In Germany there has been a long-standing tradition of cooperation between church and state. When Hitler initially came to power in 1933, many German churchgoers supported him because he promised to bring Germany out of the depressed situation she found herself in after WWI. In order to consolidate power, the Nazi Party attempted to unify all churches into a single, pro-Nazi church that would “sanctify” the teachings and program of the Nazi Party, and many professing believers even supported this move. Pro-Nazi church members became a group known broadly as the “German Christians,” and they eventually gained control of the German Evangelical Church, the country’s largest Protestant church, having most of Germany’s 40 million Protestants. (Germany also had about 20 million Catholics as well as a few smaller Protestant groups.) The Nazis put forward Ludwig Müller as the Reichsbischof (“imperial bishop”), and, in essence, the Protestant church in Germany became an arm of the Nazi Party.
Under the Nazi-controlled church, Hitler and the Nazi Party exercised ultimate authority. However, from within the German Evangelical Church another group emerged in opposition to the German Christians. This group maintained that the final authority was Christ, not any earthly ruler. This group, the Confessing Church, regarded itself as the true church in Germany, as they honored no one other than Christ as the Head. The Confessing Church’s primary contention with the German Christians and the Nazis was not any specific practice or policy (i.e., racism or genocide) but that only Christ could have ultimate authority over the church and Christians. The beliefs of the Confessing Church were clarified at the Synod of Barmen and set forth in the Barmen Declaration of 1934:
“‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.’ (John 14.6). ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. . . . I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved’ (John 10:1, 9).
“Jesus Christ, as he is attested for 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 in death.
“We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.
“‘Christ Jesus, whom God has made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption’ (1 Cor. 1:30).
“As Jesus Christ is God’s assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so, in the same way and with the same seriousness he is also God’s mighty claim upon our whole life. Through him befalls us a joyful deliverance from the godless fetters of this world for a free, grateful service to his creatures.
“We reject the false doctrine, as though there were 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.
“‘Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body [is] joined and knit together’ (Ephesians 4:15, 16).
“The Christian Church is the congregation of the brethren in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the Church of pardoned sinners, it has to testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order, that it is solely his property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance.
“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.
“‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant.’ (Matthew 20:25, 26.)
“The various offices in the Church do not establish a dominion of some over the others; on the contrary, they are for the exercise of the ministry entrusted to and enjoined upon the whole congregation.
“We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, apart from this ministry, could and were permitted to give itself, or allow to be given to it, special leaders vested with ruling powers.
“‘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 task 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.
“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.
“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.
“‘Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age’ (Matthew 28:20). ‘The word of God is not fettered’ (2 Timothy 2:9).
“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.
“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.
“The Confessional 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 federation of Confessional Churches. It invites all who are able to accept its declaration to be mindful of these theological principles in their decisions in Church politics. It entreats all whom it concerns to return to the unity of faith, love, and hope.”
Although the primary issue of the Confessing Church regarded supreme authority in the church, many members did speak out against the racism and anti-Semitism of the Nazi Party. The Confessing Church was eventually forced underground by Nazi pressure; many pastors were arrested, and the Confessing seminaries were closed. Perhaps the best-known leaders of the Confessing Church were pastor and professor Dietrich Bonheoffer (executed for his role in a plot to overthrow/assassinate Hitler), pastor Martin Niemöller (imprisoned for seven years for his criticism of Hitler), and theologian Karl Barth (who was deported to his native Switzerland in 1935 for refusing to sign a loyalty oath to Hitler). Within the Confessing Church, there was still a great deal of theological disagreement over issues of importance to evangelicals today, but what united them was their insistence that Christ, not Hitler or any other human leader, could ever exercise authority over the church. After the end of WWII, the Confessing Church was reabsorbed into the larger German Evangelical Church.