Romans 1 and the Bonhoeffer Question

Author Tom Schaeffer explores the Bonhoeffer Question from Romans 1, asks, "Am I willing to be completely submissive to Jesus Christ and the gospel of God?"

I’m 60 years old and I have served in ordained ministry for 34 of those years. But God’s call on my life started years before Bishop Herluf Jensen ordained me. Indeed, when I announced I was pursuing ordination as a freshman in high school, my mother recalled the prophetic words of my preschool teacher: “He’s going to be a pastor someday.”

God has always haunted me. I am kindred of the psalmist who wrote:

7 Where can I go from your spirit? 

Or where can I flee from your presence? 

8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; 

if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 

9 If I take the wings of the morning 

and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 

10 even there your hand shall lead me, 

and your right hand shall hold me fast. 

(Psalm 139:7-10)

No matter what I did. No matter where I would go. God would not let me go. I was and am a slave to God. Paul voices these very words in Romans 1:1.  “Paul, a [slave] of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, … ” The New Revised Standard Version translates this as “servant” (with a footnote). The word “slave” grates our modern sensibilities and is an anamnesis of the sins of our not-too-distant past. But Paul uses the word doulos, and the word “servant” mutes the intensity of what I believe Paul wants to convey—that discipleship is the call to belong to Christ without reservation. The question that he wants his readers to ask is one I have frequently struggled to answer myself. “Am I willing to be completely submissive to Jesus Christ and the gospel of God?” 

I understand that a significant element of Paul’s statement is that he really had no choice in the matter. One doesn’t choose to be a slave. That is certainly reflected in my own story. Yet, even a slave can be rebellious. As a slave of Jesus Christ, I can deny and resist his authority over my life, or I can submit and follow. So, Paul wants us to ask, “What kind of slave will I be? What kind of disciple will I be?”

Living within the Roman Empire, this was a question one had to answer daily. The empire was, in some ways, tolerant. But this tolerance only existed for those who would submit to the will of the empire and, ultimately, the will of Caesar. For the Christian, this led to intolerable challenges to one’s faith. The Roman Empire believed it had a divine right to conquer the world. Moreover, it was the official stance of the empire that Caesar WAS divine. The word “gospel” was used in reference to the likes of Caesar Augustus who was represented as a savior figure. So, when Paul calls himself “a slave of Jesus Christ … set apart for the gospel of God,” the inferred question is, “How about you? To whom are you a slave? What gospel do you serve?” Am I willing to be completely submissive to Jesus Christ and the gospel of God?

Over the years, as I have wrestled with this challenge, I have come to refer to it as “the Bonhoeffer question.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, like Paul, found himself, along with the Christians of his nation, confronted with a force that would challenge his faith, his integrity, and his resolve. Bonhoeffer, of course, was a German Christian pastor living in Germany as Adolf Hitler ascended to power. Hitler had ascended to power by convincing others he would make Germany great again. The warning signs of what was to come were all there, evidenced by the fact that two days after Hitler was named chancellor, Bonhoeffer took to the airwaves giving an address in which he warned Germany against slipping into an idolatrous cult of its leader.

We know what followed. Hitler declared that it was “Providence” for him to establish the Third Reich and the rise of the Aryan “master race.” He saw himself as a modern-day Caesar and the savior who would win retribution for the German people by establishing their dominance over the rest of the world and subverting or eliminating all those seen as enemies. He then used his power to perpetrate hate, start a world war, and implement “the final solution” known as the Holocaust, one of, if not the greatest of human atrocities in all of history. Yet, only 20% of the churches in Germany actively opposed Hitler and his reign of terror. Bonhoeffer was at the forefront of those who took a stand in the name of Christ. It cost him his life. Bonhoeffer gave the ultimate answer to the question, “Am I willing to be completely submissive to Jesus Christ and the gospel of God?” 

That’s why I call it the “Bonhoeffer Question.” Most Americans have never had to seriously contemplate our answer to that question and I have frequently asked myself, “If faced with such a dilemma, what would I do?” It has always been hypothetical. But, lately I have found myself more seriously considering my response. Extremist and racist groups, such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, are being normalized by some and given voice in our government. A former president and current presidential candidate declares, “I am your justice … I am your retribution”—words reserved for God alone. To me, there is no greater sign of the deep wounds and sins of this country. Make no mistake. We are no Christian nation. But we must ask ourselves, “How are we, as Christians, to live in this nation?” How will we answer the challenge that now faces us? To whom are we a slave? What gospel do we serve? How will we answer the “Bonhoeffer Question?” Am I willing to be completely submissive to Jesus Christ and the gospel of God?

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