November 2019 Pulse

In the remaining pages of his chapter on ‘State and Church’, Bonhoeffer further develops his understanding of the relationship between these two institutions, which, as we have repeatedly seen, are ordained by the one God. The headings of the sub-sections show the complexity of the dialectical relationship between these two distinct (indeed, separate) entities. Bonhoeffer entitles the first sub-section ‘The Ecclesiastical Responsibility of Government’ and the second, ‘The Political Responsibility of the Church’ (emphasis mine). Notice also that Bonhoeffer is here concerned with the responsibilities of these two institutions, not their respective authority as such (although they are not unrelated).

The Ecclesiastical Responsibility of the Government

In this sub-section, Bonhoeffer tries to answer the important question about the ‘religious neutrality’ of the government in the decisions and policies it makes as it seeks to fulfil its vocation. This is how Bonhoeffer frames the issue: ‘Here it becomes necessary to answer the question of the attitude of the government to the first commandment. Must government make a religious decision, or does its task lie in religious neutrality?’

As we have seen in previous articles, Bonhoeffer maintains that the government must adhere to the stipulations of the ‘second tablet’ of the Decalogue if it is to serve justice and maintain order in society. But what about the first tablet, especially the very first commandment (‘I am the Lord your God … You shall have no other gods before me’)? What bearing or relevance does this commandment have on the government – especially the ‘pagan’ or ‘secular’ government – in the exercise of its duties?

Here, Bonhoeffer makes the distinction between the individuals who exercise government and the government itself, as an institution. ‘Certainly the persons who exercise government’, he writes, ‘ought to accept belief in Jesus Christ’. ‘[B]ut’, he quickly adds, ‘the office of government remains independent of the religious decision.’ We have encountered this argument before in preceding sections in Ethics. For example, in discussing the Church’s claim on the government Bonhoeffer eschews the idea of a Christian government, but at the same time hopes that individuals in government would come to faith in Christ. Be that as it may, what is of moment is that religious neutrality on the part of the government is very important in Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the relationship between the state and the Church.

But what does this entail?

At its most fundamental, religious neutrality on the part of the government means that it does not interfere with the work of the Church, but ‘attends only to its own task.’ Most importantly, the government can never seek to ‘become the originator in the founding of a new religion.’ Here Bonhoeffer is no doubt rejecting all forms of civic religion, i.e., the attempt by the state to fabricate a ‘religion’ by arbitrarily and reductively assembling the perceived commonalities of the different religions.

Bonhoeffer, however, makes it quite clear that religious neutrality on the part of the government does not mean that it does not have the authority to intervene in order to maintain social order. Rather, it is precisely because the government is religiously neutral in the discharge of its proper duties that it is able to adjudicate between the various parties, should conflicts arise. It is the duty of the government to ensure that ‘the differences between various forms of service of God do not give rise to a conflict which endangers the order of the country.’ But Bonhoeffer is careful to add that the government ‘achieves this purpose not by suppressing one form of service of God, but by a clear adherence to its own governmental commission.’

Needless to say the adjudicatory role of the government in a multi-religious society like ours (unlike Bonhoeffer’s own context, where Christianity is the predominant religion) is somewhat more complex. But the broad principle that the government’s role is to maintain order in society by acting in a religiously neutral manner, and by ensuring that the different faith communities are treated fairly, still applies.

Bonhoeffer then turns his attention to how Christians in government should respond to what he calls an ‘ecclesiastical emergency’, and the role that is proper to them as Christian politicians in such situations. This discussion would be clearer if Bonhoeffer had unpacked what he meant by ‘ecclesiastical emergency’ in this instance. Be that as it may, his view is that should such an emergency arise, Christians in government can use their ‘power’ (that is, their political authority) to ‘remove the source of disorder.’ But he qualifies this by saying that they can act in this way only ‘if the Church requests it.’

Bonhoeffer immediately underscores the fact that to allow this is not to suggest that the government has the right to control the affairs of the Church, a refrain that he constantly repeats:

This does not mean, however, that in such circumstances government as such would take over the function of ecclesiastical control. It is here exclusively a matter of restoring the rightful order within which the spiritual office can be rightfully discharged and both government and Church can perform their own several tasks.

He ends this sub-section by reiterating the point that he has repeatedly made throughout this chapter, namely, that the Church and the state (government) are distinct and separate entities with different roles and responsibilities:

Government will fulfill its obligation under the first commandment by being government in the rightful manner and by discharging its governmental responsibility also with respect to the Church. But it does not possess the office of confessing and preaching faith in Jesus Christ.

The Political Responsibility of the Church

In this next sub-section, Bonhoeffer turns his attention to the political responsibility of the Church. At the outset of his discussion of this topic Bonhoeffer clarifies what he means by political responsibility in this case:

If political responsibility is understood exclusively in the sense of governmental responsibility, then it is clearly only upon government that this responsibility devolves. But if the term is taken to refer quite generally to life in the polis, then there are a number of senses in which it is necessary to speak of the political responsibility of the Church in answer to the claim of government upon the Church.

The importance and subtlety of this point should not be missed when we think about the separation of Church and state or of religion and politics today. The Church is certainly not the government and therefore does not have the political authority or responsibility of the state. The Church is therefore not a political institution in the sense that the government is. But because the Church is part of the larger society, part of the polis, it must be regarded as a political entity with certain responsibilities in society. And it is in this sense that we may speak of the political responsibility of the Church.

Bonhoeffer again makes the distinction between the responsibilities and reach of the Church as an institution and that of Christians. Turning his attention first to the responsibilities of the Body of Christ, Bonhoeffer maintains that because of her office of guardianship, the Church ‘shall call sin by its name and … warn men against sin.’ If the Church fails to do this, he asserts, citing Ezekiel 3:17f, ‘she would be incurring part of the guilt for the blood of the wicked.’ The Church must issue this warning first to its own members ‘openly and publicly’, and whoever refuses to take her warning seriously ‘passes judgment upon himself.’

Bonhoeffer then makes a clarification at this point that is especially pertinent to certain sectors of contemporary evangelicalism, with its heady rhetoric about transforming society through the Church’s involvement in the public square. The purpose of the preacher in telling the truth about sin, Bonhoeffer insists, ‘is not to improve the world, but to summon it to belief in Jesus Christ and to bear witness to the reconciliation which has been accomplished through Him and to His dominion.’ In fact Bonhoeffer insists that although it is part of the essential work of the Church to expose wickedness and sin, this should not be the main focus of her preaching ministry. The central message of the Church must always be about the grace of Jesus Christ.

Should the Church also address the government? Or should the exercise of its spiritual office be confined only to its own members? As we have seen in an earlier article, Bonhoeffer believes that the Church has the right to proclaim the word of God to the government. However, in so doing, the Church is not attempting to influence the government to enact ‘Christian’ laws or introduce ‘Christian’ policies, but rather to help the government fulfill its God-given role. Thus, the Church can with deference and respect address the government directly in order to bring to light some of its ‘shortcomings and errors’ which, if uncorrected, would ‘imperil its governmental office.’

What if the government refuses to listen? ‘If the word of the Church is, on principle, not received’, writes Bonhoeffer,

… then the only political responsibility which remains in her is in establishing and maintaining, at least among her own members, the order of outward justice which is no longer to be found in the polis, for by so doing she serves government in her own way.

Turning next – and very briefly – to the political responsibility of the individual Christian, Bonhoeffer maintains that every believer must take responsibility ‘for his own calling and for the sphere of his own personal life, however large or small it may be.’ Thus, the Christian as Christ’s disciple must discharge his responsibilities in obedience to God’s word whatever his vocation – as teacher, lawyer, civil servant, politician, citizen, etc. Bonhoeffer believes that what a Christian does within his own sphere of influence and scope of responsibilities will have a profound impact on the whole of society. ‘If this responsibility is fulfilled in faith’, he writes, ‘it is effectual for the whole of the polis.’

Anticipating certain expressions of political and liberation theologies, Bonhoeffer states that Scripture does not sanction the ‘right to revolution.’ It only requires that a Christian acts responsibly in the vocation to which he has been called, and in so doing preserve ‘the purity of his office and mission in the polis.’ To be sure, to do this requires integrity, and in some circumstances, uncommon courage. But it is only by thus discharging his responsibilities that the Christian serves both the government and the society to which he belongs. Bonhoeffer stresses that it is out of obedience to his Lord that the Christian seeks to discharge the responsibilities corresponding to his calling and vocation. Therefore, ‘[n]o one, not even the government itself, can deprive him of this responsibility or forbid his to discharge it.’

Bonhoeffer ends this discussion by reiterating the point that the relationship between the Church and the government is complex and therefore defies simplistic attempts at schematization. ‘Neither the separation of state and Church, nor the form of the state church can in itself constitute a solution of the problem.’ Because both the government and the Church are brought into being by the one God and therefore must in their own ways serve him, we may speak of a relative ‘closeness’ between the two institutions. But because each institution has its own distinctive responsibilities and mission, they must be understood as separate institutions, whose ‘remoteness’ from each other must always be taken seriously.

Here is how Bonhoeffer summarizes this complex relationship:

No constitutional form can as such exactly represent the actual relative closeness and remoteness of government and Church. Government and Church are bound by the same Lord and are bound together. In their task government and Church are separate, but government and Church have the same field of action, man. No single one of these relationships must be isolated so as to provide the basis for a particular constitutional form (for example in the sequence state church, free church, national church); the true aim is to provide room within every given form for the relationship which is, in fact, instituted by God and to entrust the further development to the Lord of both government and Church.


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.