Reading Bonhoeffer: A Missional Ecclesiology

I feel like my posts are getting shorter, and of lower quality, as the week goes on. For this I apologize!

As the last reading for tomorrow’s class was written by my professor and thesis advisor, and because it’s already late, I’ll be brief.

Missional Church

Missional ecclesiology has arisen relatively recently, drawing largely from the works of Lesslie Newbiggin. The basic notion is that mission is not something that the Church does, but is something that ought to be essential to its very nature. Dr. Franklin, in MJTM 9 (2007-2008), 96-128, a journal of McMaster Divinity College, argues that Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology is essentially missional, and thus way ahead of its time. Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology is missional in the following ways:

The Church Proclaims and Embodies the Gospel

The proclamation and embodiment of the gospel are not things that the Church does, they are the essential and defining features of the Church, without which it would cease to be the Church. Bonhoeffer was quite critical of the notion that mission or evangelism was something peripheral to the nature of the Church, something that the Church does against the world: “To try and force the Word on the world by hook or by crook is to make the living Word of God into a mere idea, and the world would be perfectly justified in refusing to listen to an idea for which it had no use” (Discipleship). To proclaim without embodying the gospel would be speech without actions, cheap grace.

The Church Practices Religionless Christianity

When Bonhoeffer talks about “religionless Christianity” we must be aware that to him, “religion” refers to the Lutheran church of his context, which was largely based on inward pietism. He thus draws a distinction between religion and faith, with the latter including everything Christianity depends upon and the former being an empty and inward ritual that places conditions on grace and compartmentalizes our lives into the sacred and the secular (and the two rarely meet!). In critiquing this false dichotomy, Bonhoeffer insists that there is no reality outside of Christ, and thus such dichotomies are impossible. Religion is inward piety, but faith provides an outward witness; religion treats God as a deus ex machina or God of the gaps to be employed where other theories fail or where God meets their needs and desires, while faith knows that God is there through our worst suffering and trials, and even demands that we go through them for His sake and for the sake of others. Religion makes people dependent upon the Church, while faith brings them into concrete and mutual relationships. Religion draws people into the Church, while faith “leads to a transformative encounter with the real world” (Franklin, 113). “Christian life is participation in the encounter of Christ with the world” (Ethics, 132).

“In essence, religionless Christianity means life re-oriented to the reality of God and subject to the lordship of Christ in a holistic or integrated way” (Franklin, 119).

The Church Exists-for-Others

“In his Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, Jesus shows us that the true nature of both God and humanity (in the imago Dei) is being-there-for-others” (Franklin, 117). True transcendence, Bonhoeffer argues, is not found in the unreachable and ethereal, but rather in the concreteness of relationship with my neighbour. With this as foundational to the nature and character of Christ, and thus of the Church, it’s impossible for the genuine Church to be anything but missional.


Bonhoeffer’s insights are also helpful correctives to certain ideas coming out of the missional movement today, such as his definition of a society or club over against community: missional movements are vulnerable to being united by the common mission, rather than by Christ himself, and thus are better described as a society. A society is a means to an end, but a community is both a means to an end and an end in itself, in Bonhoeffer’s thought.

In the end, “Bonhoeffer locates mission within the essence of the Church without thereby reducing the latter to instrumental or functional categories” (Franklin, 124). Truly a man ahead of his time!