“Der Führer Prinzip”

On January 30, 1933, Herr Adolph Hitler assumed the office of Chancellor of Germany according to their Constitution. On February 1, two days later, a young theologian, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address entitled, “The Younger Generations’ Altered Concept of Leadership.” Someone cut short the broadcast. No one knows who did that but it is easy to guess the culprit’s identity.

I find it hard to believe that Mr. Hitler actually held political office.  He only used it for something else beyond his office: to become the Leader (German: Fuhrer), and leave behind the office of chancellor as an empty shell with the consent of, no longer the governed, but his followers. This divorce between office and leader did not occur in a conceptual vacuum, such movements never do and the separation of office and person in the case of Herr Hitler was not and is not an isolated case.  The divorce is with us today in varying degrees and I think explains much of the darkness of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

The Leader Principle was around since the 19th Century in Germany.  Philosopher Hermann Graf Keyserling posited that only gifted individuals, great men, with exceptional talents were born to rule. The Leader Principle then became part of the German Youth Movement of the early 20th Century by those so disaffected by the utter devastation of “The War to End all wars”, the Great War (WWI). In 1933, Bonhoeffer gave a similar address to the radio one in March of that year, “The Leader and the Individual in the Younger Generation”.  All the Bonhoeffer quotes are from that March address[1], unless noted otherwise.

Uprooted by the utter dislocation caused by that war, the youth were hungering for authority, which began the divorce between leader and his office.  Bonhoeffer:

“The younger generation has grown up in a period of history in which the previously established world of the west has been rocked on its foundations, a period of war, the aftermath of war, and crisis. Thus the nearest task which fell to it could only be that of avoiding involvement in a complete collapse, of attempting to find some support which made possible further existence.”

The youth, either in WWI or in its aftermath, were weary of the authority of institutions. They were looking, not merely for something else, but poignantly someone else: The Leader, utterly personal and intimate coming from the desires of the group will guide us out.  “The group  is the womb of the Leader”.  The result was that offices, such as father, teacher and statesman, were implicitly or explicitly denied, thus altering the concept of leader.  We call it today the “cult of personality” with which our culture is rife. I gleaned the following differences from Bonhoeffer’s address between Leadership/Office and The Leader resulting from the divorce:

  • Office, such as father or statesman, is a given whereas Leader is a choice.
  • Office is given from “above”, divinely ordered, given as “…both Leader and office points to the final authority itself”, i.e. God, whereas The Leader is chosen from “below” and apart from office, the Leader does not point to the “final authority”, that is God, but to himself.
  • Leadership in Office is objective whereas Leader/Fuhrer is subjective
  • Leadership/Office’s focus is those being led;  whereas the Leader’s focus, “…is the Leader himself”: his followers only matter as they carry out his dictates
  • Leadership/Office is about supremacy of knowledge and ability; whereas the Leader/Fuhrer is centered on the “…supremacy of his person”
  • Leadership/Office is about service to others;  Leader/Fuhrer desires to be served
  • Leadership/Office is about called servants; Leader is about, “…the call of the great man”
  • Leadership/Office is dependent in society and inter-connected;  Leader/Fuhrer is an, “…independent figure”, and he forms the masses/the collective
  • Office is limited; the Leader per force considers himself unlimited.
  • Leader in an office knows he is replaceable, the Leader, in his vibrant persona is considered irreplaceable.

Bonhoeffer chillingly describes the result of this divorce:

 “This Leader, deriving from the concentrated will of the people, now appears as longingly awaited by the people, the one who is to fulfill their capabilities and their potentialities. Thus the originally matter-of-fact idea of political authority has become the political, messianic concept of the Leader as we know it today. Into it there also streams all the religious thought of its adherents. Where the spirit of the people is a divine, metaphysical factor, the Leader who embodies this spirit has religious functions, and is I the proper sense the messiah. With his appearance the fulfillment of the last hope has dawned. With the kingdom which he must bring with him the eternal kingdom has already drawn near. Could one ally the religious attitude of the group towards its Leader in the youth movement with the pietistic ideal of community, the political, messianic idea of the leader would lie in the line of the ideal of a universal kingdom of God on earthas it was striven for in the religious movements summed up under the title ‘Enthusiasm’, and in the French Revolution, and later take up again and again.”

The result is idolatry:

 “If he understands his function in any other way than as it is rooted in fact, if he does not continually tell his followers quite clearly of the limited nature of his task and of their own responsibility, if he allows himself to surrender to the wishes of his followers, who would always make him their idol—then the image of the Leader will pass over into the image of the mis-leader, and he will be acting in a criminal way not only towards those he leads, but also towards himself.”

This idolatry has become endemic in a media age in both orders of Church and nation when a leader eschews his/her office and “allows himself to surrender to the wishes of his followers”:

In Church: So-called ‘evangelists’ have so-called ‘ministries’ with their names before the word “ministry”. I have thought “Mark Schroeder Ministries” has a great alliterative ring to it and it does and it would define the ministry according to the person, me, not the office to which the Lord has called the man by His Word.

Now at first this can appear to be “good” in order to do “good”. The congregation wants a pastor with a winsome and awesome personality, a charismatic presence in the pulpit.  The pastor buys into it. A standard call committee question reflects this unwritten desire for the pastor/leader:  How will you grow our congregation?  The desire for a human, man made formula, or program or magic wand. As if the pastor has another description of his office up his chasuble, by which he can expand the membership beside the Biblical and Confessional authoritative Word for all to read.  The only answer to that call committee question is that pastors plant the Seed of the Word of God and water it, but God gives the growth.  The Pastor must remind folks of the limitations of the office…and himself.

The Lord and His Word limit the office of Pastor for the Word in the Word made flesh. The first limit of pastoral office thrown off was ordination of women, thus denying Scripture:  gender matters more than the Word, but the Word of the Bible always matters and eternally so.  As a child, when the Pastor turned to the congregation after the confession of sin, “As a called and ordained Servant of the Word, I announce the grace of God unto all of you…” I knew it was the Lord addressing me. Pastor is Servant of the Word. “Preach the Word, in and out of season” (cf. 2 Timothy 4: 2). The Pastor was fulfilling His office, His vocation, but not himself.

The pulpit and the time of preaching  is not a place for theological opinion, philosophical meditations, practical applications of Christian principles, cheerleading, advertising for parish programs  and especially the proclamation of the pastor’s ‘magnetic’ personality. It is the time and place for the rigors of Law and Gospel and the Lord Who sets us free by His truth in the forgiveness of sins, the justification of the ungodly.  The pulpit is the place of the Cross.

In our time, I opine the severance of man and pastoral office begins when a pastor quits using the pulpit.  The pulpit is a physical sign of the pastor’s office. Bonhoeffer argues that all offices are limited.  A pulpit is limited. It is a reminder of the limits of the office of the pastor and it reminds us of whom the pastor serves from the pulpit: God and His Word for the joy and edification of the baptized, catechumens and seekers. Leaving the pulpit is putting behind that old fussy “office” is justified by us in order to give a more “personal message”, or have “better eye contact”, or a more “human approach”, or to give folks through the “message” and the medium of the “service” a “real experience” of God.  We no longer then consider the Word is enough. As well intentioned is the pastor and the congregation, I think the divorcing of leader from office is beginning to occur and temptation is at hand.

Now I can see an endless thread resulting from this critique. First: pastors who have not used the pulpit (and I have on occasion) are not Nazis. Secondly, I think such changes, and this is crucial, however initially small and innocuous do open a door.  From small changes come deluges. “Once a camel gets it’s nose into the tent…”  This can be incremental.  We have seen that door wide open with the televangelists and mega-church pastors asserting their personality in the adoration of the masses.  Has not many a pastor and congregations at least fantasized about such? I admit that I have. “Look at all the good we could do” is the temptation of this ring of power.  We are not to turn the Church into our own Golden Calf.[2]  We live in the age of the cult of the personality and it is idolatrous, even forthrightly so, e.g., “American Idol”, and it is obviously not limited to an amateur talent contest.  Those whom the pastor serves and leads need reminders of the limitations of the pastor’s office.  As cited above, the leader in office needs to remind people continually of the limits of his office for their sake and the pastor’s as well!   The goal is not to point to the pastor but to the Christ as have faithful pastors and ministers have done over the pilgrimage of the Church and are still doing so today. The Church is called to be John the Baptizer preaching, “Behold!  The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.

The State:  “We are the ones we have been waiting for” (Candidate Obama). There was a Messianic fervor surrounding Senator Obama in the 2008 election.  We cannot forget this as his handlers subtly divorced the man from the office he was seeking.  For instance, Presidents in televised addresses to the nation speak from the Oval Office, complete with photos of their wives and children, another office for which they were also called; but in the most recent such address, the  President has done so from the East Room of White House, with its hallway, complete with columns as backdrop. It seems that the actual Constitutional office is disregarded and this is “criminal”,  and the laws of men, in our nation, The Constitution, for restraining evil are broke. .

I am not saying the current President is a Nazi. Yet, government with the tacit support of the citizenry has slowly transmuted the Constitutional Office of President by the desire, even the lust of the populace for the Leader and his/her persona in the media age.  The public aided and abetted by the media desire the president to do more, much more, than the duties of a constitutional president. This manifested itself in the most recent presidential election when reporters asked presidential candidates, “How will you grow the economy?”  He does not have the authority to do so.  His office is not a business one, but a constitutional one: to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. People want more out of their president than the constitutional office. I note that every presidential candidate has promised more than what the actual office could ever deliver:  “the New Deal”, “the Square Deal”, “The New Frontier”, “The Great Society”.  It is almost like ushering in the “Age of Aquarius” (that’s for you fellow 60’s readers).  Yet the messianic pretensions, which we have placed on presidential candidates, liberal or conservative, are they will lead us to the ever better tomorrow…yet like waiting for Godot, that tomorrow never comes. We are no longer in a nomocratic government, that is one ruled primarily by laws, but a teleocratic one, “telos”, as in “end”[3], always going toward the ever greater tomorrow as if our temporal happiness will bring in the kingdom come. There is only one reign, for which we pray, “Thy Kingdom Come”, that is the Lord’s reign and rule even now through His Word, yet manifested in the Day.  Confusing God’s right hand and left hand kingdoms is the recipe for despotism and fascism.

“We the people” put those pretensions on the candidate.  Think of all the movies and TV shows with the President as the lead character:  “Air Force One”, “My American President”, “24”, “West Wing”,  “Dave”, “Independence Day” etc, in which a mysticism of an immense personal power surrounds the President’s persona, the Leader.  If the presidency does not fill the bill, we go gawking across “the pond” at the royals in the UK. We must remember devout Israelites were attracted to the Baals of their own lusts and so are we. Again, Bonhoeffer:  “The group is the womb of the Leader”.

The founding fathers of our country were cognizant of this as well.  In Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the Constitution is called the “Title of Nobility Clause” which prohibits any citizen, without consent of Congress of accepting a title of nobility from another nation.  In commentary on this clause, Thomas Paine wrote something of relevance for our day as well:

“Dignities and high sounding names have different effects on different beholders. The lustre of the Star and the title of My Lord, over-awe the superstitious vulgar, and forbid them to inquire into the character of the possessor: Nay more, they are, as it were, bewitched to admire in the great, the vices they would honestly condemn in themselves. This sacrifice of common sense is the certain badge which distinguishes slavery from freedom; for when men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.”[4]

We do not need stars and lords, giving the perennial blind eye to their faults and sins writ large as ours are supposedly writ small, in our own self-justifying script, with the excuse that, “we are human after all”, so the Leader is as well.  Back in the 18th century people may have condemned such in themselves because the Law was preached…not nowadays, today the Law is denied. The anti-Christ is preceded by anti-Law. Then we look for stars and lords but the one Lord is sufficient or should be for Lutherans and other Christians.  The one Lord was sufficient for Israel but they kept chasing after the Baals.

In Conclusion:  As our Lord warned,

And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. (St. Matthew 24: 4-5)

Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it.24 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you beforehand. 26 So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. (St. Matthew 24:

There is only One who held the Office of Messiah: Jesus.  So the Lord pastorally warns us about the leaders who pose as messiahs and the people who want them.  Luther preached on this text:

 ”This pertains not only to the Jews, but also to the whole world and, especially, the Christian church, which has been illumined by the light of the gospel. What will be its lot at the end of the world? When once the gospel has come into the world, Christ is saying, the devil will multiply the enthusiasts and the sects, false prophets and false teachers around the believers, so that those who view the world through spiritual eyes will wonder whether anyone will finally be saved. The seduction will be so pervasive and the false prophets will perform such great signs and wonders, that even the elect—were that possible—succumb to error.

For that reason the Lord warns so earnestly, Lo, I have told you beforehand, thereby stating that there will be no room for excuse, since I have warned you before it happens. They will perform such great wonders and signs, along with a very pious life, that everyone will draw the conclusion: God must dwell here, for how could they otherwise have done such miracles? For that reason, I say, be on your guard. I’ve told you in advance. I have given ample warning. No excuse will avail if you blindly blunder along.. That is the tragic picture prevailing before people’s eyes, day in, day out, even among the best and most respected people of the world. It is a tragedy in which many of us, too, are deeply involved.”[5]

“O come, O come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appears, Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel”[6]







[1] No Rusty Swords (Harper and Row;  1947) by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited by Edward Robertson, pages 150ff

[2] Ibid, Sermon, “A Church of the World or a Church of the Word?”, preached 28 May, 1933, KaiserWilhelmMemorialChurch, pages 243ff

[3] “Gettysburg Gospel” (The American Conservative: online article) by Richard Gamble,(phrases cited by the author), current

[4] “Title of Nobility Clause”, (Wikipedia article citing Thomas Paine)

[5] Sermons of Martin:  The House Postils, Volume 3 (Baker Books, 1996), by Martin Luther, Sermon at the ParishChurch, 1537, text:  St. Matthew 24: 15-28

[6] Lutheran Service Book, Hymn 357: 1

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