Making Over Christianity
A Case Study

The history of the church in Germany between 1930-1945 provides an excellent case study on how government policy can manipulate the institutional church. Like most major shifts in public policy, this one took place through a succession of small agenda items to avoid major public protest as it managed to install as "Christian" a new spirituality invented by a government.

Reich Bishop Müller

The "German Evangelical Christian Church"

The first step of the process can be traced to 1921, when The German Church--Sunday Paper for the German Volk began to appear. It had the objective of ridding the German church of the Old Testament and re-interpreting the heroic sacrifice of Jesus on the cross along the lines of German mysticism. Clergy in the state churches were elected, and by the 1930s the Nazi party worked to install its own candidates. Church parties like "The Church Union for Positive Christianity and German Nationality" and "The Evangelical National Socialists" began to be formed. Hitler began to unite these parties into the "Faith Movement of German Christians" in 1932, led by Joachim Hossenfelder who liked to call it "The Storm Troops of Jesus Christ." In actuality, the church was encouraged to view Adolph Hitler as the one that God had raised for the salvation of the German nation. Faith was based on the "Spirit of Luther" and was to have a heroic piety. Sanctification was defined as keeping Germany "racially pure," and was to be a duty of the church.

When the new church leaders had their first meeting, they responded with enthusiastic "Heils" to the words of the brown-shirted Dean Grell, who expressed the need for a German faith and a German God. Eventually, even words like "Amen" and "Hallelujah" would be eliminated from the liturgy because of their Jewish etymology.

Many of Germany's world famous theologians sided with this national church movement, perhaps out of fear of losing their posts in the universities. After Hitler seized power, he heavily promoted the party church and denied other candidates access to the media. As the movement gathered momentum, hoards of people who had previously had no interest in the church began to flood the sanctuaries.

The Barmen Declaration

The re-imaging of the German Christian Church would not, of course, remove all traces of true Christianity from the land. Certain opposing pastors continued to preach courageously, Reich officers carefully monitoring their services, which few dared to attend.

The biggest protest was organized by the German-Swiss Theologian Karl Barth (pronounced "Bart"), who lost his professorship at the University in Bonn because he refused to sign the required oath that put Hitler above Jesus. He later drafted the "Barmen Declaration" and engineered a meeting in May of 1934 of 139 delegates from 18 churches who signed the document. The Declaration would infuriate Hitler but, in the event, had little actual effect. Here are a summary of the points that it condemned as "false doctrine":

  1. That the church would proclaim anything other than material rooted in Scripture (Jn. 14:6).
  2. That Christians could have any other Lord than Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:30).
  3. That the church would take a role in the "currently reigning ideological and political" message (Eph. 4:15-16).
  4. That the church would yield to control by secular powers (Mt. 20:25-26).
  5. That the church would fulfil the state's objectives or be an organ of the state (1 Pet. 2:17).
  6. That the church would follow the desires, purposes, and plans that originated from any source other than the Lord Jesus (Mt. 28:20).

In short, Barmen said, "No führer but Jesus."

Barmen was also an example of a confessional document--a writing that expresses what the writers believe, rather than a creed that attempts to state what ought to be believed. While Barmen was not the product of a house church movement, all the important documents of house church history have been confessions, not creeds.


Ahlers, R. "The Barmen Theological Declaration of 1934." Toronto Studies in Theology, v. 34, Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 39-42. Bax, D. S. "The Barmen Theological Declaration: Its Historical background." Journal of Theology for Southern Africa. Busch, E. Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976, 216-247. Durnbaugh, D. F. The Believers' Church. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1968, 177-191.