Christ for the Irreligious: Bonhoeffer’s Challenge to our Mission

by Bob Allaway


One of the first books that I read after my conversion (because it was ‘famous’) was John Robinson’s Honest to God. I was not impressed. Unfortunately, because he quotes from Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison in that work, I tarred Bonhoeffer with the same brush.

As a ministerial student, I came across Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship and Life Together, and discovered that he seemed to be an ‘Evangelical’. This led me on to read his Ethics and so back to the Letters and Papers from Prison. Over recent years, I have found more and more that Bonhoeffer is speaking to my situation.

For twelve years, I pastored a small Baptist church in a mainly ‘working class’ community in South Wales. I experienced at first hand the ‘unchurched’ nature of many modern people, especially among the young. (A class of thirty secondary school girls were asked if they had ever been in a church or chapel. Only three attended regularly. Ten had never set foot inside such a building, even for a wedding or funeral. A few minutes conversation with such folk will quickly reveal that there is similar ignorance and confusion about the Christian faith, but, then, it seems totally irrelevant to them, anyway.) At a recent meeting of the Baptist Urban Group, those of us from multicultural, inner city areas were far more optimistic, but those from monocultural, white, working class estates, similar to the ‘Valleys’ where I used to work, seemed to find the situation getting even harder. As I have wrestled with the problem of how to witness in such a situation, I increasingly felt that Bonhoeffer has a relevant message for our mission today.

This is not an academic study. All references are to English translations, which interested readers can follow up for themselves. (Details of books will be found at the end.) This makes no claim to be the ‘correct’ interpretation of Bonhoeffer’s thought, but it is how his work speaks to me.

In my final section, I shall comment on some contemporary approaches to mission in the light of Bonhoeffer’s insights.

Our Mission Field

A key phrase in Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison is ‘the religionlessness of man who has come of age’ so that ‘“God” as a working hypothesis, as a stopgap for our embarrassments, has become superfluous’ [p381]. The reference to God as a stopgap should remind us of a phrase familiar to historians of science ‘The God of the gaps’.
This is how many people viewed the relationship of Christianity and science in the past. They said things like, ‘We know how the planets orbit the sun, but we don’t know how they got there in the first place, so God must have done it, and that proves God exists.’ God was only brought in to plug the gaps in our knowledge.

That was a big mistake. It made God too small, as if he were only involved in the inexplicable, and not in everything else as well. It also played into the hands of opponents of Christianity, who claimed God was just a primitive way of explaining things. As more and more could be explained without him, the God of the gaps was squeezed right out, and the atheists seemed to be vindicated.

Bonhoeffer argues that, in the same way, more and more areas of life that were once dealt with in the light of Christian faith, are now conducted quite happily without reference to God, Take, for example, ‘public morals - as shown by sexual behaviour’ [p381]. How many public figures today would argue that sex only belongs within marriage, because it is ordained by God, and who would listen if they did?

Faced with this situation, many Christians try to find room for God at what Bonhoeffer calls ‘the boundaries’ of life. They proclaim Christ as the answer to questions such as, ‘Who can take away my guilt?’, ‘Who can give me life when I die?’, ‘Who can give me self-fulfilment and happiness?’ Like the ‘God of the gaps’ in science, this makes him too small. It plays into the hands of those who see ‘religion’ as a ‘private’ matter, a weekend hobby, and politicians who think the church should have nothing to do with politics. Is Jesus only Lord of life beyond death, and not of life now? Is he only there to do us personal favours? Against such attitudes, Bonhoeffer says, ‘I should like to speak of God, not at the boundaries, but at the centre’ [p282]. ‘Redemption myths arise from human boundary-experiences, but Christ takes hold of a man at the centre of his life’ [p337]. ‘Jesus claims for himself and the Kingdom of God the whole of human life in all its manifestations’ [p342].

He also criticizes this attitude because, like the ‘God of the gaps’ in science, it is ultimately self-defeating. What are we to say when God is squeezed out of even these areas, when New Age philosophies seem to offer more self-fulfilment and happiness, when security of life and health stop people worrying about death (even though they must still face it), when psychiatry persuades people that there is nothing to feel guilty about (even if they are still guilty in God’s eyes)?

This is ‘man come of age’, who has taken responsibility for his own life, and feels no need for the fatherly hand of God. How are we to bring such people to Christ?

Preparing the Way

It is crucial that we should not equate what ‘Bultmann describes as “mythological”, Tillich as “supranaturalist”, and Bonhoeffer as “religious”’, as John Robinson did in Honest to God. What Bonhoeffer sees as religious is more than just supernatural. It is any talk of God, whether as the ‘infinite and inexhaustible ground of history’ (Tillich) or as a loving Father in Heaven.

Bonhoeffer says, ‘A few more words about “religionlessness”. I expect you remember Bultmann’s essay on the “demythologizing” of the New Testament? My view of it today would be, not that he went “too far”, as most people thought, but that he did not go far enough. It’s not only the “mythological” concepts, such as miracle, ascension, and so on (which are not in principle separable from the concepts of God, faith, etc.), but “religious” concepts generally, which are problematic. You can’t, as Bultmann supposes, separate God and miracle, but you must be able to interpret and proclaim both in a “non-religious” sense.’ [p285]

What then are we to say to a world come of age? We must say nothing. ‘The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of religion in general.’ [p279] The church must still hold fast to its beliefs, but as a secret discipline.

‘There are degrees of knowledge and degrees of significance; that means that a secret discipline must be restored whereby the mysteries of the Christian faith are protected against profanation.’ [p286] Bonhoeffer refers to the practice, in the fourth and early fifth centuries, of shrouding in secrecy the facts concerning baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. Detailed teaching on these matters would be withheld from those under instruction till immediately before baptism (if then!). Inspired by Mat. 7:6, this was to avoid misuse or misinterpretation of these things by non-believers.

In a similar way, Bonhoeffer envisages the Church holding on to the full, supernatural gospel, to which we respond in worship and prayer, but not confronting non-believers with these things before we have introduced them to Christ.

‘The Pauline question whether circumcision is a condition of justification seems to me in present-day terms to be whether religion is a condition of salvation.’ [p281] Just as Gentiles did not have to become Jews before they could be converted, so modern people should not have to become ‘religious’ before they can be converted.

How, then, does Bonhoeffer envisage non-believers meeting Christ? A clue lies in his other reference to the ‘secret discipline’. ‘ Does the secret discipline, or alternatively the difference (which I have suggested to you before) between penultimate and ultimate, take on a new importance here?’ [p281].

He deals at some length with ‘The Penultimate’ in his Ethics p103f. There, he gives an illustration from pastoral experience. ‘When I am with someone who has suffered a bereavement, I often decide to adopt a “penultimate” attitude, particularly when I am dealing with Christians, remaining silent as a sign that I share in the bereaved man’s helplessness in the face of such a grievous event, and not speaking the biblical words of comfort which are, in fact, known to me and available to me.’ Anyone who has ever ministered to the bereaved will surely identify with what he says here. There is a time when the words we know so well, and which are the only real ground of hope and comfort, will only come across as platitudes, a time when what is needed is a presence, to support and listen. By remaining in the ‘penultimate’, we actually point to the ‘ultimate’, God’s comfort, when he speaks it at the right time through us

I believe that a good illustration of what Bonhoeffer is saying here, in terms of mission, is provided by the experience of two different church youth clubs I have known, intended for non-church youth. One church treated the youngsters as a captive audience for evangelism. As a result, the youths walked out. The other refrained from overt evangelism, as a deliberate policy. Christians befriended the youths, but would only talk about their faith when asked. As a result, they were asked, and were able to lead a number to faith

The ‘penultimate’, says Bonhoeffer, is ‘preparing the way for the word’ (Isa. 40.3?5/Luke 3:4-6). ‘That which has been cast down into the depths of human wretchedness, that which has been abased and humbled, is now to be raised up. There is a depth of human bondage, of human poverty, of human ignorance, which impedes the merciful coming of Christ. If Christ is to come, then all that is proud and haughty must bow down. There is a measure of power, of wealth, of knowledge, which is an impediment to Christ and to His mercy.’ [p112] ‘It is for the love of Christ, which belongs as much to the hungry man as to myself, that I share my bread with him... If the hungry man does not attain to faith, then the guilt falls on those who refused him bread. To provide the hungry man with bread is to prepare the way for the coming of grace.’[p114]

We should note that this is not a substitute for evangelism. It is the pen-ultimate, it is preparing the way for the ultimate, ‘the justification of the sinner by grace alone’ [p110]. Bonhoeffer teaches no ‘social gospel’ that ignores the need for repentance and personal faith. Equally, he is not speaking of some human publicity gimmick, to attract people’s attention so we can then get on with the ‘real’ business of evangelising them. ‘Only the coming Lord Himself can make ready the way for His coming.’[p117] This is, itself, the means by which we bring Christ to people, or rather by which he brings himself to them, through us.

This brings us to the heart of Bonhoeffer’s thought, the concern that runs back through The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together to his 1933 lectures on Christology. ‘The Word is in the Church in so far as the Church is the recipient of revelation. But the Word is also itself Church, in so far as the Church itself is revelation and the Word wishes to have the form of a created body. … The Church is the body of Christ.’[p59]

Christ Taking Form in Us

In the final chapter of The Cost of Discipleship Bonhoeffer speaks of the goal of discipleship, ‘to become “as Christ”’[p269]. This future hope (Rom. 8.29) should transform our lives today. Yet, ‘to be conformed to the image of Christ is not an ideal to be striven after. It is not as though we had to imitate him as well as we could. We cannot transform ourselves into his image; it is rather the form of Christ which seeks to be formed in us (Gal. 4:19), and to be manifested in us.’[p272] This concern that Christ should transform us into his image dominates his unfinished Ethics.

Bonhoeffer makes a number of references to Col. 1.15-20 through this work. In a passage written about the same time as the above discussion of the penultimate, though later in the published book [p288], he points out that since all things were created through and for Christ, and have their proper place only in union with him (Col. 1:16,17), all things, not just individual people, but ‘the state, economy, science, nature, etc.’ need to be brought into a relationship with Christ. As the Body of which Christ is the head, the Church has a responsibility towards all things, to bring them under the dominion of Christ. Here we see the theological foundation for the concern, already noted above, that Christ should be seen to be concerned with the whole of human life, and not just a few areas at its ‘boundaries’.

There is, though, a danger of arrogant triumphalism in the above thought. ‘We’re God’s agents to put the world right.’ We must not forget that the means by which Christ restored all things to a right relationship with himself was ‘by the shedding of his blood on the cross’ (Col 1:20). So it is that Bonhoeffer, in his Letters and Papers from Prison, speaks of how ‘God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.’[p360] He speaks of discipleship as ‘sharing in the suffering of God in Christ’ [p362]. ‘God in human form [is] ... “the man for others”, and therefore the Crucified ... The church is the church only when it exists for others. To make a start, it should give away all its property to those in need [!]..The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others.’ [pp381-383]

‘The man for others’ is not some ‘demythologised’ version of the doctrine of the incarnation. Bonhoeffer does not envisage the church proclaiming this as a description of Christ that will somehow be more easily understood by secular man. That would be to make the mistake that, as we have already seen, Bonhoeffer criticized Bultmann for making. This is a challenge to the church to recognize that it only exists for others. It is to introduce people to Christ as they meet him in its ministry, as they see the form of ‘the man for others’ in it. It is how we are to live Christ, not what we are to say of Christ.

In Practice?

The church as Bonhoeffer seems to picture it already exists. There are many lands, especially in the Muslim world, where Christianity has no official existence. Only the few believers among expatriate workers may maintain some sort of informal fellowship. Yet Christian missionaries are sometimes welcomed, provided it is purely for humanitarian purposes, with agreement that they will not attempt to evangelise. Here, the ‘secret discipline’ is an enforced necessity.

In such situations, Bonhoeffer’s vision reminds us that the missionaries must pursue their humanitarian work in an attitude of humble service, rather than a patronising sense of superiority. To this end, they must maintain the ‘discipline’ (albeit a ‘secret’ one) of fellowship, prayer and Bible study (and quiet witness, when asked), if they are to maintain ‘the form of Christ’, and not become one more humanitarian agency alongside others.

What, though, of our situation? Whatever the indifference of modern folk, we have the freedom for overt evangelism, so should we not use it? Certainly, but it should be noted that many modern evangelistic initiatives actually bring in those who are already on the fringes of the church.

As an example, I have great respect for Billy Graham, and have been a counsellor in one of his missions (and in similar missions with Luis Palau). I have met many folk who have come to profess faith, and persevere in it, through such missions. Almost invariably, though, they were brought to the meetings by a church, and supported by that church afterwards.

What of the broad mass of folk who are totally unchurched’. How well do present methods reach them? Do some actually put them off? I think, for example, of the JIM (Jesus In Me) campaign that some churches supported in 1994. ‘Fear, emptiness, despair ... talk to JIM said the posters. While it was refreshing to see churches attempting to be up-to-date in their advertising methods, I could not help thinking, ‘What of those who feel perfectly happy and fulfilled without Jesus? Will it not just confirm their preconception that “religion” is a prop for the inadequate?’ Such an approach was precisely what Bonhoeffer was criticizing in his prison letters

A better approach is that of the Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, which has committed itself ‘to turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ’. There has been much attention devoted to their ‘seeker-friendly services’, not so much, I believe, to a recognition that is part and parcel of this: ‘Evangelism and edification cannot effectively be done in the same service since the needs of the churched and the unchurched differ greatly.’ Hence, alongside the seeker-friendly services, there are mid-week meetings specifically for believers (including the Lord’s Supper). This, I believe, corresponds to Bonhoeffer’s ‘secret discipline’.

‘Seeker-friendly services’ are a valuable concept. The problem is, they can only bring Christ to those who are already ‘seeking’, however tentatively. What of the totally unchurched, to whom any such meeting will seem a meaningless irrelevance, not worth attending? How are we to prepare the way for Christ to put them on the seeker’s path? How are we to realise Bonhoeffer’s ‘penultimate’ in practice?

The late John Wimber (of the Vineyard Fellowship in California), and others, have reminded us that evangelism is as much doing the works of Christ as speaking his words. The works can speak to those who are deaf to the words. Unfortunately, they have concentrated on Jesus’ works as works of power. This may meet the world’s expectations, but it is not the way of Christ. His healing miracles, for example, were expressions of compassion, not devices to -impress (Mat 16:4). He triumphed through the weakness of the Cross (1 Cor 1:22-24). We forget at our peril that we are in the midst of a spiritual war, but Christ did not only express this by casting out individual demons. His ministry also challenged the ‘rulers, authorities and powers of this dark world’ (Eph 6:12), in the shape of the political and religious establishment of his day, and he was crucified for it.

Bonhoeffer, likewise, reminds us that a church that truly reaches out in the power of the Spirit will bear the form of Christ. In his case, though, it is not the form of a miracle working man of power, but of ‘the man for others’. Such a church will seek to set people free from all that binds and oppresses them (Luke 4:17-21), whether within the individual or in the community. It will speak out, in Jesus’ name, against all who deprive people of the true humanity for which God created them in his image. It will do this for all people, whether fellow believers or their bitterest enemies, even as Christ so loved us (Rom 5:8; 1 John 4:10,11). In all this, it will refuse to play the world’s game by the world’s rules, but will rather be crucified by the world than overcome evil with evil (1 Peter 2.21-23).

Only the witness of such a church can smash through the complacency of the irreligious, and enable them to hear Christ calling them where they are, even as his first disciples heard him by their nets and in the toll-booth, and left all to follow him.

Books by Bonhoeffer

All quotations above come from the following English translations:

Christology (new translation), Collins, London, 1978

The Cost of Discipleship (6th edition), SCM, London, 1959

Ethics (in order of 6th German ed.), SCM, London, 1978

Letters and Papers from Prison (revised and enlarged), SCM, London, 1971
[Beware of earlier editions of this work, the translation is inaccurate]