November 2019 Pulse

The Church’s Claim on the Government

Having examined what Bonhoeffer has to say about the claims that the government has on the Church, we now ask if the Church also has the right to exert its claims on the government. Bonhoeffer discusses this question in section 5B of his chapter on ‘State and Church’. Needless to say, in a secular ethos like ours, to assert that the Church has the right to make any claims at all on the government is to invite strong criticism and even protest. Shouldn’t the Church focus only on its own ‘religious’ affairs and not interfere with those of the state? And shouldn’t religion be safely tucked away in the private sphere and kept out of the public square?

Bonhoeffer begins this section with a bold assertion which must surely sound audacious and even offensive to the secular public. ‘The Church’, he writes, ‘has the task of summoning the whole world to submit to the dominion of Jesus Christ.’ Here, Bonhoeffer is developing, with courageous consistency, his Christocentric vision of reality. That vision is articulated with clarity elsewhere in his Ethics thus:

There are no two spheres, standing side-by-side, competing with each other and attacking each other’s frontiers. If that were so, this frontier dispute would always be the decisive problem of history. But the whole reality of the world is already drawn in into Christ and bound together in Him, and the movement of history consists solely in divergence and convergence in relation to this centre.

Jesus Christ is not only the Lord of the Church. He is the Lord of all reality, all of God’s creation, and of the ‘secular’ realm as well as the sacred. The Gospel is not only ‘true’ for that peculiar community that describes itself as the Church; it is public truth and therefore true for everyone.

Thus, the Church is not only called to testify before its own members. She is also called to testify before the world, including the government, and she does so ‘before their common Master.’ This public testimony of the Church before the world and before the government is the same testimony that she presents to herself and her members, namely, the Good News of Jesus Christ. The testimony of the Church is that ‘salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven among men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12).

The Church’s work of evangelism therefore is not confined only to people who belong to certain sectors of society, but should be extended to all, even to those who exercise government. With equal boldness and consistency, Bonhoeffer asserts that the Church should call upon ‘the persons who exercise government to believe in Christ for the sake of their own salvation.’ For it is only when the government acts in obedience to Christ, he reasons, that its commission is ‘properly executed.’ The sense here is that Christians in government can be a positive influence to steer it along its proper course and so that it may fulfill the purposes for which it was ordained. In other words, they can help the government to succeed in carrying out its most fundamental responsibility.

At this juncture, Bonhoeffer makes an important distinction that we must take careful note of. While it is the responsibility of the Church to share the Good News of Christ to people in government, it is not her goal to make the government itself a ‘Christian government’ as such. Bonhoeffer acknowledges that ‘Christendom’ is a thing of the past, relegated to the pages of history, and he has no desire to resurrect it. He therefore insists that the Church’s aim ‘is not that the government should pursue a Christian policy, enact Christian laws, etc., but that it should be true government in accordance with its own special task.’

Bonhoeffer therefore would have no truck with the idea of a ‘Christian nation’, especially in the way in which some evangelical Christians in America have conceived it. Just as the Church requires the government to let her be what she has been ordained to be, so also all that she asks of government is that it remains faithful to its God-given role. And for the government to do this, Bonhoeffer asserts, there is no need for it to pursue a specifically ‘Christian’ policy or enact specifically Christian laws. However, if the government is to uphold justice, it must conduct itself in harmony with the stipulations of the second tablet of the Decalogue, which are universally known through general revelation.

If the government, in service of its Master, is to ‘let the Church be the Church’, then it must grant the Church certain necessary rights and protection. Bonhoeffer delineates these in this way:

For the sake of their common Master the Church claims to be listened to by the government; she claims protection for public Christian proclamation against violence and blasphemy; she claims protection for the institution of the Church against arbitrary interference, and she claims protection for Christian life in obedience to Jesus Christ.

An article can be devoted to unpacking each of these claims. But allow me to very briefly comment on them here. To say that the Church has the right to be listened to by the government means that the latter must take seriously what the Christian community has to say about existential and social issues. This is not an insistence that the ‘secular’ government should submit to the perspectives or dictates of the Church on these matters. This statement must therefore be read in light of what Bonhoeffer said earlier. There is no need for the government to pursue Christian policies or enact Christian laws for it to be faithful to its calling. But neither should the government ignore the prophetic and reasonable voice of the Church.

The next three stipulations – that the Church should be allowed to proclaim her message and be protected from institutional interference and personal obedience – have already been addressed in previous articles. The government should allow the Church the freedom to proclaim her message and protect her from opposition and violence from an intolerant public. This is in line with the best understanding of what constitutes religious freedom that we find in many modern democracies, including Singapore. And finally, the government should ensure a favourable environment in which Christians have the necessary freedoms to live their lives in obedience to God and for his glory.

The Church must never abandon these claims, Bonhoeffer insists, even when the government acts unfavourably towards her or is blatantly hostile. This suggests that the Church must continue to be true to its calling regardless of whether it is accorded the freedom to do so by the government. ‘[I]f the government opposes the Church, explicitly or in fact, there may come a time when the Church no longer wastes her words, even though she still does not give up her claim.’

At this juncture, Bonhoeffer once again takes up the point that he made earlier in this chapter that even a government that is anti-Christian would inadvertently serve its Master (and by implication, the Church also). Thus he writes: ‘for the Church knows that, whether government performs its mission well or badly, it must always serve only its Master, and therefore also the Church.’ Some may find this assertion difficult to understand. How can a totalitarian government that persecutes the Church and murders Christians because of their faith be said to be serving Jesus Christ and the very community it seeks to destroy?

Firstly, Bonhoeffer points out that the ‘government which denies protection to the Church thereby places the Church all the more patently under the protection of her Master.’ The persecuted church will not be defeated or destroyed because its Lord and Master will protect her (Matthew 16:17-19). Bonhoeffer then shows how in persecuting and in murdering Christians, the principalities and powers are in fact presenting them as worthy witnesses of Christ, and indirectly testifying to the power of the Lord. The evil government that opposes Christ and his Church ends up inadvertently and indirectly serving them. ‘The government which blasphemes its Master testifies thereby all the more evidently to the power of this Master who is praised and glorified in the torments and martyrdoms of the congregation.’


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.