Bonhoeffer, the Church, and the Consequence of Ideas

imagesWhat is the church? This question seems, for many, disconnected from any real-world payoff. After all, it is a question for theology; a question for those who think the Bible has something interesting to say. It’s a question for those interested in splitting hairs and marking out the boundaries between orthodox belief and heresy. Such a question is surely…obviously…of little importance to anyone outside the church. Right?


In 1924, an 18-year-old theology student began to grapple with this question—What is the church? —And his answer had profound implications for Germany and ultimately the world.

On Palm Sunday, 1924, young Dietrich Bonhoeffer was visiting Rome, and as he attended Mass in the Eternal City, the city of Peter and Paul, he began for the first time to understand the concept of ‘church.’

Bonhoeffer states:

The universality of the church was illustrated in a marvelously effective manner. White, black, yellow members of religious orders—everyone was in clerical robes united under the church. It truly seemed ideal.[1]

For the first time, Bonhoeffer began to think of the church as something universal, and this idea would set in motion the entire course of his remaining life. If the church was something that actually existed, if it extends beyond the boundaries of any one country, then it exists not just in Germany or Rome, but beyond both.

What is the church? Bonhoeffer attacked this question, first in his doctoral dissertation, Santorum Communio, and then in his post-doctoral work, Act and Being. But Bonhoeffer was no mere academic. His belief in the universal church led him to action. It led him into the ecumenical movement in Europe, it caused him to stand in opposition to the Nazis, who advanced the idea that a church is to be defined by racial identity and blood, and not by faith in the Jesus Christ, and it ultimately led to his involvement in the conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler. It is not a stretch to say that the Nazis killed him because of his views about the church.

Ideas matter. They move us to action. They can liberate. And they can shackle. Some ideas are great ideas. According to Mortimer Adler, there are 102 Great Ideas of the Western World. Some ideas are not so great. Some are harmless—and some can be deadly.

As Christians, our calling is to be mindful of the prevalent ideas of our age. As the Apostle Paul puts it, we are to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5). In other words, we are to examine the ideas of this age and compare them to the plumb line of Scripture. And as we read the Scriptures, at the fount of Christianity, we find Jesus Christ Himself, “in whom are hidden all treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). If an idea is true, good, and beautiful we are assured of its source. If not, let us beware. And stand against it—not just so we can check off the “I’ve got truth on my side” box, but because our very lives, and the lives of others might depend on our stand. It did in Bonhoeffer’s case, and his faithfulness to Christ (and dare I say, Christ’ idea of the universal church) saved many in his day, and it continues to stand as a testimony to those of us who come after him.

As an extra, here is an interesting video of Karl Barth on the Confessing Church in Germany:
















[1] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Dallas, TX: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 53.

3 Responses to Bonhoeffer, the Church, and the Consequence of Ideas

  1. Pingback: Really Recommended Posts 8/23/13 | J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason"

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