Dietrich Bonhoeffer and The Church

Bonhoeffer’s view of what the church must look and act like is founded upon a single foundational principle, or rather, a foundational question: “Does the church take up a space within the world, and if so, what kind of space is it?”[1] What does it mean to be a “church,” to be “the church,” or to “do church”? These are the sorts of questions that Bonhoeffer, and many Christians, wrestle with. Bonhoeffer argues along very biblical lines, taking Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 12-14 (and others) quite seriously. To answer his own foundational question, Bonhoeffer begins by exploring key themes in Christian theology in light of the “church question.” He begins by looking at Jesus of Nazareth, the one whose human body took up space in ancient Israel.

            Bonhoeffer argues that “God became human.”[2] This means that God “took on the whole of our sick and sinful human nature.”[3] Because of this event, Jesus Christ, God incarnate, has taken on all human suffering and sin upon Himself. Like the first Adam, whom Bonhoeffer argues was a representative of all humankind, the second Adam (i.e., Christ) represents God’s forgiveness for all humankind’s sin. Since this sort of universal approach is underlying many of Bonhoeffer’s statements, it is quite easy to see where he would go with all of this in relation to the Church. If Jesus lived and died for everybody’s sins, then all who participate in him have died too. Moreover, since Jesus left ancient Israel, and no longer takes up space there, it is the Christians, those who are participating in Christ, initially through baptism, who are taking up space as Christ’s own body. The Church, then, is literally the very physical body of Christ taking up space in the world. This is tout court Bonhoeffer’s basic schema regarding what the Church is: it is the body of Christ. Before we carefully examine this simple view, and all of its profound implications, I want to start from the beginning: how does one become a part of the Church?

            Bonhoeffer believes that all potential Christians become so through the waters of baptism. But how does one get to the point of being baptized? How is one called to be a Christian? Bonhoeffer argues that Jesus’ call is found in Scripture. “[H]e encounters us in his word.”[4] Jesus comes to us and calls us to him. He does this in a number of ways. He speaks to us through the words of the Bible and also by means of Himself (that is, by means of His current representation on earth: the Church). It is quite evident that the original body of Jesus is no longer walking about the shores of Galilee or New York calling out: “Follow me!” Jesus commands us in various ways, through Scripture, to follow Him. But, as Bonhoeffer points out, Jesus does this in a number of strange ways. To some He says, “Leave all and follow me”; to others He simply offers no such command, as to Lazarus. Reading both commands, a single person may feel quite confused: is Jesus telling me to leave all or to stay here?[5] Bonhoeffer never gets around this epistemological problem, he simply suggests that we act within a church-community, read Scripture, and “recognize” Christ “in faith.”[6] Moreover, he writes that “the call as such is ambiguous.”[7] Bonhoeffer argues that it was no different for the first disciples. Jesus was only recognized as the Christ not because of what He told them, but because they had faith in Him and then took His commands by faith also! Likewise, today, we are in the same situation: we hear the commands of Jesus, but they only become real to us by faith. If you are called to abandon everything, this call will be received in faith. Bonhoeffer also believes that Jesus’ commands are all really one: He “demands faith from an undivided heart, and love of God and neighbor with all our heart and soul.”[8] But how can I, the living and breathing subjective individual, know what Christ is saying to me? How does the doubting Thomas know? Bonhoeffer offers what appears to be a Sunday-school response: by the Holy Spirit. You will know by the power of the Holy Spirit.

            Once a single individual knows what the command is, and once the imperative “Follow me!” has been heard, the individual must receive water baptism. “In baptism we become Christ’s possession.”[9] We participate, as Romans 6 clearly expounds, in Christ’s death. We die with Christ and we no longer live; for Christ lives in us. Once that is accomplished, we “break”[10] with the world and its ambitions. We are in the world but not of the world. In Bonhoeffer’s first-person reflections on this: “I am deprived of my immediate relationship to the given realities of the world.”[11] All of those who are baptized into Christ’s baptism are baptized in such a way that they now only relate to the world through Christ alone. Those who have died in Christ now live like Christ lived: they suffer. For what does it mean to “live like” Christ? What does it mean to walk as Christ walked? It means this: “[t]hose who become Christ’s own must come under his cross…[t]hey must suffer and die with him.”[12] Not only is baptism seen as an initiation into a life of suffering, but it is also seen in a remarkably positive light. Bonhoeffer reminds his readers that for sinners to be freed from their sin, they must die. He then argues that if a sinner “dies” (in Christ) that sinner is “justified.”[13] Why? Because in Christ all of our sins have been put to death and we have been justified through His actions. Once an individual Christian is baptized, “that single individual,” to use Kierkegaardian language, receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is Christ dwelling in him/her. In Bonhoeffer’s view, baptism encompasses all of the aforementioned and more. He believes that baptism is also a “public act” that is done as a “visible act of obedience,” which must occur only once.[14]

            We have briefly looked at Bonhoeffer’s understanding of what it means to be called by Jesus and to become baptized into Jesus. This then leads us to the question: now what? Now that I am the body of Christ, and the body of Christ is made up of members like myself, what am I to do, or rather, what are we to do?

            Bonhoeffer begins by talking a little about Jesus and His disciples. He points out that Jesus Christ took on all “human nature” and that His disciples participated by having community with His bodily form and by suffering how He suffered. “By being in community with the body of Jesus they are placed under the burden of the cross.” Moreover, it is only in this suffering that “they are all borne and accepted.”[15] Later on, with the original body of Jesus no longer walking around ancient Israel, the Church would have communion with the body of Jesus via the Eucharist. Bonhoeffer spoke of the Church in numerous ways, using various words. “The church is the present Christ himself.” “While we are used to thinking of the church as an institution, we ought instead to think of it as a person with a body, although of course a person in a unique sense.” Not only is the Church Christ incarnate now, it is also “the human being per se.” It is even a “new human being” (καινός ἄνθρωπος). To be a member of this individual, this person, this entity, is to be united to God and reconciled to Him. “Outside of the church, which is this new human being, there is only the old, internally divided human being.”[16]

            The Church, in Bonhoeffer’s opinion, is to be found in the crucified God. Its path is essentially a path of weakness and suffering, humility and torture. He remarks, in a completely jubilant manner, “Blessed are those to whom God grants the privilege of suffering for the body of Christ.”[17] In a similar vein, the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann remarked: “To die on the cross means to suffer and to die as one who is an outcast and rejected. If those who follow Jesus are to take ‘their cross’ on themselves, they are taking on not only suffering and a bitter fate, but the suffering of rejection.”[18] What initially seems to come across as “good news,” seems strange to modern American ears. Good news? How is this good news exactly? I’m being asked to suffer and to live a righteous life—so that I would suffer even more? How is that good? An underlying presupposition which Bonhoeffer holds is that humans are inherently sinful.[19] Because of the severity of our sin, it is actually quite a gift to be able to participate in God’s suffering—which He is suffering over our sins—and be justified. The point isn’t the suffering; the point is that God is allowing you to suffer with Him! Once the Church accepts suffering, it could then move on to the next phase: how to live in the world.

            The Church, as a representative of Christ Himself on earth, as an entity, a unique individual, must live in such a way that conforms to Christ—as is made evident in the Scriptures. Christ preached the coming of the Kingdom of God, so the Church is likewise to continue preaching this apostolic message. The Church must continue to produce the imperative: “Follow me!” The Church today must continue feeling just as compelled as the first disciples of Jesus. “[T]hey were compelled to bear witness to nothing else but the fact that God’s Word had become flesh, and had come to accept sinners, to forgive their sins and sanctify them.”[20] For Bonhoeffer, it is quite self-evident what the Church is doing then: “[T]he community of Jesus Christ claims a space in this world for its proclamation…”[21] The point of the Church is to spread the good news!

            But how exactly does one go about living in the world, while being a Christian, sharing the good news? Bonhoeffer suggests that Christians should not ever contemplate leaving the world as monastics. He believes that we are to remain a part of the world; we are to minister to the world, no matter the cost. “There is an illegitimate way of remaining in the world, just as there is an illegitimate way of escaping from it. In either case we become conformed to the world.”[22] Christians are called to live out a life that reflects Christ and His message; we are the world’s megaphone. If the Christians stop preaching—if we no longer say: “Follow me!”—who will say it for us? Granted, sometimes prison sentences may follow, maybe even death, but that is all beside the point: for “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). If Christ could die for us, a righteous one for the sinners, what is it to us who die sinners on behalf of other sinners? No matter what happens, Christians are to remain in the world. “They are to remain in the world in order to engage the world in a frontal assault.”[23] It is “the world” that “must be contradicted within the world.”[24] A Christian is to live out his or her daily life in this world using a thoroughly Christian approach; all must be done through Christ.

            Once Christians have been accepted into the church-community, they must live within the church-community and grow in grace alongside it—never apart. The Church is to be made up of individuals who are no longer sinners but now saints. “They [i.e., the Christians] are saints for the sake of Christ.” Christians, according to Bonhoeffer, are not “required in their sinful state to be holy”; rather, they are “called to be holy.”[25] Bonhoeffer goes on to list sins that Christians, however sinful, should never attempt to commit. At the top of his list is fornication. Despite our susceptibility to sin, humans should still avoid committing acts such as adultery that require, many a time, premeditated and careful planning. This is a sin that directly is against the body—in which Christ now dwells. Bonhoeffer’s concern with church discipline is not that the Church should become some kind of judgmental, legalistic community; rather, he sees the Church as disciplining its members so that they may not stand condemned on judgment day. The Church, in disciplining, is exercising God’s grace to sinners.[26] If, upon multiple attempts, a Christian Church member should remain in his or her sin, that person is handed over to Satan or has the anathema pronounced over him/her. This pronouncement essentially means that the Church has condemned the individual; it is God’s duty now to judge him or her. Outside of epic sins, such as the case with having become anathema or accursed to the church-community, the single individual must live and act in faith. “Those who have faith are being justified; those who are justified are being sanctified; those who are sanctified are being saved on judgment day.”[27] For Bonhoeffer, then, it is the individual’s responsibility within the Church to practice becoming more and more like Christ. Until we become “in the image of Christ.” Once a single Christian becomes the image of Christ, we have a Christian; once that single individual is joined by other individuals, we have the Church.

            Bonhoeffer’s views on the church-community are quite profound in many ways. On the other hand, they are quite simple too: he is, after all, giving us nothing but another version of the New Testament. What I think is most insightful about his view is that the Church “takes up space” in real time. Given the fact that it takes up space, one then asks: what sort of space? And when one asks that question, one is forced to think about the historical Jesus, what it means to be a Christian, what it means to follow Christ, to exemplify Him, to serve Him, to preach His message to the rest of the world. The question, in other words, is a good one. It makes us think about what it all means to us. In thinking and mulling over these issues, one, I believe, is forced to decide for oneself what it means to be that representative, that single individual, walking along the shores of Galilee calling out “Follow me!” While Bonhoeffer is an excellent guide in theology, he is not without criticism when it comes to epistemology. The issues that surround “knowing” whether a person is called (and what that entails) is not really answered by Bonhoeffer. He attempts to get around the issue by leaving it in the hands of subjective faith, but I suppose that many a philosopher will not buy that. Have not previous people heard Christ’s so-called “call” and were wrong about it? Were the Crusades done in the name of some gibberish “call”? While I myself accept Kurt Gödel’s “incompleteness theorem”—and thus have no problem with logical systems that are founded upon unprovable axioms—I do think that some logicians would still find his “faith-friendly” philosophy quite disturbing. (As I myself still vacillate between accepting Bonhoeffer’s claims and yet, paradoxically, finding them silly.) His theology strikes me as individual-existentialist and yet as also communalist. He does not dismiss the subjective individual neither does he throw out the opinions of the community. In Bonhoeffer’s works, we have a view of the Church which is rich, robust and meaningful. The individual is never lost in the midst of the crowd; the individual is called to live a meaningful life in relation to God and the Church. I have found that a theology which leaves room for tension and paradox is far better than a theology which answers every imaginable question and explains every imaginable objection. Such simple theologies are usually good in theory, never in practice. Once you need to use a heretical theology, it immediately shrivels up beneath the weight of human experience. Bonhoeffer’s view of the Church and what it should be experiencing is not an easy pill to swallow. He tells you that you will suffer. Once suffering comes, you’ll not be looking at Five-Point Calvinism and trying to fit in where God’s omnipotence starts and where His omniscience ends; no, you’ll be escaping cut-and-dried theology for something robust and realistic to the human experience; something that addresses issues related to pain and suffering. Because Bonhoeffer spent his time in prison, living as a poor man, he is not easily prone to Hegelian, utopian, fantastic mind-castle creations; he simply writes from the doghouse of existential reality. And I think such theology, in particular, be it right or wrong, is more meaningful than a thousand Marcions.




Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 4. Minneapolis: Fortress Press,     2001.

Moltmann, Jürgen. The Crucified God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.




[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 4 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 225.

[2] Ibid., 214.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 206.

[5] Ibid., 201-203.

[6] Ibid., 202.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 203.

[9] Ibid., 207.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 207-208.

[12] Ibid., 208.

[13] Ibid., 209.

[14] Ibid., 210.

[15] Ibid., 215.

[16] For all these particular references to the Church see Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 218.

[17] Ibid., 222.

[18] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 55

[19] Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 256. He writes: “[T]he justification of sinners consists in God alone being righteous and sinners being totally and utterly unrighteous…” (italics original).

[20] Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 228.

[21] Ibid., 229. Italics original.

[22] Ibid., 247.

[23] Ibid., 244.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 263.

[26] Ibid., 271.

[27] Ibid., 280. Italics original.

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