AFL Blog Week 5 Part 1 – Bonhoeffer and “Religionless Christianity”

Monday’s reflection comes from some excerpts offered by the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer – one of most influential and meaningful protestant theologians of the 20th century.

If you don’t know Bonhoeffer, he was a German Lutheran minister who lived during WWII and was one of the strongest opponents of the Nazi party, and one of the strongest critics of the church in Germany during the holocaust. He had family in New York and could have fled to safety away from the war and away from the church he was disgusted with (this, by the way, was because of their inaction and in some cases compliance with the Nazis), but he decided some one needed to be a voice for Christ in the midst of the atrocity. Though heavily conflicted, he was actually part of an assassination plan and attempt on Hitler. He was arrested and put to death. But before he died he wrote some very prominent letters sharing thoughts and theology from prison. He also never stopped sharing OR living the Gospel with the people he was imprisoned with.

So the reflection today comes from some of the things he was criticizing about the church and about religion. Just keep in mind the context from which he was writing. Still, though, I think there are interesting things here that, though different, still apply to us here today in NZ.


Bonhoeffer (I’ll just affectionately call him Bonny from now), noticed that so much of the world around him had changed and said that we’re moving to a completely religionless time where people just simply can’t be religious anymore, and even the one’s who say they are religious either do not act like it, or they mean something entirely different.

Clearly he’s speaking about how the church (Christian leaders and members) were too afraid to do the Christian thing and stand against Hitler. Their religious views were being compromised by the evil power in front of them and they weren’t living what they were speaking. This is vastly different to us today, but still, I think there’s similarities. Bonny was right about one thing; we have moved into quite a religionless time, especially here in NZ. But I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.

When I first moved here I was astonished at how the denominations weren’t so obviously different. There weren’t strong alliances of Presbyterians who hated and had nothing to do with the Baptists or anything like that. But that’s where I came from. ALSO, in the highly religious (though, like Bonny saw, a high failure rate of people who actually lived like it) American South there’s a certain amount of religious baggage that comes with denominational heritage and loyalty, plus certain church’s theology prevents critiques and challenges, or even different interpretations of Scripture. With all of these things absent in NZ, due to the relgionless slide in recent generations, has left fertile soil to plant Gospel seeds at the start.

We’re ahead of some of the Western world in that we’re already asking the questions: “what kind of church emerges when the old way of church has failed?” ” How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well?” “Are there religionless Christians?” “If religion is only a garment of Christianity – and even the garment has looked very different at times – then what is a religionless Christianity?”

These are the questions that Bonny poses, and while we might not have used the same language in church circles here, these are the questions many churches in NZ are attempting to answer.


So what do you think?

What kind of church emerges when the old way of church has failed?

How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well?

Are there religionless Christians?

If religion is only a garment of Christianity – and even the garment has looked very different at times – then what is a religionless Christianity? 


Bonny wondered what things like “church,” “community,” “liturgy,” “sermons” and “a Christian life” looked like, or what it would mean in a religionless world. He wondered how we could speak of God without the preconceived notions and religious connotations attached.

One thing I’ve noticed in church circles, especially in youth ministries in NZ, is that we’re figuring out how to talk about these things without the preconceptions, or at least trying. And, in some ways, it’s easier and it’s working because there are generations of young people who never stepped foot in a church, have never seen a Bible, and have never heard of Jesus or any of the Biblical stories you and I probably grew up with.

However, we’re still bound to our “Christianese” – the language of church things that are still lost on people. So how do we explain why we do what we do, and does what we do have to be the way to do it?


Just to close this blog, Bonny wonders that if by removing religion from Christinaity if we’d actually be more Biblical (I think maybe so).  He argues that, as the church, if we stopped thinking in a way that we’re specially favoured, and more as something that belongs to the world then Christ would no longer be an object of religion, but that he’d truly be the Lord of the world!

He notes, too, that he would often find that his “Christian instinct” would draw him more to the relgionless people than it would to the religious, and not really in an evangelistic way, but he uses the word “brotherhood.”

I find this very interesting, especially considering the “brotherhood” Jesus formed. Were they highly religious? Didn’t he break down their preconceived notions of religion? Didn’t he offer them something quite different? Didn’t he send them to be a light in the world?



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