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

Bonhoeffer & Leadership: A Chronology of Commitments

Written by: on February 22, 2021

In the very moment when Swiss theologian Karl Barth asserted that Christianity was separated “as by an abyss from the inherent godlessness of National Socialism,” Germany was working to fuse the German Volk (people) with the German Kirche (church).[1] Embedded within Hitler’s masterplan for domination was a strategy to make the violent rule of the Third Reich congruent with Christianity. This was not a subversive strategy, but quite overt and it worked with staggering efficiency.

The German church quickly oriented around the construction of Jesus as “our Aryan hero” and aligned with the Führer’s anti-Semitism.[2] In response, Bonhoeffer rejected the notion of the Aryan Jesus and revealed anti-Jewish sentiment as anti-Christ. As Dylan Branson so aptly pointed out in his article “A Spoke in the Wheel”, Bonhoeffer urged the church to remember its three-fold progression of responsibility from within the nation-state: question, aid the oppressed, and, if necessary, directly oppose.[3]

Rather than heed Bonhoeffer’s prophetic critique, “the German Christians preached Christianity as the polar opposite of Judaism, Jesus as the arch anti-Semite, and the cross as the symbol of war against the Jews.”[4] In so doing, Germanness had become synonymous with anti-Jew. To be a German Christian meant to rid the faith of everything Jewish.[5] Of course, this was absurd.

The question, then, for Bonhoeffer and his colleagues became: Christianity or Germanism?[6] The majority chose Germanism. Incensed by their inability to take a defiant stand against the will of the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer went to work organizing within the ecumenical context. His goal was for the global church to acknowledge the heresy of the German Church by disallowing their membership within the ecumenical movement. He knew that the Nazis, at that time, were very concerned with their global reputation and that being barred from the global ecumenical community would be suffered as a significant hit to the Nazi strategy.[7]

At this moment, Bonhoeffer was resolved in his commitment to Jesus, to the ecumenical church, and to Germany.

While Metaxas does not suggest this series of commitments chronologically, I do assert that there is a proper ordering and that the chronology is of note. First, Bonhoeffer was unapologetically Jesus-centered. While the question “What is the Church?” was a core wondering, Bonhoeffer did his best to disallow the Church to become the center of his theology, remaining steadfast on Jesus instead. Second, moved by his immersion in Rome, Bonhoeffer was fully committed to the work of the church in Germany and strengthening its collaboration with the global church. While in his brief life, this commitment was focused on the issue of the German Church, it is clear that intra-faith dialogue and collaboration were critical for Bonhoeffer. His humble participation sets an example for what this work could (and does) look like today. Third, he was still a proud German who wanted the very best for his people. It pained him that Germany as a whole was self-sabotaging and saw his role and that of the church to participate in its redemption and restoration.

For Bonhoeffer, restorative participation rested on the aforementioned chronology of commitments. He understood the church as secondary to Jesus: it was to be the contemporary embodiment of Jesus’ presence and power within society. The role of the church at large, according to Bonhoeffer, was to follow Jesus into society equipped not with weapons to win but with the tools to transform.

Of note to me, Bonhoeffer’s strategy was not directly focused on the masses nor the ecclesial power-brokers. Instead, Bonhoeffer spent the majority of the life he had left accompanying young aspiring faith leaders who were questioning the legitimacy of German Christianity and searching for its hopeful alternative. While Bonhoeffer is oft remembered as the martyr, I think of him as a subversive pilgrim-guide who dared to follow Jesus into deeper interdependence, expressions of powerlessness, and radical generosity.


[1] Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, 171-172.

[2] Ibid., 168.

[3] Ibid., 155.

[4] Ibid., 172.

[5] Ibid., 172.

[6] Ibid., 185.

[7] Ibid., 189.

About the Author

Jer Swigart

8 responses to “Bonhoeffer & Leadership: A Chronology of Commitments”

  1. Dylan Branson says:

    Bonhoeffer’s pilgrim-guide persona extends even past his death. I think that’s an important observation – that one of his primary contributions is that of a mentor/guide to young faith leaders at the time. He saw the importance of journeying alongside others and giving them the space to question and ponder what their roles in the restoration of Germany and the church should be. Andrew Root has a really good book that follows up on his time in youth ministry – Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker – that shows just how important it was to him. Bonhoeffer’s life also begs the question of who we ourselves are guiding.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      I wonder what you made of Bonhoeffer’s ability to support the faith leaders whom he trained who also felt a responsibility to go to war. I was stunned and inspired at the generosity he demonstrated in this regard. He was truly a pilgrim-guide who invited without agenda and chose generosity over shame.

  2. Darcy Hansen says:

    There’s something beautiful and holy in Bonhoffer’s willingness to live a narrowly focused life on Christ and a small group of others. Is there any mention about who those young people were and how they impacted the German church post-war generation? And if so, in what ways does that motivate you as you implement similar strategies in your leadership role?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      It’s a really good question. I haven’t yet looked into the life and impact of those who were immediately under the mentorship of Bonhoeffer. Yet from my view, he wasn’t the first to employ the strategy of large impact by doing deep work with a few. It seems to be Jesus’ strategy as well. I’m a product of this kind of investment and see approach as the one that will define the next season of my work.

  3. Greg Reich says:

    I love the pilgrim guide mindset. Sometimes the aspect of being a martyr creates a bigger than life persona. Bonhoeffer’s heart for transformation in himself and for Germany was inspirational. Though he is an inspiration for many it is sad that we will never really know how effective his efforts would have been.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      In my view, the pilgrim-guide illustration is a juxtaposition to the “Gandalf” approach. While the latter seems to center the “sage,” the former seems to center the journey. Between these two, is there an approach that you’ve found to be most effective?

  4. Shawn Cramer says:

    Strong ending. Generosity of spirit, space, and stuff (forced alliteration there), are overlooked during this cultural moment.

  5. John McLarty says:

    I suspect you chose Bonhoeffer as a conversation partner for this stretch (at least in part) because of the religious nationalism that has been so rampant in our society of late. How do you plan to take Bonhoeffer with you in the next chapter of your leadership and advocacy?

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