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Lessons from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Work Never Ends

Dietrich BonhoefferBonhoeffer Series: Part One || “A Story About Coming Home”

Part Two || “Disembodied Christianity”

Part Three || “A Foundation in the Word”

(Today’s post is the last in this series, though I have no doubt we will revisit the ministry of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the future.)

In 1943, after a failed assassination attempt on Hitler by a group Dietrich Bonhoeffer was associated with, the Gestapo began an intense purging of anyone connected to the attempt. Those associated with this attempt, as well as other attempts, were arrested and killed. This, of course, included Bonhoeffer, who was arrested for his connection to a resistance movement leader within Germany’s Justice Ministry.

5 days after one specific assassination attempt, Bonhoeffer was arrested and sent to a prison within the city limits of Berlin. His fiance visited often, as well as family and friends when they were permitted. He received favorable treatment by the prison guards because of his uncle who was a high ranking military official. Though the Gestapo had limited evidence connecting Bonhoeffer to the assassination attempt, they would not release him.

During his time in prison Bonhoeffer was a proficient writer, penning over 200 pages of letters to his friend Eberhard Bethge alone. Several months before his arrest, Bonhoeffer penned this, shedding light on his perspective of obedience in prison:

“Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God—the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God.”

Being that we’re currently entering the final days of Holy Week it seems particularly helpful timing to look at the end of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life. It’s easy to see the devotion and obedience Bonhoeffer had to the ongoing work of ministry for Christ.

Forsaking the comfort of safety in the US, continually allowing others into his life to shape Him, and forcing the Word of God to be foundational—yes, discipleship was costly for Dietrich.

How easy it would have been for Dietrich to have given up by the time the Gestapo took him from his parents’ home, but instead his ministry continued in varied ways before he was killed. In describing what kept Bonhoeffer motivated despite the incredible uphill battle against Nazi Germany, and a life that would end far too soon, Eric Metaxas says this:

“He (Dietrich) had theologically redefined the Christian life as something active, not reactive. It had nothing to do with avoiding sin or with merely talking or teaching or believing theological notions or principles or rules or tenets. It had everything to do with living one’s whole life in obedience to God’s call through action.”

On his last day on earth, Bonhoeffer led a prayer gathering with his fellow inmates, which was interrupted by prison guards who took Dietrich away immediately. As he was walking toward them, he told Captain S. Payne Best,

“This is the end. For me the beginning of life.”

For Dietrich, and I pray for us as well, the work of following Jesus is never finished.

Lessons from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Foundation in the Word

Bonhoeffer Series: Part One || “A Story About Coming Home”

Part Two || “Disembodied Christianity” 


As quickly as the Third Reich began its rule of Germany the Jews were put on notice. And immediately the German Church was thrust into the spotlight. Would the church follow the state, or would it choose to honor God’s Word? The German Christians chose to honor The Führer (meaning “leader” in German, a term used for Adolf Hitler) first, rather than the True Führer. They twisted the Bible to support their position, allowing their supposed Christian ministries to remain intact, with support of the state.

Dietrich BonhoefferIn the years that would follow 1933, this question would define the split among the so-called “German Christians” and another church founded through the work of Bonhoeffer, the Confessing Church. It is this question that prompted Bonhoeffer to write the essay “The Church and the Jewish Question,” where he said:

“What is at stake is by no means the question whether our German members of congregations can still tolerate church fellowship with the Jews. It is rather the task of Christian preaching to say: here is the church, where Jew and German stand together under the Word of God; here is the proof whether a church is still the church or not” (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, pg. 155).

Many of the German Christians felt it necessary to fall in line, so to speak, for the sake of continued ministry. If the Nazis have the power to jeopardize a church’s ministry, better to follow their orders and teachings than become obsolete, or so the line of thought went.

Late in 1933 the German Christians all attended a national church conference, all wearing brown, as if to say to the Third Reich, “we are with you all the way.” In doing so, much of the church lost its ability to speak prophetically about the state of the state.

1934, pushed forward by the work and words of Karl Barth, the Confessing Church formed, unified as an alternative to the compromised church of the German Christians. In what is known as the Barmen Declaration, Barth wrote,

“We reject the false doctrine (of the national church formed by the “German Christians”), as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.”

While some have come to criticize the biography of Bonhoeffer’s life written by Eric Metaxas as trying to twist Bonhoeffer into the picture of a consummate conservative evangelical, there is no denying that Bonhoeffer pushed for God’s Word to be foundational for the ministry of the church. His actions, along with the day’s leading theologian Karl Barth, provided a water-shed moment for the 20th Century church, though it was not realized at the time.

Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church have proven be on the right side of history with how they answered this question: will we, as the church of Christ, choose to allow our ministry to be first dictated by the Word of God, or the rule of man? And I believe this is a question that again finds itself at the forefront. Bonhoeffer paid a great price in how he answered the question. Are we prepared to do the same?

In recent years many understandings rooted within the Bible have been called into question. In the coming years the church will continue to be seen as more discriminatory for those Biblical understandings, and this is the question we must continue to ask:

Is our ministry in this world dictated by the rule of man or by the Word of God?

Christian ministry is founded on the Word of God, otherwise it ceases to be Christian and becomes merely ministry. I believe Bonhoeffer’s life presents a picture of power through an unwavering fortitude in God’s Word, as well as the persecution that will be endured for such a choice.

Lessons from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Disembodied Christianity

Bonhoeffer Series: Part One

In the last post we looked at Dietrich’s decision to forgo an opportunity for safety in the US, opting to return to Nazi Germany where his safety would be greatly endangered.

Yesterday marked the 69 year anniversary of his death in a concentration camp, so it seems fitting to look at what led him to abandon the opportunity for safety. In looking at his life as a whole, the decision is so completely unsurprising, because it reflected a deep-seated belief he had about God.

Disembodied Christianity. These two words are mutually exclusive. They do not make sense next to one another. Christianity cannot be disembodied because Christ comes to us embodied, incarnate.

dietrich bonhoefferAs culture moves toward online realities the danger of a disembodied faith grows. The body of Christ becomes a tagline instead of a practiced reality in the lives of followers of Jesus.

Here’s a common narrative: the local church becomes uncomfortable, draining, demanding, etc, so leaving the local church becomes the best option, and these individuals then begin to form a church-like identity online. Friendships are built. Theology is discussed. This newly formed church values authenticity that knows no bounds, and gives greater rewards to those who develop a deeper knowledge.

All this is not too far from the Platonic values that were trying to force their way into the local church during the times of the New Testament writings. Matter is evil. Development of a specific knowledge led to the needed escape. We slowly buy the lie that true life is lived by showing our scars and intellectually knowing more about God.

During his ministry, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was greatly influenced by Friedrich Christoph Oetinger. As it relates to this embodied faith, one of Bonhoeffer’s favorite quotes came from Oetinger, who said, “Embodiment is the end of God’s path.”

For Bonhoeffer, this marked a divergence from the highly intellectual faith pursued by many of his fellow pastors and academic theologians. He is one of the greatest theological minds of the modern times, but his Christian faith had a remarkable pursuit toward life on life connection—an embodied faith.

We see this especially as Bonhoeffer left an opportunity that included safety away from Nazi Germany, as well as the way he taught seminary students at Finkenwalde, an underground and illegal seminary in Germany during the height of Nazi Germany. His book Life Together was written with these particular life experiences in mind.

When we take out the flesh from our faith, we turn Jesus into a human-less deity. A God who can watch from afar, but does not care enough to get his hands in the dirt. And we quickly become people who engage others with words, instead of our lives, slowly isolating ourselves from the body of Christ in flesh.

A disembodied Christianity is no Christianity at all, because it misunderstands Christ. To be a follower of Christ we must aim to live like Christ, and that involves getting our flesh in the game, connecting with people. It’s more than an intellectual pursuit. It’s more than a “you show me your scars, I’ll show you mine.” It’s a sacrifice where I surrender my life, because my God gave His.

And in the process we’re made more like Him.

Lessons from Dietrich Bonhoeffer

dietrich bonhoefferOn our vacation not long ago I read the biography entitled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. It’s by far the longest book I’ve read (around 550 pages depending on the format you read it in). I’ve never been a big biography reader, but to say this book left its mark on me would be a profound understatement (not really the book actually, but the legacy of Bonhoeffer’s life).

(On a side note, I highly recommend the practice of reading at least one book on vacation. Make it a type of book you enjoy reading, maybe even story focused so it doesn’t feel like mental work to understand. Too many people return from vacation, and they take a week to get into the swing of things. Having at least one “task” to accomplish on vacation allows you to keep some discipline.)

The legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer has continued to expand as his written works have gained wider circulation, and as his story has become told to younger generations. I read many of his books in seminary, and already had immense respect and admiration for Bonhoeffer prior to reading the story of his life. Following the reading of his biography, he inspires me as a minister, practicing theologian, writer, and family-man.

Over the next several weeks I’m going to hone in on themes from Bonhoeffer’s life that seem to be of particular interest and help to us at this time. While Bonhoeffer lived a century ago, much of what he stood for in his life and in his experiences can be formative for us, in our time.

Each post will highlight different themes and stories from his life, but today I want to highlight a decision that led ultimately to the taking of his life, because it seems to provide a solid summary of his character. Next week I’ll look at how his theological understandings made this decision an obvious one.

In 1939 Bonhoeffer recognized that he was being watched closely by the Gestapo and the Nazi party, to the point where his work in Germany was being compromised, so he pursued work in the United States. Due to some previous connections at Union Theological Seminary, he lined up a lecturing position and traveled overseas to take the job.

In his letters Bonhoeffer had a weird tone during the trip across the Atlantic, that came to a head after he docked. He was in the wrong country. He had been selfish, seeking comfort, when his brothers and sisters had their lives on the line on the other side of the world. He turned down the job offer, and several weeks later, traveled back to Germany, only to be arrested months later.

He wrote a friend, telling of his decision:

“I have had the 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…

Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make that choice in security.”

This, maybe more than any other decision in his life, absolutely floored me. To have been so convinced of leaving, and then to sense God’s leading back home again, is quite incredible.

The lesson at hand is that following Jesus is a constant conversation and discernment. Am I where God wants me? Am I living as He desires me to?

Those are the kinds of questions Dietrich seemed to be constantly asking. It’s a living with palms held open.

(In the next post we’ll look at the theological under-pinnings for what made this decision seem so unsurprising.)

What I’m Feasting On

feastingBack when I first started blogging I shared my favorite links each week in a post titled Fortuitous Bouncing. How many of you remember those days? Life has gotten busier and I don’t have the time to put together a great list each week, but every few months I’ll put together a post highlighting what I’ve been reading, watching, and listening to (here’s the last one from December).

Books

  • Facing Leviathan: I had the privilege of reading and endorsing this book at the end of last year. It released a month ago. Because Mark lives in Australia he might not get the recognition he deserves. I read about leadership quite a bit, and this book is the best thing I’ve read on the subject of leadership in many years.
  • Bonhoeffer: I won’t say much about this here because I have some posts on it starting next week. You’ll have to wait and see. I’m excited to share them with you.
  • Jesus Feminist: I’ve already put my cards on the table about my perspective on feminism, so I won’t share that here. Sarah Bessey is a top-notch writer, especially because she’s inclusive. It’s hard to read her and not want to join her. With that said, my biggest struggle with Christian feminism and this book is that it’s too inclusive. Meaning, those who espouse to Christian feminism want so badly to be accepted that they have nothing to distinguish their perspective other than what they are against.
  • The In-Between: My friend Jeff is more prolific as a writer than anyone I know. He’s incredibly disciplined, so much so that only a few weeks after releasing his first book, he started on this one. He touches on a subject many struggling with: waiting. I think you’ll find this helpful if you struggle with patience, silence, or waiting.

Links

Music 

What have you been feasting on?

Jesus is Better Than You Imagined (a book review)

Merritt_JesusBetterThanYouImaginedCut any true Christian to their core and they bleed grace. I think this is exactly what Paul had in mind when he described that which is “of first importance” (1st Cor. 15:3). In Jonathan Merritt’s book Jesus is Better Than You Imagined it is grace that shines through his memoir-like work.

Jonathan’s background is quite similar to my own. We both grew up as PKs at baptist affiliated churches. Following college we both pursued graduate degrees in seminary. We both have church ministry as a vocation on our resume, we’re both writers, and we both have learned to deal with our pasts by hiding. Within these connection points are two pieces of the book that stood out to me.

1. Sin, abuse, hiding and shame, is something I’ve written about extensively, and in the most heart-wrenching chapter of the book Jonathan tells his story of similar themes. He says,

“In the end, shame steals the very thing it promises: meaningful, authentic connections with others. Pursuing a life of honesty means to reveal who I truly am and assert that my story belongs at the table.”

For many years my struggle to be real with myself, my friends and family, and God was what truly ate away at my life. I jeopardized close connections with others by choosing to present a version of myself that I knew wasn’t true on the inside.

As Jonathan can attest to, choosing to be honest is incredibly painful, and incredibly liberating at the same time. It tears down the wall built around your life, allowing God and His freedom to enter in.

2. Much-related to the theme of sin, hiding, and shame, is the veneer of exterior righteousness. As a PK I can relate to Jonathan’s close connection with a Christianity that must avoid the appearance of any kind of evil (KJV 1st Thess. 5:22). He says,

“Jesus is better than I imagined because He shatters my striving for sterility with a radical invitation to live free. Free from sinful patterns, but also free from moralism, free from legalism, and free from condemnation. Free to love the unlovable, to use your gifts to serve those in need, to share the great story of redemption through Christ with others.”

As the internet allows more and more of our lives to be on display the danger of faking it continues to rise. What being a follower of Christ gives allowance for is the freedom to live into a whole different kind of you, one that is welcomed and loved already.

Jonathan doesn’t forge into new territory theologically with this book, and I’m certain that wasn’t even his goal. What he accomplishes is presenting a Christianity that meets each of us in the darkness of our lives, and more than anything, that is the kind of book many people need to read.

 You can pick up a copy of the book for yourself here, it releases today.

(PS. Hope you like the new look on the blog. The design was made with mobile in mind, meaning the blog will function much better on phones and tablets than it did previously. The sharing buttons are now featured at the top of each post if you’d like to share this to your preferred social network.)

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