Bonhoeffer and the Divine Mandates

For those who read the previous post, which was my final paper for Christian Ethics class, thank you.  I got it back yesterday, and I’m quite pleased with the result.  By the grace of God, I believe a “Booyah!” is in order.

For our last class, we discussed Bonhoeffer’s final manuscript – that is, it was on his desk when he was arrested by the Nazis, and was thus quite incomplete.  It’s a sad thing, to read an incomplete work and know that it was kept from completion by imprisonment and death.  That being said, its content is just as fascinating as his other manuscripts.  It was said that this is perhaps his most Lutheran manuscript; apparently Barth once wondered if there was a hint of German patriarchy present within it.  Perhaps that would have come out more if he had been able to progress further in the manuscript.

There are Divine Mandates in this world, through which God’s Commandment (as revealed in Jesus Christ) is expressed.  The commandment is: to live as a human being before God.  I guess this is Bonhoeffer’s sum of the Gospel.  The mandates are: marriage and the family; government; Church; and work.  Sometimes Culture is added to this list, sometimes it replaces work and sometimes both are present, all depending on the paper in which he discusses these mandates (as this is certainly not the only place it comes up in Bonhoeffer’s works).  My understanding of the mandates is that they are divinely authorized institutions, the sum of which make up all of life – and therefore, that they are the setting for and the mediation of God’s Commandment as revealed in Jesus Christ, namely to live as a human being before God.

We must recognize that government is a divine institution: government is instituted by God.  He appoints and authorizes it, as an institution.  This does not mean that he approves of governments that are in rebellion against him; God did not appoint Hitler to be Chancellor of Germany, nor did he approve of the genocide that occurred under the Nazi party.  In fact, Bonhoeffer uses the Nazi party as a prime example of a government that has rebelled against God and appointed itself as primary among the mandates or orders, and thus has deified itself.

These mandates exist in tension and union with one another, each with specific roles and all under the authority of God and carrying and communicating that authority in their own ways.  They all carry an authority that is divinely instituted; that is, there is an “above and below” that is inherent to them.  The mandate of government carries an authority over the citizens, as the government is above the citizens; the citizens, on the other hand, hold the key to the “above” of the government, as they allow that authority by the very act of being “below”.  When the people are no longer content with their position of being “below”, the “above” of the government also disappears, and we’re left with chaos and anarchy – at least temporarily.  God does not desire anarchy, but order; thus, the government must take seriously its “above”, and we citizens must take seriously our “below”, or it ceases to function as a divine mandate.  The Church employs a similar above and below, namely that the pastor is above and the congregation is below.  The pastor has been charged by God with the preaching of the Word, and the  congregation is not to usurp that position or undercut it, lest the Church cease to function as a divine mandate.  All of the mandates carry some type of authority or hierarchy.

These mandates all serve to simultaneously support and limit one another.  You work to support your family, but your work limits your family time – and at the same time, your time at work is limited by your role in your family, as you must leave work in order to spend time with your family.  The government creates an environment in which you are able to work and spend time with your family, but also serves to limit the ways you can work and interact with your family – and your values of work and family serve to limit your support of the government as they affect the way you vote (though Bonhoeffer wasn’t influenced as much by democracy as we are, and these mandates obviously existed long before democracy).  The Church is called to proclaim Christ to all of the other mandates: to call on the government to govern justly; to proclaim a culture that exalts Christ; to proclaim God’s providence and thus limit the demands of work; to proclaim a greater vision of family as the family of God.  That doesn’t mean that the Church is above these other mandates, but only that it has a distinct role to play.  In the same way, the government need not be a “Christian” government, but only that it functions in line with the divine mandate that it is and in support of and tension with the other mandates.

Nazi Germany sought to bring all of the other mandates in line under the mandate of government, and thus the government stopped functioning as a divine mandate.  It ceased to be government as God instituted government, because it deified itself and set itself above everything else that God had ordained.  At the same time, much of the Church in Nazi Germany also ceased to function as it was mandated to do, instead going along with the corrupted government rather than calling on it to govern justly.  When the family became a part of the government, with people informing against their relatives and acknowledging the government as the greater family (rather than the greater family of God), it ceased to be family as God intended.  When culture was limited by the government, it ceased to be culture.  Nazi Germany is an example of a complete disintegration  into total rebellion against God and his created order.  Nothing was as it should have been.

That’s not at all to say that only Nazis have messed it up.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that our own society lacks balance between mandates.  The purposes of culture and government are being made to overlap in many ways, work increasingly edges out family and overpowers government (corporations, anyone?), and in many ways the Church has stopped functioning as mandated altogether as it is merged with culture and becomes just another worldview.  The inherent authority structure within the mandates is challenged or even reversed in many cases: governments cater to people and businesses rather than making real or just decisions; children order parents around, and are placated by subservient parents with food and toys; unions go beyond arguing for the rights of workers and hold employers hostage with extended strikes; corporations fund lobbies that serve to subvert justice in the government…we could go on.

The point is, we must recognize that all of these things are mandated by God, and as such are good when they do what they’re supposed to do – and we must also recognize that all of these things get their authority from God.  When they cease to function in accordance with their mandate, they become those “powers and principalities” that we, the Church, fight against.  It is our mandated purpose to judge – by our actions, mind you, not our snobby words and attitudes – the other mandates, and bring them in accordance with their God-given purose: namely, to allow people to live as human beings before God.  So practice justice, so that the injustice of the government will be exposed.  Practice generosity, so the greed associated with work will be exposed and kept in check.  Practice love, to show the world what family can really be.  Be expressive and socially active, and add something beautiful to your culture.  Live your life, as a human being before God; it covers all of the above.


5 thoughts on “Bonhoeffer and the Divine Mandates

    • Thanks Paul! I’m always a little nervous when I try to explain Bonhoeffer – he can be difficult to understand at times, and his message is so powerful when understood that I’m afraid of messing it up. Thanks for reassuring me!

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