What is the church?

For my birthday this year, a friend and fellow pastor sent me the book, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” by Eric Metaxas. I am enjoying this new biography a lot because it has some new insights into the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the situation that was taking place during his lifetime.


For those who are unfamiliar with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he was born in Germany in 1906. His father was a leading psychiatrist in the world and a professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Berlin. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an outstanding student, and at the age of 25 became a lecturer in systematic theology at the same university that his father taught at.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Bonhoeffer became a leading spokesman for the Confessing Church, the center of Protestant resistance to the Nazis. He organized and for a time led the underground seminary of the Confessing Church. His book “Life Together” describes the life of the Christian community in that seminary, and his book “The Cost of Discipleship” attacks what he called “cheap grace,” meaning grace used as an excuse for moral laxity.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer had been taught not to “resist the powers that be,” but he came to believe that to do so was sometimes the right choice. In 1939 his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, introduced him to a group planning the overthrow of Hitler, and he made significant contributions to their work. (He was at this time an employee of the Abwer, which was the Military Intelligence Department.)

He was arrested in April 1943 and imprisoned in Berlin. After the failure of the attempt on Hitler’s life in April 1944, he was sent first to the Buchenwald and then to the Flossenburg concentration camps. On April 8, 1945, he had just finished conducting a service of worship at Flossenburg, when two soldiers came in, saying, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, make ready and come with us,” the standard summons to a condemned prisoner. As he left, he said to another prisoner, “This is the end — but for me, the beginning — of life.” He was hanged the next day, less than a week before the Allies reached the camp.

A question that Dietrich Bonhoeffer often asked himself was; “what is the church?” It was the question he would attack in his doctoral dissertation, “Sanctorum Communio,” and his post-doctoral work, “Act and Being.” In his doctoral dissertation, he would identify the church as neither a historical entity nor an institution, but as “Christ existing as church-community,” While that is an academic answer, he would continue to struggle with the practical aspect of what the church should look like during the Nazi régime in Germany.

What is the church and how it looks today are not questions unique to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s situation. I also struggle with these questions today. While there are many different ways to answer these questions, from the perspective of a Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, I would answer the church is the assembly of the saints who truly believe the gospel of Christ and have the Holy Spirit, where the Word is preached, and the Sacraments are properly administered.

While that is how I would answer what the church is, it does not answer the question of how the church looks. Maybe I personally struggle with the question of what the church looks like because there are many factors, which play into what the church looks like. Perhaps instead of me trying to quantify what the church looks like, I should just watch the Holy Spirit work through the assembly of saints. In taking this approach, the church does not have to be confined to a certain building’s walls but instead is present where God’s people are and where they serve one another.

• Steckel is the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church.


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