October 2019 Pulse

In the previous article, we examined Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the government. We saw that his theology of the state is in harmony with Romans 13 and consistent with the best intuitions of the 16th century Protestant Reformers. Bonhoeffer maintains, following Luther and Calvin, that God instituted the government because of human rebellion and sin, and that – like all created things – its purpose is to serve Christ.

 In Section 5 of this chapter in Ethics, Bonhoeffer takes up the important question regarding the proper relationship between the government and the Church. Everything he has to say about this relationship is based on the understanding of the government developed in previous sections. It is important that we follow his argument closely if we are to grasp his profound vision of Church-state relations.

Before discussing the claims that the government has on the Church and visa versa, Bonhoeffer makes some very important clarifications to set the stage. ‘Government’, he writes, ‘is instituted for the sake of Christ; it serves Christ and consequently it also serves the Church.’

This bold statement – that the government exists to serve the Church – may sound presumptuous in our current secular ethos. But for Bonhoeffer, it is based on the fundamental theological premise that God has instituted the government for a specific purpose, which cannot be inimical to those of Christ and his Body, the Church.

Notice that Bonhoeffer does not say that it is the main business of the government to serve the Church. Neither is he suggesting that the Church is somehow in the position to exercise control over the government. Bonhoeffer took pains to clarify this point when he states that ‘the dominion of Christ over all government does not by any means imply the dominion of the Church over government.’

The service of the government to the Church can therefore at best be said to be indirect: it is through its service to Christ that the government also serves the Church. And the state performs this service by creating and preserving an environment in which citizens – including Christians – can, in the words of Paul, ‘lead a quite and peaceable life’ (1 Tim 2:2). ‘Through its service towards Christ’, Bonhoeffer writes, ‘government is ultimately linked to the Church. If it fulfills its mission as it should, the congregation can live in peace, for government and congregation serve the same Master’.

Having made these important clarifications, Bonhoeffer then proceeds to discuss the claims that the government can make on the Church. He begins by pointing out – alluding once again to Romans 13 and his reflections on this passage in the preceding sections of this chapter – that the Church has the bounded duty to obey the government.

The spiritual office of the Church and the secular office of the state have their distinct roles and functions, which must be carefully understood. The government has the right to demand that the Church, in the exercise of her spiritual office, does not interfere with its affairs. But the government has no authority over the mission of the Church as such, ‘as it is exercised in the pastoral office and in the office of Church management.’

In essence, then, Bonhoeffer is advocating the separation of Church and state based on the unique purposes, roles and functions of the two institutions that God has brought into being. On the one hand, he rejects any kind of ecclesiastical interference with the ‘secular’ work of the government. And on the other, he also rejects any form of ‘Erastrianism’, where the government is given the authority to exercise control over the Church and delimits its mission.

This, however, does not imply that the Church lies completely beyond the jurisdiction of the secular government. ‘So far as the spiritual office is an office exercised publicly’, writes Bonhoeffer by way of clarification, ‘government has a claim to supervise it, to see that everything is done in an outward manner, that is to say, in accordance with outward justice’.

In other words, it is only in the course of fulfilling its God-given role of maintaining public order that the government may, in special circumstances, intervene in the ministry and mission of the Church. But even in such a situation, Bonhoeffer insists that ‘the spiritual office is not subject to the government.’

Bonhoeffer’s view of the role of government vis-à-vis the Church is therefore in harmony with some of his contemporaries (e.g., Karl Barth and Helmut Thielicke). But it was left to the theologians who came after him, such as John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, to develop his essential insights further.

Bonhoeffer then clarifies the relationship between the Christian and the state. The Christian is a disciple of Christ who is called to obey his Lord without exception or compromise. As a citizen, however, the Christian is also required by God to obey the state. The latter, Bonhoeffer insists, is mostly not at odds with the former. ‘In his obedience to government the Christian is obedient to Christ’, he explains. ‘As a citizen the Christian does not cease to be a Christian, but serves Christ in a different way’.

All this, however, is based on the supposition that the government remains true to the institution that it is ordained to be (recall our discussion on civil disobedience in the previous article). Such a government is the servant of God that serves the Christian and helps him to serve Christ.

The government that faithfully fulfills the role that God has given to it, in Bonhoeffer’s mind, ‘can never lead the Christian against Christ; on the contrary, it helps him to serve Christ in the world. The person who exercises government thus becomes for the Christian a servant of God.’

For Bonhoeffer, then, the government has limited claim on the Church. It can interfere with the Church’s mission only in the course of doing its proper work, namely, that of maintaining order in society. Apart from that, the government cannot pontificate on the affairs of the Church – its doctrine, worship and mission. Instead, it should ‘let the Church be the Church’, to use the refrain found in the writings of theologians like John Howard Yoder and Richard Neuhaus.

The next question that needs to be addressed is what claims, if any, does the Church have on the government? We will examine Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on this matter in the next article.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.