Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Cult of Personality

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Cult of Personality March 20, 2014

What do you make of the following point about “brilliant personalities” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together? “The church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote these words in the section “The Ministry of Authority” in Life Together. Based on this brief section, I am not sure what Bonhoeffer would have made of personality tests. I certainly think they have a place in discerning who we are and how we operate. Moreover, God gave us personalities. We should celebrate who each person is in terms of the uniqueness of his or her personality and gifts. Still, no matter how striking one’s personality and gifting is, what really counts is brotherly and sisterly service. Bonhoeffer begins this section with these words:

“Whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister” (Mark 10:43). Jesus made authority in the fellowship dependent on brotherly service. Genuine spiritual authority is to be found only where the ministry of hearing, helping, bearing, and proclaiming is carried out. Every cult of personality that emphasizes the distinguished qualities, virtues, and talents of another person, even though these be of an altogether spiritual nature, is worldly and has no place in the Christian community; indeed, it poisons the Christianity community. The desire we so often hear expressed today for “episcopal figures,” “priestly men,” “authoritative personalities” springs frequently enough from a spiritually sick need for the admiration of men, for the establishment of visible human authority, because the genuine authority of service appears to be so unimpressive. There is nothing that so sharply contradicts such a desire as the New Testament itself in its description of a bishop (I Tim. 3:1 ff.). One finds there nothing whatsoever with respect to worldly charm and the brilliant attributes of a spiritual personality. The bishop is the simple, faithful man, sound in faith and life, who rightly discharges his duties to the Church. His authority lies in the exercise of his ministry. In the man himself there is nothing to admire (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together {New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1954}, pages 108-109).

I shared Bonhoeffer’s reflections in my ecclesiology class recently, as we were discussing the subject of church leadership. What do you and I cherish in a leader? What do we aspire to be as leaders? Do we want to stand out based on how striking our personalities are and how much charisma we have? Or do we want to stand out by standing far out of the way in service? One of my colleagues, Albert Baylis, has claimed that we all want to be called servants until someone treats us like one. Another colleague, Chris Laird, shared about how in one ministry context everyone was called servant leader this or servant leader that…. Finally, someone asked if there was simply the designation of servant. There wasn’t. We all struggle in this regard. After all, we live in an age when servanthood isn’t very sexy. But has it ever been? Certainly not in Jesus’ and Paul’s day given the crushing presence of Rome, nor in Bonhoeffer’s. In Bonhoeffer’s day, the movement known as the “German Christians” that caused such upheaval in the Protestant church in Germany was bound up with the power and charisma of the Führer.

How interesting it is that charisma in the biblical sense is not of human origin (as it is often conceived today), but divine origin (from the Spirit of God). Moreover, it is bound up with servanthood and suffering. In Matthew 12, we find these words:

Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope” (Matthew 12: 15-21, ESV).

Jesus had just finished healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. As soon as he had done so, the Pharisees went out to discern how they might destroy him. Some may claim that Jesus may have scored high as an introvert on a personality test based on how he would often withdraw as well as tell people not to make him known, just as he does in this account. I don’t know how high Jesus would have scored as an introvert or extravert on a personality test. But I do know that he scored high on the charisma test of the Spirit: he suffered for serving others, even to the point of death, as the gospels portray; he was God’s lead servant who did not oppress the oppressed (bruised reeds and smoldering wicks, like those who came to him for healing and deliverance), but delivered them in view of that day when he will bring “justice to victory” “and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” How high do we score on this charisma test?

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