In 1933, the national synod of the German Protestant churches endorsed the Nazi party. The churches unified into a new organization called the German Evangelical Church, which was known colloquially as the Reichskirche, or the “Reich Church.”
In response, a group of theologians and churchmen formed what they called the Confessing Church. One of the key figures in this confessing church was a young professor of theology at the University of Berlin, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And though he was young, he was wise and mature beyond his years. He was able to see not only the problems with the Nazi Party and where it was going to eventually take Germany, but also the significant problems that result when the church aligns itself with a political party or a political ideology.
In response to the Reichskirche, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the Bethel Confession, which was not well received. But the next year, 1934, a new and important document, called the Barmen Declaration, took its place.
The Barmen Declaration was drafted by a group of German churchmen, theologians, and leaders in the city of Barmen in May 1934. The statement contains a number of articles and ends with six items that they called “evangelical truths.”
The first article declares that the impregnable foundation of the German evangelical church is the gospel of Jesus Christ as it is revealed in the Holy Scripture and which came to light again in the creeds of the Reformation. Here, the authorities that the church needs for her mission are defined and limited. This first article of the Barmen Declaration sets out that Jesus Christ is the sole authority of the church. Any other relationship that the church has—and in this case we’re thinking of the relationship between church and state—needs to be seen in light of that relationship of the church to Jesus Christ.
After the articles come the six evangelical truths. In these statements, we see a very clear statement regarding the church and the state. The fifth evangelical truth declares: “The Bible tells us that according to divine arrangement, the state has the responsibility to provide for justice and peace in the yet unredeemed world.” The statement goes on to say how the church recognizes, with thanksgiving toward God, the benevolence of this provision. And then the statement says this:
The church reminds men of God’s kingdom, God’s commandment and righteousness, and thereby the responsibility of rulers and the ruled. She trusts and obeys the power of the Word through which God maintains all things. We repudiate the false teaching that the state can and should expand beyond its special responsibility to become the single and total order of human life and also thereby fulfill the commission of the church.
These theologians recognized that in identifying with the Nazi Party, the church would not be influencing the political realm; it would be the exact opposite. The political realm would overtake the church; the Nazi party would dictate to the church her practices, beliefs, and values.
These theologians at Barmen took a bold step in declaring the church’s sole allegiance to Jesus Christ and a biblical view of the relationship between the church and state. It’s a fascinating document from church history and it has much to teach us as we think about these matters today.