The Church, Politics, and Bonhoeffer's Way Forward - Part 1

The Primacy of Prophecy

by Steve Bezner August 29, 2017

"Resist the devil, and he will flee from you." —James 4:7

"Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world." —1 Peter 5:9

"[T]hey have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them." —1 Samuel 8:7

The Christian imagination has been concerned with secular politics from its very beginning. That concern has continued and ripened over the years, bringing many Christians to produce fruitful (and extensive) theological and political theories. From the apostle Paul’s exhortations to respect our rulers in Romans 13 to Augustine’s magnum opus, The City of God, the earliest Christians certainly wrestled with how a community could faithfully embody the commands of Jesus and proclaim his gospel while also living in the midst of a culture ruled by a government with a completely different theological perspective. Successive generations have done the same. Thinkers like Luther, Calvin, Müntzer, Kuyper, and others have wondered and argued how the church and politics ought to co-exist.

In this three-part series I want to address the same question, but from a different perspective than most treatments. I want to talk about politics pastorally. The vast majority of us will never run for or serve in public office. Yet we must live within the political system that is provided in our nation. Consequently, we must think about our individual responsibilities in politics, while specifically considering our faith.

Church members regularly ask me: “How am I supposed to think about politics?” These posts attempt to answer that question.

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Christian civic involvement begins with the rightful recognition that we are given the duty of the faithful proclamation of Scriptural truth to power. For shorthand, I’m going to call such proclamation “prophecy.” I'm not talking about predicting the future. I'm talking about having the courage to speak the things of Jesus in the midst of crowds who may not respect him or his message. Prophecy is our first calling.

In the book of 1 Samuel, the people of Israel decide they no longer want to be led only by the Lord. They want to be like other nations, so they call upon the prophet Samuel to give them a King.

The Lord grants their desire, but adds a tweak: Each king must have a prophet.

Have you ever wondered why both are needed?

Think about the relationships between prophets and kings in the Bible.

Nathan confronts David about his infidelity with Bathsheba. Samuel confronts Saul about inquiring a medium instead of the Lord. Elijah confronts Ahab about Ba’al worship.

Over and over, the role of the prophet was to confront the king, to tell the king when power had corrupted his vision. The prophet was the one appointed by God to prophesy with truth, to push back against the allure of power.

Granted, the prophets did not only prophesy. There are plenty of times in Scripture when kings were in line with the Lord. And then the prophets told the kings to proceed, for they were in step with the decrees of God.

The prophet’s job is simple enough: Be the Lord’s representative to the king. Speak the Lord’s words to the king. Inquire of the Lord on behalf of the king. In short, make certain that the king follows God’s plan.

The prophet’s job is to represent the Lord. And the king’s job is to govern.

In the Old Testament, when Israel has a king they always have a prophet, because no one individual serves as both prophet and king. This is essential, because it indicates that even the best of kings and the best of prophets are not suited to hold both offices simultaneously. One office is designed to hold the other in check.

Truth can only speak to power when it is separate, when it is on the outside, when it has a healthy distance.

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Distance, of course, is not always easy to measure, nor is it easy to maintain.

History is filled with examples of pastors struggling to maintain distance from power. One example from my own tradition: In the 1850s and 1860s—and beyond—there were a host of Southern pastors who preached on the virtues of slavery. My own denomination—Southern Baptists—began inauspiciously (primarily) as a slave-approving alternative to northern Baptists. In the 1960s you could find plenty of pastors in the South supporting “separate, but equal” policies. Why? The power structures in the communities of the South supported slavery in the 1860s and segregation in the 1960s. Any pastor who spoke in favor of abolition or desegregation would be without a job.

The prophet was not able to hold the king in check.

Point being: It is one thing to be charged with the responsibility of speaking truth to power. It is quite another thing to actually do it. In a situation where speaking truth to a congregation or a president might lead to job loss, family discomfort, and social awkwardness, it is often easier to not speak truth to power—even if it is simply congregational power. In fact, it is profoundly easier to say what those in power want to hear. It is easier because it allows us to stay close to those in power, be it those who control our jobs or those who govern.

Our nation has a long history of pastors and politicians working in close proximity, certainly too close of proximity, at certain times. It is good to be a “spiritual advisor” to someone in power, as long as one can keep a healthy distance. But as our history details, it is difficult to stay in the role of spiritual advisor once one has entered the corridors of power.

Why?

It is quite thrilling to be invited into the king’s court. And it is quite tempting to say whatever is necessary in order to stay there.

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So what ought Christians do?

As the Nazi party was coming to power in the 1930s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and several other pastors in Germany looked for active ways to resist. Bonhoeffer, fresh off a year in Harlem, had lived among the African-American church and had seen how faith in Jesus could be used to both sustain those without power but also give courage to speak to those in power.

On the day after Adolf Hitler became the Reich Chancellor, Bonhoeffer gave a radio address criticizing the notion of a Führer—an all-powerful leader. It was an incredibly brave move that led the radio station to cut off his address mid-broadcast. Bonhoeffer and other members of the so-called “Confessing Church” refused to allow their churches to be co-opted by the Nazis. They founded underground seminaries to train pastors who would oppose Führer theology; they preached the gospel and the Bible faithfully against authoritarian power; they wrote and taught how the theology of the New Testament opposed the policies of the Nazi government. Bonhoeffer’s classic book—The Cost of Discipleship—was written to resist Führer theology and instead highlight the Lordship of Jesus.

Bonhoeffer and other Confessing Church members understood that a primary responsibility of the church was to resist through faithful proclamation of the Scriptures when the government was exercising unhealthy power. They understood themselves as prophets who were charged to speak truth to the king—even if the king was not listening.

Bonhoeffer believed such faithful reading of Scripture, solid theology, and powerful preaching centering on the Lordship of Jesus would be one part of countering a government bent on upholding a cult of personality.

He believed that prophetic resistance was useful, good, and faithful.

Twice in the New Testament the church receives a positive command to resist. Both times the command is given to resist, it is given to resist the devil.

"Resist the devil, and he will flee from you." —James 4:7

"Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world." —1 Peter 5:9

Is the government—locally or otherwise—leading an agenda or promoting a policy that is in clear opposition to Scripture? That is, is it clearly evil or satanic? If so, it is good to resist with teaching and theology and preaching and practice. Yes, we need to use the right tone. Yes, we need to be mindful of outsiders. Yes, we should employ grace and love as best we can. And, yes, we are to submit to our rulers.

But truth must be spoken, nevertheless.

Evangelicals—particularly white evangelicals—would do well here to mine the riches of the African-American theological tradition of prophetic preaching. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, spoke boldly to the power structures of his day, in part, because African-American churches were familiar with speaking truthfully while being culturally disempowered.

This is what the prophets of God were called to do: Speak truth to power.

So we speak about issues that are contrary to Scripture. We continue to address abortion as immoral. We address the blatant racism still rampant in many of our cities. We cry out against ill-gotten gains. We defend the immigrant and the stranger. We cry out and plead the case of the poor. We speak about the biblical picture of sexuality in contrast to that of the our culture.

We do these things not to be immovable cultural Luddites, but we do them to be faithful.

We prophesy because we want what is best for our nation.

And we believe prophetic resistance is faithful.

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Prophetic resistance, while foundational, is an anemic strategy on its own. The next two posts will flesh out a more complete approach to engaging the public square from a Christian perspective.