the weblog of Alan Knox

Bonhoeffer, the Church, and Example

Posted by on Aug 18, 2009 in books, church history, discipleship | 13 comments

Last weekend, I read the following quote from Bonhoeffer on Dave Black’s blog (Sunday, August 16, 2009 at 7:45 am):

The Church is the Church only when it exists for others. To make a start, it would give away all its property to those in need. The clergy must live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling. The Church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.

This quote is both very provocative and (to me, at least) very true. It was both exciting and encouraging to find out that Bonhoeffer wrote this from prison in Germany over 60 years ago.

But, I wanted to know the context of this quote. So, I started searching. It turns out that this quote is in Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison (Ed. Eberhard Bethge, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1972).

The five sentences quoted above are part of a summary that Bonhoeffer wrote while in prison. He states that he wants to write a short book (“not more than 100 pages”) with three chapters: 1) A Stocktaking of Christianity, 2) The Real Meaning of Christian Faith, and 3) Conclusions. The quotation is the beginning of the chapter on Conclusions.

Here is the entire section in which Bonhoeffer summarized the “Conclusions” of his short book:

The Church is the Church only when it exists for others. To make a start, it should give away all its property to those in need. The clergy must live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling. The Church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others. In particular, our own church will have to take the field against the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy, and humbug, as the roots of all evil. It will have to speak of moderation, purity, trust, loyalty, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty. It must not under-estimate the importance of human example (which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus and is so important in Paul’s teaching); it is not abstract argument, but example, that gives its word emphasis and power. (I hope to take up later this subject of ‘example’ and its place in the New Testament; it is something that we have almost entirely forgotten.) Further: the question of revising the creeds (the Apostles’ Creed); revision of Christian apologetics; reform of the training for the ministry and the pattern of clerical life. (pg. 382-383)

Example. If “example” is something that had been “almost entirely forgotten” in Bonhoeffer’s day, it seems to be even more forgotten today. In fact, it is common for “ministers” to be taught to remain aloof from others in the church – to separate themselves and their lives from others – to seek advice and counsel only from other “ministers” outside of their church. Where is the example in this? (Granted, I think this idea of “ministry” is becoming less popular today.)

We cannot speak and teach from a vacuum. We speak and teach from a context, and that context is our own lives. The instructions “serve one another” take own a new power when they are uttered while in the process of serving. When the teacher is getting his or her hands dirty while helping other people, the lesson to help and serve others is effective.

I haven’t read further that this quote. But, I’m interested to see if Bonhoeffer had time and opportunity to “take up” the subject of example. I would love to read more, and I would love to see the church embrace example today.


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 8-18-2009

    Life Together was an excellent book (imo) on this subject.

  2. 8-18-2009


    I’ve struggled with that quote for a long time and I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t agree with it. Here’s why.

    The basic premise is exclusive and focuses entirely on the other. But that premise excludes the self in the process. Kingdom, from my perspective and the Way of Jesus is inclusive of the self. The basic nature of discipleship is a self restoration process in order to reveal the kingdom to the world around us. In other words, it is only when we restore the self by engaging the Way of Jesus that we can become what Bonhoeffer desires.

    Any thoughts?

  3. 8-18-2009


    I like Life Together… very good book.


    There is certainly some amount of self-discipleship. But, there must also be a focus on the other. I don’t think Bonhoeffer is excluding discipleship as an inner restorative process, but he is saying that it must also include an outwards process as well. One of my favorite passages that demonstrates how both is necessary is Heb 10:19-25. The author is writing about our response to Jesus Christ as a new way to the Father and as our High Priest. Note we are to draw near to God (self to God), hold fast to our confession (self), and consider one another (others). I think both aspects are necessary, and I think the church has emphasized the self aspect of discipleship without including the other aspect.


  4. 9-15-2009

    Bonhoeffer didn’t live long enough to further explore “example” as used in this quote. Looking into LPP does reveal how B viewed Jesus as the greatest example of what it means to be human without cost to Christ’s deity. The church would do well today to become more human in the the way Bonhoeffer indicates as followers of Jesus. Bonhoeffer’s secular church has yet to be fully grasped as a function of Luther’s earlier theological-anthropolgy.
    When today’s power megachurches are finally viewed as the counter-examples of what Bonhoeffer called the church, Christianity may survive the 21st century’ accommodation of prideful and professional culture into the Christian church in a misguided attempt to make the church “relevant” rather than ontologically true to its authentic identity as counter-cultural.

    Paul O. Bischoff, Ph.D.

  5. 9-15-2009

    Alan, I share your love for ecclesiology. Would like to be a dialogue partner with you in your Ph.D. work. My dissertation:
    “An Ecclesiololgy of the Cross: The Church in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” [May, 2005] Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago is available through the U. of Michigan archives.

    Dr. Paul O. Bischoff

  6. 9-15-2009


    Thank you for the further info about Bonhoeffer. Please send me an email at aknox [at] sebts [dot] edu.


  7. 10-17-2012

    Years ago I was in a very strict ‘church’ we religiously observed the Sabbaths. These days were seen a a sign, and therefore everything hinged upon keeping them.

    This became a test, my employment was in peril due to restructuring, and in order for me to retain my employment I would be required to ‘break the Sabbath’. This had been drilled into me to the point is wasn’t a question. My minister had clearly communicated Gods view on this topic. I followed through, terminated my employment, and moved on. A few years later it became clear to the ministry that they were in error, and then communicated to us,and I paraphrase,”whoops, sorry about that.”

    Today I see this institution of clergy as an impediment to the growth and development of the body of Christ, and it is with humility, and love I offer this point to ponder.

    Dear minister, pastor, clergy, bishop, please consider this point. The clergy/laity concept is not of Christ. Just as I was asked to relinquish my employment due to Gods will, I ask of you the same.

  8. 10-18-2012


    While it seems that Bonhoeffer was agreeable to the “clergy/laity” distinction, I do think that some of his suggestions would have narrowed the gap that we still see today, even among those who profess that there is no clergy/laity divide.


  9. 5-21-2013

    Gentlemen, late to this dialog, but hopeful this may be of some joy – it seems the point of Heb 10:19-25 is life-transforming worship, the mind and soul rending reality that Christ “has done it!” – carried us, robed in His blood, into the Holy Place (“hidden with God in Christ”), and seated us there. This Holy God has also by the blood now chosen to INDWELL us, “never to leave…or forsake…”!
    As we draw near, “pondering these things in our heart,” “He anoints our head with oil,” and “our cup runs over” – in short, we are overflowing in worship of this One who has won us, redeemed us and seated us at His banqueting table.
    As my cup overflows with the life and love of my living and indwelling Lord – with worship, “loving the Lord with heart, soul, mind and strength,” I now have the capacity to “love my neighbor as myself” – “to stir up one another to love and good works, … encouraging one another” – by loving them with something BESIDES myself.
    Everything flows from a humble, confident thankful worship. That, I think, is the gist of the Hebrews writer’s comments here.
    And I feel certain Bonhoeffer epitomizes the consistency of such “neighborly love” that only fully flows out of an amazement with our “God who first loved us.”
    To be the “example” the church must be filled to overflowing with the Only Example worth sharing. Clergy and laity alike are called to this.

  10. 5-21-2013


    I think it’s amazing that Heb 10:19-25 (with the instructions to “draw near,” “hold fast,” and “consider one another”) is written to all readers – not a subsection (i.e., clerics). We can all be examples by drawing near ourselves, holding fast ourselves, and then consider others ourselves in order to stir up love and good works in them.


  11. 5-21-2013

    Alan, Yes, and absolutely! It’s “worship” and it’s universal! I neglected to make that clear. Thanks for filling in “the rest of the story.”
    Clerics, in fact, have but a little of biblical instruction which they might claim for their own. The book is written into a body of believers who might be, in focused worship, increasingly like Jesus. Even the commendation to and description of elders (ITim.) encourages all men of the efficacy of such aspiration. You are doing well to insist on this point!
    Cheers, Don

  12. 5-21-2013

    ‘in’ the New Covenant our ‘eyes’ are opened to Christ and to ‘one another’. We come to see that the ground at the foot of His cross is level, we are all equal, we are all a part of His Body.

    Our elbow isn’t superior to our liver, our liver isn’t superior to our nose, our nose isn’t superior to our feet. These body parts are all in subjection to the head, and the Body of Christ has but one head and that is Christ.

    When Christ is exalted all else is cast aside, we must cast the human tendency for leadership at the base of His cross and ‘in’ His grace, love and live the 59 ‘one another’ passages out. In doing so our Pastor, Rabi, Priest, Teacher, and Lord works ‘in’ and out His masterful purpose, His eternal purpose, to prepare His Bride, His Body, His House.

  13. 5-22-2013


    Yes, exactly. We need one another, and we can learn from one another.