Should Christians Serve in Government?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Cost of Discipleship" by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Should Christians serve in government? What is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s view?

According to Bonhoeffer, Christians should not hold a position with the government. He gives three reasons for this in his book The Cost of Discipleship. Some Christians (and perhaps even the Bible) do not support his position, and it seems that Bonhoeffer himself might have changed some of his views over time.

Keep reading to learn more about Bonhoeffer’s perspective on Christians in government.

Christians in Government

In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer asserts that discipleship will cost you your civil rights and any political power or governmental office that you hold. Obeying Christ takes precedence over your job, family, and country. While Bonhoeffer generally advises you to keep your job and continue to support your family when you become a disciple, he says you must withdraw from any position you hold with your government. He gives three reasons why Christians in government should withdraw:

1. You cannot serve your country in a law-enforcement or military role, because soldiers and police must employ violent force in the line of duty, while you, as a disciple, are obliged to love your enemies and renounce all violence against them. Even government officials who don’t personally engage in fighting are involved to some extent in directing law enforcement and military actions, so you cannot hold a government office as a disciple of Christ.

(Shortform note: Interestingly, Bonhoeffer himself served in Abwehr, the German military intelligence service, beginning about two years after The Cost of Discipleship was published. Thus, it seems probable that he reconsidered this idea and assumed a less restrictive opinion shortly after publishing it. This would not be surprising, considering that, as we’ll see below, the Bible arguably refutes some of his reasoning.)

2. As a disciple, you profess to trust in Christ alone for protection and providence. As such, you waive all your civil rights when you become a disciple, because you don’t need the government’s protection.

(Shortform note: Despite Bonhoeffer’s claim, the idea that Christ expects his followers to renounce their civil rights is not entirely supported by scripture. For example, Acts 25:11 recounts how Paul exercised his right to appeal to Caesar as a Roman citizen. This arguably provides a counterexample that refutes Bonhoeffer’s claim.)

3. According to Bonhoeffer, there is a historical precedent for not working for a government as a follower of Christ: In the early church, soldiers, policemen, and judges were not permitted to be baptized unless they renounced their respective positions. He insinuates that this prohibition was lifted when church leaders became less devout and allowed the church to become more secularized.

(Shortform note: Although Bonhoeffer points to early Church laws that support his theory, he ignores some Biblical passages that counter it, which itself runs counter to his claim that his theories are supported by scripture. Acts 10 records the conversion and baptism of Cornelius, a centurion (captain) in the Roman military. If resignation from the military was a significant step toward discipleship, or a prerequisite for baptism, we would expect the Bible to mention it. Yet, on the contrary, the Bible says nothing about Cornelius resigning from the military, either before or after his baptism. This arguably provides a counterexample to refute Bonhoeffer’s position.)

Contrasting Views on Christians in Government

Bonhoeffer’s assertion that, as a disciple of Christ, you may not hold any position in secular government stands out as one of his more unique teachings. Throughout history, most Christians (and non-Christians, for that matter) have seen no inherent conflict between holding government office and being faithful to God. However, there are a few religious groups that have taken positions similar to Bonhoeffer’s.

The Amish abstain from serving in government, due to their belief in pacifism. This is directly in line with Bonhoeffer’s first reason for withdrawing from government (namely, that involvement in government requires at least indirect involvement in the use of force).

Members of the Jehovah’s Witness church also abstain from serving in government. They see themselves as representatives of God’s kingdom on the earth and believe that in order to be representatives of God’s kingdom, they must not be associated with any earthly “kingdom,” or secular government. Bonhoeffer would likely have agreed with this idea, since it builds on his second line of reasoning (namely, that the disciple should look to Christ instead of to the secular government for protection and providence), and he elsewhere describes the disciples as Christ’s representatives on earth.

The “Weakness” of the Gospel

In several places in The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer mentions in passing that the gospel of Christ is “weak” in the sense that it is not forceful: Christ did not force anyone to follow him, and Christians should not force anyone to convert to Christianity. Instead, we should invite people to follow Christ without coercing or compelling them, and leave them free to refuse if they so choose. According to Bonhoeffer, this spirit of “weakness” is what differentiates the gospel from “an ideology” whose proponents impose their views on others.

(Shortform note: Bonhoeffer never mentions the Nazi Party by name in The Cost of Discipleship, but given the political backdrop against which he was writing, it is probably safe to assume that Nazism was one “ideology” that he wanted to differentiate Christianity from. Nazism was an ideology that did not tolerate dissenters. And as a dissenter, Bonhoeffer doubtless understood first-hand not only the evil of Nazism itself, but the evil of coercing anyone to accept a system of beliefs against his or her will.)

Should Christians Serve in Government?

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  • Why Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed the church made discipleship too “easy”
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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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