Why This Quote? Why This Man?

8 February, 2008

My wife and I enjoy reading sayings posted outside churches.  Some of these signs are innocuous:  what my wife refers to as calendar sayings.  Others present more of an intellectual challenge — sometimes how, exactly, the saying should be interpreted.  Sometimes the queston is, why did they pick that quote?

Today’s quote was an intriguing one:

“One act of obedience is better than one hundred sermons.”  Dietrich Boenhoeffer

My wife and I both had the same reactions:

1.  That is an odd quote

2.  That name is familiar.

When we got home, I asked my son (17) if he was familiar with the name, and he had the same reaction:  familiar, but couldn’t place it.

So I did what any early 21st century American does:  I Googled it and then I Wiki’d it (Wikipedia has his last name spelled Bonhoeffer).  As soon as the sites started popping up, it hit me:  Ah, the minister involved in the July 20th plot (I majored in modern European history, with a military history emphasis – I’ve got a lot of useless junk stuffed in my brain).  Which then brought up the next question:  why would the church post a quote from a man who was executed by the NAZIs about the importance of obedience?  I was, to say the least, confused.

I found an essay over at the Holocaust Museum which told the story of Herr Boenhoeffer.  His resistance to the NAZIs is admirable,  but his motives are purely theistic.

His initial resistance to the new regime was based upon 

traditional Christian attitudes toward Judaism. Like most Christians of his generation, Bonhoeffer believed that God’s special destiny for the Jewish people included their eventual acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah.

 When the NAZIs decreed that becoming a Christian didn’t matter, a Jew was still a Jew.  He believed that the German government was interfering with Israel accepting Christ and thus bringing the Millenium.

Not all members of the German Evangelical Church agreed with his opposition to NAZI interference with the church.  His minority eventually created a new church:  the “Confessing Church.” 

After spending time in England and America, he returned to Germany because,

I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. . . I shall have no right to take part in the restoration of Christian life in Germany after the war unless I share the trials of this time with my people.

After his return to Germany, because of his opposition to the Nuremburg Laws, he was banned from preaching, teaching and writing.  He saved  14 Jews, helping them escape to Switzerland and was arrested. 

After the July 20th assassination plot, the Gestapo discovered just how deeply he was involved in the resistance and was executed at Flossenbürg Concentration Camp on April 9, 1945.  Bonhoeffer is commemorated as a theologian and martyr by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Church of England and the Church in Wales, according to Wikipedia.

Here is a man remembered for his resistance to Hitler’s totalitarianism.  Which makes the quote, “One act of obedience is better than one hundred sermons,” even more problematical.  Obedience to whom?  And why better than sermons?  This may help to clarify:

Bonhoeffer’s focus remained more theological and political. The church debates about the Aryan paragraph had convinced him that the old traditions were bankrupt. Instead, Bonhoeffer called for the practice of “religionless Christianity” in “a world come of age” — a world in which the old certainties and values had been replaced by cynicism and ideology. He tried to determine what kind of Christian faith was viable in this new world — not in order to “extricate himself heroically from the affair,” but to arrive at a new understanding of faith, to pass on to future generations. — From the Holocaust Museum essay.

He viewed modern Christianity as hopelessly corrupted by the close association with the state and thus bankrupt as a vehicle for salvation.  And obedience?

Only the one for whom the final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these, when in faith and sole allegiance to God he is called to obedient and responsible action: the responsible person, whose life will be nothing but an answer to God’s question and call.

So, in my reading, this quote claims that obedience to God, allegience to God, is paramount.  The corruption of the church because of the close association between church and state invalidates its usefulness. 

What an odd quote for an evangelical Methodist church to display.  The church is useless.  Avoid church and experience God on your own.

Does the pastor of this church actually research his quotes before putting them out for the world to read?



  1. Research? I’m sure he got the quote from some church source (book, magazine, person, etc) and obediently used it.

  2. Since Methodist ministers typically are required to acquire masters degrees (master of divinity, M.Div., master of theology, M.Th., etc.), this pastor probably had read Boenhoeffer’s writings and knew his story. Boenhoeffer’s quite a Christian hero.

    I don’t think the pastor (or Boenhoeffer) was trying to say “Church is useless, you’re better off finding God on your own.” I think, rather, that he was saying that lots of God-talk (sermons, testimonies…) is useless unless one’s life is seen as a model of godly obedience. People will be more convinced of one’s faithfulness if one “walks the walk” in addition to “talking the talk.”

    It is true that people generally respect Christians who live according to their beliefs more than they respect those who say they believe one thing, yet behave in contrary ways. What many Christians don’t realize is that a “godly” lifestyle is only a testament to the faith of the believer; it is not testimony to the truth of the beliefs held.

  3. Chappie: That does make more sense. I guess one of my problems in looking at theism is my lack of background AS a theist. Words such as ‘obedience’ (along with witness, testament, etc) tend to have one meaning in a theistic setting and another in the rest of the world. Thanks for the additional analysis.

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