Bonhoeffer and Diversity

Our guest preacher yesterday, Joel Lawrence, did his PhD on Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who was killed by the Nazis in a concentration camp just days before WWII ended.

In addition to great writings on community and discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote about the church which was one of his major passions in light of the Nazi policies on the church in Germany.  Bonhoeffer wrote:

Bonhoeffer Statue at 20th Century Martyrs Memorial in Westminister Abbey, London

“What is at stake is by no means whether our German members of congregations can still tolerate church fellowship with the Jews. It is rather the task of Christian preaching to say: here is the church, where Jew and Gentile stand together under the Word of God, here is the proof whether a church is still the church or not.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, (German theologian and pastor, 1906 – 1945) “Church and the Jewish Question.”

What makes a church a church? Or what distinguishes a true church from a false one? The preaching of the Word, the right practice of communion and baptism, and the exercise of church discipline are often described as the distinguishing marks of a true church. But Bonhoeffer, who is drawing on Martin Luther, reminds us that there are other marks of the church as well, namely diversity.

Bonhoeffer wrote “Church and the Jewish Question” in response to the newly elected German Chancellor Adolf Hitler and his plan to remove baptized Jews who had converted to Christianity from German churches. Bonhoeffer rightly recognizes that part of what makes a church a church is a commitment to diversity. As he says, a group that strives for ethnic homogeneity has added law to the gospel and destroyed the church. Any group of people that does not openly welcome all ethnicities equally cannot claim to be a true church. Those who were urging churches in Nazi Germany to create separate churches for believing Jews were not preserving the church. They were destroying it.

This is what Paul meant when he said that there is no Jew nor Gentile, slave, nor free, male nor female for we are all one in Christ (Gal 3:27) and that in our diversity we were baptized together into one body (1 Cor. 12). This is why Jesus said the defining characteristic of the church is two or three people gathered together in his name (Matt. 18:20), with no other distinguishing feature except commitment to Christ. The first church-wide council in Christianity was convened to settle this question – are there to be separate churches for Jews and Gentiles or are we one church? The answer was that Jews and Gentiles are to worship God together.

Bonhoeffer’s response to German Christians who wanted to accommodate the State’s demand to segregate wasn’t popular. Today, while we recognize this face (in theory if not in practice), we must take Bonhoeffer’s recognition of diversity as a mark of the church and expand it in two ways.

First, Bonhoeffer’s argument regarding ethnicity also applies to almost every other category of diversity: gender, age, socio-economic background, education, music preferences, etc. The Bible not only talks about Jews and Gentiles (ethnic diversity), but also males and females (gender diversity), slaves and free (socio-economi diversity), meat eaters and vegetarians (diversity in disputable matters), those weak in the faith and those strong in the faith (spiritual maturity diversity), teachers, healers, and prophets (spiritual giftedness diversity). The areas of “diversity” that Bonhoeffer’s argument would not apply to are certain forms of theological diversity (i.e. heresy) and ethical diversity (i.e. sinful life choices).

The point is that segregation along any lines damages a group’s ability to be the church. In other words, if a group has anything else in common besides Christ, perhaps they are all lawyers, or college students, or white males, or upper middle class families, or prefer traditional hymns, this group is not a church in the truest sense of the word. (The exceptions to this biblical imperative seem to be language and location. In other words, a group that only speaks English and only lives in Grand Rapids is still a church).

I am not saying that a group that segregates on the basis of contemporary and traditional music can be compared to a church in Nazi Germany that expels Jewish Christians in the degree of their importance, but the theology is the same – for a church to be a church it must embrace diversity. It takes an extreme example like Bonhoeffer’s situation to make us see this point in the mundane things of life like music and dress code.

Second, we must extend Bonhoeffer’s point to realize that a church does not simply tolerate diversity, it must embrace diversity. The early apostles said when discussing Gentile Christians, “we must not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19). This means that a church cannot simply say, “This is who we are — take it or leave it.” A church must embrace diversity, which means making it as easy as possible for the diversity of people who come into our church to participate fully in the life of the community.

As our diversity continues to grow at Calvary, I hope that we will continue to see it as the beautiful design of God’s church and welcome all those who profess faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

Jim

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