Lessons From the Reich Church (Part 4 of 6)
The 1930s and 40s in Germany are remembered as a particularly dark time for humanity, as millions of lives- Jews, the mentally retarded, and other so-called undesirables- were lost to the twisted ethos of National Socialism. One aspect that is difficult to understand today is the way that many common citizens, including the German Evangelical Church, were complicit in the Nazis’ rise- from pledging allegiance to Hitler to adopting the Aryan Paragraph and the Nuremberg Laws. We are posting a series of articles considering five mistakes made by the German Christians in the years leading up to World War II.
3. Misunderstanding Separation of Church and State
You may count me among those who believe in the ‘wall of separation’ between church and state. This is as much for the protection of the church as for the state. In the example of the German church, when the government started moving in an un-biblical direction, there were too many entanglements of money, power, and culture for the Church to make a clean break and act as a prophetic voice.
The Protestant Reich Church was created in 1933 to unify Germany’s regional churches into one state church, whose doctrine would be compatible with National Socialism. This led to the departure from orthodoxy that I have detailed in previous installments. The Confessing Church, created to preserve true Christianity in Germany and of which Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a leader, denounced the Reich Church in no uncertain terms in the Barmen Declaration, written at a Confessing Church synod in May 1934. A few excerpts from this document:
8.18 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.
8.22 “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 tasks of providing for justice and peace…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.
I think that this is a very good explanation of the different spheres in which the State and Church are to operate. Of course, the freedom that each enjoys from the other is only good if each uses it in a Biblical way; government leaders should behave justly, with mercy and restraint, and church leaders should recognize the government’s God-given authority while being a prophetic voice against injustice. Separation of Church and State in a non-Biblical context is no better than what happened to the German Church in WWII. Eric Metaxas writes further about Bonhoeffer’s view:
“When the state is trying to encroach upon the church, this is a proper sphere of concern. But for Bonhoeffer, the idea of limiting the church’s actions to this sphere alone was absurd. The church had been instituted by God to exist for the whole world. It was to speak into the world and to be a voice in the world, so it had an obligation to speak out against things that did not affect it directly.” (280)
If we limit the Church’s actions to purely internal affairs, we doom it to insignificance. Theology and the scholarly bits of Christian life are important, but as faith without works is dead, theology without praxis is pointless. And in this case, I believe it contributed to the deaths of many.