Vocation vs. Idolatry

Vocation vs. Idolatry February 10, 2023

Jordan Ballor, a scholar whom I respect, has an article in World Magazine entitled Bonhoeffer’s courage, 90 years later, with the deck “The young Lutheran’s stand against Nazi idolatry and an oncoming catastrophe.”  It resonates with a book I am reviewing on the German resistance to Hitler.

Ballor tells of a radio address Bonhoeffer delivered on February 1, 1933, just two days after Hitler was made chancellor.  The broadcast was cut short by technical difficulties, probably due to the radio station’s fear of the new government, but Bonhoeffer gave his remarks later as a lecture.  He is warning his audience about the dangers of confusing their leaders with God.  He does so by applying the doctrine of vocation.

Here is Ballor’s summary of what Bonhoeffer said:

Leadership and authority, argued Bonhoeffer, are important and legitimate callings. Far from being an idealistic pacifist or fanatic anarchist, Bonhoeffer’s Lutheranism formed his understanding of the legitimate role of political authority. And in extreme cases, such as that faced by Germany in 1933, it is understandable how a powerful personality might exercise influence over a nation’s citizens. But, warned Bonhoeffer, “the leader must radically reject the temptation to become an idol, that is, the ultimate authority of the led.” This was, in fact, the critical feature of Hitler’s leadership: his personality shaped politics, and his will became the law.

The consequences of such an inversion of the office of leadership were catastrophic. Individual people, created in the image of God, must stand before God in their callings. They could not place anyone else in the ultimate seat of judgment and authority. “Only before God,” said Bonhoeffer with characteristic Lutheran emphasis, “does the human being become what he is, an individual, free, and at the same time bound in responsibility.” To allow anyone else to come between the individual and God was to commit idolatry. To do this was essentially to replace God with another creaturely authority. . . .

“Leader and office that turn themselves into gods mock God and the solitary individual before him who is becoming the individual, and must collapse,” concluded Bonhoeffer. “Only the leader who is in the service of the penultimate and ultimate authority merits loyalty.” Without naming Hitler directly, Bonhoeffer challenged the pledge of ultimate and personal allegiance that the Nazi leader demanded. And he rightly predicted the disaster that awaited, albeit only after much suffering and loss.

What he says about vocation of the leader, the leader’s temptation to become “the ultimate authority of the led”–that is, an idol–and the temptation of the led to treat the leader in this way has applications beyond political rulers.  It can apply to leaders in the church, in the family, and in the workplace.

This echoes what Jesus Himself says, how leadership should not be about “lording it over” the led, but, as with other vocations, loving and serving them.  Which is how Christ Himself, the ultimate leader, carries out His authority:

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  Mark 10:42-45

What Bonhoeffer said 90 years ago also applies to another of our concerns today:  identity.   “Only before God does the human being become what he is.”


Photo:  Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Wissen911 – Bettina Rott: Wilhelm Rott, 1908–1967: Lebenszeugnis, Pro Business Verlag, 2008, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52692413

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