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In the 1930s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of Germany’s most famous pastors and theologians—at a time when German clergy were increasingly capitulating and buying into Hitler’s anti-Semitism. Bonhoeffer joined the Confessing Church, a movement resisting Nazism, and eventually joined a plot to assassinate Hitler.

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The Barmen Declaration


The Barmen Declaration of 1934 was a call to resistance against the theological claims of the German Christian movement. The German Evangelical Church had given its support to the Nazi state following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. In opposition to the pro Nazi Evangelicals, the Confessing Church movement was born with the Barmen Declaration as their founding document. Written primarily by Karl Barth, the Barmen Declaration was grounded in Barth’s theological conviction that God cannot be made to serve nationalistic interests, God can only rule the nations. Among the original signers of the Barmen Declaration were Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller. Of the 18,000 Protestant pastors in Nazi Germany, 3,000 became members of the Confessing Church.


Barmen Declaration

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 Corinthians 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.” Ephesians 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.” Matthew 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 (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.

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From the beginning, then, I was associated with Bonhoeffer’s training of ministers for the Confessing church. A close friendship resulted, and I accompanied him wherever he lived and worked. In 1940 I followed him him to Berlin, where I often stayed at his parents’ house, and in 1943 I married Renate Schleicher, the daughter of Bonhoeffer’s sister Ursula, who lived next door. Finally, he and I conducted an illegal correspondence that began after Bonhoeffer had survived the first dangerous series of interrogations in Tegel military prison. Eventually, this correspondence led to worldwide discussion. I also saw him several times in Tegel prison, until our contact was finally broken off as a result of my own arrest in October 1944. The Gestapo explored my relation with the Schleicher family, but neglected to investigate my ties to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Thus, I survived!

~ Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Preface to the First English Edition), xv.

This was fun…

Dorospirit - this pretty much sums me up!

I sometimes talk about Dietrich Bonhoeffer in my services, church meetings etc. He was an inspirational person!

But then I thought sometimes it’s a bit boring to just talk about someone’s biography. So instead, I created a quiz.

These are my questions (and I had fun making up some of the answers!!):

Bonhoeffer Quiz:

  1. Bonhoeffer’s father was
    a) a Lutheran minister
    b) a butcher and an atheist
    c) a psychiatrist and a Christian
  2. Because he was too young to be ordained after he finished his studies in theology (he had 2 PhDs and was a University Lecturer before the age of 25!), Bonhoeffer spent some time studying in:
    a) the USA
    b) the UK
    c) Switzerland
  3. While he was in the States, Bonhoeffer attended and was deeply inspired by
    a) a Presbyterian Church in Texas
    b) a Methodist Church in Florida
    c) an African-American Baptist Church in Harlem
  4. Bonhoeffer was

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Hundreds of Christians resisted the Nazification of the Church in Germany…

“Some 807…pastors and leading laymen were arrested of the ‘Confessional Church’ were arrested in 1937, and hundreds more in the next couple of years. If the resistance of the (Martin) Niemoeller wing of the church was not completely broken, it was certainly bent. As for the majority of the Protestant pastors, they like almost everyone else in Germany, submitted in the face of Nazi terror.”  

(William L ShirerThe Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 1960 ed., 331).

The Confessing Church was an active resistance movement attempting to re-establish the Church in all its fidelity to God’s Word. Eventually the Confessing Church declared the German Church, from which it was splitting further every week, heretical and no longer the Church of Christ.  

(William Kuhns, In Pursuit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer49).

Opposition from with the Church to Hitler‘s encroachments was not long in coming. Once the more perceptive and committed Church leaders saw the direction events were taking, they formed a synod, which created the Pastors Emergency League. Originally numbering 2,000 pastors, this League provided a temporary basis for later, more highly organized resistance.  

(William Kuhns, In Pursuit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer49).

by Robin W. Lovin

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Foremost among the theological influences on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s generation was the development of the Confessing Church. German Protestant Christianity was not a particularly likely place for resistance to develop. There was a traditional Protestant deference to secular authority — the enthusiastic nationalism of the old Prussian “union of throne and altar” — along with the lack of a natural law understanding of the world that could provide a critique of tyranny in moral terms. Nevertheless, for Bonhoeffer and his contemporaries the church was the place where their resistance started. The key to their thinking was the idea of a church that would be faithful to the historic Reformation confessions and resist the incursions of Nazi organization and ideology.

In 1934, a gathering of Protestant pastors, led primarily by Karl Barth, met in the German city of Barmen and announced that they were organizing themselves as a Confessing Church, outside the framework of the state churches Hitler was trying to control. For them, they declared, this was not a matter of creating a new church. They were the true church of the Reformation.

Bonhoeffer was not present at the Barmen gathering, but he quickly became one of its younger leaders, and he spent most of the rest of the decade of the 1930s as director of a Confessing Church seminary, operating under increasing scrutiny and constraint by the Nazi authorities. It is to this period that we owe two of his most accessible and popular works, LIFE TOGETHER and PRAYERBOOK OF THE BIBLE.

The Confessing Church maintained a courageous resistance to Hitler’s decree that every German institution had to reorganize itself in conformity with National Socialist policies. Simply by its continued presence, the church defied the ideology that every person and every institution exists to serve the nation at the command of the Fuehrer. “The Body of Christ takes up space on earth,” as Bonhoeffer put it in THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP. “That is a consequence of the Incarnation.”

In Bonhoeffer’s context, insisting that the church takes up space was a political statement, susceptible to interpretation along classical Lutheran lines in which the secular ruler is entitled to obedience in everything except matters of faith, which may be interpreted in such a way that they take up very little space, indeed. By 1938, most Confessing Church pastors had taken some form of loyalty oath to Hitler.

Bonhoeffer remained a loyal pastor in the Confessing Church through the years leading up to the war and, indeed, through his participation in the conspiracy against Hitler and his arrest and imprisonment.

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Should Dietrich Bonhoeffer be considered a “martyr”? Well, it depends what kind of martyr we are talking about? Craig J. Slane, in his book, Bonhoeffer as Martyrwrote that…

… Detlev Daedlow… stipulates that while Bonhoeffer may be a political-secular martyr he is not an ecclesiastical one–a distinction dating at least to the time of the Reformation, and a provocative one coming from someone who himself a member of the Confessing Church (31-32).

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer decided to return to Germany from New York City, he said he had obtained “an important insight for all future decisions.” The problem is that we d no not know what that “insight” was.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Yet a precise justification for the decision is no where to be found. Instead there are a plurality of concerns: his desire to be in contact with friends in the Confessing Church in Germany, the need to share in the suffering of his people, possibilities for participation in the reconstruction of German life after the war, the joy of “working at home,” and finally “the other; that I am trying to suppress,” a cryptic allusion that seems to reveal already his intent to enter the resistance. Bonhoeffer can name “reasons” easily if asked, but these seem inadequate to him. He seems unable to summon forth the deepest reason and assign a name to it.

Perhaps that is because it is a decision of faith, or a decision of the heart, emanating more from character than from rational calculation. Inwardly, in a storm of soul, Bonhoeffer had become aware that his current path (remaining in America) was not the path of discipleship as he had come to understand it. At least at this moment, the path of discipleship was heading away from a land of academic opportunities.   

 (Craig J. SlaneBonhoeffer as Martyr: Social Responsibility and Modern Christian Commitment20-21).

August 2019
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