The Evangelical “Confessing Church” Opposed Nazism

https://www.1517.org/articles/the-birth-of-the-confessing-church

Many people confuse “fundamentalist” Christianity with Nazism, but nothing could be further from the truth! Members of the Confessing Church, led by Martin Niemoeller (founder of the Pastors’ Emergency League), Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Karl Barth, were initially supportive of Nazism, but over time they could see the danger Hitler posed and joined together to write the Theological Declaration of Barmen: An Appeal to the Evangelical Congregations and Christians in Germany. Written in May of 1934, they began to see that Germany was heading towards disaster and tried to warn their fellow Christians to not be a part of it.

They encouraged Bible-believers and said that since the church was taking their “stand upon Scripture, then let no fear or temptation keep you from treading with us the path of faith and obedience to the Word of God.”[14]

The signers of the Barmen Declaration opposed the “German Christians of the present Reich government.” They declared that “Jesus was the way, the truth, and the life,” and they rejected . .

“. . . 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.”[15]

Theirs was a declaration of faithfulness to the Word of God rather than to the philosophies of men. They also argued that the church was not an organ of the state, that they weren’t willing to submit to anyone other than Jesus as their Lord, and that the church wasn’t subject to any prevailing ideologies, but instead had a timeless message of faith, hope, and love.

All three of the writers of the Barmen Declaration suffered as a result of their stand. Niemoeller was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps for seven years and narrowly escaped execution. He was arrested for opposing the false church that had developed in Germany, and lamented that “forty-three out of the forty-six professors of theology on our university faculties are German Christians, teaching that Christ was an Aryan.”[16] He challenged the pastors of the Confessing Church with these words:

Either we are to have an evangelical church based on God’s Word and faith in Christ or we are to have a religious association (the new German national church) based on a new revelation which has confused the duties of church and state and which must entirely forfeit its claim to call itself the Protestant church . . . either we are followers of Christ, or we are to take the road which surrenders bit by bit the truth revealed in the Bible and ends in a substitute faith in Germany.[17]

In one of Niemoeller’s last sermons entitled “The Salt of the Earth,” he prefaced his message by reading a long list of the names of pastors who had already been arrested. His final communion service, he said, was attended by three Hitler Youth “who came in their official capacity to spy . . . who were assuredly baptized once in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and vowed loyalty to their Savior at the confirmation altar.”[18] Niemoeller was grieved for the young men because he recognized that Nazism was a form of betrayal to Jesus.

Bonhoeffer was hanged in a concentration camp after being arrested on many allegations of Nazi resistance, the foremost of those being that he helped the Jews.

The stand against Hitler that was taken by the Confessing Church was confusing to the atheist Christopher Hitchens. It didn’t fit in with his worldview that “religion poisons everything,” so he attempted to argue that Niemoeller and Bonhoeffer were merely motivated by “conscience” to oppose the Nazis:

Many Christians gave their lives to protect their fellow creatures in this midnight of the century, but the chance that they did so on orders from any priesthood is statistically almost negligible. This is why we revere the memory of the very few believers, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoeller, who acted in accordance only with the dictates of conscience.[19]

But, in one of his last writings, Bonhoeffer reflected on what caused a person to be able to stand against evil.

Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God [emphasis added]—the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God. Where are these responsible people?[20]

Contrary to what Hitchens claimed, it wasn’t Bonhoeffer’s conscience that gave him the ability to stand against evil, rather it was his desire to be a responsible man in an obedient and faithful relationship with God.

During his time in a concentration camp, Bonhoeffer wrote a poem that described the struggle he was having with his identity as a prisoner. Was he the confident man everyone saw on the outside, or was he the “contemptible woebegone weakling” he felt he was on the inside? He felt taunted by doubts, but the last lines of his poem are an encouragement for any person who is uncertain about their faith during a time of intense testing:

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine![21]

Karl Barth, who was largely responsible for writing the Barmen Declaration, and was a professor at the University of Bonn, was exiled for not taking an oath of loyalty to Hitler. He was arrested by the Nazis in front of his classroom and it was reported that he shouted back to his students: “Exegesis! Exegesis! Exegesis!” In other words: “Sound doctrine! Sound doctrine! Sound doctrine!”

In the Barmen Declaration, the authors reminded their flock that Jesus would never leave them, nor forsake them. Therefore, they encouraged their followers with the words of Jesus:

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” – Luke 12:32, KJV

Members of the Confessing Church were able to be heroic because they were committed to something higher than the Third Reich.  They had a hope for a future kingdom of love and justice.

There were many individual heroes who acted valiantly during the Nazi era. Bible-believing Christians, Corrie ten Boom and her family, hid Jews in their home (which also served as a clock shop) and, as a result, spent time at the Ravensbruck concentration camp, where her sister died, and Corrie was only released due to an administrative error. The family home is now a museum which commemorates the courage and faithfulness of the ten Boom family.

Pastor Von Bodelschwingh, who was active in the Confesssing Church, was head of the charitable community at Bethel-Bielefield and “barred with his body the efforts of the Nazis to remove deformed children from his institution in order to exterminate them.”[22] Von Bodelschwingh has had three German commemorative stamps issued in his name because he acted heroically during the Nazi era.

Hans and Sophie Scholl, calling themselves the “White Rose,” opposed the Third Reich in Munich. Brother and sister, both in college, they were inspired by their faith to oppose Hitler’s tyranny. They distributed leaflets which read:

Everywhere and at all times of greatest trial men have appeared, prophets and saints who cherished their freedom, who preached one true God and who with His help brought the people to a reversal of their downward course. Man is free, to be sure, but without the true God he is defenseless against the principle of evil . . . We must attack evil where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler . . . we will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace.[23]

Hans and Sophie were arrested, interrogated, and beheaded for opposing Hitler, but they, along with countless other believers, remained faithful to God and His Word.

Even people who had no outward expression of faith, such as Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler, were heroic in their kindness to the Jews, but most of the religious community compromised and went along with Nazi ideology.

Nazi Germany stands as a warning to any nation to “take heed, lest you fall” (1 Cor. 10:12, KJV). Putting philosophy, science, political ideology, or any other form of human knowledge over the revelation of God will open Pandora’s Box, and after that “everything would be permitted” (as Dostoyevsky claimed in The Brothers Karamazov).[24] Gas chambers, war, dictatorship, eugenics, concentration camps, and even genocide can be justified when there is no longer a biblical anchor for the soul of a nation. (As we’ve seen over and over in history, tyrants might still use the name of Jesus, but if they develop a new kind of Christianity, which isn’t centered on sound doctrine, just like Adolph Hitler, their self-righteousness while committing horrendous cruelty will know no bounds.)

Skeptics who insist that Hitler was a Christian because he mentions Hegel/Herder’s conception of God, or because liberal churches were infused with Nazi symbolism, show that they have a shallow understanding of history. Nazism was brought about by leaving the fundamentals of the faith, and those members of the faithful church who believed that the Bible was the Word of God, even if it cost them their life, formed the only internally organized opposition to Adolph Hitler and his evil Nazi regime. So, when someone makes the  claim that fundamentalist Christians are “far-right” fascists or Nazis, remember—the greatest opposition to Hitler and his Nazi regime came from those who were committed to the truth of the Scriptures.

Notes:

[14] Arthur C. Cochrane, “The Theological Declaration of Barmen,” The Church’s Confession Under Hitler (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), 237-242.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Basil Miller, Martin Niemoeller: Hero of the Concentration Camp, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1943), 127.

[17] Ibid., 122.

[18] Ibid., p.132.

[19] Hitchens, God Is Not Great, 241.

[20] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Touchstone, 1977), 4-5.

[21] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, rev. ed. (New York: MacMillan, 1963), 20.

[22] Stewart Winfield Herman. Report from Christian Europe (New York: Friendship Press, 1953), 54.

[23] Robert Ellsberg, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses For Our Time (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2005), 88.

[24] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett (New York: Lowell Press, 2009), 665. Project Gutenberg. Accessed Oct. 7, 2019.  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/28054/28054-h/28054-h.html#toc175.

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