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Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth: Lessons on the Christian and the State

Updated: May 29, 2023


A disturbing quotation from a Christian History Magazine article entitled, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: German Theologian and Resister reads, “Hitler is the way of the Spirit and the will of God for the German people to enter the Church of Christ." It was made by a man named Hermann Gruner who was a German pastor. Another German pastor is quoted as saying, “Christ has come to us through Adolph Hitler." The idea of such statements is shocking.

They are not only utterly blasphemous and chilling, they are devastating because they are made by men who claim to be leaders of Christianity.

Men like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer completely rejected the notion of those pastors. Along with other like-minded leaders, they adopted the Barmen Declaration that clearly established Jesus Christ as the head of the church, not the Nazi Party and certainly not Adolph Hitler. Men like Barth and Bonhoeffer are good examples of men who took their responsibilities as Christians in regard to the State very seriously. They refused to give the government power over the church. They fought to keep the church pure from the influence of the state and they understood that for a true Christian the ultimate authority for the church is Jesus Christ. While they believed they had a responsibility to submit to the authority of the state, they also understood that as Christians their first responsibility was to submit to the authority of Christ and when those two authorities conflicted, their allegiance was to the higher authority, Jesus Christ.


Bonhoeffer paid for that belief with his life and after spending nearly two years in prison, he was executed just 28 days before Germany surrendered at the end of World War II. The German State considered Bonheoffer’s ideas to be dangerous to its existence. In the United States, we are seeing increased opposition to Christianity, but here, our founding fathers sought to protect the people from the power of the state over the religious ideas of the individual. Our founders included specific statements in our Constitution that guaranteed the “free exercise” of religion and they made sure that Congress did not establish a state religion.


As a Christian, I have a responsibility as a citizen. In the Old Testament, even though Saul was trying to kill him, David would not raise his hand against God’s anointed. Paul makes it clear in Romans 13 that the government is instituted by God and that those who resist God’s authority “will incur judgement” (vs.2). Paul further states that the role of the government is to carry out “God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (vs. 4). Jesus also makes it clear that as Christians we are to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21). So clearly, as a Christian it is my responsibility to submit to God’s authority over me in regards to the rulers He has instituted.


The hard part comes when my authorities conflict. According to the Christian History article, Bonhoeffer first “tried to oppose Nazis through religious action and moral persuasion” (1991). It was in these efforts that he and others adopted the Barmen Declaration. However, Bonhoeffer had to do more because the German State was completely in conflict with the moral absolutes of God’s Word. Bonhoeffer was banned from preaching publicly, so he had to start an “underground seminary” to teach and train pastors. He also began helping Jews escape the immoral actions of his government. Finally, Bonhoeffer was linked to a plot to overthrow, and later to assassinate, Hitler. However, it is important to know the truth of history and although this is not the overall purpose of this blog post, I need to take one quick rabbit trail in regard to that plot.


Bonhoeffer was not arrested for his involvement in any assassination attempt, but for helping Jews escape Germany using government money. After his arrest, he was also charged with subverting military power, because he refused to join the military and he helped others do the same. Bonhoeffer worked as a double agent for the German intelligence agency Abwehr. Many like him in Abwehr were actually working for the resistance and fed powerful information to the Allies during the war. Many of those same double agents also developed numerous plots to overthrow and/or assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer became aware of several of those plots, although he was not at the center of planning them. When several other members of Abwehr were caught and tried for their involvement in the assassination attempts, Bonhoeffer was also sentenced to the same punishments because he had been so closely linked to them. Today, many only know Bonhoeffer as the German pastor who was executed for trying to assassinate Hitler, however, the documents from history seem to disprove that notion. From his own writings as well as from the accounts and documentation of history, Bonhoeffer was NOT at the center of any assassination attempt. That's not to say he didn't have major struggles with his ethical responsibilities in the face of unspeakable evil.


Bonhoeffer’s own words show that he considered his duty to God to be his ultimate aim and it was his understanding of his responsibilities as a citizen of Germany that led him to make the decisions he made. He actually had an opportunity to leave Germany, and was in America, but he chose to return because he said, “I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will 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” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer: German Theologian and Resister). In his Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer wrote that

“The great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical preconceptions. This appearance of evil in the guise of light, beneficence, and historical necessity is utterly bewildering to anyone nurtured in our traditional ethical systems. But for the Christian who frames his life on the Bible, it merely confirms the radical evilness of evil."

It seems obvious that Bonhoeffer had a clear understanding that he was fighting evil within his country even though it had presented ethical battles for him.

Throughout history Christian men and women have had to wrestle with their responsibility to fight against evil in their cultures while still obeying the principles to be subject to the governments that are instituted by God. Bonhoeffer is one example. William Wilberforce is another. Wilberforce believed without any doubt that slavery was a moral evil. He clearly felt that it violated biblical principles and he spent his entire adult life using the resources within the government to end the slave trade. He even attacked those who tried to justify slavery on religious grounds.


Today, we as Christians are faced with many moral and ethical issues that are being more and more mandated by the state. Like Bonhoeffer and Wilberforce, we are being confronted with our responsibility to these issues, and we are being forced to face those ethical questions that Bonhoeffer had to battle.

As Christians, we ought to obey God rather than man and when we do, we often have to pay consequences that can range in severity from bearing public scorn, to paying fines, to going to jail, to being executed. Bonhoeffer’s choice to obey God rather than man forced him to pay the ultimate price.



Our founding fathers did not want to create a nation that punished people for exercising their religious beliefs. They put into our founding documents safeguards to prevent against such abuse. They did not want an established religion, but rather a freedom of religion that all men could pursue. As a Christian it is important that I submit to the authority of my government, but it is just as important that I participate in the government affairs to try to promote moral principles that can guide our nation to a place of blessing.


In his opening video lesson for A Noble Experiment high school government course, Professor Tim Spickler states that the reason the course is called A Noble Experiment is because “each generation must prove the hypothesis of self-government.” In other words, if we, as citizens fail to govern ourselves as established in the first three words of the Constitution’s “We the People,” then we lose the form of government that has protected our religious freedom for so long.


So as a Christian, I understand my responsibility to the state, I take it seriously, and I follow the examples of those who have modeled Christian citizenship for me (our founding fathers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and William Wilberforce to name a few).








 

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Suggested Reading: If you are a family with younger children still in the home, I know that you are aware you are raising them in an increasingly Godless culture. Exposing them to heroes of the faith, like Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Wilberforce can be an excellent tool to help strengthen their faith. YWAM (Youth With a Mission) Publishing has some of the BEST resources for younger audiences, but they are just as powerful for adults. I cannot recommend them more highly. If you have struggling readers, YWAMs audio books are a fantastic option. In fact, they have audio book bundles that include stories on Bonhoeffer, Jacob DeShazer, and more. As a family, we listened to audio books as we traveled and our kids not only loved them, but they opened the door for some important teachable moments with them that were invaluable. Click on the banner below to check out some of YWAMs great resources.

 

Works Cited

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison. New York: Macmillan. 1962.


Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. Touchstone. 1995


“Dietrich Bonhoeffer: German Theologian and Resister.” Christian History. Christianity Today. Issue 32, 1991. Retrieved from: https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/martyrs/dietrich-bonhoeffer.html


Spickler, Tim. A Noble Experiment: The History and Nature of the American Government DVD course. Disc 1, Lesson Two. Elyria, OH: Zeezok Publishing. 2010.


 

Disclosure: Bear in mind that some of the links in this post are affiliate links and if you go through them to make a purchase I will earn a commission. Keep in mind that I link these companies and their products because of their quality. The decision is yours, and whether or not you decide to buy something is completely up to you. Please read full disclosure here.

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