While browsing recently through a book on why apartheid is heresy, I
discovered some surprising words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, hidden away in
an English collection entitled “The Way to Freedom: Letters, Lectures, and
Notes 1935-1939 from the Collected Works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, vol. II”
(translated by Edwin Robertson and John Bowden, © 1966 by Harper & Row).
Under a section heading, “To obey the heretical church government is to
disobey Christ,” Bonhoeffer writes:
“A church which no longer takes the rejection of false teaching seriously no
longer takes truth, i.e. its salvation, seriously, and ultimately no longer takes the
community seriously, no matter how pious or well-organised [sic] it may be.
Anyone who follows false teaching, indeed who simply supports and furthers
it, no longer obeys Christ.”
Bonhoeffer quotes Matthew 6:24 and 2 Corinthians 6:14-16, then goes on to
say, “To obey a heretical church government is to disobey Christ. For Christ’s
sake we must disobey the heretical church government…And let anyone who
thinks that with a free conscience, and in obedience to Christ, he can obey
a heretical church government know the straits into which he is leading his
brothers. Let him take to heart the words of Jesus, which give such a fearful
warning against causing one of the little ones to be offended.”
Despite his later fleeting doubts about God and Christian morality known to
us from “Letters and Papers From Prison” (words that he had no opportunity
to edit before they were broadcast to the world), in view of his courage and
ultimate martyrdom, believers from across the theological spectrum (including
myself) have come to view Bonhoeffer as a saint and a prophet, someone
whose life and words command credibility.
WWBD? What would Bonhoeffer do, if he were faced with our division over
sexuality? We know what Wolfhart Pannenberg has said: that a church that
adopts a stance like the one just approved by the PC(USA) would cease to be
one, holy, catholic and apostolic. We cannot be sure whether Bonhoeffer, if he
were here today, would reach the same conclusion as Pannenberg, but certainly
the Bonhoeffer who put his life on the line to oppose the heresy of his day is
likely to have opposed the heresy of our day with comparable passion.
But how can we say that the doctrine “gay is OK” (to use a shorthand
expression) rises to the level of heresy? If we can say that apartheid is a heresy
(and I would fully agree that it is), then so is the departure from the Bible’s
central teaching on sexuality, stated a total of five times by Genesis, Jesus and
Paul: “the two (man and woman) shall become one flesh.” Although these two
heresies (apartheid and sexual revisionism) cause different kinds of harm, both
are equally grievous, and both are just as pernicious as the Nazi heresy that led
Bonhoeffer to make the above declarations.
But, it may be objected, the biblical issues here are not clear enough to speak
of heresy. Tell that to the Arians of 325 AD, who had an exegetical case that
Jesus is not God that was far more impressive than the biblical case that “gay is
OK.” Or tell that to the “German Christians” of the 1930s, who had an equally
formidable “biblical” case for their racist theology. We cannot simply plead
that scholars are divided, or that there are competing plausible interpretations of
the text for which we must make room for all. Some interpretations are false,
and as Bonhoeffer argues in his allusion to the “fearful warning” of Jesus, some
falsehoods we embrace and endorse at our peril.
Despite the discredited arguments of Boswell and others that the Bible does not
mean what it says in Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10,
some in the pro-gay crowd are honest enough to admit that the Bible is clear.
They simply reject the Bible’s specific teaching on this serious lifestyle issue
by claiming that “love” trumps the specifics. At least that approach is honest.
But which teaching – the historic teaching, or the revision thereof – would
Jesus reject as an example of leading his children to sin?
Should conservatives in the PC(USA) take their cue from these words of
Bonhoeffer? One can hardly accuse Bonhoeffer of being a divisive separatist.
But of course, we say that from our safe, comfortable vantage point, not from
a spiritual war zone where the answer was not so clear, and where a majority
(because they themselves were in error) did see Bonhoeffer as a divisive
Sexual revisionism is not violent like Nazism and apartheid, but it is arguably
destructive to body, spirit and community. The PC(USA) paper “Keeping
Body and Soul Together” was right in its premise that what we do with our
sexuality is inextricably entwined with the whole of our moral being. This is
no trivial issue. The disagreement is over which lifestyle is healthy, and which
lifestyle leads to moral and spiritual shipwreck.
If the rejection of the Bible’s sexual ethic rises to the same level of false
teaching as Nazism and apartheid, then it is hard to avoid Bonhoeffer’s
conclusion that followers of Christ must not obey or coexist with that false
As I consider Bonhoeffer’s words, I can only find one escape option. It
requires us to get rid of Bonhoeffer’s outdated concept of the Church, which
is the old Scots’ Confession concept of the visible Church where connection
and accountability still matter. We have to replace it with the disconnected
Church of the second and third centuries A.D., where Orthodox and Gnostic
congregations and bishops operated side by side, moving back and forth, with
no geographic boundaries, with no Rome or Louisville to referee, and where
neither party has the power to make the other party behave. Only with this
disconnected model of the church can we get past Bonhoeffer’s hangup about
coexistence with false teaching.
What would Bonhoeffer do? And what should we do?
TOM HOBSON of Belleville, Ill., a PC(USA) pastor for 28 years, is currently
serving at First Church in Herrin, Ill., and as adjunct professor at Morthland
College, West Frankfort, Ill.