities. The will of God is not a system of rules which is established from the outset; it is something new and different in each different situation in life, and for this reason a man must ever anew examine what the will of God may be. The heart, the understanding, observation and experience must all collaborate in this task. It is not longer a matter of man’s own knowledge of good and evil, but solely of the living will of God; our knowledge of God’s will is not something over which we ourselves dispose, but it depends solely upon the grace of God, and this grace is and requires to be new every morning.[38]

Bonhoeffer believed that proper ethical action must first be rooted in the will of God. The will of God is not always a “concrete” reality. It is at this point where Bonhoeffer’s thinking takes a radical shift from anything he had previously articulated about the will of God, and his own complicit actions against the state. In a broken and fragmented world, doing the will of God might require actions that are less than the ideal—even actions that are evil in themselves.

Bonhoeffer declared, “What is worse than doing evil is being evil. It is worse for a liar to tell the truth than of a lover of truth to lie.”[39] Considering the context of Ethics, it is safe to assume that Bonhoeffer has his own evil deeds in mind. However, those evil deeds done by righteous men are better than the alternative—a person could actually be evil like Hitler—which is far worse.

The following example illuminates Bonhoeffer’s odyssey of reasoning (rationalizing?) the idea:

For example, a teacher asks a child in front of the class whether it is true that his father often comes home drunk. It is true, but the child denies it. The teacher’s question has placed him in a situation for which he is not yet prepared… The child’s answer can indeed be called a lie; yet this lie contains more truth, that is to say, it is more in accordance with reality than would have been the case if the child had betrayed his father’s weakness in front of the class. According to the measure of his knowledge, the child acted correctly. The blame for the lie falls back entirely upon the teacher.[40]

Bonhoeffer believes the Third Reich stands in the place of the teacher who has abused her power. Is the Christian, or the lover of truth, obliged to “tell the truth” to those who have no interest in the truth—those who indeed despise the truth?

Bonhoeffer did not believe so. In fact, the lover of truth should lie, and lie for all he is worth. For Bonhoeffer, this is the “living truth.” Metaxas writes: “Bonhoeffer knew that the flipside of the easy religious legalism of ‘never telling a lie’ was the cynical notion that there is no such thing as truth, only ‘facts.’ This led to the cynical idea that one must say everything with no sense of propriety or discernment, that decorum or reserve was ‘hypocrisy’ and a kind of lie.”[41]

Therefore, Bonhoeffer was seeking a new kind of ethics in a world where he believed the rules had changed so dramatically under Nazism. According to Bonhoeffer, the old ethics simply did not work any longer. James Burtness has written that Bonhoeffer’s work throughout his adult life reveals the formulation of an “ethical theology.” This theology knows the difference between believing and behaving, between confessing and acting, but attempts to demonstrate connections at every point.[42]

For Bonhoeffer, his theological ethics were always rooted in what he believed was a Christo-centric worldview.

CONCLUSION—PRAISE & CRITIQUE

Finally, what can be said about Bonhoeffer’s shift from the pacifist solution to the problem of evil to involving himself in a conspiracy to kill another human being, even one as wicked and tyrannical as Adlof Hitler? It is rather difficult to understand his thinking because his words so often required a great level of secrecy. Stanley Hauerwas has written:

That we cannot know how he understood his participation in the attempt to kill Hitler and thus how his whole life “makes sense” is not a peculiarity Bonhoeffer would think unique to his life. The primary confession of the Christian may be the deed which interprets itself, but according to Bonhoeffer our lives cannot be seen as such a deed. Only “Jesus’ testimony to himself stands by itself, self-authenticating.” In contrast, our lives, no matter how earnestly or faithfully lived, can be no more than fragments.[43]

While it might be impossible to piece together the “fragments” of Bonhoeffer and acquire answers to all the questions that could be asked of him, it is still necessary to include a brief critique of Bonhoeffer’s expressed thoughts and actions–remembering that he is a fallible man following an infallible Christ.

Bonhoeffer believed that the “will of God” is the launching pad into a world of ethical decisions. I agree that the will of God is not always concrete or a rule to be applied legalistically. However, it should be a serious concern for all disciples to recognize that Christ is the full expression of God’s will for human beings. Christ has expressed the will of God in his own life and teachings—even in the face of his mortal enemies. Therefore, God’s will always looks like Jesus dying for those that crucified him.

The church must give up on the myth of redemptive violence, and dispel the disease of “necessary evils.” The cycle of violence ends on a cross, and exposes the hearts of evil men, even disarming them in shame. If the church ever needs to “jam a spoke in the wheel” of the state again, it should be in the form of creative cross-shaped living. The way of the sword always loses.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor and a prophet to a church that had largely traded the God of the Scriptures for a god of nationalism. His prophetic voice is still needed today.[44]  Bonhoeffer did not abandon the church or the German people in one of the darkest hours the world has ever known. He continually counted the cost of discipleship, even as he anticipated his ensuing martyrdom. While not without sin, he was truly a great man of faith.

The courage of Bonhoeffer to stand up and speak truth to power is part of his lasting legacy. His unbridled faith and his belief in a hopeful future despite the odds breathe life into the dark corners of a suffocating, cynical world. His lasting contributions are his passion for the centrality of Christ, his insight into the community life of the church, and his untiring devotion to the cause of social justice in the ongoing quest for an ethical theology.

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

Get the new biography by Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, SpyAlso, view the documentary by Martin Doblmeier, Bonhoeffer: Pacifist, Pastor, Nazi Resister (2004), and the movie, Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace (2000).

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 89.

[2] This paper will focus on Bonhoeffer’s thinking set forth in the following books: Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church (MN: Fortress Press, 1998); Christ the Center (New York: Harper & Row, 1978); Ethics (New York: Touchstone, 1995); and Life Together (London: SCM Press, 1954).

[3] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 222.

[4] Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance (New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 411.

[5] Metaxas, 112-113. The German title of the book is Nachfolge. The English translation is Discipleship.

[6] Ibid., 114.

[7] Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 655.

[8] For more on Bonhoeffer’s transformational experiences in America, see Ruth Zerner’s, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s American experiences: people, letters, and papers from Union Seminary.” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 31, no. 4 (June 1, 1976): 261-282.

[9] Schlingensiepen, 242.

[10] Metaxas, 351.

[11] Ibid., 359.

[12] Bethge, 681.

[13] Metaxas, 370.

[14] See Bonhoeffer’s, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Touchstone, 1997).

[15] Metaxas, 493.

[16] Schlingensiepen, 378.

[17] Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Harper Collins, 1995), 111.

[18] Jeffrey C. Pugh, Religionless Christianity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Troubled Times (New York: T&T Clark, 2008), 45.

[19] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), 35; Bonhoeffer’s “Christology” lectures were entitled “Christ the Center” in English publications.

[20] Christ the Center, 39.

[21] Ibid., 38.

[22] Kelly and Nelson, 111.

[23] Christ the Center, 50.

[24] Kelly and Nelson, 54.

[25] See Clifford Green, ‘Human sociality and Christian community’, in John W. de Gruchy ed., The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 122.

[26] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 158.

[27] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (London: SCM Press, 1954), 21.

[28] Life Together, 22-23.

[29] Ibid., 37.

[30] Sanctorum Communio, 202.

[31] Life Together, 101.

[32] Schlingensiepen, 125.

[33] Kelly and Nelson, 130-132.

[34] Bonhoeffer did not begin writing Ethics for another seven years, but his ideas on the relationship between church and state were already moving him to a new position.

[35] Christ the Center, 63.

[36] Metaxas, 155.

[37] Kelly and Nelson, 131.

[38] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 41.

[39] Ibid., 67.

[40] Ibid., 362-363. Christian ethicist, Stanley Hauerwas, discusses this analogy in his article: “Bonhoeffer on truth and politics.” Conrad Grebel Review 20, no. 3 (September 1, 2002): 40-57. For a lengthy discussion on the context of Bonhoeffer’s theological ethics, see: Heinz Eduard Tödt, Authentic Faith: Bonhoeffer’s Theological Ethics in Context (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).

[41] Metaxas, 366.

[42] James H. Burtness, Shaping the Future: The Ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 25.

[43] Stanley Hauerwas, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s political theology” (Conrad Grebel Review 20, no. 3 September 1, 2002: 17-39), 19.

[44] For a modern application of Bonhoeffer’s ideas, see David Wellman’s, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ethic of resistance in George W Bush’s America: a call to progressive Christians in the United States.” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 60, no. 1-2 (January 1, 2006): 69-77.


Top Ten Favorite Books

I have often been asked: “What are your favorite books?”

I’m continually reading books from the softer side of Christian spirituality to the thick analytical works of NT scholarship. I’ll give you a list of my favorite “top ten” books from my entire library.

Furthermore, I’ll rate my favorites according to which books have impacted my thinking the most (i.e. turning points) on my journey. Many great works will be excluded. Perhaps in the future I will make another list.

I will not include the Bible in my list. Undoubtedly, growing up in the church, the Scripture has shaped me in ways I shall never know. So, if it concerns you that the Bible is not on my list, I like to remember that it shouldn’t be placed alongside other popular works of men anyway.

The following books are not in the order in which I read them; they are rated according to their greatest level of influence on my life.

  1. “The Centrality and Supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ” by T. Austin-Sparks
  2. “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church” by N.T. Wright
  3. “Resident Aliens” by Stanley Hauerwas
  4. “The Normal Christian Life” by Watchman Nee
  5. “Is God to Blame? Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Suffering” by Gregory Boyd
  6. “Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices” by Frank Viola and George Barna
  7. “The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church” by Gregory Boyd
  8. “The Cost of Discipleship” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  9. “The Secret of the Strength: What Would the Anabaptists Tell This Generation” by Peter Hoover
  10. “Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief with Christian Living” by Stanley Grenz

What books have been most influential in your life?



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