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  6. Christian Moral Action

3.3.2 Christian Moral Action

Structure of Thought

The Teaching and Example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Duty to God and Duty to the State

Bonhoeffer taught that we do have a responsibility to the state, but this does not mean blind obedience – it means ensuring he state acts according to God’s will. The state can never represent God’s will and so can never adopt ultimate power. The Church’s role is to keep the state in check – not be a part of it.

In Nazi Germany, the Church was fooled into believing Nazism was brining order to a disordered society. Christian duty is to disobey the state if it is not acting in God’s will.

Exercise: Bonhoeffer taught that with regards to obeying the state, we should ask if this is God’s will and this would only be clear in the moment of action and as an act of faith. How helpful are the following teachings in helping a Christian to follow Bonhoeffer’s teaching?

  • “You can only know what obedience is by obeying. It is no use asking questions; for it is only through obedience that you come to learn the truth” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of discipleship, 1959, p. 68)
  • “There is no road to faith or discipleship, no other road – only obedience to the call of Jesus” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of discipleship, 1959, p. 49)

Bonhoeffer’s teachings could be used to justify civil disobedience. Christian ethics direct us to act out of love – meaning an obligation to challenge injustice.

Exercise: Is it fair to say that you would be just as guilt or the destruction of a town if you did nothing, as you would be if you were among those who helped burn it down? Give a balanced judgement.

How did Bonhoeffer show Civil Disobedience?

Bonhoeffer spoke against Nazism in his university position and spoke openly about his prayers for the defeat of his own country. Bonhoeffer also criticised the Confessing Church when it wavered under pressure from Hitler to conform. He went so far as to proclaim Hitler as the Anti-Christ, calling for his elimination. Lastly, Bonhoeffer worked as a double agent with the resistance and the allies, helping to smuggle Jews into Switzerland.

The teaching and example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the Church as community and source of spiritual discipline

Similarly to Kant, Bonhoeffer taught that a Christian can recognise they act out of duty when they act along with the rest of humankind. Bonhoeffer called for a ‘religionless Christianity’.

Exercise: What do you think Bonhoeffer meant by ‘religionless Christianity’?

Exercise: find out the meaning of the metaphor of salt and light. How easy is this?

Bonhoeffer’s role in the Confessing Church

A response to Hitler’s decree in 1934 that made it necessary for all clergy to be of Aryan descent. Bonhoeffer and Niemoellar brought together people who disagreed and formed the Confessing Church.

Exercise: The Confessing church met in Barmen and Barth’s ‘Barmen Declaration’ was formed. What was this?

The Confessing Church disagreed with Nazi National socialism and from this, came Bonhoeffer’s ecumenical theology. There were to be no national, racial or political boundaries in this ‘religionless Christianity’ proposed.

Bonhoeffer’s own Religious Community at Finkenwalde

The key elements of this community which was shut down in 1937, were discipline, meditation, community for others, the Bible and brotherhood.

Exercise: Research each of these elements and expand to show what they meant in practice. How effective do you think the community was in civil disobedience – could it have done more?

The Teaching and Example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the Cost of Discipleship

Ethics as Action

Christianity should not be seen as ‘otherworldly’ – it is grounded in the everyday world. We should be asking ‘who is Christ for us today?’ rather than debating issues of his human or divine nature. The meaning of Christianity is seen in its action (Karly Barth). While Barth says God chooses to reveal Himself to us, Bonhoeffer says it is not enough to simply ‘receive’ the law, we must ‘do’ the law to. In other words, ‘hear’ and ‘act’.

Costly Grace

Exercise: Consider the quote below. Do you think it offers a pessimistic attitude towards true discipleship?

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die...Suffering then, is the badge of true discipleship” (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 1959, p. 79, p., 80).

The three fundamentals of authentic Christianity are Christ, Scripture and faith. Straying from these would mean nothing but human intervention and religion as an institution is a result of this.

Exercise: What did Bonhoeffer mean by ‘cheap grace’?

Discipleship is “costly because it costs man his life, and it is grace because it gives man the only true life ... Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son” (The Cost of Discipleship, p. 5).

The Cross is symbolic of Jesus’ suffering and in this suffering, Christianity also engages with the world. Discipleship means adopting the Cross and accepting that suffering and sacrifice are an inherent aspect of the nature of discipleship.

Bonhoeffer called for solidarity with the Jews and similarly, living the Christian life is not ‘to become religious’ but to be there for other people – to be in solidarity with others and to share in their experiences.

Exercise: Do you think Bonhoeffer placed too much emphasis on suffering? Sort the arguments below into ‘yes’ and ‘no’ responses and make a judgement.

  • Bonhoeffer’s own experience of suffering is not representative of all Christian experience.
  • Bonhoeffer seems to downplay the joy and hope offered by the Resurrection. Jesus’ Passion reaches beyond his suffering – the Resurrection represents a triumph over death and sin.
  • Passing through the cross rather than trying to avoid the suffering, is a necessary part of following the call of Jesus.
  • Everyone experiences suffering in some form at some point in their lives.
  • It seems impossible to life a Christian life of discipleship involving suffering and sacrifice if you live in a place of peace and justice
  • Bonhoeffer’s teaching on suffering and discipleship is dependent on injustice and suffering existing
  • Bonhoeffer focuses on solidarity as well as suffering – people might feel consolation as a result of this.

Essay Skills

Types of Questions

Questions on this topic might focus on Bonhoeffer’s teachings on duty to God and state, the church as community and source of spiritual discipline, or on the cost of discipleship. Whichever it asks, candidates should always use the other in evaluation. Some examples of questions you might be asked are these:


What it is asking

To what extent does the theology of Bonhoeffer have relevance for Christians today?

Relevance of solidarity with the poor in today’s world and place of Christianity as a ‘spiritual conscience’ vs idea that obedience to god’s rather than state’s law could lead to more conflict than good.

“Christians should practise civil disobedience.” Discuss.

Critically assess Bonhoeffer’s arguments in favour of civil disobedience when the state is going against God’s law – how practical is this? Will this lead to more peace or conflict? How can we know that civil disobedience is what God commands? Link to Jesus’ teaching on paying taxes to Caesar.

“Bonhoeffer’s most important teaching is on leadership.” Discuss.

Consider leadership in the context of duty to God and duty to state. Assess extent to which other teachings are more important e.g. on the cost of discipleship.

How successful was Bonhoeffer’s religious community at Finkenwalde?

Define what would make it ‘successful’ i.e. did it make a stand against Nazism/ or is it successful if it reflects Bonhoeffer’s ideas on costly grace and sacrifice? Consider whether the goals at Finkenwalde were in line with Christian teaching and were they practical. What limitations were there?

Exercise: Analyse this question: ‘To what extent does Bonhoeffer place too much emphasis on suffering?’

Essay Skills – Introductions and Thesis Statement

Your introduction should: 1. indicate to the reader that you know what the question is about; 2. demonstrate the parameters of the question giving a sense of the two main sides of the argument; and 3. make clear where the essay will go, giving a clear thesis statement.

Exercise: Take this question: ‘Bonhoeffer has little relevance today.’ Discuss.

Write an introduction making all three parts of the introduction clear and distinct. One sentence is enough for each, but make sure each sentence is clear and concise.

1. Definition and context: Identify what the question is about and the position of solidarity with the poor.
2. Parameters and opposition: State the opposing position, the position of some who would say it would lead to more conflict

3. Thesis statement: Make it clear where you stand, with yes, no, or somewhere between. Assessing relevance with global politics and plural moral and faith societies could also be relevant in the body of the essay. Be concise, outlining what your position is.