Yesterday, I introduced you to “The Barmen Declaration.” I did this in the light of my consideration of what social strategy the church ought to take in the public square of modern America. In this amazingly simple, but deeply profound, statement we see that these Christians in Nazi Germany refused to call for a sectarian division in the visible church. They did not attack the visible church but called it to repentance. These were not sectarian voices, voices we hear regularly in our American context.
“The Barmen Declaration” ends with these words:
8.22 – 5. “Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:17.)
Scripture tells us that, in the as yet unredeemed world in which the Church also exists, the State has by divine appointment the task of providing for justice and peace. [It fulfills this task] by means of the threat and exercise of force, according to the measure of human judgment and human ability. The Church acknowledges the benefit of this divine appointment in gratitude and reverence before him. It calls to mind the Kingdom of God, God’s commandment and righteousness, and thereby the responsibility both of rulers and of the ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word by which God upholds all things.
8.23 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.
8.24 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.
8.25 – 6. “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matt. 28:20.) “The word of God is not fettered.” (2 Tim. 2:9.)
8.26 The Church’s commission, upon which its freedom is founded, consists in delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ’s stead, and therefore in the ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and sacrament.
8.27 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.
8.28 The Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church declares that it sees in the acknowledgment of these truths and in the rejection of these errors the indispensable theological basis of the German Evangelical Church as a federation of Confessional Churches. It invites all who are able to accept its declaration to be mindful of these theological principles in their decisions in Church politics. It entreats all whom it concerns to return to the unity of faith, love, and hope.
Note well the exclusive, or non-inclusive, nature of what “Barmen” says about the church in Germany (The visible church of Germany was Lutheran and, to a lesser extent, Roman Catholic.). It argues that it is imperative that the churches first hear rightly in order to do what is right. The claims of Christ’s Lordship extend to all spheres of life thus the church should never adjust its message to the imperials claims of Caesar, whether he/she is conservative or liberal. In their case this meant Hitler but in ours the context and call will vary based on who has power and how they are using it.
Anabaptist John Howard Yoder reflected upon Barmen some years ago, and in doing so on the familiar typology of Richard Niebuhr’s classic book, Christ and Culture. Yoder, an Anabapitst scholar, suggested that there were really three models of the church that we could see in terms of our serving Christ faithfully in the world of political power. Yoder distinguished between what he called an “activist” church, and an “conversionist” church. The third category he called, following the language of Barmen, the “confessing church.” Exploring these three models in the light of the modern American church, and our role in culture in this new century, can prove helpful I believe.
The activist church is concerned with building a better society. The reformation and renewal of the church is not central, though it has a place in some instances. Christians as persons, and with them the whole church, should aim for humanizing the social structures of the world by seeing God at work in the movements for change that will improve culture and establish justice in society. As we see movements arise in history, such as the civil rights movement (which provides a marvelous positive model of this idea), we should embrace these movements and moments as the leading of the Holy Spirit. In so doing we will be on the right side of history, at least hopefully. The difficulty, say Hauerwas and Willimon, is that the activist church appears to lack the theological insight to judge history for itself. “Its politics becomes a sort of religiously glorified liberalism” (Resident Aliens, 45).
I think the massive failure of much of the ecumenical movement in the second half of the twentieth century can be traced directly to this lack of a robust theology of sin and grace. Ecumenism tended to become “thin” when it needed to be “thick.” The ecumenism pursued in the first half of the century had been much more deeply in touch with theology, particularly the theology of sin and grace. Further, this mainstream ecumenical movement would soon become (primarily) a movement for social justice. This was very often understood through the paradigms of liberationist economic and social movements. This paradigm led to repeated calls for the churches to stand for ideas that sounded much more like Marxism and socialism than confessional Christianity. There were good reasons for the ecumenical church to oppose some of the false ideologies of states and dictators who challenged peace and justice but the method was increasingly not about Jesus but about a social agenda almost indistinguishable from that of the far left. The problem was not so much the challenge these church leaders offered as it was the solutions, solutions with far too much confidence in our human role in creating history as Christians. This led to the growing irrelevance of much modern ecumenism until the Catholic Church engaged the subject in the 1960s at Vatican II.