Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Wolfhart Pannenberg on Schism

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Of course, the courage of Bonhoeffer to defy the compromising state church of Germany in the early days of Nazism is inspiring. A church that did not stand with the Jews,  he said, was not the church of Jesus Christ. So at great risk he came out.

Wolfhart Pannenberg, 84, is the retired professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Munich where he served since 1968. He was very much the rage when I was in seminary, and I was honored to sit in some of his lectures while I was a student in Munich.

The connection I am drawing between Bonhoeffer and Pannenberg is their strong statements about what constitutes the un-churching of a church. For Bonhoeffer it was the failure to stand with the Jews. The “Aryan Paragraph” was a Nazi demand that all Jewish officers and eventually members be excluded from the German church. For Bonhoeffer, that un-churched the church.

For Pannenberg the line is crossed when a church approves of homosexual relations.

Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. ("Should We Support Gay Marriage? No")

While Bonhoeffer drew the line at the church-rejection of Jewish ethnicity, and Pannenberg drew the line at the church-affirmation of homosexual behavior, the principle was the same: both the rejection of Jewish ethnicity in the church and the affirmation of homosexual behavior in the church stand in opposition to the cross of Christ.

Christ died to include Jew and Gentile in one body. “He has made us both one . . . that he might . . . reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross” (Ephesians 2:14–16). Therefore to exclude Jews is to oppose Christ and his cross.

And Christ died to bring repentant sinners into the kingdom of God. But homosexual behavior excludes people from the kingdom. “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9–10). To affirm a way of life that excludes people from the kingdom of God, is to stand opposed to the cross of Christ which aims to save people for the kingdom of God.

Should one stay in such “churches” to work against their delusions? Bonhoeffer gave his answer: “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.”