What Happens When the Church Is Married to Nationalism? Part 4

Post Author: Bill Pratt

The heretical German Christians, in 1933, galvanized Dietrich Bonhoeffer and another German pastor, Martin Niemoller, into action.  They produced a statement that spelled out their grievances with the German Christians.

The statement contained the following four points:

First, it declared that its signers would rededicate themselves to the Scriptures and to the previous doctrinal confessions of the church. Second, they would work to protect the church’s fidelity to Scripture and to the confessions. Third, they would lend financial aid to those being persecuted by the new laws or by any kind of violence. And fourth, they would firmly reject the Aryan Paragraph.

The Aryan Paragraph was legislation that “would prevent pastors of Jewish background who had already been ordained from serving as ministers.”  In other words, nobody who was ethnically Jewish, but who had become a Christian, could serve in the church.

This statement was circulated to all the pastors in the German church, and by the end of 1933, six thousand pastors had signed it.  The pastors who signed the statement became an organization known as the Pastors’ Emergency League.  According to Metaxas, “This was a major first step toward what would soon come to be known as the Confessing Church.”

As the situation with the German Christians continued to worsen, the leaders of the Pastors’ Emergency League decided a complete split was necessary.  Metaxas describes what occurred:

On the last three days of May 1934, the leaders of the Pastors’ Emergency League held a synod in Barmen. It was there, on the Wupper River, that they wrote the famous Barmen Declaration, from which emerged what came to be known as the Confessing Church.  The purpose of the Barmen Declaration was to state what the German church had always believed, to ground it in the Scriptures, and to differentiate it from the bastardized theology that had been coming from the German Christians. It made clear that the German church was not under the authority of the state; it repudiated the anti-Semitism and other heresies of the German Christians and their “official” church led by Müller. 

The Declaration details all of the reasons for why the German Church had apostasized and why the declaration of the Confessing Church was necessary.  Below is an excerpt:

The Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church met in Barmen, May 29–31, 1934. Here representatives from all the German Confessional Churches met with one accord in a confession of the one Lord of the one, holy, apostolic Church. In fidelity to their Confession of Faith, members of Lutheran, Reformed, and United Churches sought a common message for the need and temptation of the Church in our day. . . . It was not their intention to found a new Church or to form a union. . . . Their intention was, rather, to withstand in faith and unanimity the destruction of the Confession of Faith, and thus of the Evangelical Church in Germany. In opposition to attempts to establish the unity of the German Evangelical Church by means of false doctrine, by the use of force and insincere practices, the Confessional Synod insists that the unity of the Evangelical Churches in Germany can come only from the Word of God in faith through the Holy Spirit. Thus alone is the Church renewed.

The Barmen Declaration was subsequently published, in its entirety, in the London Times.  Metaxas explains the impact:

It was incendiary, announcing to the world that a group of Christians in Germany had officially and publicly declared their independence from the Nazified Reichskirche. When one read it, it was easy to understand why they had done so. As Bonhoeffer took great pains to make clear, the Barmen Declaration did not constitute a secession from the “official” German church because calling it a secession would give an appearance of legitimacy to that “official” German church. It was not the Confessing Church that had broken away, but the Reichskirche. The Barmen Declaration signaled that a group of pastors and churches acknowledged, repudiated, and officially distanced themselves from that de facto secession. It reclarified what it—the legitimate and actual German Church—actually believed and stood for.

By making a public stand, many of the leaders and members of the Confessing Church, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller, would be arrested and executed by the Nazis.  Their courage and faith are truly inspirational, and I pray that we, as followers of Jesus Christ, would stand up again when the time comes.

  • Merv-Waage

    Bill: I notice the article says “when the time comes” – not “if the time comes”. Unfortunately, the article is right.
    On another matter, one person had commented that Martin Luther made some outrageous comments about Jews. I ask this person to present citations to support his/her claims.
    Merv Waage