dbonhoefferA new biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Strange Gloryimplies that the German theologian experienced same-sex attraction toward Eberhard Bethge, his friend and confidante who later wrote a biography of Bonhoeffer and oversaw the collection of his works.

The response to the biography has been interesting. In his typically understated manner, Frank Schaeffer wrote an article, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer Was Flamingly Gay — Deal With It,” in which he predicted evangelicals would be up in arms about such an explosive claim.

In contrast, Sarah Pulliam Bailey reported on how different Bonhoeffer scholars and evangelical leaders have responded. Christianity Today gave a positive review of the biography, as did The Gospel Coalition, though the reviewers saw the biographer’s focus on Bonhoeffer’s sexuality as distracting.

The facts in the case of Bonhoeffer are clear: he was engaged at the time of his execution, and he wrote about the fact he would die as a virgin. No biographer or scholar claims that Bonhoeffer engaged in a sexual relationship with anyone, male or female, whatever his attractions may have been.

I believe the conversation about Bonhoeffer’s sexuality tells us more about life in the sexualized culture of the 21st century than it does about Bonhoeffer. In fact, if we pay attention, we will see how Bonhoeffer’s life and legacy directly challenges several commonly held assumptions today.

Assumption #1: Life lived to the fullest must include sexual fulfillment.

Bonhoeffer lived faithfully – emphasis on fully – as a virgin. One should not miss the countercultural reality on display in his life.

Post Sexual Revolution, people often define themselves by their sexual identity. For this reason, many people see any restriction or moral restraint on how sexuality is expressed as oppressive, a dagger to the heart of a person’s life and dreams.

For the Christian, such an exaggerated view of sexuality is a pernicious lie. It feeds the falsehood that, without sexual fulfillment, it is impossible for someone to live a full and engaging life. In contrast, Christians believe celibacy is not a pitiable choice but a beautiful calling.

Bonhoeffer’s witness (along with evangelical heroes like John Stott, not to mention Jesus Himself) testifies against the assumption that self-actualization must include sexual relationships. His life challenges a culture that says you are your sexuality.

Sam Allberry, a pastor in the UK who experiences same-sex attraction yet believes homosexual behavior to be sinful, is familiar with the accusation often made against evangelicals, that adhering to Christianity’s sexual ethic contributes to teenage angst and suicide. His response is spot on:

“No, the problem is a culture that says your entire identity and sense of who you are is bound up with fulfilling your sexual desires. You are the ones who have raised the stakes that high. So that the moment you don’t fulfill your desires, you have nothing left to live for.”

Society’s view of a Forty-Year-Old Virgin is Steve Carrell. Christianity’s view of a forty-year-old virgin should be Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Assumption #2: Affectionate male friendships must be romantic in nature.

History is replete with examples of robust male friendships that are full of affection and expressions of love and yet are not sexual.

Unfortunately, the sexual revolution has made it more difficult to imagine passionate philos apart from eros. That’s why revisionist historians read romantic notions into Teddy Roosevelt’s affectionate letters to his closest friends. People wonder out loud about Abraham Lincoln’s sharing a bed with his friend, Joshua Speed. It’s hard for our society to understand how King David could weep so terribly over the lost love of Jonathan unless there was some sort of romance between them. And now, Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Bethge is put under the microscope of 21st century assumptions.

In fairness to the biographer, it is certainly possible that Bonhoeffer was attracted to Bethge, even though acting on such a notion was always out of the question. But it’s also possible, even likely, that Bonhoeffer’s friendship was, like many male friendships of the time, strong and affectionate, with a passion that did not include sexual desire.

The speculation about Bonhoeffer’s sexuality distracts us from the greater loss of slowly disappearing same-sex friendships, the kind of love we see in literature between Sam and Frodo, relationships that many today can hardly conceive of, apart from some sort of sexual longing.

Assumption #3: Sexual attraction must define one’s identity.

Because our society has adopted the notion that sexual expression is wrapped up in our identity, some may think that getting to the root of Bonhoeffer’s sexuality is the only way to truly understand the man he was. But I suspect Bonhoeffer himself would dispute such a notion, and so would most people throughout history.

When we assume sexual orientation is fixed from birth and unchangeable, the question of identity naturally comes to the forefront: “Was he gay or not?” But Christianity rejects such a reductionist view of sex and identity. Everyone is warped in sexual attraction, at least to some degree. We are all sexual sinners in need of the grace and mercy of God. We are marked by our need for grace, not our longing for sex.

Bonhoeffer’s identity was not defined by sexual attraction, but by his costly discipleship following in the footsteps of his King. Going beyond letters and writings and personal correspondence to speculate on the unspoken sexual longings of a figure from the past says more about us and our own preoccupations than about the person under scrutiny.

Conclusion

Evangelicals aren’t going to go crazy in responding the new Bonhoeffer’ biography. Why? Because the idea that Bonhoeffer may have experienced same-sex attraction doesn’t matter all that much in assessing his legacy. He was a faithful man of God who immersed himself in Scripture, read the signs of the times, stood boldly against the Nazi war machine, and died as a hero.

The best way to honor Bonhoeffer is to not to speculate about his sexuality, but to see how his example counters the errant assumptions of a sexualized culture.

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25 thoughts on ““Was Bonhoeffer Gay?” and Other Adventures in Missing the Point”

  1. Melody says:

    Thanks for writing this lovely and thoughtful piece. I’ve often been dismayed that close friendships between the same gender end up getting labled as homosexual, especially among men. I am so pleased that my fiance has several male friends he’s very close to, I owe them a lot of gratitude for how they’ve helped him over the years.

    But, I can’t totally agree with ” In contrast, Christians believe celibacy is not a pitiable choice but a beautiful calling.”
    We should. We should believe that. But as someone who is getting married at 31, I can tell you that we really, really don’t. When I got engaged I could almost hear the collective sigh of relief from my church going friends and family.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      Thanks for that good word, Melody. We can and must do better on this.

  2. Joe Wisnieski says:

    Well said.

  3. Dylan Dodson says:

    All three of those assumptions are spot on in our culture today. Great post.

  4. Beth Cyrus says:

    Wonderful insight! Thank you for the stabilizing perspective.

  5. Will says:

    Great post–one of your best, I think. Thoughtful, clear, well-chosen phrases, and an excellent quotation by Allberry.

  6. Liz McC. says:

    Agreed with the above comment with how the article is excellent! So glad there are people putting into clear refute of inconsistent and errant words that are in our culture today.

    And I agree with her with the entire church might THINK it’s a beautiful thing to have the calling of a single life based on what they read in scripture, but there is a collective and mostly culturally-based thought that floats around with the notion of a person isn’t complete without another…and is there something wrong with them that they can’t find “that special someone”? Let’s be honest… that’s there. That’s probably the sinful self, perhaps, pushing those thoughts into our heads… but they become hurtful to someone else, and as noticed by the aforementioned comment… a lot of undue pressure put on another individual that could potentially cause some emotional trauma over a long period of time.

    So I do agree with that. I think it’d been better had you mentioned that, Trevin, in your article because Christians DO believe that singleness is beautiful and wonderful if you have that call on your life… but the reality of that fact is that our sinful natures often push us to think otherwise.

    Great and thoughtful article, though! Blessed to have your thoughts on things that I have trouble putting into words.

  7. Kim Pearman says:

    Beautiful article! Thank you for that nicely thought out piece.

  8. Mike Dunger says:

    Assumption #4: If enough historical revisionism is slung at Christian figures to imply that they were homosexual, then evangelicals will eventually retreat from holding the Biblical position on homosexuality.

  9. Lindsay Blaire Beeman says:

    A resounding AMEN!!!

    Thank you for this article and for so effectively communicating the heart of a deeply rooted problem in our culture. Why would anyone ever take on a project like this in the first place? I wonder the same about other studies on the sexual orientation of revered historical figures like the ones you mentioned. I struggle to find any purpose in this sort of endeavor other than to malign the man’s character after his death and negate the value of his testimony. It’s never as though a discovery of this nature adds to the LGBT community in any way or to their plight; they could care less if one such as he was added to their number. The only purpose is seemingly to tear away at a very vivid example of God’s power at work in someone who lived out his convictions in such a powerfully compelling manner that it spoke volumes to people in his time and continues to do so now decades after his death.

    But the fact that they have chosen this route – of denigrating his reputation by casting doubt on his sexual orientation – is super telling about the values in our society and the interests of a group that would take on a project like this. The same people that would find this sort of discovery exciting or positive are actually serving to create further division and exacerbate a problem (homophobia) that they purportedly fight against. If every man or woman is in danger of having their words of affection towards the same sex twisted and misconstrued as latent homosexual desires, then heterosexuals will be continually pushed into a corner of avoiding any positive interaction with same sex friends for fear of being incorrectly labelled homosexual. I see this reaction more and more in my brothers and in friends, and it’s so sad.

    I firmly believe that the father of lies uses this sort of thing to steal, kill and destroy relationships, which is at the heart of God’s purpose for mankind. What a clever tool of the devil.

    1. Julia Soler. says:

      Why is it “malign[ing] a man’s character” to say he had/has homosexual desires?

  10. Excellently put Trevin. I’m slow clapping at every point. If I could make one very slight adjustment, it would be here: “Everyone is warped in sexual attraction, at least to some degree.” I think this is a bit clouding and inaccurate. It’s not warped for a man to desire a woman. It may be SINFUL if the woman is not his wife, but in and of itself, there’s nothing unhealthy or twisted in the fact that men in general are sexually attracted to women in general. It’s still a good idea to distinguish between healthy sexuality and broken sexuality.

  11. EAJ says:

    I agree with Melody that this was a very thoughtful and lovely piece. I am so happy Trevin responded to the story. And Melody I just wanted to let you know that I was 39 when I finally met and married my husband. And yes I was a virgin, he was in fact the first man I ever dated and kissed. Our life together was extraordinary and so shall yours be. And like you Melody I am quite sure some of my family seemed relieved but mostly because they were always concerned about who was going to “take care of me”. Then as now I knew that my care was always in the hands of the Lord. I returned with my prayers for them that they would understand that peace and care come with knowing the Lord in their own lives – I pray they will all understand one day that it is the Lord alone that knows exactly what it is we need in this life. Waiting on the Lord has been my greatest joy. It’s not an easy thing to do but it always turns out to be a magnificent choice. Congratulations on your marriage and for waiting.

  12. Paul says:

    Amen. I too found Marsh’s needless insinuations disturbing, but I thought maybe I was reading too much into them. Thanks for the verification of my initial feelings. I also found Marsh’s treatment of Bonhoeffer to be far below that of the several other biographies for other reasons. Thanks for the article.

  13. Coagec says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece. As an evangelical Christian man with same sex attractions who believes in traditional sexual ethics, I do believe the knowledge of homosexual orientation of great men of God is helpful for the church today. As is evident in even some of the comments on this article, there is quite a bit of condemnation and shame attributed to same sex attraction above and beyond other sinful inclinations. To know faithful men and women of God who had and have same sex attractions can hopefully combat the spoken and unspoken scorn many Christians have against people with same sex attractions. Until the church repents of this judgmental spirit, it’s witness of the gospel of Jesus to the LGBT community and the wider society will be compromised. In order to share my story of being a redeemed of Christ with same sex attractions, I recently started a blog, Confessions of a Gay Evangelical Christian coagec.wordpress.com.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      Thank you for visiting here and for sharing your experience. I believe when the church more fully looks like 1 Corinthians 6, we will have more – not less – brothers and sisters in our midst who openly struggle against same-sex attraction and need the hope and encouragement offered by the rest of the Body. Please continue to help your brothers and sisters who need to hear your perspective.

  14. JTR says:

    The language in one of the comments about Marsh’s “needless insinuations” above strikes me as unfair. I think the post here is more on target: “implies that the German theologian experienced same-sex attraction toward Eberhard Bethge, his friend and confidante.” Marsh had access to DB’s voluminous correspondence and writings–perhaps moreso than any previous biographer. He makes it clear that DB’s relationship with Bethge was very close, but he never once says they acted on any possible sexual attraction–in fact, he makes it clear they did not. So it is clearly reading too much in to the book to call DB “flamingly gay”; it is also a bit of denial to cast aspersions on what I think is an important work which gives us a great deal of insight into a complex, brilliant man who really sought to follow Jesus by calling Marsh’s nuanced and honest treatment of DB’s close relationship with Bethge a case of “needless insinuations.”

  15. Joan says:

    As a product of the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, I am thankful for strong voices calling it out for what it was – a complete sham that has shipwrecked untold lives.

  16. Chris says:

    I think the problem is that we keep paying attention to the pseudo-intellectual hacks that write this stuff. We should utterly dismiss this kind of blatant historical revision that attempts to impose a 21 at century ethic on the past.

  17. JTR says:

    Chris, I would encourage you to read the book before you call the author (if that is the person to whom you refer) a “pseudo-intellectual hack.” He offers us profound insight (all meticulously document, I might add) into a complex human being, brilliant theologian, and courageous (though flawed, as we all are) Christ-follower. Marsh never says that DB was gay. He does give us a thorough portrait of the friendship between DB and Bethge, and it’s clear it was the most important relationship of DB’s adult life.

    1. JTR says:

      Sorry–all meticulously documented, I should have typed above.

    2. Trevin Wax says:

      I agree. By all accounts, Marsh’s biography is meticulous in its research and beautifully written. Let’s not dismiss a biographer’s perspective simply because it challenges our initial thoughts about a historical figure. I don’t think Marsh can be put in the same category of “revisionist” that some others can.

  18. David Cox says:

    I am sad that any of us would even write such a thing about such a saint of God like Bonhoeffer. To even suggest this- in my opinion- casts a shadow of stain or doubt upon one of the greatest heroes of the Christian faith of the 20th century. Sad stuff here in my opinion. It not only “misses the point,” but this kind of stuff grieves the heart of God and dishonors someone who deserves so much more than this derogatory speculation. d.

  19. Vinod says:

    “Going beyond letters and writings and personal correspondence to speculate on the unspoken sexual longings of a figure from the past says more about us and our own preoccupations than about the person under scrutiny.”

    This says it all.

    It is really sad that because of the homosexual revisionists, the pure form of male male friendship is getting lost.

  20. Thomas DeFreitas says:

    Thank you, Mr Wax, for what is perhaps the most thoughtful article I’ve seen on the internet in a good five years or more. Especially potent, your paragraphs dealing with Assumption #1. The whole piece reminds us of some oft-forgotten truths. I am urging everyone I know–liberal, conservative; Christian, non-Christian–to read this piece, even if they don’t know who Dietrich Bonhoeffer was! Thanks again.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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