Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s view on Government and Church

Programming note for regular readers: I have made an update to my post “A pro-life perspective on the 2016 Election“. Also, after this post I will be taking a break from my blog for a few weeks. I’ll be on a family vacation and/or focusing on other projects.

Disclaimer 1: In summarizing Bonhoeffer’s view I am not saying that I am in complete agreement with it.

Disclaimer 2: This is a summary of Bonhoeffer’s view based on his chapter “State and Church” in Ethics and not on the whole of his work. I’m not a Bonhoeffer scholar so my summary is limited.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The basis and task of the government

Bonhoeffer begins his chapter by exploring the basis of the government. He summarizes three basic answers.

The first answer is to find the basis of government in the nature of man. This is the ancient Greek/Aristotelian answer. It sees the state as “the supreme consummation of the rational character of man.” The state naturally arises from human nature and is the “ultimate purpose of human life.” Using biblical language we could say that state is part of “creation.” This view has difficulty, however, in moving from the voluntary and natural “community” of “man for man” to the necessity of “government”, which represents the “coercive power” which exists over the state as “man against man.”

The second answer, then, is that the basis of government is in sin. In this view, the need for government – and the necessary element of coercive power – arises only because of the fact of sin. In other words, it is necessary because of the Fall. In this view, the task of the government is to use its power in order to be “the protector of outward justice.” The power from the government is “from above,” that is, it is given by God himself. It is “order in the world, an order which bears the authority of God.”

This second answer is where much of Christian theology stops, but Bonhoeffer presses further. He suggests we must add a third answer, that the basis of government is in Christ. Bonhoeffer bases government in Christ principally because he bases everything in Christ, and this is no less true of all powers and authorities. Christ is the ruler over all other authorities and therefore all authorities and powers, including the civil government, exist for the purpose of serving him. Indeed, Bonhoeffer argues that each government ought to serve Christ willingly but that, even when a government doesn’t do that, the nevertheless end up serving him unwillingly. For instance, it was the will of God that Jesus should be crucified. When the Roman government killed Jesus, it was failing in its task to protect outward justice (since the death of Jesus was patently unjust), but it was also unwittingly serving the greater purposes of God. Indeed, it was only able to crucify Jesus because Jesus gave it authority to do so.

This leads Boenhoeffer to summarize the task of the government as follows:

“The mission of the government consists in serving the dominion of Christ on earth by the exercise of worldly power of the sword and of justice. Government serves Christ by establishing and maintaining an outward justice by means of the sword which is given to it, and to it alone, in deputyship for God.”

How does the government serve Christ?

The task of the government is “to service Christ by establishing and maintaining outward justice.” Does this imply either the possibility or necessity of theocracy? Does Bonhoeffer’s perspective lead to the idea of a state church? While the idea that a government “serves Christ” might seem to indicate this might be the case, the answer is a resounding “No.” Bonhoeffer does not have a theocracy, or a Church run State in mind.

The reason for this is that Bonhoeffer views the roles of the state and of the church as quite different. The role of the government is limited. Its task is simply to establish and maintain outward justice. That is to say, it has the power of judicial authority. But what constitutes “justice”? This is not a question Bonhoeffer answers completely but he does insist on basing it in Christ. So, he says, the “goodness” promoted by the government “cannot in any case be in conflict with Jesus Christ” and “One might therefore, say that in this case natural law has as its foundation Jesus Christ.” The government knows about this goodness/justice then, “primarily from the preaching of the Church.” In other words, Bonhoeffer does not base the “outward justice” which the government is tasked with maintaining in what might be called “natural law” but in a sort of “natural law” which is informed by and proclaimed in the church.

But this is not to say that the government can be Christian or theocratic. Indeed, Bonhoeffer argues that in order for a government to serve Christ within its sphere and within its task it must be religiously neutral. Its role is to leave space for the preaching of Christ. Its task in not the creation of a Christian order, but of maintaining an order which leaves room for service to God.

The Government and its relationship to marriage and labor

Government’s role is primarily that of preserver. It is not, itself, life-giving or productive, but guards life by sustaining outward justice. It is only one of several God-given institutions and, Bonhoeffer notes, “finds already in the world which it governs two institutions through which God the Creator exercises his creative power, and upon which it must therefore, in the nature of things, rely; these are marriage and labour” (italics added). These two institutions are unique in that they are life-giving and productive. They are also unique in the sense that they are what we might call “pre-political.” They “possess their own origin in God, an origin which is not established by government.” They exist prior to the state, prior to government.

The role of government in relation to these two institutions then, is limited. Governments task is, first and foremost, to acknowledge these institutions. They are not entirely “hands off” but only interact with these institutions to the degree which is necessary to their task, to maintain outward justice. The government’s task is “regulative and not constitutive.” Bonhoeffer continues,

“Marriage is performed not by the government but in the presence of government. Industry and commerce, art and science, are not cultivated by government itself, but they are subject to its supervision, and within certain limits… to its discretion.”

Furthermore, Bonhoeffer is careful to say that the government’s limits are critical. To extend beyond these limits in regards to marriage and labor is to “forfeit its genuine authority over these fields.”

The Government and its relationship to the church

As stated above, to say that the government acts in service to Christ does not imply either a church run government or a Christian state. Bonhoeffer states, “the dominion of Christ over government does not by any means imply the dominion of the Church over the government.” Instead, the government acts in service to Christ by “securing an outward justice by means of the power of the sword.” If the government does what it is intended to do “the congregation [community of believers] can live in peace” and perform its duty of proclaiming the good news of salvation.

With this basic principle in place Bonhoeffer notes that the government may still make claims upon the church and, likewise, the church makes certain claims upon the government.

The Government’s Claim on the Church: The government’s claim upon the church is obedience to its laws (assuming, of course, that they would not force the person to sin against Christ, the ultimate authority). The Christian is expected to practice this obedience, understanding that in acting in this way they are acknowledging the authority which God has given to the civil authority. “As a citizen a Christian does not cease to be a Christian, but serves Christ in a different way.”

The Church’s Claim on the Government: The church’s claim on the government is only that it should fulfill its role as government. “Her aim is not that government should pursue a Christian policy, enact Christian laws, etc. but that it should be true government in accordance with its own special task.” In particular, this means that the church seeks what we might call “religious freedom” and Bonhoeffer refers to as “protection for the public Christian proclamation against violence… against arbitrary interference, and she claims protection for Christian life in obedience to Christ.” That is not to say that Christianity receives a special privilege. The government “affords protection to every form of service to God which does not undermine the office of government.”

Conclusion:

Bonhoeffer touches on a few more topics: What is the best form of government? Under what conditions is the being of the government (i.e., legitimacy) completely undermined? What happens if the government is completely undermined and fails to complete its task? Etc. But I do not have time to address each of these here, and none of these are fully developed arguments anyway. His argument continuously points back to his primary thesis, namely, that the governments task is that of maintaining outward justice by the power of the sword, thus serving (willingly or unwillingly) Christ, from whom all authority comes.

Implications for today?

I will have to only tentatively put these implications forward. Bonhoeffer lived in a different age and the government under which he spent much of his time – Nazi Germany – was far different from my experience in Democratic America. However, Bonhoeffer spent much time in America and it does seem as if his description of government was at least partially impacted by his time here. And so, I want to conclusion with a few observations.

  • Bonhoeffer believed that the government had a necessary and noble task. He believed that it had a role to play in the service of Christ – the preservation of the goodness of God’s created world and the institutions therein. He probably would have disagreed with those who only expression negative views of the government.
  • Bonhoeffer believed that government performed its task best when it knew what its task was and he believed that its task was limited. It played the role of protector and preserver, not the role of creator. To that extent he believed in “limited government” though that shouldn’t necessarily be understood in terms of liberal and conservative.
  • In regards to marriage: I think Bonhoeffer would have agreed with those who argued against the court’s redefinition of marriage. He likely would have seen this as an overstep of the government’s role and as a failure of the government to properly “acknowledge” marriage in its created order.
  • In regards to “religious freedom” Bonhoeffer would likely be a big supporter. One of the main ways in which the government serves Christ, and one of the primary claims of the church on the State, is that the government protects service to God and the proclamation of the gospel. The limit of “religious freedom” for Bonhoeffer would be “outward justice.” The government does have a regulative role, even in matters of church, if basic justice is under threat.
  • In regards to the role of the church and the individual Christian, especially in relation to a less-than-ideal government: First, the individual Christian’s task is to obey the government whenever possible as though serving Christ. Second, the task of the Christian is to serve within his own sphere of influence and thereby indirectly serve the government in a productive way. Third, it is the task of the church, to proclaim the gospel. In doing so, the government comes into a clearer understanding of the outward justice which it is called to protect or, is it may be, is called to task for failing to carry out its God-given role.
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