The Presbyterian Pulpit

A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 5/24/09
Text: Colossians 1:15-23 (Psalm 33)
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Memorial Day weekend. Celebrated everywhere as the unofficial beginning of summer, but celebrated more importantly as we remember the sacrifice of those who paid the ultimate price in the defense of freedom. This nation owes them an incredible debt, one that can never be repaid.

This morning I want to share with you the account of some heroes with which you might not be so familiar. These heroes were not Americans; they were Germans - pastors, professors, theologians. In an act of tremendous courage, they challenged Hitler in his rise to power, and became a prophetic "voice crying in the wilderness" to alert the world to the danger growing within their own borders. Seventy-five years ago this coming weekend (May 31, 1934), they issued a statement called the Theological Declaration of Barmen announcing to all the world (and particularly to the Nazis) that the Church belonged to Jesus Christ and not to Adolph Hitler.

To understand what led up to this, you need a bit of historical background. First of all, remember that our American concept of the separation of church and state is an AMERICAN concept; to this day, many nations around the world have an OFFICIALLY SANCTIONED state religion with churches and clergy supported through the tax system. Until World War I, this was the case in Germany. However, that relationship was abolished by the German constitution in 1919 (although Lutheran, Reformed, and Roman Catholic churches still received support from civil tax monies). Many in the church wanted a return to the "good old days."

Meanwhile, National Socialism was on the rise and many in the churches jumped on the Nazi bandwagon - they could see no conflict between their Christian commitment and their aspirations for an again-powerful Germany. They were not worried about links between the church and the government - after all, this was their heritage, and the Bible certainly recognizes the role of the state as an instrument of God's good order. They were not even particularly distressed at the Nazi oppression of the Jews - after all Martin Luther himself "wanted Germany rid of the Jews and when they were sent away he advised that they be deprived of `all their cash and jewels and silver and gold' and furthermore, `that their synagogues or schools be set on fire, that their houses be broken up and destroyed...and they be put under a roof or stable, like the misery and captivity as they incessantly lament and complain to God about us' - advice that was literally followed four centuries later by Hitler, Göring and Himmler." (1) Luther was a wonderful man in many ways, but in this area - anti-Semitism - he was awful.

Hitler decided to take advantage of his opportunity and, despite the fact that he was not a religious man himself (he was a nominal Roman Catholic), encouraged the formation of a "German-Christian" church. The "German-Christians" held their first national convention in Berlin April 3, 4 and 5, 1933 and passed the following resolution:
God has created me a German. Germanism is a gift of God. God wants me to fight for my Germany. Military service is in no sense a violation of the Christian conscience, but is obedience to God. The believer possesses the right of revolution against a State that furthers the powers of darkness. He also has this right in the face of a Church board that does not unreservedly acknowledge the exaltation of the nation. For the German the church is the fellowship of believers who are obligated to fight for a Christian Germany. The goal of the "Faith Movement" of "German-Christians" is an evangelical German Reich Church. (2)
A new church constitution was written on the basis of existing confessions of faith and was accepted by state law on July 14, 1933 - essentially, it unified all protestant churches and religious organizations under one national church. The church was now under the control of the state.

This was unacceptable to a number of courageous clergy. A "Pastor's Emergency League" was established (at the behest of a letter from the Rev. Martin Niemöller, pastor of the Dahlem Lutheran congregation in suburban Berlin, to protest what was happening. For Niemöller, this was a difficult step - he had been a U-Boat captain in World War I prior to going into the ministry; he was a patriot who initially supported the rise of Hitler and National Socialism - but now it was becoming evident that the aims of Hitler and the aims of the Christian Church could never be reconciled. By January, 1934, over 7,000 German pastors had joined the League.

In response to the problems, the First Free Reformed Synod met in Barmen-Gemarke, January 3 and 4, 1934 with 320 elders and ministers present. It endorsed a document prepared by a young theologian named Karl Barth called "Declaration Concerning the Right Understanding of the Reformation Confessions of Faith in the German Evangelical Church of the Present." (Catchy titles were not their strong suit.) This was the first anti-Nazi confession by a church body rather than an individual theologian or group of theologians.

On January 4, Ludwig Müller, a former Army chaplain whom Hitler had appointed as Reich Bishop (the ecclesiastical head of the German-Christian Church) issued an order forbidding any public criticism of church administration or discussion of church controversy. O, really? The following Sunday, the Pastor's Emergency League orchestrated statements of protest that were read in over 4,000 German churches.

In an effort to stifle the opposition, Hitler invited 40 prominent church leaders to meet with him on January 25th. He said, "You leave the care of the Third Reich to me and you look after the church." That SOUNDED good, but Hitler still planned to control the church through Reichbishop Müller. As the clergymen were leaving, Martin Niemöller addressed Hitler: "Herr Reichskanzler, you said just now, `I will take care of the German people.' But we too as Christians and churchmen have a responsibility toward the German people. That responsibility was entrusted to us by God, and neither you nor anyone in this world has the power to take it from us." (3) It was downhill from there.

On April 22, the Pastor's Emergency League formed the Constitutional Evangelical Church of Germany (the "Confessing Church" as it became known) and declared it to be the true church within German protestantism. A Synod was called for the end of May and a committee of three men (one of whom was Karl Barth) was appointed to handle the theological preparation to contrast their position with the Reich Church.

On May 29, 1934, 139 youthful clergy and lay representatives (their average age was less than 40) from 18 German provincial churches (Lutheran, Reformed, and United [Lutheran & Reformed]) met in Barmen-Wuppertal as the First Confessing Synod of the German Evangelical Church. They had gathered to protest Nazi interference in the churches and the errors of the "German-Christian" movement. During their three-day meeting, they raised and answered some basic questions: Who is Lord - God or the State? What is the relation of the church to the State? Who or what constitutes revelation?

They began their brief statement with the reasons for their gathering and why they felt compelled to speak out. (4) The second section of the document was entitled "Theological Declaration Concerning the Present Situation of the German Evangelical Church." These were the errors they rejected:

1) Some German-Christians had seen Hitler's rise and his programs as God's way of speaking to the nation. The theologians disagreed - they said only Christ is the revelation of God; what you happen to see around you is not sufficient to discern God's purpose or plan.

2) Some wanted to say the church should keep its nose out of secular affairs. (My word! Can you ever imagine anyone saying such a thing?) The Declaration says NO: Jesus Christ is Lord of ALL, including the "secular."

3) Some wanted these folks to keep quiet and not rock the national boat. But the Declaration states that the church may neither speak nor keep silent for the sake of political expediency. When something must be said, something MUST be said!

4) There are various offices in the life of the Church, but those offices are established for the sake of good order and the exercise of ministry. The State cannot dictate to the church by the appointment those officers.

5) The State has responsibility for providing justice and peace in society. However, the State is NOT responsible for everything, and it cannot usurp the church's role.

6) The Church is called to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus, the message of the free grace of God; the Church does not exist to promote the interests of the State.

The Theological Declaration of Barmen. No statement before had so carefully explained the relationship between a nation and the Church. With the Psalmist they said, "Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord." Not Hitler. Not Roosevelt or Churchill or Stalin or any other human leader.

Then who IS Lord? Listen again to the Apostle Paul in Colossians:
[Jesus Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominions, or rulers or powers - all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Who is Lord? Jesus Christ is Lord! In a nutshell, that is the statement made by the Barmen Declaration. If any other person or any other entity (even the State) is elevated to a position of supreme importance, that is idolatry, and idolatry in any form is sin. No human being or institution may have ultimate authority in our lives. No human ruler or institution may be followed uncritically. It is here that the Church must be willing to take its stand.

Thousands of Christians in Germany in the Nazi years DID take that stand. Some paid for it with their liberty, some with their life. Years after the war, Martin Niemöller (who spent most of that period in the concentration camp at Dachau) reflected on that tragic time. He said,
In Germany they first came for the Communists, and I didn't speak because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up. (5)
It is now three-quarters of a century after Barmen, and the dangers might not be so painfully obvious, but in recent years in America, we have seen some elements of the church align themselves with particular political leaders, promoting partisan positions and ignoring egregious error. The message of history is that is incredibly dangerous. Thus, we must continue to speak up. Barmen is 75, but its work is not done. Remember, Abraham was 75 when he was just getting started.

Jesus Christ is Lord! The world has seen the last of Hitler, but it has not seen the last of Jesus. If we have not met him before, we will encounter him at the end of human history. Scripture says there will come a day when EVERY knee shall bow...and EVERY tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Yes, there will come a day when the Hitlers and Husseins and all the dictators and tyrants, will reluctantly declare that Jesus Christ is Lord! There will come a day when crime will no longer pay because Jesus Christ is Lord. There will come a day when justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream because Jesus Christ is Lord! There will come a day when ALL God's children, red and yellow, black and white, will join in one mighty chorus and sing, Jesus Christ is Lord! There will come a day when all tears are wiped away and there will be no more sorrow or pain or crying or death because Jesus Christ is Lord.

Can you hear it? Down through the corridors of time faintly echo the strains. At first they are almost drowned out by the gunfire and bombs of history's horrors; they are almost overpowered by the screams of rockets and missiles and sirens. But then louder and louder they come and one day the rafters of the universe will resound: "King of Kings and Lord of Lords and He shall reign forever and ever! Hallelujah!" Jesus Christ is Lord! Now and always.


1. William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1960), P. 236

2. Jack Rogers, Presbyterian Creeds, A Guide to the Book of Confessions, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985), p. 182

3. ibid., p. 187

4. Material regarding the text of the Declaration comes from The Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (USA)

5. Quoted by Rogers, p. 196

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