Thinking More About Bonhoeffer

I’m up to my ears in a new book that I’m writing for Zondervan. It’s going to be called Shrink & I’m trying to make the case for faithfulness and virtue (over and against success & results), as the central leadership pursuits of those involved in ministry of any kind.

As part of my writing I’m using some of Bonhoeffer’s work. One of the things he was sold on was the idea that we should not be in pursuit of principles that will apply in any situation. What matters in every situation is always, “What is the will of God?” What we want as Christian is to have this bag of doctrines and principles that we can follow, that we can apply to any given situation. What we have is a sovereign Lord who is free from any attachment of subjectivity to principles. God is free to act how God wishes. Our job is not to distill the story of God into doctrines, theologies, and principles that we follow. Our job is to follow the will of God.

The will of God should have absolute power over our lives. Perhaps more than any other nemesis, the will of God is often thwarted by an arch-rival named success. This rival is kicking the will of God’s can all over the playground in our contemporary American culture. As I am trying to fight against this I am always amazed at how passionately many Christians will fight against you when you try to take away the idol of success.

There’s the famous story about Bonhoeffer and Bethge who were visiting one of the Confessing Church pastors in Prussia while Hitler’s Blitzkrieg was pulverizing Europe. While they were there news came that France had surrendered to Germany. The whole place erupted in song, giving the Nazi salute. To Bethge’s surprise Bonhoeffer joined in. “Are you crazy,” he whispered to Bethge, “Raise your arm! We’ll have to run risks for many different things, but this silly salute is not one of them!”

It was during that same time period that Bonhoeffer wrote his book Ethics, perhaps his finest work. At one point he is ruminating on the nature of success, and the power that it has over us. Success is the ultimate end for most people – the highest good. Success hold mesmerizing power over our culture, as it did for Germans who could look the other way concerning Hitler’s craziness because he handed them the success they wanted. We will trade our integrity for success, our family, our health. We will trade almost anything for success. Bonhoeffer warns against this. He wrote this in Ethics:

“In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things the figure of Him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger and is at best the object of pity. The world will allow itself to be subdued only by success. It is not ideas or opinions which decide, but deeds. Success alone justifies wrongs done… With a frankness and off-handedness which no other earthly power could permit itself, history appeals in its own cause to the dictum that the end justifies the means… The figure of the Crucified invalidates all thought which takes success for its standard.”

God save us from the successful church, and the successful pastor. God give us virtuous leaders, faithful leaders, who pursue the will of God above all else.

About Tim Suttle

Tim Suttle is a pastor, writer, and musician. He is the author of several books: Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture (Zondervan 2014), Public Jesus (The House Studio, 2012), and An Evangelical Social Gospel? (Cascade Books, 2011). Tim's work has been featured at The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Sojourners, and other magazines and journals. Tim is also the founder and front-man of the popular Christian band Satellite Soul, with whom he toured for nearly a decade. He has planted three successful churches over the past 13 years and is the Senior Pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan. Tim's blog, Paperback Theology, is hosted at Patheos.

  • http://www.facebook.com/susanne.johnson.35 Susanne Johnson

    I would encourage us to complexify and problematize the temptation to pit “faithfulness and virtue” over against “success and results.” There’s an old mantra: “faithfulness counts more than effectiveness.” But this puts a false and misleading wedge between the two. When it comes to matters of life and death, “effectiveness” in eradicating death-dealing, unjust realities absolutely matters. In terms of the United Methodist denominational mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” faithfulness and effectiveness alike matter. We cannot transform a situation without aiming for “effectiveness” as well as faithfulness.

    I can think of all kinds of situations where “effectiveness” and “results” deeply matter—and where they should be considered as dimensions of “faithfulness” to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not antithetical to it. Take, for example, the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, which focus on results-driven, effectiveness-driven, success-driven goals of reducing child mortality rates; eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; improving maternal health; achieving universal primary education. Aiming for success in achieving these goals isn’t antithetical to Christian virtue and to faithfulness and loyalty to Jesus Christ and to the Reign of God. The very practice of trying to be successful in eradicating unnecessary deaths due to injustice instills virtues in us in the first place!

    Whenever I see a false wedge being put between faithfulness and effectiveness, I’ve noticed that the person doing it is usually white-privileged, class-privileged, and male-privileged, for whom the world is arranged for their advantage and convenience, and who don’t have to worry as much about outcomes of so-called faithful action. I don’t see people who lack healthcare setting up such a false wedge; I don’t see black men who are incarcerated in prison at rates disproportional to white men (for the same crimes!) setting up such a false wedge. I don’t see mothers in sub-Saharan Africa whose babies die in their arms from lack of food and potable water setting up such a false wedge. Here’s where personal autobiography and social location factor into the way we do theology and ethics.

    Bonhoeffer was deeply concerned with concrete historical praxis that brings about justice in the world. He believed we Christians can engage in actions calculated to “score a direct hit on evil” (i.e. achieve certain results). In his monumental Ethics, Bonhoeffer says that “Our responsibility is …concerned not only with the good will but also with the good outcome of the action, not only with the motive but also with the object….” In short, the desire to bring about particular kinds of results and particular kinds of success is not antithetical to faithfulness to Jesus Christ, and to his ministry and message.

    • Tim Suttle

      Hey Susanne, Thanks for the comments. Keep pushing me – I’m trying to think this through and make this book the best I can do.

      I’m curious to see what you think the difference is between faithfulness and effectiveness. You call it a false wedge, but how would you distinguish between them? Are they the same thing in your view? I see them as different, but not incompatible.

      I hear your caution about white males, but I can’t change my race or sex (I guess I could change my sex but I’m cool where I am :-) . All I can do is live in solidarity and friendship with the marginalized (in my community it is w/the homeless and the immigrant). As I take on some of their vulnerabilities am I not one with them at least in some ways? (I’m think of the many privileges Bonhoeffer’s family status gave to him, even in Tegel).

      I don’t think I am arguing that we don’t care what happens in the world, but rather that our estimation of our impact on what happens in the world is often over inflated. It’s not that we try to be ineffective; it’s that we have limits. We cannot always be successful, but we can always be faithful. We want to be effective and we care about good outcomes, but sometimes God will not choose to bless our best work. So have we failed because we were not a success? I say: not if we were faithful.

      Conversely, I think it’s possible to be extremely successful and not necessarily faithful. I’m thinking of Constantinian Christianity. I’m w/Hauerwas & Yoder there.

      I love that quote from ethics. Do you have a citation for it? I’d like to go read that section. Thanks for the comment & keep pushing me. I’m used to having to defend my argument from the church growth point of view. I like what your comments are doing to me. thx. ts

    • http://www.yeshua21.com/ Yeshua21.Com

      “I would encourage us to complexify and problematize..”

      This sounds plausible enough– and very sophisticated –in accademia, but I suspect it is just another manifestation of our decadence. Can you imagine Jesus saying that?

      Athentic, compassionate, and intelligent action arises spontaneously in and from aware presence. There’s a wonderful video by Eckhart Tolle called “To Think or not to Think?” (on Vimeo). Here’s a 2 minute excerpt from YouTube:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=eJrveFV0MmY

  • Tim Suttle

    Hey Susanne, Thanks for the comments. Keep pushing me – I’m trying to think this through and make this book the best I can do.

    I’m curious to see what you think the difference is between faithfulness and effectiveness. You call it a false wedge, but how would you distinguish between them? Are they the same thing in your view? I see them as different, but not incompatible.

    I hear your caution about white males, but I can’t change my race or sex (I guess I could change my sex but I’m cool where I am . All I can do is live in solidarity and friendship with the marginalized (in my community it is w/the homeless and the immigrant). As I take on some of their vulnerabilities am I not one with them at least in some ways? (I’m think of the many privileges Bonhoeffer’s family status gave to him, even in Tegel).

    I don’t think I am arguing that we don’t care what happens in the world, but rather that our estimation of our impact on what happens in the world is often over inflated. It’s not that we try to be ineffective; it’s that we have limits. We cannot always be successful, but we can always be faithful. We want to be effective and we care about good outcomes, but sometimes God will not choose to bless our best work. So have we failed because we were not a success? I say: not if we were faithful.

    Conversely, I think it’s possible to be extremely successful and not necessarily faithful. I’m thinking of Constantinian Christianity. I’m w/Hauerwas & Yoder there.

    I love that quote from ethics. Do you have a citation for it? I’d like to go read that section. Thanks for the comment & keep pushing me. I’m used to having to defend my argument from the church growth point of view. I like what your comments are doing to me. thx. ts

  • http://twitter.com/Tim_Suttle Tim Suttle

    Hey Susanne, Thanks for the comments. Keep pushing me – I’m trying to think this through and make this book the best I can do.

    I’m curious to see what you think the difference is between faithfulness and effectiveness. You call it a false wedge, but how would you distinguish between them? Are they the same thing in your view? I see them as different, but not incompatible.

    I hear your caution about white males, but I can’t change my race or sex (I guess I could change my sex but I’m cool where I am . All I can do is live in solidarity and friendship with the marginalized (in my community it is w/the homeless and the immigrant). As I take on some of their vulnerabilities am I not one with them at least in some ways? (I’m think of the many privileges Bonhoeffer’s family status gave to him, even in Tegel).

    I don’t think I am arguing that we don’t care what happens in the world, but rather that our estimation of our impact on what happens in the world is often over inflated. It’s not that we try to be ineffective; it’s that we have limits. We cannot always be successful, but we can always be faithful. We want to be effective and we care about good outcomes, but sometimes God will not choose to bless our best work. So have we failed because we were not a success? I say: not if we were faithful.

    Conversely, I think it’s possible to be extremely successful and not necessarily faithful. I’m thinking of Constantinian Christianity. I’m w/Hauerwas & Yoder there.

    I love that quote from ethics. Do you have a citation for it? I’d like to go read that section. Thanks for the comment & keep pushing me. I’m used to having to defend my argument from the church growth point of view. I like what your comments are doing to me. thx. ts

  • http://www.facebook.com/susanne.johnson.35 Susanne Johnson

    Tim: I could respond to you on many different points—but, for now, only have time to address a couple of issues. Hopefully–after I finish grading papers!–I can return to the dialogue.

    It’s great that you’re in solidarity and friendship with the homeless. That’s one thing—but I’m talking about a different matter. I’m wondering to what extent theology which has been deconstructed and reconstructed from the standpoint of suffering on the underside of society is allowed to influence your reading and interpretation of scripture and your reading and interpretation of other texts, such as Bonhoeffer. Whose theological voices do you see as most authoritative? Whose voices get privileged, and whose voices are invisible, silent, absent? Do you read and grant authority to theology written by feminists, by blacks, by Latinos, by Asians, by postcolonial scholars, by persons like bell hooks whose theology is shaped by having grown up in poverty? What I’m suggesting is that in my perception you’re reading and interpreting Bonhoeffer through a theological lens that is narrowly class-privileged, male-privileged, and white-privileged (Hauerwas, Yoder), and therefore you end up highlighting certain parts of Bonhoeffer at the expense of other parts.

    I suppose the same thing could be said of me, except that it appears that I’m bringing more diverse theological voices to the table when I’m in conversation with Bonhoeffer than you are. Let’s take just one example of the difference this makes. Feminist theologians don’t agree with the traditional theological argument which says that our fundamental sin is “pride” and an over-inflated notion of how much impact we can have on the world. Too many women (and also, people of color who’ve traditionally been beaten down by society) have an under-inflated notion of themselves and of their own self-agency, and their potential for changing the world.

    Aside from that point, I would ask if you can show me places in scripture—especially from the writings of the prophets, and from Gospel accounts of the ministry and message of Jesus Christ—where there’s concern and theological hand-wringing that we’re attempting to do too much in the world in terms of trying to successfully reduce injustice. As I read scripture, there’s far, far more concern that we’re attempting to do too little!

    My perception is that you’re committing the Western fallacy of thinking in misleading binary opposites. Too much theology falsely pits human agency and Divine agency over against each other; our finite human efforts in the world over against God’s eschatological completion of such efforts; faithfulness over against effectiveness in terms of bringing about concrete actual changes in the systems of society.

    Moreover, I believe you misread Bonhoeffer when you claim that “We cannot always be successful, but we can always be faithful.” How are you so dead sure that “we can always be faithful?” Can you show me where Bonhoeffer claims that? To me, that sounds theologically arrogant. As I understand him, Bonhoeffer insists that–by dint of our finitude and fallibility as human beings–responsible
    action toward our neighbor cannot be undertaken on the basis of any claim to “an ultimate valid knowledge of good and evil.” I’d argue that if it’s true that eschatological outcomes are ultimately in God’s hands, then we’re truly set free to do everything we can in the meantime to restrain evil and reduce injustice—doing so in concrete, demonstrable ways that are just as much concerned with effectiveness as with faithfulness.

    To be “effective” means to engage in actions aimed to produce particular “effects” and outcomes, and then to critically evaluate the extent to which we were successful in actually bringing them about. Bonhoeffer encouraged us to resist talking in abstract vague universal ways about “faithfulness” and instead commit ourselves to specific, concrete actions designed to reconstruct the world, drawing insights from the various disciplines of human knowledge, as well as from theology, scripture, and ethics. In Ethics he writes: “What God wants for us “cannot be found and known in detachment from time and place; it can only be heard in a local and temporal context;” and if it is “not clear, definite and concrete to the last detail, then it is not God’s commandment.” In Letters and Papers from Prison he writes: “…some Christians think it impious for anyone to hope and prepare for a better earthly future…in resignation or pious escapism they surrender all responsibility for reconstruction and for future generations.” It bears repeating that Bonhoeffer insisted that we must be “concerned not only with the good will but also with the good outcome of the action,” and not only with our motive [to seek to faithfully do the “will of God”] but also with aims and objectives to actually and effectively change the situation of injustice at hand.

  • http://www.facebook.com/NamasteDave David Alexander

    Why does “success” and the “will of God” have to be at odds at all? Does God not will success in his creation? Is not the rose successful in being a rose? Are we less than the rose? Perhaps ( and I assume so ) you mean “success” as an function of ego – a drive to “Win at all costs” and defeat others along the way – if so, then yes I agree, this type of success is at odds with the will of God – and as such is not really success at all – but the illusion there of.

    True success is being in alignment with the will of God which is inclusive of everone’s ultimate success.

  • http://www.yeshua21.com/ Yeshua21.Com

    “The phrase ‘to accomplish’ signifies a relation between my action and something else that lies outside me. Now, it is easy to see that this relation does not lie in my power, and to that extent it is just as appropriate to say of the most talented person as of the humblest of men–that he accomplishes nothing. This implies no mistrust of life; on the contrary, it implies an acknowledgment of my own insignificance and a respect for the significance of every other person. The most talented person can complete his task, and so can the humblest of men. Neither of them can do more. Whether they accomplish something is not in their power; it is, however, indeed in their power to prevent themselves from doing so. So I surrender all that importance that often enough throws its weight around in life; I do my work and do not waste time calculating whether I am accomplishing anything. What I accomplish accompanies my work as my good fortune; I certainly dare to rejoice in it but do not dare attribute it entirely to myself” (Kierkegaard, “Either/Or”,II 295).

    http://jeshua21.wordpress.com/2012/12/01/worship-god-with-your-substance/

  • http://www.yeshua21.com/ Yeshua21.Com

    This just in from Richard Rohr:

    Incarnationalism [Meditation 31 of 49]

    ” ‘Pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father, is
    this: to come to the help of orphans and widows when they need it, and keeping
    free from the enticements of the system.’ — James 1:27 (The Letter of James
    is perhaps the most primitive and straightforward letter in the New Testament
    before Christianity had become theoretical and theological.)

    “Whenever the human and the divine coexist at the same time in
    the same person we have Christianity. I don’t know that it finally matters what
    Scriptures you read, liturgies you attend, or moral positions you hold about
    this or that—as much as “Do you live trustfully inside of God’s one world?” This
    creates honest people, people who don’t waste time proving they’re right,
    superior, or saved, but just try to live and love the daily mystery that they
    are in the loving presence of God. “God comes to you disguised as your life,” as
    Paula D’Arcy loves to say. Imagine that!

    “There are basically four world views: 1) Reality is just matter,
    2) Reality is just spirit, 3) Through religion and morality we can work to put
    matter and spirit together (the most common religious position), and 4) The
    material world has always been the place where Spirit is revealed. You cannot
    put them together. They already are—as in Jesus. Only the fourth position,
    “incarnationalism,” deserves to be called authentic Christianity. It has to do
    with the right reality, not the right rituals.”

    http://t.co/IfewoqymRj


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