One Lord: The Theological Declaration of Barmen

Scripture  |  Ephesians 4:11-16  |  Matthew 20:20-28

Note: These scripture readings were cited in the Theological Declaration of Barmen.

What difference does the church make anymore? Why should people bother being members of a congregation, or part of a denomination? 

Young adults are asking that question in droves. Or rather, they’ve answered that question in droves. To many, being in church is like being part of a social club – a community where we take care of each other – but they can find that in a lot of other places. At best, “church” doesn’t stand for anything but being nice… at worse, it stands for being judgmental. 

Others are leaving churches of all stripes because they find them too political. What makes that complicated is that some people leave because the church is WAY too conservative… and others because they feel their church is WAY too liberal.

But you know what? That’s always been true.  One of the challenges of the church is knowing when to speak out, how strongly to speak, and, most of all, what to say. In the Roman Catholic Church, the most powerful pronouncements come in the form of papal encyclicals.  And in our church, the most powerful way Presbyterians speak is through our Confessions of Faith. 

Our Book of Confessions contains statements of faith as ancient as the Apostles’ Creed, and as current as the Belhar Confession of South Africa. All of them come from times of intense debate. As the introduction to the Book of Confession explains, 

Throughout the history of the Christian movement churches have written confessions of faith because they feel that they must do so, not just because they think it would be a good idea. 

  • Confessions of faith may result from a sense of urgent need to correct some distortion of the truth and claim of the gospel that threatens the integrity of the church’s faith and life from within the church. 
  • They may result from some political or cultural movement outside the church that openly attacks or subtly seeks to compromise its commitment to the gospel. 
  • Sometimes the urgency to confess comes from the church’s conviction that it has a great new insight into the promises and demands of the gospel that is desperately needed by both church and world. 

Frequently, all three occasions—internal danger, external threat, and great opportunity—are behind the great confessions of the church at the same time. ( “Confessional Nature of the Church Report,” Book of Confessions: The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Part 1, Louisville: The Office of the General Assembly, 2014, p vii. )

When should the church speak? When the truth is distorted, the gospel compromised, and God’s voice is desperately needed. 

The Barmen Declaration of 1934 was written on one of those occasions. The setting was Nazi Germany under the rule of Adolf Hitler. While many of us know the horrors of the holocaust, fewer know what happened to the churches. One of the saddest things is that most of the Christians kept silent. Why? Because, from the beginning, Hitler worked to coopt the churches. Within four months of Hitler becoming Chancellor, a national convention of the new “German Christians” was held. All Protestant churches would join as one national church under one Bishop, just as there would be only one political party. When Hitler’s candidate failed to win election as Bishop, a new title was invented and the role given to him. 

There was more: all of the church youth work was given to the Hitler-Youth organization. Churches were told to exclude any Christian with Jewish ancestry. At one point, “storm troopers… commandeered the headquarters of the German Evangelical Church.” 

At first there were protests, like when a speaker at a German Christian rally urged that the Old Testament and letters of Paul be excised from the Bible. Within a month of that incident, a muzzling order was declared, threatening pastors with suspension if they criticized the national church government – in the same way news publications were censored. There was a huge outcry, with a protest read in 400,000 pulpits. When Hitler met with leaders of the German Protestant churches, it was ostensibly to find a compromise. But through the use of dirty tricks, Hitler split the opposition. Most of the church leaders endorsed Hitler’s choice for national Bishop. Within a year, the take-over was almost complete.

It’s important to understand the groundswell of enthusiasm for this new German Christian Church. As one leading Lutheran theologian wrote in 1934, “our Protestant churches have welcomed the turning point of 1933 as a gift and miracle from God.” The excitement was palpable, like a renaissance of faith. Theologically, the ideas of “race, blood, and soil” became part and parcel of what it meant to be Christian. It wasn’t a huge move to see faithfulness as a defense of purity, or the elimination of the “unfit and inferior” as a way to safeguard the vitality and strength of the German Christian Church. A confident, militant defense of the purity of this ‘God-given gift’ was exhilarating. 

As our Book of Confession describes, 

Most Germans took the union of Christianity, nationalism, and militarism for granted, and patriotic sentiments were equated with Christian truth. The German Christians exalted the racially pure nation and the rule of Hitler as God’s will for the German people.
— I am indebted to the history and analysis of Ulrich Mauser, “The Theological Declaration of Barmen,” Theology Matters, Vol. 6, No. 6, November/December 2000. Unless otherwise noted, historical descriptions come from this work

“’Kneeling Hitler’: Controversial sculpture could fetch over $10M,” The Columbus Dispatch, April 16, 2016, p A2.

Yesterday the Dispatch carried a story of a controversial sculpture being sold at auction at Christie’s. It’s a child-like figure dressed in gray, kneeling in prayer. But when you come to the front of the sculpture you see the figure is unmistakably Hitler. As the curator describes it, the statue disguises “evil incarnate under a cloak of innocence.” That was the danger of the German Christian Church. Not a lack of faith, not the death of the church, but evil under the cloak of faith. 

And yet… there were a small number of brave and determined souls who united as the German Evangelical Church, a federation of Confessional churches. Reformed, Lutheran and United Church pastors and professors came together to find a common voice of protest. In May of 1934, their delegates met in Barmen, and unanimously adopted a theological statement we now call “The Barmen Declaration.” Written largely by Reformed theologian Karl Barth, their declaration is a call to resistance. 

What’s interesting is how it was written. It doesn’t make a case-by-case argument against the Guiding Principles of the German Christians. It certainly doesn’t call out the Nazis or Hitler by name. It doesn’t even lift up the plight of the Jewish people. Instead, it lifts up the core of what it means to be Christian, which is the centrality of Jesus Christ as he is known in scripture. 

As one writer explains,

Jesus Christ was not at all absent from “German Christian” language. But he had become a figment of nationalistic dreams and desires that imposed on him the clothing of a hero who had fought, with undaunted courage, a religious and political establishment… and in that good fight he persevered until the bitter end, sacrificing himself in the service of his ideal.
— Mauser, p 10.

In other words, Jesus himself had been coopted by Hitler’s form of church. 

The Barmen Declaration tried to bring the church back to the Jesus of scripture. As another theologian describes, “The issue was to listen to the Word of God as though one had never heard it before.” No other source has the authority of scripture, they argued, and Jesus cannot be re-made in someone else’s image. Together, they proclaimed, we are to “speak the truth in love, growing up in every way into Christ.” Our call is to testify in the midst of a sinful world, and to live our faith in obedience solely to Christ. There are no areas of life which do not belong to Christ. Religion is not a private affair. 

As Jesus taught his disciples when they sought power and authority, we are to be servants of all. There are offices within the church, but they do not exist for dominion over others but for the sake of the ministry of the church. The church should never allow itself to be ruled by “special leaders vested with ruling powers.”  The church can’t let itself be governed by the State, and the State cannot fulfill the work of the church. 

The Confessing church spoke an alternative voice when it was dangerous and unpopular to do so. They would not keep silent in spite of the danger, and there were consequences. As one historian recounts,

  • The great theologian, Karl Barth, found himself escorted to the border and expelled; 
  • the fearless pastor, Martin Niemoller, languished in a concentration camp for eight… years as Hitler’s own personal prisoner; 
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer [who taught at the Confessing Church’s seminary], suffered a martyr’s death… just days before the Second World War ended. ( William Stacy Johnson quoting Eberhard Busch, “Confessional Witness and Its Challenge,” The Presbyterian Outlook, Vol. 183, No. 18, May 14, 2001, p 9.)

There are not many crises that demand this kind of protest of faith. As the Book of Confessions describes these moments, 

[T]he church writes confessions of faith when it faces a situation of life or a situation of death so urgent that it cannot remain silent but must speak, even at the cost of its own security, popularity, and success. ( “Confessional Nature of the Church Report,” Book of Confessions, p vii.)

These confessions are not simply banal restatements of what everybody already thinks is true. These are written for turning points in the life of the church, in the life of faith. 

Sometimes the word the church speaks is one of unity and reconciliation to a fragmented world, as we heard last week in the Confession of 1967. And sometimes, as with Barmen or Belhar, the word of the Confessions is a warning that unity itself is a danger, if unity silences the Gospel itself. 

Which leads me to wonder: what testimony is needed for our time? In light of the conflict in our world today, what should we be saying as Christians? In a tense political climate, what should we being proclaiming in the church today? I don’t have the answers, though I know this much: we can’t be making proclamations about everything, or we will stand for nothing. 

And yet… there are times when we must speak, to claim the love of God not just for some but for all. There are times when we must speak, to reclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ from those who would co-opt it for their own purpose. There are times when we must speak, to hold ourselves accountable to the Spirit of truth, against evil cloaked in the guise of faith. 

Our Lord is greater than any leader, any nation, or even our own agenda. This is the courageous word of those who came before us, who confessed the faith, no matter what the cost. 

Thanks be to God.