Grace Presbyterian Church
July 29, 2018, Pentecost 10B
Barmen Declaration – Church Against State
This passage is what I call “second-hand familiar.” In this case it’s right next to a very familiar scripture – verse 11, “I am the good shepherd” – and it even contains one of Jesus’s famous “I am” sayings in verse 7. All the talk about sheep sounds famiiar. But it’s not quite the passage we think it is.
As is so often the case in this particular gospel, Jesus is warning his disciples against the Pharisees, a particular segment of the religious leadership of the time. In this case he uses that familiar sheep talk to speak of those who are not the shepherd of the sheep, but – as he calls such – a “bandit” or a “thief.” By verse 10 Jesus has quite harsh words for such persons: “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Despite Jesus’s best efforts to explain these things to his disciples, they seem to have had difficulty when he spoke of these things, particularly in parables. Sad to say that the generations of disciples that have followed across the nearly two millennia of the church’s history haven’t always done much better; false leaders, especially within the church, have far too often succeeded in leading the church, particularly or collectively, down wrong and hurtful paths, and the church has been an agent for harm more than for God’s kingdom.
It’s easy to think of individual examples – the infamous Westboro Baptist “Church” out in Kansas comes to mind. But today’s confession leads us to an example of a church being misled not locally, but on a national scale.
The Theological Declaration of Barmen (the full official title was even longer) was created at a moment in the history of the church in Germany when, possibly to a degree not seen in ages, the church faced a particularly intense and focused kind of pressure to conform to the desires and commands of a particular government and its ruler, or to find itself replaced. Furthermore, even as early as 1934 it was becoming clear that the government of Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist (or Nazi) party was serious when it spoke of Jews in the most vile terms possible and insisted that the “purification of the race” was the only answer to achieving German greatness. As early as 1932 the theologian Paul Tillich had warned that a church, “to the extent that it justifies nationalism and an ideology of blood and race by a doctrine of divine orders of creation, … surrenders its prophetic basis in favor of a new manifest or veiled paganism and betrays its commission to be a witness for the one God and the one mankind.”
By 1933, the situation in Germany and in the German church had become dire enough that a group of twenty-one pastors gathered in the city of Altona to issue a declaration in reaction to the “German Christians” movement that explicitly tied their Christianity to extreme German nationalism. When the government later that year moved to form an official “Reich church,” and moved against those pastors who opposed that formation, events came to a head with plans for a synod of pastors in the city of Barmen in late may 1934. Commissioned to prepare a statement for the synod to approve were three theological leaders: Thomas Breit, Hans Asmussen, and Karl Barth. They were charged to work from scripture and the confessions we’ve been studying the past few weeks in their writing.
The final product was mostly written by Barth, with additions and editing by Asmussen and then by the full synod. In Barth’s view the purpose of the document was not to create some kind of unified church, but for three churches to confess their faith on the basis of scripture and ancient confessions in the face of current compelling error. Thus this document stands apart from those earlier confessions as focused on a particular moment and issue, rather than serving as an educational or constitutional work.
While the Barmen Declaration certainly opposed the regime of Adolf Hitler, that was not necessarily its primary focus. You might remember a brief mention of a much longer title? That title was “Theological Declaration Concerning the Present Situation of the German Evangelical Church.” (emphasis mine) Those churches that had chosen to align themselves to Hitler and the Nazi regime and to, in effect, take their orders from him and them, were the targets of this confession.
The declaration is structured, after its introductory material, according to the pattern of: a statement from scripture, a theological declaration drawn from that scripture, and a rejection of the false doctrine that had been embraced by the German Christian Church that stood against that scripture and theological declaration. While reading the whole, relatively brief document is recommended, one gets a pretty strong sense of the tone and intent of the document by reading those rejections:
-We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.
-We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords – areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.
-We reject the false doctrine, as though the church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.
-We reject the false doctrine, as though the church, apart from this ministry, could and were permitted to give to itself, or allow to be given to it, special leaders vested with ruling powers (that is, given from outside the church).
-We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the church’s vocation as well.
-We reject the false doctrine, as though the church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.
-We reject the false doctrine, as though the church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.
Nothing soft about any of those statements, is there? This declaration is firm in its charges against the German Christians, pointing out errors in giving over authority to the State and taking unto itself characteristics and authority given by the State rather than any church authority (much less God).
So, how relevant can this document be today? More than would be wished.
While certain religious leaders have shown unseemly devotion to the current president and administration, it is not the case that any churches have en masse attached themselves to this or any government in any way. Still, though, undue attachment or pressure for any church to conform to presidential or governmental authority is to be interrogated firmly and called out relentlessly, from scripture and from the tradition of the church, in our case as identified in the confessions like this one. In particular, attempts to equate the current or any president to some kind of biblical deliverer figure, as if this nation had any business equating itself with the biblical kingdom of Israel, are grotesque at best, blasphemous at worst, and too close to those German Christians for comfort, and must not be allowed to stand.
This can be awfully uncomfortable for us. We’re pretty accustomed to thinking of Our Country as “special” to God, when you get right down to it. Maybe even “chosen,” despite the fact that we somehow aren’t in the Bible. It’s a slippery slope from such presumed privilege to wholesale appropriation, and from the Savior to all-too-human saviors and all-too-human errors.
The “Confessing Church” that gathered around the Barmen Declaration warns us against that. Only one God. Only one Savior. Only one Spirit. Only one Word. Ours is to call out leaders and governments, not to sell out to them. Whenever we confuse the two, we are no longer any church of Jesus Christ.
For the call to faithfulness and resistance, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #49, The God of Abraham Praise; #335, The Foolish in Their Hearts Deny (Psalm 14); #365, God Reigns! Let Earth Rejoice!; #383, Dream On, Dream On
Note about the featured image: created for the 50th anniversary of the Barmen Declaration, the sculpture (more information here) features, seen from one face (below), a crowd of figures giving the too-familiar one-armed Nazi salute: from the opposite face (above), figures are seen not saluting, but looking towards the church where the Barmen Declaration was signed.