Bonhoeffer and the Under-Estimated Human Example

Earlier this week, I reached mentally for the source of a passage I’d recently read on the importance of example. I could not remember where the bit of writing came from, but tonight I stumbled across it in a seminary class forum. Of course, the passage came from Bonhoeffer.

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 [as in the past], but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others. In particular, our own church will have to take the field against 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 origins in the humility of Jesus and is so important in Paul’s teachings); 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… revision of Christian apologetics; reform of the training for the ministry and the pattern of clerical life. (Letters and Papers from Prison, 382-3)

Much of the evil and hypocrisy in the US church is subtle, nearly invisible for those not looking. The evil of the German church had become tangible. Bonhoeffer had peered into the heart of darkness. Given his context, his perspective is invaluable.

Christians can say these wonderful things, and they can lay out irrefutable apologetic arguments. And yet – they walk in fear, jealousy, apathy, materialism, arrogance, anger. No one loves like Jesus did – across socioeconomic and racial divides.

Do our lives not betray what we actually believe? Isn’t even the best argument refuted by a contrary life? “God is love” we say, but if we love ourselves most – do we not live a lie?

Through the power of the Spirit, can we not aim for something more authentic? Can we not become human examples of the gospel?

1 thought on “Bonhoeffer and the Under-Estimated Human Example”

  1. Yes! I once heard someone make the point that the term \”evangelism\” gets its root from the Greek \”euangelion,\” meaning \”good news.\” The suffix \”-ism\” means to \”be in the state of.\” Evangel-ism isn't proselytizing, it's living in the state of the gospel! Indeed, this is an area where we American Christians need to be called out.

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