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

Bonhoeffer & Leadership: Submission

Written by: on February 15, 2021

Two days after Adolf Hitler was democratically elected to serve as the chancellor of Germany, Bonhoeffer, then twenty-six, gave a radio address entitled, “The Young Generation’s Concept of Leadership.” The speech was part history, part philosophy, and part theology and dealt with the fundamental problems of leadership by a Führer.[1]

“Before he could finish, the speech was cut off.”[2]

It was not understood that the Nazis steered the media in the same way then they would seize control in the years to come. Some speculate that the head of the radio station was made to feel especially nervous at the prophetic provocation of the message and pulled the plug. Others wonder if Bonhoeffer and the station manager crossed wires with regard to the timing of the segment. In any regard, Bonhoeffer was frustrated as what aired may have caused some to believe that he was in favor of the unchecked authority of a Führer. Far the contrary, his speech crescendoed to reveal the horrors that such a Führer could enact when given permission to do so.

Because the speech itself was focused on leadership, biographer Eric Metaxas chose to point to the style of Bonhoeffer’s presentation as revealing of his philosophy of leadership. According to Metaxas, the speech was “exceedingly measured and sedate and logical and precise.”[3] In contrast to the charismatic rantings of Hitler that appeared focused on drawing attention to himself, Bonhoeffer modeled a form of leadership through words that drew attention away from himself “and to the ideas he was presenting.”[4]

Here was found a primary difference between Bonhoeffer and Hitler with regard to leadership. Bonhoeffer hated drawing attention to himself or using his personality “to influence or to win converts to his way of thinking.”[5] Where Hitler sought control by converting the masses into a thoughtless, rabid cult-mob, Bonhoeffer sought to coalesce by offering ideas that could invite measured collaboration.

Without ever mentioned Hitler’s name, Bonhoeffer critiqued the idea of unchecked authority which seemed to be the desire of the new chancellor. The young theologian pointed to the power of leadership is found in its grounding points of submission, first to God and second to the community. Accordingly, the leader divorced from submission is an independent figure: an idol of the public’s making.

In contrast to this form of false leadership, Bonhoeffer argued that a true leader is aware of the limitations of his/her authority. A true leader “must lead his (/her) following away from the authority of his (/her) person to the recognition of the real authority….He (/She) must radically refuse to become the appeal, the idol, i.e. the ultimate authority of those whom he (/she) leads.”[6]

A true leader, according to Bonhoeffer, is one who is in submitted relationships to God and others and who “serves others and leads others to maturity.”[7]

Comparisons between Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler have been made a myriad of times in the past four years. With the insurrection on January 6th followed by the acquittal of Trump in his second impeachment this weekend, the parallels between the two men and their philosophies of leadership are remarkable. Yet this case study for leadership is not the one that is most urgent to me. Instead, it is the philosophy of institutional leadership that is found within many White American Evangelical institutions that lacks a proper distribution of authority. More pressing, in my view, is the lack of submission to God and to the community among predominantly white male Evangelical leaders.

From Mark Driscoll to Bill Hybels and Ravi Zacharias to Dave Ramsey, their approaches to leadership have been designed to seduce the affection and attention of the masses. In contrast to Bonhoeffer’s approach, it seems as though these men were well groomed in leveraging their charismatic personalities for Kingdom purposes. The more supposed Kingdom impact, the more freedom and power they were (are) given. The general consensus seems to be that their unchecked power was acceptable because of the large numbers of people who were coming to know and follow Christ as a result. What many didn’t know is that this approach to leadership was transforming the individual leader into an idol who became so isolated and protected that he was no longer submitted to anyone. As is evidenced in the four gentlemen that I mention, the leader is then free to live a double life. The front-stage version is winsome and effective. The back-stage version is dangerous.

Yet this phenomenon does not exist only with those who possess large platforms. This same story plays out in thousands of different ways within thousands of smaller places. Leaders in this system are groomed to embody a charisma that garners attention. Put another way, the system grooms leaders to become narcissists with unchecked authority. So long as the preferred metrics are moving in the direction of growth, the narcissism is rewarded. Sadly, at the same time, the leader either chooses to withdraw into the deeper shadows of the back-stage or, with carnal curiosity, enjoys his freedom to explore the darkness.

Pulling from Bonhoeffer’s speech, submission is critical for the health of leaders. So what is a submitted relationship? It is one in which the other person or community knows the truth about you and loves you still. It is marked by encouragement, challenge, and curiosity. It is the kind of relationship where the others understand that their role is to steward your holistic formation. It is the kind of relationship where, when they say, “No.” you do not proceed.

In light of that definition, I invite each of us to ask this question: To whom am I submitted?


[1] Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, 139.

[2] Ibid., 139.

[3] Ibid., 140.

[4] Ibid., 140.

[5] Ibid., 140.

[6] Ibid., 141.

[7] Ibid., 142.

About the Author

Jer Swigart

12 responses to “Bonhoeffer & Leadership: Submission”

  1. Greg Reich says:

    Great blog! I appreciate the words of advice. The old saying ” Charisma can take you to the top but character is what keeps you there” is true. Sadly due to a lack of character the good things that came from the 4 leaders you mentioned will be erased by their lack of character. I weep at the wake of their indiscretions and abuse of authority and how it has damaged others. There is just no way to hide a lack of character, sooner or later that which is hidden will come to light.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      I think you’re right. Eventually, the truth seems to come out. As I was just reading more on the RZIM disclosure, I’m curious about the fierce defense of the leader against accusations of impropriety. It seems to be the natural response of a leader’s “board” yet also reveals that the board has no authority in the leader’s life. The board is designed to defend rather than to steward the leader. It inspires me to ensure that the “board” of my life has access to all of me. Am I and are we willing to grant that kind of authority to others?

  2. Dylan Branson says:

    I’ve always been cautious of the charismatic “celebrity pastors” within the church. A good friend of mine was messaging me the other day following the release of the Ravi Zacharias investigation completely broken over what had transpired. She had said that he was one of her biggest influencers and sent me a blog post later on that summarized a lot of what you said:

    “This is not the only scandal of recent times that illustrates how treacherous is the cult of celebrity that has infected our culture and, unfortunately, the church. The elevation of individuals to the status of unquestionable or unchallengeable – because their “ministry” is so important – is poisonous for everyone involved and all too frequently ends in disaster.”

    I do wonder how often it is that pastors set out to become these “celebrities” vs the role is kind of thrust upon them by others. And once they get a taste of it, does the power become intoxicating? Or is it a coping technique for some at times?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Yes. I just read an article in which the victims each described how feeble and fragile Ravi was in their encounters with him. The facade that he had to maintain as a celebrated celebrity is too weighty a burden for any of us. This form of idolatry is lethal to all of us.

  3. Shawn Cramer says:

    You mention not saying Hitler’s name directly. How does that influence what it means to speak up against specific injustices and those in leadership inciting or perpetuating those injustices?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      It’s not clear to me why Bonhoeffer didn’t mention Hitler by name in that particular speech. I imagine that it may have been influenced by a “high-road” approach mixed with Bonhoeffer’s preferences for the bigger ideas and a bit of fear.

      I do think that naming the systems, powers, and principalities is important as is, at times, pointing to purveyors and predators. To simply reflect on the ideas of injustice may perpetuate the myth that these things are disembodied. They are not. They become embodied in the lives of real people. When this occurs, real damage is done.

      As a leader who sees a “board of directors of my life” as non-negotiable, I don’t want them to speak to me in generalities about neither growing edges that limit nor principalities that pollute my life and leadership. I need them to speak to me concretely as a man and leader whose impulses, intuitions, and decisions carry a real impact on the lives of those within my sphere of influence.

  4. John McLarty says:

    Man, you said a mouthful here. To Greg’s point, some of that submission may simply be to a personal integrity- to, as the United Methodist baptism vows invite, “accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil and injustice in whatever forms they present themselves” and just be true to that. Of course, you’ve lifted up examples of how the enticements of the darkness can cause people to lose themselves and forget this freedom and power. What’s also scary is how quickly the masses will gravitate toward the next big name leader, despite how badly they had been burned before. Memories seem to be short and mistakes keep getting repeated.

  5. John McLarty says:

    I was thinking about the character necessary to keep a person on top, even if it was charisma that got them there. There is a personal integrity at work there, an inner commitment to be aware of places where one might be tempted to abuse power. There also may be an exterior accountability structure, but even that requires integrity to keep the leader from only revealing what they want to reveal. Submission to that is a way of acknowledging the possibility of our sinfulness and trying to establish clear boundaries of ethic and propriety. I’m not sure if I’m making sense.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      I agree. There seems to be a need for an inner integrity (a commitment to full transparency), an inner submission (to God), and an outer submission (to a community of others). The appearance of an outer submission void of the other two seems to lead to disaster.

  6. Darcy Hansen says:

    Your last question is so good. But I wonder if each of the personalities you mentioned would say they were submitted to God and God’s purposes? I think they would believe the Protestant ethic and the blessings/fruit that comes from ministry is evidence of their submitted life to God. I wonder if leaders can’t see or choose not to see how their affections have shifted over time? It is a gradual slope downward that carries them into such an abyss of unchecked celebrity/leadership. Have you found that to be true in your internal work, as well as your work with Evangelical pastors? What course corrections can or should be made to reorient one’s affections and claim a true posture of submission? I think this would be tough to do if a leader has never seen it modeled for them by mentors or fellow leaders.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      As I wrote my original post, this is the thought that haunted me: what if these folks believed that they were submitted to God and others? Had they been, would these things have happened?

      The further I go into my own deficiencies, shadows, and journey of transformation, the more I recognize how certain I used to be of my construction of God, that God’s blessing, and that God’s affirmation of my choices for individualism.

      It’s humbling.

      And, I’m also finding that the more I pursue accountability in submitted relationships with others, the less I seek individualism and the more spacious, present, and gracious is the God I’m discovering.

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