The Barmen Declaration, 1934

Often times when an individuals or institutions are faced with a challenge or threat there is a statement that one makes in regards to that threat. An institution such as a business may write a Mission Statement to clearly indicate the goals or intent of their work whereas, a person may write to or give a speech in response to the threat that they are facing at the time. Throughout the history of the church pressures and threats came in all forms, the greatest of these prompted the body of the church to take action in the form of declarations, creeds or confessions.


On May 29-31, 1934, representatives from eighteen German provincial churches— Lutheran, Reformed, and United (Lutheran and Reformed)—met in the city of Barmen– Wuppertal as the First Confessing Synod of the German Evangelical Church. They were protesting the interference in the life of the churches by the Nazi government and the Nazi inspired "German Christian" movement. They clarified their faith on the basis of the ancient and Reformation confessions and re-confessed in a new declaration of faith in the face of the concrete errors of the time.

The idolatry of the "German Christians" in giving an ultimate commitment to the state rather than God was recognized as error. They confessed that Jesus Christ, as attested to in Scripture, was proclaimed as the one Word of God and Lord of all life. The Declaration provided the theological basis for the Confessional Church in its stand against the Hitler regime throughout the war. Karl Barth, the chief author of the document, while acknowledging the limits of the Declaration, noted that the church alone offered significant resistance to Hitler.

“In Reformed theology, atheism is not the problem. Idolatry is.” People choose not to acknowledge God as their creator, so they create idols. An idol is any humanly created thing to which people give their ultimate allegiance. When human beings attempt to fulfill their deepest desires for meaning in anything other than God the Creator, they commit idolatry.

The evangelical affirmations of the Barman Declaration all center on the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The church lives and wants to live solely from Jesus' "comfort and his direction in the expectation of his appearance." Reformed theology declares that there is no comfort in conforming to the world. Only in reliance on the Lordship of Jesus Christ is there strength. “Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world-the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches-comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.” (1John 2: 15-17 NRSV)

A particularly dangerous challenge to the church in the 1930s came with the rise of National Socialism in Germany and the development of the German Christian movement that affirmed a belief in Christ based on the "German spirit of Luther" — a belief that regards race, people, and nation as God given orders of life. The German Christians gained power in the churches and excluded non-Aryan ministers from the church. This threat moved a group within the church to confess anew its faith by reclaiming its old confessional heritage and using that heritage to make a new "theological" statement at Barmen, Germany during May, 29-31, 1934.

The center of the church struggle was focused in the affirmation that "Jesus Christ as he attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and death." The declaration clearly rejected that the church would or could listen to any other voice, event or power as the source of its revelation. The church again became an issue, what is the true nature of the true church and who does the church listen to? The Theological Declaration of Barmen affirmed that the church is a congregation of persons in which Christ is the active Lord in Word and Sacrament through the Holy Spirit. The church belongs to Christ and to Christ alone. Quite significantly the ministry of the church is entrusted to the whole congregation and is not one of dominion by any autocratic understanding of ministerial offices. The total church community is the community of ministry and service. Over and against any and all particulars, the life and freedom of the church consists clearly in its delivering the message of free grace to all people.

The Barmen Declaration, 1934, was a call to resistance against the theological claims of the Nazi state. Almost immediately after Hitler's seizure of power in 1933, Protestant Christians faced pressure to "aryanize" the Church, expel Jewish Christians from the ordained ministry and adopt the Nazi "Führer Principle" as the organizing principle of church government. In general, the churches succumbed to these pressures, and some Christians embraced them willingly. The pro-Nazi "German Christian" movement became a force in the church. They glorified Adolf Hitler as a "German prophet" and preached that racial consciousness was a source of revelation alongside the Bible. But many Christians in Germany—including Lutheran and Reformed, liberal and neo-orthodox—opposed the encroachment of Nazi ideology on the Church's proclamation.

At Barmen, this emerging "Confessing Church" adopted a declaration drafted by Reformed theologian Karl Barth and Lutheran theologian Hans Asmussen, which expressly repudiated the claim that other powers apart from Christ could be sources of God's revelation. Not all Christians courageously resisted the regime, but many who did—like the Protestant pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Roman Catholic priest Bernhard Lichtenberg—were arrested and executed in concentration camps. The spirituality of the Barmen Declaration profoundly influenced many of the first generation of pastors and laypeople who formed the United Church of Christ in 1957.

The Barmen Declaration, 1934

Karl Barth
Hans Asmussen

In view of the errors of the "German Christians" and of the present Reich Church Administration, which are ravaging the Church and at the same time also shattering the unity of the German Evangelical Church, we confess the following evangelical truths:

1. "I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me." -- John 14:6
"Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold through the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved." -- John 10:1,9

Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
We reject the false doctrine that the Church could and should recognize as a source of its proclamation, beyond and besides this one Word of God, yet other events, powers, historic figures and truths as God's revelation.

2. "Jesus Christ has been made wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption for us by God." -- 1 Cor. 1:30

As Jesus Christ is God's comforting pronouncement of the forgiveness of all our sins, so, with equal seriousness, he is also God's vigorous announcement of his claim upon our whole life. Through him there comes to us joyful liberation from the godless ties of this world for free, grateful service to his creatures.
We reject the false doctrine that there could be 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.

3. "Let us, however, speak the truth in love, and in every respect grow into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body is joined together."
-- Eph. 4:15-16

The Christian Church is the community of brethren in which, in Word and Sacrament, through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ acts in the present as Lord. With both its faith and its obedience, with both its message and its order, it has to testify in the midst of the sinful world, as the Church of pardoned sinners, that it belongs to him alone and lives and may live by his comfort and under his direction alone, in expectation of his appearing.

We reject the false doctrine that the Church could have permission to hand over the form of its message and of its order to whatever it itself might wish or to the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day.

4. "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to have authority over you must be your servant." -- Matt. 20:25-26

The various offices in the Church do not provide a basis for some to exercise authority over others but for the ministry [lit., "service"] with which the whole community has been entrusted and charged to be carried out.
We reject the false doctrine that, apart from this ministry, the Church could, and could have permission to, give itself or allow itself to be given special leaders [Führer] vested with ruling authority.

5. "Fear God. Honor the Emperor." -- 1 Pet. 2:17

Scripture tells us that by divine appointment the State, in this still unredeemed world in which also the Church is situated, has the task of maintaining justice and peace, so far as human discernment and human ability make this possible, by means of the threat and use of force. The Church acknowledges with gratitude and reverence toward God the benefit of this, his appointment. It draws attention to God's Dominion [Reich], God's commandment and justice, and with these the responsibility of those who rule and those who are ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word, by which God upholds all things.

We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the State should and could become the sole and total order of human life and so fulfil the vocation of the Church as well.
We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the Church should and could take on the nature, tasks and dignity which belong to the State and thus become itself an organ of the State.

6. "See, I am with you always, to the end of the age." -- Matt. 28:20
"God's Word is not fettered." -- 2 Tim. 2:9

The Church's commission, which is the foundation of its freedom, consists in this: in Christ's stead, and so in the service of his own Word and work, to deliver all people, through preaching and sacrament, the message of the free grace of God. We reject the false doctrine that with human vainglory the Church could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of self-chosen desires, purposes and plans.

The Confessing 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 confederation of Confessing Churches. It calls upon all who can stand in solidarity with its Declaration to be mindful of these theological findings in all their decisions concerning Church and State. It appeals to all concerned to return to unity in faith, hope and love.

Verbum Dei manet in aeternum.
The Word of God will last for ever.

Martin Niemöller preached a sermon titled, “Christus ist mein Führer,” or “Christ Is My Leader.” The use of the term “Führer” was intentional, since everybody in Germany referred to Hitler by that title. For Niemöller, “Christ is my Führer” implied its negation, “Hitler is not my Führer,” and for stating this Niemöller spent seven years in Dachau prison camp.

Later, Niemoller spoke about his own witness and said,

First they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out - because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out -because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out -because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me!

The "Confessing Church" had a short life. They managed to protest and resist Hitler and the German state. They helped over 2000 Jews escape. Many of the pastors were arrested and held in prison. Of significant lasting value is their legacy to the larger church in the Barman Declaration. Indeed, by that statement, we can remain strong and standing.

We live in a broken and fearful world. Let us ask the Spirit to encourage us to pray, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture and to remember how important it is to work with others for justice, freedom and peace. Let us neither be afraid, nor cowardly.

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