Bonhoeffer on Church and State, Part 2
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Bonhoeffer on Church and State, Part 2

The following is the text of a paper presented on November 15, 2006 at the Evangelical Theological Society 58th Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, which was themed, “Christians in the Public Square.” Part 2 of 3 follows below (series index).

Relationship between Church and State

It must first be noted that Bonhoeffer’s conception of mandates was a statement about the ontological ordering of God’s rule in the world, not a particular statement about the precise form that rule would or should take in any given context. Bonhoeffer’s distinction between “government” as a divine mandate and “state” as a particular form of that mandate help us get at this difference.

Bonhoeffer writes of the mandates that “only as God’s mandates are they divine, not in their actual givenness in this or that concrete form. Not because there is work, marriage, government, or church is it commanded by God, but because it is commanded by God, therefore it is.”[i] The mandates are the norm by which the particular concrete expressions of the mandate are to be judged.

In the case of the mandate of government, for example, the “state” is to be understood as a particular form or expression of the mandate of government: “The term ‘state’ means an ordered community; government is the power which creates and maintains order.”[ii] He more clearly distinguishes between the two as he writes that “the term ‘government’ does not, therefore, imply any particular form of society or any particular form of state.”[iii] From this it also follows that the validity of any particular form of government may to a great degree be historically contextual. Thus, Western democracy may be invalid in certain places and times, as in the case of Bonhoeffer’s recommendation for the formation of the German state following the end of the war along the lines of an authoritarian government devoted to the rule of law.[iv]

Although I said earlier that there is no strict ordering of the mandates along the lines of authority or sovereignty, there is a logical ordering to them, so that both church and government presuppose family and work. This may, in part, reflect some appreciation for Brunner’s distinction between creation and preservation orders, although that distinction is rejected as unhelpful in 1933. But even so, Bonhoeffer writes of government that it “finds already existing these two mandates through which God the Creator exercises creative power and upon which government must rely. Government itself cannot produce life or values. It is not creative. Government maintains what is created in the order that was given to the creation by God’s commission.”[v] Here we see a traditionally Lutheran emphasis on government as the restrainer, an agent of preserving grace: “Government protects what is created by establishing justice in acknowledgment of the divine mandates and by enforcing this justice with the power of the sword.”[vi]

In the same way the church presupposes the other mandates. In a sense, then, church and government are logically secondary and derivative of family and culture: “The mandate of the church embraces all people as they live within all the other mandates. Since a person is at the same time worker, spouse, and citizen, since one mandate overlaps with the others, and since all the mandates need to be fulfilled at the same time, so the church mandate reaches into all the other mandates.”[vii]

Bonhoeffer identifies the core responsibilities for each mandate with the idea of offices, so that the government in a particular concrete form (hereafter “state”) has the office of preservation of the created order by the administration of justice. The church, on the other hand, has the office of proclamation of the gospel. Both of these offices are the primary and core responsibility, so that all attendant responsibilities are secondary and must be related to the core duty.

For the state, the core responsibility is defined in terms of the second table of the Decalogue, which has material continuity with the natural law. In this way Bonhoeffer can affirm that the epistemological basis for the duty of the government comes,

Primarily from the preaching of the Church. But for pagan government the answer is that there is a providential congruity between the contents of the second table and the inherent law of historical life itself. Failure to observe the second table destroys the very life which government is charged with preserving. Thus, if it is properly understood, the task of protecting life will itself lead to observance of the second table. Does this mean that the state is after all based on natural law? No; for in fact it is a matter here only of the government which does not understand itself but which now is, nevertheless, providentially enabled to acquire the same knowledge, of crucial significance for its task, as is disclosed to the government which does understand itself in the true sense in Jesus Christ. One might, therefore, say that in this case natural law has its foundation in Jesus Christ.[viii]

So the government is concerned with the administration of justice, especially and particularly as contained in the elements of the second table. This squares with Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the inseparability of the two tables because the church constantly proclaims the unity of the two tables to the government, so that the true divine basis for governmental authority is made known. He writes, “It is never the task of the church to preach to the state the message of the natural instinct for self-preservation, but only obedience toward what is owed to God. These are two different messages. The proclamation of the church to the world can always only be Jesus Christ in both law and gospel. The second table cannot be separated from the first.”[ix]

Bonhoeffer affirms then some sort of separation between church and state, in that each has its own divine mandate and responsibility. It is not the task of the church, for instance, to use coercive force in service of the gospel: “If the persons who exercise government are Christian they must know that the Christian proclamation is delivered not by means of the sword but by means of the word.”[x] Indeed, he writes, “The notion of the Christian state is also untenable; for the state possesses its character as government independently of the Christian character of the persons who govern. There is government also among the heathen.”[xi]

The government’s task with respect to the church, as with the other mandates, is to protect space for the church to operate, to promote religious freedom and practice. One purpose of the state’s administration of justice is to leave the world open for the church’s proclamation of Jesus Christ, comprehending both tables of the law and the fulfillment of the gospel. In this way, “The service of the government to Christ consists in the exercise of its commission to secure an outward justice by the power of the sword. This service is thus an indirect service to the congregation which only by this is enabled to ‘lead a quiet and peaceable life’ (I Tim. 2.2).”[xii]

It is not that the religious convictions of those in government are of no consequence, for “Certainly the persons who exercise government ought also to accept belief in Jesus Christ, but the office of government remains independent of the religious decision. Yet it pertains to the responsibility of the office of government that it should protect the righteous, and indeed praise them, in other words that it should support the practice of religion.”[xiii] There is here a secular character to the state’s actions, in that it “remains religiously neutral and attends only to its own task. And it can, therefore, never become the originator in the foundation of a new religion; for if it does so it disrupts itself. It affords protection to every form of service of God which does not undermine the office of government.”[xiv]

So much for the government’s responsibility toward the church. What then of the church’s responsibility toward the government? Bonhoeffer says,

It is part of the Church’s office of guardianship that she shall call sin by its name and that she shall warn men against sin; for “righteousness exalteth a nation,” both in time and in eternity, “but sin is perdition for the people,” both temporal and eternal perdition (Prov. 14.34). If the Church did not do this, she would be incurring part of the guilt for the blood of the wicked (Ezek. 3.17ff.). This warning against sin is delivered to the congregation openly and publicly, and whoever will not hear it passes judgment on himself.[xv]

This recalls what was said earlier about the church’s responsibility to prophetically proclaim both tables of the Decalogue, so that the basis of the government in the divinely instituted mandate and the content of the government’s responsibility in the second table are fully made known.

This is consistent with the framework of interaction between church and state that Bonhoeffer had laid out much earlier in April, 1933. In addressing the propriety of the imposition of the Aryan clauses by the Nazi state on the German church, Bonhoeffer explores “three possible ways in which the church can act toward the state.” The first task of the church, as we have seen is to “ask the state whether its actions are legitimate and in accordance with its character as state, i.e. it can throw the state back on its responsibilities.”[xvi] In the second place, the church is responsible to “aid the victims of state action. The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.” [xvii] These first two types of action are common for the church, since every manifestation of government will be imperfect and result in some form of injustice—“The poor you will always have with you.”[xviii] The third type of church action is the rarest and the most serious, because it involves action “not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself. Such action would be direct political action, and is only possible and desirable when the church sees the state fail in its function of creating law and order.”[xix]

Direct political action by the church can only come when the church is in statu confessionis and where “the state would be in the act of negating itself.”[xx] The purpose of the political action would be only to restore the state to its rightful purpose, to “protect the state qua state from itself and to preserve it.” [xxi] In this sense such action is an “ultimate recognition of the state” even as it is aimed at undermining the state’s particular agenda.[xxii]


[i] Bonhoeffer, “Christ, Reality, and Good. ChristChurch, and World.,” 69-70.

[ii] Bonhoeffer, “State and Church,” in E-E, 327.

[iii] Bonhoeffer, “State and Church,” 327.

[iv] See Bonhoeffer, “State and Church,” 347: “No form of the state is in itself an absolute guarantee for the proper discharge of the office of government.”

[v] Bonhoeffer, “Christ, Reality, and Good. ChristChurch, and World.,” 72.

[vi] Bonhoeffer, “Christ, Reality, and Good. ChristChurch, and World.,” 72.

[vii] Bonhoeffer, “Christ, Reality, and Good. ChristChurch, and World.,” 73.

[viii] Bonhoeffer, “State and Church,” 336.

[ix] Bonhoeffer, “On the Possibility of the Church’s Message to the World,” 359-60.

[x] Bonhoeffer, “State and Church,” 334.

[xi] Bonhoeffer, “State and Church,” 331.

[xii] Bonhoeffer, “State and Church,” 341.

[xiii] Bonhoeffer, “State and Church,” 343.

[xiv] Bonhoeffer, “State and Church,” 343.

[xv] Bonhoeffer, “State and Church,” 345.

[xvi] Bonhoeffer, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes, 1928-1936, ed. and with an introduction by Edwin H. Robertson, trans. Edwin H. Robertson and John Bowden, vol. 1, Collected Works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Harper, 1965), 225.

[xvii] Bonhoeffer, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” 225.

[xviii] Matthew 26:11 NIV.

[xix] Bonhoeffer, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” 225.

[xx] Bonhoeffer, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” 225.

[xxi] Bonhoeffer, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” 226. I examine the exchange between Barth and Bonhoeffer on the issue of the Aryan clauses in a recent article, “The Aryan clause, the Confessing Church, and the ecumenical movement: Barth and Bonhoeffer on natural theology, 1933–1935,” Scottish Journal of Theology 59, no. 3 (August 2006): 263-80.

[xxii] Bonhoeffer, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” 226.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.