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Theologians. 3 – Being church in crisis (Bonhoeffer)

This is the third of a series of articles that draw on the thought of some well-known past and present theologians, some from outside the ‘evangelical tradition’, to provide some guidance as we seek to remain faithful to Jesus and practise authentic church in 21C post-Christian Britain. In this short article, we see how Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s thought and teachings help us to know how to ‘be church in crisis’.

The current Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to re-consider and re-shape how to ‘do church’. But, attempting to do church differently, to ‘reconfigure church’, is hardly a new idea. We have been here before, both in the centuries of church history and, for many of us, in our own experience. Is there anything different about our present times? Do we have new teachings, ideas, perspectives, a better understanding that mean we could reconfigure church better than we have done in the past? Possibly! Are our circumstances so different, so singular, that we are pressed to reconfigure church in a totally new context? Certainly!

Here I think  Dietrich Bonhoeffer is important. He formed his theology in the midst of, and in response to, the climactic events in Germany in the 1930s and 40s – in the midst of a singular crisis. Bonhoeffer was one of the few who quickly understood even before Hitler came to power that national socialism was a brutal attempt to make history without God and to found it on the strength of man alone. And he resisted the demonic Nazi system to the point of his own death.

Like us now, he struggled with how the church understands itself, and how we live as Christians after Christendom. He saw the need for the church to respond to the crisis, to renegotiate both its relationship with the state and its understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. For a while, he led an ‘underground’ training college for pastors for the ‘Confessing Church’. Out of this experience, he wrote ‘Life Together’, which reveals how much he saw the church as called to be a ‘disciplined community’, a ‘community of love’ (at any time, but even more so in the midst of crisis).

Bonhoeffer saw the dire state of the church of his own time and how ill-equipped it was to respond the the crisis. He wrote, “cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate”.

I wonder what Bonhoeffer would make of much of our church in Britain and the West today? In the decades since WW2, the church has seen remarkable growth and renewal. Ye it has, it seems, greatly sold out, either to an accommodation and capitulation to the spirit of the age, or to a form of individualistic, emotivist, therapeutic, experience-driven, performance-orientated, pragmatic, neo-Gnosticism, with its fads and fixes, and false prophets and false promises.

Although Bonhoeffer worked mostly within the existing institutions his radicalism put him at odds with most of the church establishment, and, of course, with the Nazi state, leading eventually to his execution. Some of his teachings are enigmatic, and evangelicals are uncomfortable with his apparent positions on key doctrinal issues. Nevertheless, his example and his methodology place him, in my view, in the ‘Jeremiah tradition’ – a prophet seeking to make ‘theological sense out of a political crisis’.

(A good 25- minute video introduction to Bonhoeffer is here.)

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