Dietrich Bonhoeffer

By Keld Dahlmann, Senior Guardian

I was still a child when one day coming home from church I said to my parents: I do understand what the pastor is saying, but it isn’t clear to me what we are going to do with it. I believed there was eternal life with God after death, but what about this life? I was too young to understand that my comments were in some sense profoundly theological. And of course also somewhat revealed my personality: a boy who was looking for some action and adventure with God, beyond the framework of a conservative Christian farmer’s family. 

Still in my teens I came across a book called “The cost of discipleship”(1937) (In German “Nachfolge” - meaning “to follow”) It was a mindblowing read. Grace is free, but comes in the format of the cross and calls us to follow Jesus, taking up our own cross - for the sake of others and the Kingdom of God. Bonhoeffer challenged a “cheap grace” gospel with a costly gospel shaped around the life and patterns of Jesus. The book was prophetic in challenging reductions of the gospel in his day.The tendency to reduce the gospel to either a privatised spiritual escape from real life or to a moral ideology accommodating the demands of obedience to Jesus to the requirements of society. As Bonhoeffer lived and wrote in Germany under the rise of the nazi-regime, his context sharpened his perspective of the dangers of the church preaching a reduced - or even false - gospel. 

In my twenties I came across my next Bonhoeffer read: “Life together”(1939) (In German: “Gemeinsames Leben”) Here he unfolds what discipleship means in the context of Christian community. Again: it was mindblowing for me to come across an ecclesiology that was written 50 years earlier but appeared so relevant in the context of the missional church conversation that was on its rise in the 90es. As far as I’m informed “Life together” was influential among the first group of people laying foundations for TOM and that doesn’t surprise me. It’s a very deep - and at the same time simple - reflection on some key virtues and practices that carry true Christian community. I highly recommend every TOM member to read it. If you would like to read more about Bonhoeffer, his life and influence, I recommend: Eric Metaxas: “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy”. 

Apart from his theological writings, Bonhoeffer was known for his staunch resistance to Nazi dictatorship, including vocal opposition to Hitler's euthanasia program and genocidal persecution of the Jews. He was arrested in April 1943 by the Gestapo and imprisoned at Tegel prison for one and a half years. Later, he was transferred to Flossenbürg concentration camp and then hanged on 9 April 1945 as the Nazi regime was collapsing.

He lived what he preached: The cost of discipleship.