May 30 is the best day to commemorate the Theological Declaration of Barmen, the document in which the Confessing Church in Germany in 1934 drew the line against the steadily-advancing incursions of Nazi ideology into the life of the church. Karl Barth was the primary author of most of the text of the short confession of faith, which has been widely recognized as a classic statement on the limits of government interference in the church’s mission.
Each of the six theses of Barmen follow the format: Scripture passage, theological affirmation, theological denial. They move, therefore, toward more specific application to the charged situation of 1934. Sometimes quoting the Bible doesn’t get the point across; sometimes even saying what you take the Bible to mean by the words you are quoting doesn’t get the point across. Sometimes nobody can tell what point you’re trying to make until you follow the line of thought all the way out to being explicit about what you deny.
So in the sixth and final article, after quoting the Biblical statements that the church is to teach the nations what Christ has commanded, and that the word of God is not bound, Barmen affirms: “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.”
And then the declaration follows that with the necessary denial: “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.” In 1934, the Confessing Church was guarding itself against “arbitrarily chosen desires” having to do with a neo-pagan religion of German racial greatness. But what makes the statement classic is that it is so sharply phrased that it cuts to the heart of a myriad of church problems.
Once when my family had recently moved to a new town, we were in our “find a good church” phase of church visiting. We tried a nearby mainline church and could tell immediately that the people in charge had no idea why Christians are supposed to gather together on Sunday morning. They had a variety of good causes to support, and were generally very positive, uplifting people with an encouraging message. But it wasn’t the gospel, so we left after one visit and never looked back. In retrospect, I suppose I knew in advance what goes on in most mainline churches, but I get optimistic anytime I see the name of the denomination where I got saved.
For a few Sundays we attended an evangelical church that did a much better job at proclaiming the message of Christ, but one Sunday we were surprised to find the entire service structured around affirming the giftings of people in the congregation who had physical disabilities. I was moved by the stories I heard, and I could see the value of taking special time for this good cause. What I couldn’t see, though, was sacrificing the main weekly meeting to do so. When the people of God gather around the word of God, they are supposed to know what to do. They are not supposed to have free days on their calendar to devote to a variety of good causes that occur to them.
That’s when Barmen echoed in my ears: “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.” Affirming people with disabilities is a good thing to do. But compared to a clear, faithful, and consistent proclamation of what the Bible is about, it seems like such an arbitrarily chosen purpose. Aren’t there about 50 other good causes that we could devote other Sundays to? And if so, will we ever get around to the Word and work of the Lord for its own sake?
The Barmen Declaration’s great value is its powerful reminder that the Church already has a commission. It is not looking around the modern world to find out what it should do. We have been told what to do: Teach the nations what Christ has commanded us, because he is with us to the end of the world, and the word of God is not bound.