“Bonhoeffer Would Have Decried 21st-Century 'Lukewarm' Church"
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Debbie Thurman is a freelance journalist, speaker and author of seven nonfiction books since 2000, plus scores of articles and commentaries published in a variety of newspapers and magazines over her 30-year writing career. She is a former managing editor of two national magazines and has written on a variety of topics, focusing mainly on social and spiritual issues. She holds an A.B. degree in English from Sweet Briar College in Virginia. She served eight years as a public affairs officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. Debbie is the founder of Sheer Faith Ministries, which includes a publishing arm – Cedar House Publishers – and her family mental health advocacy service. She also provides an Author’s Advocacy service to aspiring Christian authors. Debbie resides with her husband of 25 years, Russ, and their two daughters in Madison Heights, VA.
A year-long celebration of the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is underway as February marks the 100th anniversary of his birth. If you’re unfamiliar with Bonhoeffer and why his life is worth remembering, let me enlighten you. As a lad of 14, he shocked his elite German family by deciding to pursue theological studies and a life in the Lutheran church. An academic prodigy, Bonhoeffer earned his doctorate and ordination during the time that Hitler was rising to power with the Third Reich. He was a pacifist but still a vocal opponent of Hitler and Nazi oppression.
After the German church leadership acquiesced to Hitler’s Reich, Bonhoeffer joined a minority group of clergy as part of the Confessing Church, which proclaimed Jesus its führer. He even established a small, underground seminary. Eventually, the Gestapo silenced his public preaching and he took his verboten writing underground.
Following an agonizing soul-search, Bonhoeffer joined a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. He became convinced it was the only way to end the war and stop the slaughter of the Jews. Their plight he compared to oppressed black people in America in whose inspiring churches he had heard “the black Christ preached with rapturous passion and vision.”
Every attempt on Hitler’s life failed. Bonhoeffer inevitably was arrested in 1943 and spent the next two years in prison and finally in the Flossenbürg concentration camp where in early April 1945, just three weeks before Hitler’s suicide, he was hanged. His last known words were, “This is the end, for me the beginning, of life.” Like the Christ he faithfully served, he willingly hung from a tree, naked and unashamed.
Bonhoeffer could have lived safely in America, where he earlier had been a lecturer at Union Theological Seminary, but he chose to remain with his people and resist to the end. Not until his writings — works like “The Cost of Discipleship” and “Ethics” — began to be widely read in the ’50s and ’60s did the world realize the full stature of this man.
If Dietrich Bonhoeffer had lived long enough, he would have assailed both postmodernism — the anti-philosophy that says there is no meaning in life or death — and the contemporary religious zealotry of those who believe they have a divine mandate to dominate the earth. But he would have been most saddened, as he was in his day, by the laissez-faire, “lukewarm” churches that have left their “first love” and reject the biblical command to engage in the war for the hearts and minds of mankind. “Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth,” Jesus warned the noncommittal church in Revelation 3:16.
It appears a good many Christian pretenders have not acquired the discipline or knowledge to live their faith as Jesus commanded: loving God with all their heart, mind and soul and their neighbors as themselves. Afraid of being branded intolerant or invoking what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” they worship in feel-good churches, narrowing the definition of sin and even questioning the divinity and propitiation of Christ. They fear being called purveyors of hate speech for any attempt at scriptural censure, though they are called to be “salt and light,” displaying “costly grace” to the world. Theirs is a wimpy, watered-down Jesus, not the Son of God from whom Bonhoeffer drew his quiet strength.
Large numbers of people are on a serious spiritual quest, according to surveys, yet the 21st-century church is inadequately meeting their innermost needs. Few pastors or laypeople are showing these pilgrims how faith in Christ is relevant for today’s world. Instead they get sanctimonious platitudes. Who can blame them for staying away or inventing their own gospel?
The church is doing much unheralded and misunderstood good in the world. But is it doing the most important thing — sharing God’s truth and inner peace with those who hunger and thirst for them? That is a question every person who calls himself a Christian ought to be wrestling with. When the church confronts the truth, it will leave the petty wars and fight the real one.
Only Christians who know and live “the words in red” — Jesus’ teachings and commandments in the Bible — will keep the church from becoming totally insipid and of no use to its founder.
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