Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s birthday is this week. He would have been 108. He split from the German state Lutheran Church during Adolf Hitler’s reign, and formed the Confessing Church, because the State Lutheran Church supported Hitler and refused to object to the things he was doing to dissenters, doing to elected officials from other parties, to other nations, to the mentally handicapped, to people of various sects like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, to homosexuals, and especially to Jews. Bonhoeffer objected to the way the Nazis set up the State as higher than God. Eventually Bonhoeffer decided it would be best that Hitler be killed, and he joined in a plot to kill Hitler. Bonhoeffer was arrested and hung in a concentration camp shortly before Hitler killed himself at the end of the Second World War in 1945.
Bonhoeffer is lauded today for being one of the bravest and most influential theologians of the 20th century. To do what he did he had to leave his denomination and start something new, opposing the Nazi regime. In 1933 (6 years before the beginning of World War II) the Nazis encouraged the German State Lutheran Church to pass resolutions to remove pastors who did not support the State’s goals, especially Aryan philosophy. In 1934 a group of German Protestants upset by Aryan philosophy and German nationalism in the German Lutheran Church, met and started the movement later to become the Confessing Church.
The evangelical church in America is somewhat similar to the Lutheran State Church in Germany in the sense that the evangelical church in America, compared to other religious groups in America, is the most jingoistically patriotic, the most affirming of the United States military, the most likely to have an American flag on the church podium, the last social group to adopt civil rights that the rest of the nation long ago adopted, the most supportive of the conservative side of the Republican Party and the primary support of the Tea Party.
Only a few years ago we can point to events in the 1960s in most evangelical churches that showed they did not want integration. Even those who wanted integration, had no idea how condescending they were toward blacks, hispanics and other race groups. Many said they wanted integration, as long as there were no black power salutes, no Afro hair styles, no swaying and clapping in church, etc. In other words, “we will barely tolerate you as long as you completely assimilate, completely leave your culture, family and customs behind, and be as white as possible, and as silent as possible.” (I’m listening to an interview of the first athlete to give the black power salute on the podium at the 1968 Olympic games.)
But what I find important is that Bonhoeffer had to start a new denomination in order to oppose Nazism in the church. This is almost a universal principle. The establishment always veers toward the status quo. As one of my pastors said, “Unless there is constant correction, the church always drifts towards being a country club.” What is sad is that all churches, even the confessing church, rapidly get taken over by traditionalists.
So my opinion is that true prophetic leaders are not in established churches. Established churches will always be incompatible with the radical anarchic philosophies of Jesus Christ. When we look for true followers of Jesus, it is a waste of time to look in a particular denomination or sect that seems to us to be doctrinally purer than the rest. True followers of Jesus almost always conflict with their denomination or sect, whatever group they find themselves in. The true church is not an organized denomination or sect with rites and traditions. The true church is not a congregation. Jesus’ church are people who are willing to go against the flow no matter where they are, wherever and whenever we stand up for justice.