If you had lived during World War II and knew about a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, would you join it? German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew about and supported such a plot, the failed one carried out by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg on July 20, 1944. Bonhoeffer was executed on April 9, 1945. Some historians have called him a Christian martyr. But was he?
Israelites endured infanticide and slavery in ancient Egypt, but they didn’t try to kill the Pharaoh. Two midwives subverted his authority instead by saving male babies (Exodus 1:15-19). God rewarded their faithfulness (1:20-21). Would he have rewarded murder? No. Decades later, God used ten plagues to show Pharaoh who was boss. He didn’t want slaves taking matters into their own hands through assassination attempts.
Fast forward four hundred years. A shepherd boy named David, anointed by the prophet Samuel to be the next king of Israel, flees from King Saul because the latter wants to kill him. Yet David never tries to kill Saul. Why? Although plagued by demons, Saul is still “the Lord’s anointed” and David refuses to snatch his throne through murder (1 Samuel 24:4-15, 26:9-11). Even cutting off Saul’s robe “troubles” his heart (24:4-5). David believes that no one “can stretch out his hand against the Lord’s anointed and be guiltless” (26:9). So he gives place to God’s wrath: “the Lord shall strike him, or his day shall come to die, or he shall go out to battle and perish” (26:10). In the end, Saul dies in battle (31:4-6).
Fast forward one thousand years. Israel has lost both its kingdom and its nationhood status. Under the reigns of Caesar Augustus and Tiberius, imperial Rome is crucifying criminals, hanging troublemakers, and enslaving children if parents can’t pay taxes to Caesar. Incestuous Herod Antipas, governor of Judea, is calling himself “king of the Jews” and killing children (Matthew 2:16). So Jewish Zealots are fighting Rome through subversion and terrorism.
In the midst of this bloody chaos, Jesus Christ begins his ministry. First, he heals a centurion’s servant and is willing to enter his home (Matthew 8:5-13). Then Jesus chooses a tax collector as one of his disciples (9:9, 10:3). He doesn’t protest Herod’s arrest of his first cousin John the Baptist; nor does he avenge John’s murder (14:3-13). Later, Jesus tells the Pharisees to pay taxes to Caesar (22:16-21). Finally, the night of his arrest, Jesus chooses not to call “twelve legions of angels” to his rescue (26:53). He knows that Pontius Pilate “could have no power at all against [him] unless it had been given … from above” (John 19:11). So Jesus lets agents of Rome crucify him and asks the Father to forgive them (Matthew 27:24-35, Luke 23:34).
What if Bonhoeffer had been born in ancient Egypt, Israel, or Rome? What if he had faced men like Pharaoh, Saul, Caesar, Herod, or Pilate? Would Bonhoeffer have acted like the midwives, David, and Jesus or supported assassination attempts? Jesus’ act of kindness to a Roman soldier would have been as heinous to a Jew as a pastor’s kindness to a Nazi officer. So I can see Bonhoeffer walking away from Jesus, for being too “soft” on Rome, and becoming a Zealot.
Yes, Hitler was evil. He murdered twelve million people, half of whom were Jews. However, Hitler was also “the powers that be” and they “are ordained of God” (Romans 13:1, KJV). Therefore, anyone who rebels against government rebels against God (13:2). Rebellion is like witchcraft, which is an abomination and will be punished, so we must submit (13:1, 1 Samuel 15:23). We must not “avenge ourselves but rather give place to wrath,” since vengeance belongs to God (Romans 12:19). We must not “be overcome by evil” either, “but overcome evil with good” (12:21). Did Bonhoeffer submit where Hitler and the Third Reich were concerned? No. He resisted and rebelled. In the end, Bonhoeffer didn’t die for his faith but for his knowledge and support of the assassination plot, which was not of God since it failed.
Government is a divine instrument of social order and justice. God himself is a lawgiver (Isaiah 33:22, James 4:12). Through Moses, “from his right hand came a fiery law for” Israel (Deuteronomy 33:2). So when the government tells us to say or do something that violates God’s law, we should say like Peter, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). When the government passes a law that requires our obedience but violates God’s law, again we must say, “We ought to obey God.” We need courage to suffer the earthly consequences of disobedience to human governments in these instances, i.e. prison. But they’re the only times that we should disobey. Otherwise, we must submit and “not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh” (1 Peter 2:13-14, 18). Regicide, or the act of killing people in authority, is not submission but rebellion.
What if America were transformed into imperial Rome or Nazi Germany? What if Christians were oppressed like the Jews? Would we become Zealots or plot to assassinate leaders? Or would we be like Jesus Christ and submit?
 New King James Version (NKJV), unless otherwise noted