VISION & The Abuse of Vision: What Did Bonhoeffer Mean?

by Bob Whitesel Ph.D., 6/18/15.

A student once brought up a very interesting quote by Bonhoeffer. I thought the quote and a brief look at the hyper-visionary culture amid which Bonhoeffer wrote (Nazi Germany) could throw some light on the power and potential for degradation of vision.

The student wrote: “I just was reading through Bonhoeffer’s Life Together and he talks about visionaries. He says, “God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own laws, and judges that brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself” (2009 ed., p. 27).

The student continued. “At first, this seemed a bit shocking to me and goes against what I believe to be true about dreaming, creativity, innovation, and being on the cutting edge. Bonhoeffer is one of the most brilliant Christian minds of the last century so I had to take that into account as well. I read a few articles and Northwest Church had this to say about it: “When we add fluff, entertainment, programs, and all kinds of things to ‘enhance’ Christian community we are often just providing superfluous distractions from what God intended. When somebody steps forward with some grand new vision of what the church should look like and be like they are often either watering down the community God intended or adding something unnecessary and perhaps even harmful.” (

The student concluded, “So I can get on board with that to a certain extent but then I had to take into account everything I just read in Growth by Accident. I think the first thing we need to start with is admitting that “We don’t know.” Socrates said that that admission was true wisdom. Several times throughout the chapter, Dr. Whitesel makes the point that we cannot compromise theologically. That’s incredibly important. And, also, we need to be culturally relevant or we won’t have any sort of impact on anyone. But there is a line between being “superfluous” and watering down the message of the gospel and being innovative to reach the un/dechurched. Christian pastor and author, Chip Ingram says in his blog, “So often we mistakenly believe that the power is in the messenger. But the Bible says the power is in the message and not in the messenger.” (  Being creative, innovative, and dreaming big dreams have to come out of a place of true humility and prayer. We were created with great minds and the ability to be amazingly creative and I think it is true what Dr. Whitesel says in Growth by Accident, “Creativity is a reflection of a Creator who glories in the originality of his handiwork.” (Kindle Edition) But when it becomes about “us” and what we can do, that’s when it’s necessary to take a step back and make sure that the goal is still honoring and bringing glory to God.

Here is how I replied.

Hello ___student_name___.  You certainly are right about Bonhoeffer. If you read his writings it becomes evident that he is speaking to a church that was bought into a vision that was opposite that of Christ. When I attended the German Church Days (Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag) in 1982 there were many posters that were plastered around the conference. The posters depicted a photo of a Lutheran Church with a large swastika that had replaced the cross above the altar. The caption said “We are headed this way again!”

The point that the Germans were reminding the conference attendees was that entertainment, attraction and drama do not replace what Rudolph Otto called the “experience of the numinous” (1950, p. 3-5). This means encountering God is why we come to church, not to encounter a movement or anything human derived … be it preaching, music or something else

Vision is important for helping people see what God is calling the church to be. But the way vision was used in Nazi Germany to direct churchgoing people to support a human movement shows vision can be corrupted. Thus popularity is not a good indicator of anointing. So when a vision is corrupt you will see it through pride, status and autocratic behavior … exactly the things Bonhoeffer warned about. This is I think the important lesson we take today from Bonhoeffer.

Now ask yourself, what do you think about this tension between vision and Christ-like authenticity?  And how do you think you can tell if someone is acting with vain, egocentric vision like Bonhoeffer described?  Maybe write down one or two revealing characteristics that might indicate a leader is casting a vision for personal rationale and not a missional one.

Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans John W. Harvey, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper and Row, 1954), p. 27.