Spiritual Authority & Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Ever since reading about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, there’s been one aspect of his life and service to the Lord that’s bothered me.  We know Bonhoeffer best through his book The Cost of Discipleship.  It’s here where Bonhoeffer discusses the price that must be paid to serve God in challenging and difficult times.  And how hard that can be! Bonhoeffer wrote the book as a response to the persecution that had come upon Germany during the period of Adolph Hitler’s rule in the 1930s and 1940s, and how Christians must follow God’s way at all costs.

Hitler had appropriated Christianity.  He had subverted the churches. The leaders of those churches had submitted to him, and declared that to follow Hitler and the tenets of his Third Reich were compatible with Christianity.  It was total capitulation of the churches by their pastors. In response, Bonhoeffer became part of what was known as the Confessing Church, i.e. the church that confessed Jesus Christ as Lord and did not bow its knee to the governmental, secular rulers, despite their claiming the mantle of Christianity.

As an aside, it was this claim by Hitler to be Christian and then kill six million Jews in gas chambers, which to this day, is one of the major factors that has made Jews associate Christians with those who persecute them.  In reality, Hitler used the title of Christian but followed occult practices.  There are numerous accounts of Hitler and his top echelon that detail how they practiced witchcraft and sorcery by various means.

Bonhoeffer is considered an admirable figure, and rightly so.  He ended up being martyred for his faith, ironically being hanged within hours of deliverance by the Allied Forces.

Now, let’s shift eras for a moment back to the time of David and Saul.  Saul had been chosen king over Israel by the people, not by God. David was anointed king by God.  However, David’s time to rule hadn’t yet come. Saul knew of David’s call and was jealous. He did all that he could to kill his rival and pursued him throughout Israel.

During this time, David had several opportunities to eliminate the threat of Saul to his own life and that of his men.  Yet, in each instance, David wouldn’t do it. He was a man after God’s own heart. Rather than act as circumstances seemed to warrant and kill Saul, David simply demonstrated to Saul that he could have slain him but never did.  He left the vengeance of his enemy to the Lord. He allowed God to act in His own timing as He would. He gave the Lord the latitude to handle Saul; in other words, David put his life in God’s hands (1 Samuel).

Similarly, in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 13 that we who believe in and follow the Lord Jesus Christ must submit to the governing authorities.  He wrote this during the time of Nero, who terribly persecuted Christians.

Yet, we also know from Paul’s declaration in Acts 5:29 that we must obey God and not men when confronted with evil.  We are to adhere to God’s ways. We must not actively participate in evil, rather resist it, because acting according to God’s principles is our duty before Him.

The issue in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life that has troubled me is this:  Bonhoeffer took part in a plot to assassinate Adoph Hitler. Since becoming a Christ-follower and reading about this, I’ve struggled with how to rationalize what he did.  Should Bonhoeffer have participated in this attempt to eliminate the terrible threat that Hitler posed, not only to Germany, but to the entire world? Was Bonhoeffer justified in this?

It’s a thorny question.  If we believe Paul and the way that he says we should walk, and if we believe that all authority is under God’s divine sovereignty, then the answer is no.  Proverbs 21:1 says that:

The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.

God is in control.  It’s not as if He’s surprised when rulers arise that subjugate His people.  It’s not as if He can’t act in such a way that, perhaps after some amount of persecution, He will deliver those who love Him from the hands of their enemies.

Does this mean we should be passive in the face of evil?  No, we have to demonstrate God’s will and His way. We should pray against evil and take a bold stand against it in all its forms.  Does this mean we should bear arms or engage in assassination plots against wicked rulers? Yes and no. Perhaps, the decision comes down to personal action against a leader such as Hitler versus generally taking up arms against an enemy.

What would God have us do?  What is God’s heart? To protect the innocent, the poor, the widow, and the fatherless.  God had His people fight for their land after He brought them out of Egypt. That appears to be acceptable in His eyes.

Bonhoeffer was trying to come against a man whom God had allowed to rule.  The bottom line is that he probably shouldn’t have participated in this plot.  Just like David, he should have let God be God and divinely orchestrate the circumstances.  In the end, the plot failed, yet Hitler came to a much deserved fate. However, Bonhoeffer suffered consequences for his actions as well.

We need to act according to God’s principles, not as we in our flesh view the circumstances.  If we allow God to rule, and we place all things in His hands, the likelihood is that we’ll always be better off.  God is sovereign. He is in control.

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