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On The Square

What Is The Church's Responsibility To The State?
Eric Metaxas is the New York Times best-selling author of Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery. His work has been published in The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, Regeneration Quarterly, Christianity Today, National Review Online, Beliefnet, and First Things. He’s also been featured on CNN, The Fox News Channel, and National Public Radio. He lives with his family in Manhattan.

Last fall, Metaxas’ newest book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy, became a New York Times No. 1 bestseller. In the book, Metaxas explores what happened when the German theologian’s profound faith convictions ran up against a Nazi regime determined to co-opt, corrupt, and then neutralize the voice of the church in Germany.

Why is the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer of particular significance for Christians today?

There are a number of parallels that, in reading about him and about that time, you immediately recognize. It’s astounding. The fact, for instance, that people tend not to be prepared for what’s coming. If the church is really being the church, they will see what is going on in the culture around them. But if they are sort of playing at being the church – just going through the motions – they’ll be blindsided. That’s precisely what happened in Bonhoeffer’s generation. 

The Germans had gotten a few things slightly wrong, but it didn’t seem like a big deal until the  “perfect storm” of the Third Reich came and challenged them – and they weren’t prepared>. Many in the church didn’t see the problem. But Bonhoeffer did – he saw that for the church to be the church, the church cannot be dictated to by the state. His prophetic voice went unheeded in the ‘30s, but today his voice and what he had to say may be the thing that saves us. I hope it is. 
What would Bonhoeffer consider the correct relationship between the church and the state?

Bonhoeffer saw that the state was trying to encroach on the boundaries of the church. He was able to say, “Wait a second, we’ve got to assert ourselves. We’ve got to be the church.” 

"If you're fear-based, you're not worshiping Jesus."

Eric Metaxas
If the church is being the church, [it] will naturally be sensitive to those encroachments and will understand that we have to be bold to exist. But it’s very easy for the church not to be the church … or to be the church in name only. [Because], by being the church, you automatically bump up against the world and the state – and you have to push back. To know how to push back, as a Christian … it’s a complicated thing. 

When, for Bonhoeffer, does ‘a government to be wary of’ become ‘a government to oppose’?

img-EricMetaxas [Bonhoeffer] says that the church has three functions. First, to challenge the government to be the government. In other words, to fulfill God’s idea of  “What is the state?” Second, when the state is going wrong, abusing its power, [the church must] stand against it … in a helpful way. We must exhibit tough love. “We are here to help you be a good state. But when it goes wrong, we are going to point that out.”  

Third, if the state is not behaving appropriately – if it is oppressing a certain group, for instance – then, the church must stand up and say, “We’re going to help those victims.” Even if  “those victims” are not Christians or members of the church, it is our job to help them. Bonhoeffer says that’s what agape love is: to love those who are unlovable … who are different. To stand up for them. 

Then, finally, Bonhoeffer said if the state is victimizing people [like the Jews of his era], it’s not good enough for us to just bandage up the wounds of the victims. The church must actually try to stop the state from perpetrating whatever evil it is perpetrating. Bonhoeffer felt that to be a Christian during the Third Reich, in the end, was to directly oppose the state – not to oppose the nation of Germany but this false state, this tyranny, which really was anti-Germany. That’s a very dramatic difference from where we are in a culture today. But it’s instructive.   

Today, many pastors insist politics has no place in the pulpit. What would Bonhoeffer say?  

There’s no question that there is a temptation to make an idol of politics. At the same time, there’s a temptation on the opposite side to make an idol of a kind of personal piety that does not engage with the world. Both are counterfeits for God. 

“By being the church, you automatically bump up against the world and the state – and you have to push back.”

Eric Metaxas
To avoid politics entirely is to say to the unborn, to the slave, to anybody who is a victim,  “You know what? We really don’t care about you that much. We care about our own personal piety, and God is in charge of you.” As if God is requiring nothing of me.

The Christian faith is an active faith. It’s completely different from this sort of  “playing defense,” religiosity kind of thing. If you’re fear-based, you’re not worshiping Jesus. We need the church of Jesus to be the church of Jesus, Bonhoeffer said. If the church will be the church, the gates of hell will not prevail against it. But if we’re just playing at religion … then we fail.

*Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the Christian classic, The Cost Of Discipleship. In 1945, he was executed in a German prison camp for his opposition to the Third Reich.

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