Introduction & Preface

Welcome to our book study series on “Discipleship” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This seminal work, written in the late 1930’s, represents Bonhoeffer’s critique of popular Christianity in Germany under the growing influence of the Nationalist Sociality Party. His views put him in the minority within the German church and placed him at odds with the political system. For where the ethical work of the church had increasingly become the justification of and conformation to nationalist policies and the broader German culture, “for Bonhoeffer, the primary challenge of ethical thinking [was] how to conform one’s life to the teaching of Jesus and the patterns of his life lived in obedience to his father’s will.”[1]

Bonhoeffer’s writing is deeply rooted in the context of his time and his country, and it remains fresh and pertinent to us, three-quarters of a century later. Wherever the church is found, it is challenged by the human tendency to seek the path of least resistance, and must make a choice. It will either choose the tempting and easy path of becoming a church of the world, a church that embraces the world and its ways. Or it will choose the difficult path of becoming Christ’s church, a church that embraces Christ and pursues after Christ. This was true in the year 500, in the year 1937, and in the year 2017.

As you read Bonhoeffer’s writing, take your time. His writing is beautiful, delightful, and poignant, and it is theological writing. Unlike reading a novel, his words are meant to be chewed on, read and reread as you take in their meaning. You cannot rush through this book, pace yourself. Expect to take an hour or more per chapter, and take breaks. Give yourself time for prayer and go on walks, or sit quietly, or stare out the window and let yourself process what you have read.

To assist in your reading, you will find a companion guide on our website for each chapter as we move through them together. In it, you will find some key concepts for each chapter, as well as some questions for your own reflection and to help prepare you for our conversations over soup on Thursday evenings.

As a theologian, Bonhoeffer’s writing is filled with scriptural references. Each chapter companion will feature a pertinent scripture reading for your own use in prayer and reflection. Bonhoeffer also makes many allusions to historical events and theological concepts; as needed, the chapter companion will contain “Crash Courses” to provide you with the necessary background information. Finally, Bonhoeffer makes occasional pointed commentary on specific policies and practices that his contemporaries in the late 1930’s Germany would have immediately recognized, but are easily missed by modern readers some 80 years later. Where appropriate, the chapter companion will contain “Contextual Clues” to help point these out.


Preface

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‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

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Themes

In this section, Bonhoeffer speaks directly to his fellow academic theologians and to the clergy of the church as he poses the central question—what would it look like if the church and its clergy proclaimed the word of Jesus, rather than the doctrines of the church and the cultural norms of society? What would it look like if the church and its clergy followed after Jesus, seeking to become disciples in their words and actions, and called all Christians to do the same? Who would it attract and who would it turn away?

Bonhoeffer also opens the problem of whether such a discipleship would become yet another weight thrown upon the backs of Christians, just like the many other human weights the church and society already place on their backs. For if discipleship is yet another burden added to so many others, then true discipleship will remain a “pious luxury of the few,” who can afford to pursue it. But Bonhoeffer believes that the burden of discipleship is ultimately a light one, not in the sense that it is not difficult, but in the sense that in our pursuit of Jesus, we find freedom and joy.

Contextual Clues

At the bottom of page XXIV, Bonhoeffer speaks about the “church’s decision,” which here is a reference to the unpopular and minority position taken by the Confessing Church, of which Bonhoeffer was a part, to resist the intrusion of the German state—and therefore the National Socialist Party—into the affairs of the church.

Reflection Questions

  • How has the church in our time pushed away those who hunger for the word of Jesus? Who might we push away if we were to proclaim Jesus’ words?
  • What does your faith demand of you? How has discipleship burdened you? Can you relate to the freedom of discipleship?

[1] Discipleship: DBW Vol. 4, Bonhoeffer, Deitrich p. 21