Fully Human: Why Think Part III Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Moral Complexity

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the most famous pastors of the 20th century.  He was deeply committed to living a life that was pleasing to God as can be seen in one of his most famous quotes:  “only the believers obey and only the obedient believe”.  For him it was impossible to pull apart right living from faith; yet Bonhoeffer faced significant challenges that made living out his ideal extremely difficult.  He was born in Germany in 1906 and was just shy of his 27th birthday when Hitler came to power.  Bonhoeffer and like-minded believers quickly found themselves in the minority in their country when it came to how they responded to the rise of the Nazi party.  Most either welcomed or condoned the new regime; Bonhoeffer and others, however, quickly became known as the “believer’s church” a group which outwardly opposed Hitler.Image

As Bonheoffer’s life unfolded his radical commitment to Christ forced him to make many difficult ethical choices.  Here are a few of the more prominent ones:  he had to decide whether to remain in the United States in 1939 or to return back to Germany—the question came down to whether he valued his life more or the health of the German church.  He had to decide whether or not to participate in the customary Nazi salute.  Perhaps most famously, Bonhoeffer, a man who believed that following Christ meant living a life of non-violence, had to wrestle with whether or not he should become involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

Throughout all of these incredibly difficult circumstances, Bonhoeffer remained convinced of the need to discover the will of God and to act within that will.  Although our situation may never be as extraordinary as Bonhoeffer’s we can be sure that we will find ourselves faced with “moral dilemmas”.  We will face complexity.  We will face tension.  We will face times in which careful discernment will be required, when the answer to our problem is not as simple as “looking up the answer”.  For this reason we require a model for approaching ethical thinking that is, what my former professor John Stackhouse, would call “appropriately complex”.  This is a big part of the reason why it’s important to be careful thinkers.



  1. Ross Williamson · February 8, 2014

    Did Bonehoffer remain in the U.S., did he participate in the assination plot against Hitler?

    • travisbarbour · February 8, 2014

      Bonhoeffer ended up going back to Germany. He did eventually get involved in a failed assassination attempt on Hitler’s life–a decision that ended up costing Bonhoeffer his own life as he was executed in a prison just 2 weeks before it was liberated by the US. His story is incredibly powerful…

  2. barbara27learns · February 8, 2014

    At a time when I am dealing with a relatively new disability this reminds me that my life could be much, much worse. I truly believe that we should be careful thinkers! The problem is that when I think and I don’t have the answers in my brain having lost so much of it. Life can be so complex. Where then do I go look? I’m very thankful that I have an incredible minister and associate minister to go to for help finding the answers!


    • travisbarbour · February 9, 2014

      Thanks Barbara for sharing your thoughts here. I think your instincts are right here. Coming to myself or James is wise. Part of the purpose of the church is to have a community of people who can help us discern and think carefully.

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