The Birth of the Confessing Church
On Thursday, January 4, 1934, a few hundred pastors and church-office holders congregated in the German town of Barmen. Together, they formed the Pastor’s Emergency League: an underground resistance group who opposed the Nazi movement. They were initially gathered and led by Pastor Martin Niemoeller, as well as Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was just 27 years old at the time.
For two, warm winter days, these men debated how they might respond to a growing faction of Nazi sympathizers in the Church known as the “German Christians.”
The German Christians had quickly grown in popularity throughout Germany the year prior. They altogether omitted the Old Testament from their Bible, since it was a “Jewish book,” and began rewriting the confessions and New Testament with...a German twist. Jesus’ lineage was re-traced to German soil, for instance, and the Ten Commandments were substituted with twelve new ones. Their first commandment was now, “Honor your Fuhrer.”
The men in Barmen agreed that the true German Evangelical Church needed to distance itself and it ought to call attention to heresies that were ravaging the church. But how, since this would only lead to retaliation by the Third Reich? Hitler and his men were best known for quieting detractors by any means necessary. Later that year, Germany would experience the first of many swift, cold-hearted attacks by the Nazis during “The Night of the Long Knives.” Over 85 individuals were murdered in the dead of night for resisting Hitler’s rise to power.
That very same Thursday afternoon, the group received a sobering word: The Reich Bishop of Germany, Ludwig Müller, had issued a decree earlier that morning giving himself the power to dismiss pastors and church officials who opposed the government. On their final day of discussions, this devastating blow caused reality to set in. The group’s public opposition was not just bold, it was illegal.
The German Theologian Karl Barth was also in attendance that sunny Thursday and during a long lunch break, when others had returned to their rooms for some rest, he sat down with a cup of coffee and one or two brazilian cigars and began writing out his thoughts. The focus, he wrote, needed to rest squarely on the revelation of Jesus Christ. This led to the question of authority, which was supremely found in the Word of God. He concluded that anything added by the Nazi movement or otherwise, especially when brought to the same level of authority or reliability as Scripture, ought immediately be rejected.
Pastor Niemoller, who spoke to and led these men, echoed this sentiment: “When bishops err we must not follow...We must obey God before man.”
Many of these pastors would return to Barmen a few months later in May of 1934, and Barth’s notes would serve as the starting point for the Barmen Declaration: A public statement that drew a definitive line in the sand between Christianity and Nationalism and addressed the errors made by the “German Christians.” The final part of this declaration captured the spirit and conviction of their two gatherings, ending powerfully with the phrase, “Verbum Dei manet in aeternum,” or, “The Word of God will last forever.”
That Thursday in January was a turning point for the Pastor’s Emergency League. This declaration would birth the Confessing Church, which held true to the historical confessions of the Christian Church and claimed to be the true Protestant Church of Germany. Pastor Bonhoeffer would be the biggest proponent of this new church body.
In fact, Bonhoeffer saw to it that the entire declaration text be printed in the London Times. It was this megaphone that he hoped would strike the ear of the Church worldwide. The response, unfortunately for him and The Confessing Church, was underwhelming.
A few months later, an ecumenical Church conference was held in Fano, Denmark. Leaders of every denomination joined here in unity to confess the basics tenets of the Christian faith. For Bonhoeffer, this was an opportunity to kill the nationalistic virus that was infecting the German Church once and for all. Surely, he felt, the Barmen Declaration, which was now being widely read, would make clear the incompatibility of Nazism and Christianity. Nonetheless, the German Christian Church leaders were invited freely to participate.
Bonhoeffer, who spoke during one of the sessions, posed a simple but fitting question: “How does peace come about?” He continued by calling on his hearers to be courageous in the face of evil. There was no question who and what he was referring to as he spoke. He had this prevalent heresy in his sights. He closed, saying, “The hour is late…the trumpets of war may blow tomorrow. For what are we waiting?”
Bonhoeffer’s question was met with silence and more waiting. Nonetheless, this lack of urgency renewed Bonhoeffer’s understanding of The Confessing Church’s role in the ongoing struggle. Its voice, which harmonized for the first time on this day in 1934, was desperately needed in Germany. Bonhoeffer and those with him now knew that without question.
As a result, Bonhoeffer would forego his plan to study under Ghandi–something he had longed to do for many years–and instead continue to fight for the true Church at his post in London and eventually back home in Germany.