Bonhoeffer: At Odds with Church and State

Over the last few weeks I’ve become fascinated with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Historically, Bonhoeffer found himself in a predicament that no person, let alone a pastor and theologian, would want to find himself in. Bonhoeffer lived through the rise and fall of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. As a pastor, he was not only at odds with the civil government, but he also found himself at odds with the state sanctioned church.

As believers in Christ, we often find ourselves at odds with civil authorities, and at times church authorities. The challenge we face is the rub between the Biblical teaching of submission to civil, church, and familial authorities versus Peter’s example in Acts 5 to submit to God rather than men when those authorities push us towards disobedience. How do we know when to submit to these authorities and when we ought to subvert them?

Korah’s Coup: When to Submit

In Chapter 5 of my book The Fury of God, I take readers through the story of Korah’s attempt at overthrowing Moses and Aaron in Numbers 16. The people of Israel, in Numbers, are constantly griping and complaining about where Moses is leading them and what exactly he is doing. If you’ll recall, the people decided not to invade Canaan for fear they would lose, and were sentenced to wander in the wilderness for forty years.

In Numbers 16, Korah decides he’s going to subvert Moses’ authority. He gathers a large group of men and declares the people holy before Moses. Moses responds by issuing, then demanding, a challenge. Korah’s 250 men are to meet Moses and Aaron for a duel of censers. Each will bring their censer before God and offer incense. Moses declares that whoever God supports as leader will live, and the other will die.

“In an epic moment… the ground opens up and swallows all the people of Korah and everything associated with them. (p, 123)

Then, fire shoots out of heaven and consumes all 250 of Korah’s supporters. One of my favorite lines in all of Scripture is what Moses says regarding the censers after these men have been consumed by fire. He orders that the censers be collected and says, “Let them be made into hammered plates as a covering for the altar, for they offered them before the Lord, and they became holy” (Num. 16:38).

I love this part of the story because at the outset Korah declared to Moses that the people were holy. By the end of the story, God decides to show them what holiness looks like! When he did, they were reduced to ashes and dust and all that remained were the censers they were holding.

American Independence

When Korah came against Moses, he went up against God’s chosen authority. In my book I demonstrate that God has established at least three forms of authority: civil, church, and familial authorities. The Scriptures, Old and New, both affirm these authorities in one way or another. Korah did not take God’s authority seriously and he paid dearly for it.

In America, specifically, there is built into the people a sense of disdain for any kind of authority and a love for individual independence. We love stories where the suppressed underdog takes matters into his own hands and “sticks it to the man.” Unfortunately, I don’t see this as a strong theme in the Scriptures. More often than not, believers are called to submit, and live peaceably as best as they can. In the case of Korah, they did not do this.

While there may be appropriate times to subvert authority, it seems that those occasions are the exception rather than the rule. It is important to note that Jesus Christ went to the cross at the behest of both the civil and religious authorities of his day. He didn’t (as Peter might have hoped) fight for himself. In fact, he remained silent. The apostles, too, as well as the early church faced great persecution at the hands of both religious and civil authorities. Subverting Rome politically did not seem to be their answer. Rather, the preaching of the Gospel seemed to drive them as opposed to their sense of personal freedom, individual independence, or comfort.

As believers, if we want to submit to God, we’re going to have to go to great lengths to submit to those authorities he has placed over us.

Consider the possibility that your submission to the government, the church, the family, or a boss could open a gateway of blessing through which God will display His magnificent love in your life devoted to Him. (p. 143)

Bonhoeffer and Peter: When to Subvert

In The Fury of God, I made no mention of a legitimate time to subvert authority. This was intentional on my part, although, as I look back I do regret it. The reason I did not put anything about subverting authority is because I wanted the message of submission to come through loud and clear. I think, at present, we have an incredible imbalance that leads us to lean heavily towards subversion rather than submission. My hope was that in reading this chapter people would look at their situation and say, “How can I submit?”

With that being said, there is a very important question that must be asked and answered: “When is it wrong to submit?” Keep in mind that the question is not, “When can I subvert authority.” The former question asks when does submission become sinful, the latter asks when do I have the right to overthrow God’s ordained institutional authority. The first question assumes that submission is, generally, the normal position of obedience to God. The second question assumes that there is something inherently wrong with authority, and we should be hankering to find a way to break free.

Thankfully, the Scriptures provide us with a perfect answer to the question, “When is it wrong to submit?”

Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!” But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: “We ought to obey God rather than men. -Acts 5:28-29

When the civil and religious authorities commanded Peter not to preach the Gospel his response was to obey God rather than men. When an authority of one of God’s ordained institutions commands a believer to do that which is sinful or abhorrent to God, that person is obligated not to the earthly authority but the heavenly authority.

As a case in point, the church of the Third Reich moved toward the cessation of the publishing of the Bible, and replacing it in churches with the Fuehrer’s Mein Kampf. Further, they would push to replace the cross with Nazi’s swastika (Metaxas, 2010, 171). It’s at times like these, when the civil, church, or familial authority attempts to force a Christian to do what is ungodly, that the Christian must stand in opposition to that authority. A similar example can be see in 16th Century Reformation. Again, the authority in place was requiring believers to do that which was out of line with the Scriptures.

Caution: This is Serious

The line between submission and subversion is razor thin. Sometimes God calls us to submit to authorities that are not Godly. Sometimes, God calls us to submit to authorities that abuse us, and mistreat us. I truly sympathize with these difficult circumstances and I am always reminded of the cross. Christ’s example on the cross demonstrates for us that submission unto death is not failure. Our suffering at the hands of tyrants may be just what God has ordered to bring about his good purposes. Bonhoeffer died at the hands of the Third Reich. Jesus and the Apostles died at the hands of the Roman government.

Would they have been better served to take up the sword and go to war with Rome? Would their legacy, their message, reverberate through history the same way if they had? I do not know. What I do know, is that, generally, they chose peaceable submission to their own detriment and set an example for us to follow. Korah and his followers chose the road of subversion, and that story goes down in history as a cautionary tale to those who wish to undermine God’s ordained authorities and institutions. This is serious business, and we need to take great care in choosing what road is most biblically appropriate in our particular situation.

Questions for further Discussion

  1. Have you ever had to subvert a God ordained authority? Why?
  2. Have you ever submitted to an ungodly authority? How did it work out?
  3. Are there instances today where an authority is forcing Christians to do that which is ungodly?

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