Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

“A Spoke in the Wheel”

Written by: on February 8, 2021

In March 1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned an essay he entitled: “The Church and the Jewish Question.”  This was sparked by what was called the “Aryan Paragraph” – an order that only those of Aryan descent would be allowed to participate in civil service.

Metaxas writes that Christians in Germany a unified Christianity that was “strong and masculine, that would stand up to and defeat the godless and degenerate forces of Bolshevism.”[1] These Christians called themselves the Deutsche Christen – German Christians – and became aggressive in attacking those who didn’t agree with them.[2]  However, it was the readied acceptance of the Aryan Paragraph by mainstream Protestant Christian leaders that was most troubling.

As Bonhoeffer dialogued and reflected on the storm that was brewing, he reasoned that that the church had a vital role to play in its relationship with the State: The church must “continually ask the state whether its action can be justified as legitimate action of the state, i.e., as action which leads to law and order, and not to lawlessness and disorder.”[3]  Put simply, the church’s role is to help the state be the state.

Bonhoeffer provided three ways the church was to do this:

  1. The church must question the state regarding its actions and legitimacy – to help the state be the state as God ordained.[4]


  1. To “aid the victims of state action.”[5] The church has a unconditional responsibility to help those who have been affected by state legislation – even if they do not belong to the Christian community.


  1. The church “is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.”[6] At some point, the church must be active in stopping the evils of the state to stop it from perpetuating evil. However, for Bonhoeffer, this “is permitted only when the church sees its very existence threatened by the state and when the state ceases to be the state as defined by God.”[7]


The question of the church’s relation to the state has been one that I’ve wrestled with time and time again.  I’ve gone back and forth on the level of involvement – falling for the ideal of Christian nationalism when I was in high school and my early university days all the way to complete Anabaptist theology via Hauerwas and others. On reflection of this journey, I can see the development of that inner question of, “What is the church?” evolving into the “What is the role of the church in society?”

What stood out to me in Bonhoeffer’s words is in particular the second point and third points.  There is an ethic of love and compassion in the way the church is supposed to interact with the world – to be unconditionally obligated to aiding those who are suffering under state rule and, when it has gone too far, to be an active force in stopping it. However, the descent into “too far” is often a slow one, with little bits and pieces being taken away slowly but surely.  When it is under the radar, it can be hard to notice…

…when it isn’t our people who are being directly affected by these actions.

Following up from my post last week, sometimes we don’t recognize when a spoke needs to be driven into the wheels or that compassion needs to be shown unless we take that time to step out, to zoom out, and to reflect on the current situation.

If we don’t take that time, are we part of the problem? 

Are our eyes so blinded by our own little world that we not only don’t see, but even refuse to see?



[1] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2010), 151.


[2] Ibid.

[3]Ibid., 153.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 154.

About the Author

Dylan Branson

Small town Kentuckian living and learning in the big city of Hong Kong.

9 responses to ““A Spoke in the Wheel””

  1. Greg Reich says:

    I appreciate your quandary in the churches relation to the state, especially when we live in a country that intensionally prohibits a state religion in their constitution. Your Statement: “However, for Bonhoeffer, this “is permitted only when the church sees its very existence threatened by the state and when the state ceases to be the state as defined by God.” is one of the challenges with Bonhoeffer’s writings! I find it helpful to keep in mind that his perspective though influenced by his time in the U.S. was focused on National Socialism and Nazism. Can it be applies to the U.S. is yet another question entirely. The question arises when in a democracy how one truly understand God’s definition of what the state is suppose to be? Who in Christendom tells us the true understanding of what the state is suppose to look like as defined by God in a free democracy? Today we have a faction of Christianity known as Christian Nationalism that are trying to to dictate what they believe the state should be as defined by God. Are they correct?

    I do truly appreciate the compassion and wisdom Bonhoeffer had in seeing the church as being the ones called to heal the hurts of those miss treated by the state. Within the U.S. I am not sure we are doing so well in this calling. What happens when the people look more to the government than they do the church? What does this say about the church?

    • Dylan Branson says:

      Yeah, the first and third point are hard to reconcile and it’s good to point out the actions of what was happening in Nazi Germany at the time. In my personal opinion, the second point is the one that I find most relevant while at the same time being most damaging. I’ve always had this thought experiment of what would happen if the government cut all social welfare. Would the church step up to aid those who were affected by various circumstances? Or would we turn a blind eye to what was happening and allow these actions to continue? But when you see Christians who are vocal about supporting actions that will actively damage or hurt people, how do we actually reconcile that to our faith? What aid do we give?

      Thinking about Tom Holland’s Dominion, at what point do we lose the identity that makes us Christian in exchange for another power?

      All questions I’ve pondered haha.

  2. Darcy Hansen says:

    So many thoughts on this… but I’ll choose one-

    “action which leads to law and order and not to lawlessness and disorder.”
    This phrase, especially in our context, is so weighted and carries so much baggage. I wonder if what the Nazis were doing would be considered “actions that lead to law and order”? Can the same be said about governments now who place oppressive laws upon the people so as to maintain law and order (America is great at doing this)? Who gets to define what “law and order” really is? If a nation doesn’t factor in God, then godly standards are irrelevant and anything goes. What is the role of the church then?

    • Dylan Branson says:

      I think that’s also Bonhoeffer’s point – when a nation doesn’t factor in God, it isn’t the state as God designed it. Or what’s worse is when the state co-opts the church as vehicle for pushing its own ideologies (this was a tactic used by many nations within the Soviet Union) and then the church actively loses its identity.

      For Bonhoeffer, it isn’t that the church and the state should be one, but rather the church should serve as a sort of checks and balance. Of course, when the church ties its identity to the state and it’s difficult to separate the two, the waters get murky. And when the church supports the state’s “lawlessness” for the sake of power, it ceases being the church.

  3. Jer Swigart says:


    I’ve returned multiple times in these past months to Bonhoeffer’s three suggestions for the way that the church interacts with the state. It seems to be among the most direct and insightful lists for compassion and both speaking truth to power and change to society.

    Let’s contextualize this a bit. How do you see your church in Hong Kong engaging in these three actions?

    • Dylan Branson says:

      It’s hard to say because the full effects of the last two years in particular have yet to be seen. At this point, the waters are still muddy.

      In other areas, I’ve seen different churches I’ve been part of here engaging with refugees who have fled their countries for various reasons. I think that’s the most that I’ve personally seen (particularly with the second point). There’s probably more behind the scenes that hopefully I’ll get a glimpse of soon.

  4. John McLarty says:

    That “ethic of love and compassion” gets tricky when different churches use different, even incompatible definitions. “Love” as an extension of grace and mercy looks one way. “Love” as a willingness to punish so as to prevent an eternal consequence looks another. Personally, I think it’s both- both an acceptance and an accountability. But right now I don’t think the Church is doing a great job of either and I think this is why her most valuable influence in culture and government has been lost.

  5. Chris Pollock says:

    “What stood out to me in Bonhoeffer’s words is in particular the second point and third points. There is an ethic of love and compassion in the way the church is supposed to interact with the world – to be unconditionally obligated to aiding those who are suffering under state rule and, when it has gone too far, to be an active force in stopping it.”

    (Just had to copy and paste that in order to zoom in and be affected by it.)

    The ethic of love and compassion. Thanks for seeing it like this! In the big ways and the littler ones.

    So, what happens with the persecution? When we have an opportunity to chime in to challenge it…

    What do you think about the question, in every situation whereby there’s confusion concerning direction/judgement/opinion-formation/action…

    Well, what does love look like?

  6. Shawn Cramer says:

    I find it interesting when someone wants to add an adjective in front of “Christian.” Could it be that this adjective took precedence, not just grammatically, but theologically, too?

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