Do Russian Christians Need More Bonhoeffers?

Written by on March 12, 2022

The first cleric has fallen to Russia’s new law.

Ioann Burdin of Resurrection Church in Kostroma, 215 miles northwest of Moscow, was arrested for “discrediting the Russian armed forces” in his Sunday sermon.

His parish also allegedly shared an antiwar petition.

“We, Christians, cannot stand idly by when a brother kills brother, a christian kills a christian,” the statement said, as reported by the BBC’s Russian service. “Let’s not repeat the crimes of those who hailed Hitler’s deeds on Sept. 1, 1939.”

Does Russia—and the world—need more like him?

Christianity Today previously reported the frustration of Ukrainian christian leaders that their Russian counterparts should be like Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The famous German theologian was executed in the waning days of the Third Reich for complicity in an assassination plot against the führer.

Ukrainian evangelicals want Russian evangelicals to at least speak out.

Hundreds have. But is it fair to ask them to do so? Russia’s new law, passed March 4, provides penalties of up to 15 years in prison for simply calling Putin’s “special military operation” a “war.”

Five European evangelical leaders advised CT on which should be paramount: safety or solidarity.

CT: Esther in the Bible, and Bonhoeffer in history, are exceptional examples of faith. But are they normative for Christians—especially christian leaders—in times of conflict?

Leonardo De Chirico, chair of the theological commission of the Italian Evangelical Alliance:

In a sense, the whole church has been given a prophetic responsibility to denounce evil and injustice. Then there are specific prophetic callings that individuals receive from God, and they are ready to pay the price of exposing themselves to retaliations and persecutions.

Not all of us are called to be Esthers and Bonhoeffers in all circumstances, but some should. And all should support them in the priestly role of prayer and solidarity.

Loyalty to our nations is good, although it can become an idol. But loyalty to God and his global church takes precedence. I hope and pray that believers across the nations involved will show that their unity in Christ is stronger than their national allegiances.

Marc Jost, general secretary of the Swiss Evangelical Alliance:

I was very pleased and encouraged to hear that my Russian counterpart had courageously spoken out against his own government. But this is primarily a matter of personal calling and mandate, rather than a general duty of Christians, or of critically thinking Russians.

Although, of course, I very much welcome it.

Loyalty among Christians transcends all boundaries. The bond through Christ is stronger than that of a nation, even stronger than that of one’s own physical family.

Samuil Petrovski, president of the Serbian Evangelical Alliance and IFES Serbia:

This question is not new. Many years ago, when Ukrainian pastors asked Russian pastors to speak out against Putin, I remember not agreeing with that.

I know that most christian leaders in Russia are against the war. They are praying for peace in their churches, and some of them are publicly demonstrating. They are under a lot of pressure. What is most important is the unity of believers in Ukraine and Russia.

Instead of being one-sided, as some people have done by displaying the Ukrainian flag and creating events for prayer for the Ukrainians specifically, they should also advertise the Russian flag and pray for the Russians too.

Christians should stand up in prayer, offer practical help, and appeal for peace—praying for the leaders on both sides. We must be extremely careful to avoid strong political debate, through which our christian leaders can lose focus and forget the importance of Christ.

During the conflict between Serbia and Croatia, some pastors of evangelical churches gave strong statements where they encouraged NATO to bomb another country. Other pastors condemned them for this.

Initiatives on both sides tried to bring us together, to pray in a nearby neutral country. But some rejected this offer, saying, “The only place we can meet together and pray is in heaven.”

It ought not to be this way—whether in Serbia, Russia, or Ukraine.

Slavko Hadžić, Langham Preaching coordinator for the West Balkans, from Bosnia:

Christians need to take a stand for justice and truth, and against war and violence. But while we should not be silent because of fear, neither should we speak because of expectations from others. Our motive must be to please God alone.

In God’s kingdom there are no Bosnians, Serbs, or Croats. There are no Ukrainians or Russians. There are only those who are children of God, and those who are not. And the Devil uses some for evil on all sides.

Instead of condemning those who are still silent, we need to pray that God will give them guidance, courage, and wisdom to know what, when, and how to speak.

Vlady Raichinov, vice president of the Bulgarian Evangelical Alliance:

The Bible is abundant with stories of faith-based defiance against cruel monarchs and autocrats. Church history has also had its fair share of voices speaking up against injustice.

Paul said: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Col. 4:6, ESV). This combination of grace and salt should characterize our response to any public conflict. With love and veracity, mercy and virtue, poise and sting, we avoid the temptation to be either thick-skinned and unkind, or diffident and withdrawn.

This is especially true of authoritarian regimes.

Conscience sometimes whispers discreetly and unobtrusively, a shy voice reminding us of our identity, values, and commitments. At other times it is loud, blunt, and shrill, an internal whistleblower forcing us to seek a prominent change.

As a “conscience of society,” the church often speaks in a low-key, underground, word-of-mouth manner. It subverts social values one person at a time, slowly and patiently spreading its salt and light, until it manages to drill so many holes in the tyrant’s moral foundation that eventually his license runs dry and his dominance tumbles.

But at other times, the Spirit leads Christians to raise a sharp, uncompromising voice against crimes that have escalated too far. And then the church, still fueled by God’s Spirit, becomes a trigger and a flag-bearer of major, society-wide tectonic shifts. Its salt and light then influence the masses to perceive the injustice and motivate them to finally do something about it.

Our prayers are that God would lead Christians in Russia to carefully listen to God’s still and quiet voice, to faithfully hold to their calling to preach the gospel, and to courageously follow his prompting of what needs to be done in their terrible situation.

CT: What level of threat is necessary before a christian is compelled to do something against evil?

De Chirico (Italy):

The less personal and immediate the level of threat, the more difficult it is to be motivated against it. If we are talking about systemic evil, some people do not even recognize it, let alone speak against it.

Here we are confronted with a war, with people dying, with destruction and despair, and with the threat of nuclear weapons. Things might be geographically distant now, but if not stopped, its ripple effects will soon reach out to the world.

This level of threat compels all of us to do something.

Jost (Switzerland):

Every injustice, and everything that puts our fellow human beings in danger, should be a call for Christians to do something about it.

But not every evil is my responsibility. When God shows an individual christian an injustice, and touches the heart to act, then that person should be obedient to God.

Petrovski (Serbia):

Christians need to raise up their voice in all settings, not just when tragedy strikes. This should especially be when the evil is in our own neighborhoods, and sometimes this can be unpopular.

But it is very interesting that in the New Testament, we do not find the apostles writing directly against Caesar and the Roman authorities, but rather giving a strong call to prayer, perseverance, and the challenge to be salt and light in times of crisis.

Hadžić (Bosnia):

As Christians, we always need to stand against evil. Greater evil requires greater response, but we do not need to wait for it to grow.

It is very important to remember that our fight is not against flesh and blood, but against heavenly principalities. If we look with secular standards, there is one side which is guilty, and the other which is innocent.

But by biblical standards we are all guilty. There are people suffering on all sides, there are children of God on all sides, and there is need for God’s mercy on all sides.

When suffering and in pain or fear, it is hard to not look at the other as evil. Instead, we must recognize the Evil One, and stand against him.

Raichinov (Bulgaria):

As the Book of Proverbs states: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute” (v. 31:8). This is a general call of action, valid for Jesus’ followers, everywhere. However, on a day-to-day level, when Christians are in the gutters, busy bandaging wounds and counseling victims, the level of threat is to be evaluated on the spot, according to what God imprints into our hearts.

A silent cry caused by abuse would be most recognizable to people who have gained experience in dealing with violence or trafficking; others might be oblivious to the signs of danger. A loss of life during war or pandemic may end up as a statistic on a TV screen; when it hits closer to home, or when ministering to grieving people, desperate refugees, or broken families, then the level of threat is perceived differently.

But on a broader scale, Jesus’ new command to love creates in us a sensitive and caring heart that identifies with and ministers to people in pain, however severe.

How low is that bar? It’s as low as the personal dignity, health, or life of any human being threatened by another person, or by a natural disaster.

Is the chance of success a legitimate factor to consider? Or is a small act a mustard seed?

De Chirico (Italy):

Prophets act regardless of the outcome, ready to face opposition rather than winning the case. They care only about affirming truth and denouncing evil, calling all to repent.

But the Bible also calls us to a royal responsibility—living orderly lives and caring for others. In this role, we must weigh different factors. It all depends on which role—prophet, priest, or king—that we give precedence.

Jost (Switzerland):

As Christians, we are always invited to reckon with both our entrusted thinking capacity, and God’s immeasurable possibilities. Combining the two constitutes true wisdom.

Petrovski (Serbia):

Christians should stand up against any form of evil—especially war—but not only when the war has started. We should teach every believer to not take sides, to not accuse brothers and sisters in Christ, and to not demand action from them without knowing the full story.

Instead, we should invite all Christians in the world to pray for Ukraine, Russia, the European Union, and America. This is a global threat, and it is essential that we be peacemakers.

Hadžić (Bosnia):

Success is found in fighting fear—or the expectations of others—and in standing for truth and justice. If we do nothing, we will never know what would happen if we did. We must do what is right, and what God is calling us to do, regardless of any possibility of greater success than this.

Raichinov (Bulgaria):

This is not an easy issue. Our collective memory is replete with stories of totalitarian persecution. But as leaders suffered pressure, congregations held to their faith, met in secret, and smuggled Bibles despite the imminent danger of being reported to communist watchdogs.

Did they anticipate success and how would it have been measured? The one lesson standing out is their commitment to the subversive power of the gospel. Their sedition was spiritual: proclaiming Jesus, praying for governmental change, teaching their children to memorize Scripture, living a life of integrity, and loving their neighbor.

Eventually, the regimes disintegrated from the inside out. Consciously or instinctively, the church contributed by undermining the autocratic value system and quietly spreading a different worldview.

Jesus counseled in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not resist an evil person” (Matt. 5:39). How does this factor into the decision?

De Chirico (Italy):

There are entire libraries on the interpretation of the Sermon of the Mount. I take it as not addressing primarily the role of the state, but on personal dealings with evil people, ready to pay the personal price of their evil.

Jost (Switzerland):

The Sermon on the Mount challenges us in our personal relationships and encourages us to be peacemakers. Christians in political responsibility also have state power to execute and, for example, an army to lead.

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