Germany in the late 1920s and 1930s was a very enlightened nation in every way. It was a center of higher education, of music and the arts, of science and technology, … and with a very prominent church presence and theological community. All of that makes it the more puzzling and frightening is any attempt to understand how a populist blowhard could emerge out of a beer halls of Bavaria, and within a brief time seduce the whole of that remarkable nation to follow his call to make Germany into a world power made up of ‘Aryan-pure’ Germans under him.

I was becoming aware of world events as a boy in the 1930’s, and with other Americans laughed at Charlie Chaplain’s movie: The Great Dictator, in which he spoofed Adolph Hitler in a brilliant caricature. But in Germany it was more frightening as that remarkable nation looked the other way even as Hitler seized power, and the government agencies fell under his sway, and celebrated him in vast displays of military presence, began to allow him to implement his atrocious anti-Semitic policies and the beginnings of the holocaust and the death camps, which ultimately led to the death of millions of Jewish citizens. With the creation of his Gestapo it was not a good idea to question Hitler’s actions.

So, to my point in this blog: where was the church in all of this? The church was a very prominent institution in Germany. The answer is that Hitler took the church captive also, for the most part. His challenge to the church was that to be a ‘good German Christian’ one would be a faithful follower of the policies of his Third Reich. And do you know what? Most of the church bought this line—but not all! But to protest this Nazi claim on the church was to become an outlaw.

It was in this context that a brilliant young German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote the classic work, The Cost of Discipleship.

There emerged an underground ‘witnessing church’, a clandestine church seeking to be faithful to the church’s calling and mission. Its most notable figure was this same Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and his book Life Together describes this underground church, and has become a classic on the nature and discipline of the communion of God’s people. Ah! but this was an illegal church. The legal church in Germany was composed of what Bonhoeffer described as ‘religious Christians’ i.e. nominal (in name only) Christians.

Meanwhile the witnessing church was also producing one of the great confessions of church history, namely: The Barmen Declaration (under the guidance of Swiss theologian Karl Barth). That declaration is a classic for those in such a context as were they, and are we at this frightening moment in our history. This Barmen Declaration resides in many collections of the church’s confessions.

All of this is round-a-bout way of my saying to my readers that we are in a similar context in this country in which so much of the church in our nation seems content to be placidly conformed to a political agenda/party and dubious leadership, rather than being part of a dangerous and costly witnessing church. Bonhoeffer and the Barmen Declaration give us great resources in finding our way to faithful discipleship.

Or, to quote Martin Luther King, Jr. on this day that honors him, when challenged that he was breaking the law: “But we appeal to a higher law.”


About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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  1. Frank A. says:


  2. Robbie Castleman says:

    YES and YES! Thanks, Bob, once again….for writing what a whole lot of us historical and theological evangelicals are saying and thinking.
    Your fan forever, Robbie C.

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