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Bonhoeffer: An Exemplar for Facing Challenges

Zhou Wang1 had faced routine beatings, physical and intellectual, at the hands of his research professors. Doctoral studies in America, albeit under a visiting Chinese mainland professor, likewise did not bring total relief from ridicule and torment. Instead, a miraculous encounter with the body of Christ brought Jesus into his life.

Dr. Zhou Wang wants to share this knowledge with his own students in China, where he is set to return. He has seen the glory of God in his own life; he will not be able to ignore God when teaching in China. He knows this will introduce him to dilemmas requiring courage. “Will I have the courage?” he wonders.

Ethical challenges appear routinely in human life regardless of nationality, religion, or race. How—and where—can we find the courage to stand in difficult times?

Untold thousands of Chinese Christians currently studying outside of China in dozens of nations face similar questions. Many ask for prayer for their decisions and actions surrounding the questions “Shall I return to China?” and “When I return to China, what shall I do to live out my faith?”

Studying the lives of believers who lived out their faith in practical ways is an excellent pathway to an ethics education. The life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is such a life. Nevertheless, this essay is not proposing that Bonhoeffer’s life is an example for all Christians. His actions were controversial; he knew that what he did could not be replicated by all others. Bonhoeffer would be quick to say that what the Lord is asking of you is the most important part of understanding the truth of your situation.

Born in 1906, Dietrich Bonhoeffer grew up in a wealthy and privileged family. Yet he grew interested in theology, earning a PhD when he was 21! His dissertation was on Christ as truly present only in community. The community must come together in unity for the body of Christ to be manifest. But this idea ran in direct opposition to strong political and nationalist ideas at the time, which demanded economic answers to the uncertainty which gripped Germany in the years following the Great War.

In September 1930, as Hitler began his meteoric rise, Bonhoeffer traveled abroad, sailing for New York City on a teaching fellowship at Union Theological Seminary. Participating in the vibrant and spiritually deep life of the black church at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, Bonhoeffer came to see with his own eyes and heart something he’d never experienced. He came to understand how a community can live out their faith through political and social engagement.

Many lessons in social ethics and expressions of Christian faith challenged Bonhoeffer while he watched with despair the news of suffering in his native land. He saw difficulty in his home country and was asked by his colleagues to come help them. He decided to leave America and returned home in the summer of 1931 to teach theology in Berlin.

Less than two years after Bonhoeffer’s return to Germany, in January 1933, Hitler became chancellor.  Two days later, Bonhoeffer spoke over public radio against the national fervor surrounding him:

Should the leader allow himself to succumb to the visions of those he leads? … The leader will become…the misleader. This is the leader who makes an idol of himself, and his office, and thus mocks God.2

Before Bonhoeffer could finish this talk, the broadcast was cut off.

Continuing to teach theology in Berlin with mounting pressures and atrocities, Bonhoeffer struggled with the question, “what does a pacifist Christian do in the face of great evil?” Ultimately, guided by prayer and counsel, he joined the German resistance and faced deep ethical dilemmas about what to do. He approached the practicality of answering these dilemmas using exemplar virtue ethics as he looked to Christ the Son of God for his own validation and inspiration.

As the war neared its end, when the Allies were bearing down on Berlin, the Nazis decided to end Bonhoeffer’s life. In his final moments before being hung, Bonhoeffer spoke words of encouragement to the small group of Christians who were with him in captivity at the time.

Our fragile words and emotions simply cannot capture the gravity of what has already happened and what we are yet to face. We have worked tirelessly confronting the masquerade of evil that has engulfed our world. … Now our hands are tied, and our destinies are fixed. Through the words of Isaiah, a word does come from beyond to remind us that God himself “was bruised for our iniquities and wounded for our transgressions.” 

Bishop George Bell, at the memorial ceremony soon after Bonhoeffer’s death, spoke these words:

As one of a noble company of martyrs of different traditions, he represents both the resistance of the believing soul in the name of God to the assault of evil, and also the moral and political revolt of the human conscience against injustice and cruelty.

Here are some lessons we can all learn from Bonhoeffer’s example as we face the new and different conditions of the 21st century.

  1. Seek community with the body of Christ. Be open to what his body is teaching you.
  2. Anticipate and promote unity in the body of Christ, learning what it means to “be all one in Christ Jesus.”
  3. Don’t worry about finding the “right” answer to a question which has no right answer except that which God has called you to learn. Your engagement with the ethical struggles in your life is the answer to those struggles.

Please join us in praying for Zhou Wang and all those in the body of Christ who face hard questions of what to do, that they may see Jesus, hear the great shepherd’s voice, and obey as the sheep of his pasture.


  1. Not his real name.
  2. Bonhoeffer, directed by Martin Doblmeier (2003; Bridgestone Multimedia Group, LLC), on YouTube and Amazon Prime. All quotations in this post are from the film.
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Image credit: Diogo Nunes @dialex via UnSplash.
Carson Tavenner

Carson Tavenner

Carson Tavenner is the China Director at the Association for Christian Conferences, Teaching, and Service (ACCTS). Carson and his wife, Wendy, minister to Chinese Christians in the mainland, Taiwan, and North America in the area of leadership skills and character development.  View Full Bio

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