Originally written by Karl Barth and the confessing church in Nazi Germany in response to Hitler’s national church, it is adapted for today’s political climate in the United States. Its central doctrines concern the sin of idolatry and the lordship of Christ
I. An Appeal to the Evangelical Congregations and Christians in America
History of the original Barmen Declaration: The Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church met in Barmen, May 29-31, 1934. Here representatives from all the German Confessional Churches met with one accord in a confession of the one Lord of the one, holy, apostolic Church. In fidelity to their Confession of Faith, members of Lutheran, Reformed, and United Churches sought a common message for the need and temptation of the Church in their day.
With gratitude to God they were convinced that they had been given a common word to utter. It was not their intention to found a new Church or to form a union. For nothing was farther from their minds than the abolition of the confessional status of their Churches. Their intention was, rather, to withstand in faith and unanimity the destruction of the Confession of Faith, and thus of the Evangelical Church in Germany.
In opposition to attempts to establish the unity of the German Evangelical Church by means of false doctrine, by the use of force and insincere practices, the Confessional Synod insisted that the unity of the Evangelical Churches in Germany came only from the Word of God in faith through the Holy Spirit. Thus alone is the Church renewed.
Current Response to the original Barmen Declaration: The original work contained three calls to action to the German people. These calls for action are equally applicable to the American people today:
1) The Call for Prayer: the Barmen Declaration challenges congregations to range themselves behind it in prayer, and steadfastly to gather around those pastors and teachers who are loyal to the [historical] Confessions [of the Christian faith].
2) The Call for Caution: the Barmen Declaration cautions Christians to guard themselves, to not be “deceived by loose talk, as if we meant to oppose the unity of the… nation! Do not listen to the seducers who pervert our intentions, as if we wanted to break up the unity of the [followers of Christ in this country] or to forsake the Confessions of [that faith]!
3) The Call for Discernment: this word of warning within the Barmen Declaration challenges people of faith to “Try the spirits whether they are of God!” As followers of Jesus Christ, we should carefully examine any teachings from any church to see whether they agree with Scripture and with the historical traditions of that faith.
Be careful of any sudden changes in doctrine: “If you find that we are speaking contrary to Scripture, then do not listen to us! But if you find that we are taking our stand upon Scripture, then let no fear or temptation keep you from treading with us the path of faith and obedience to the Word of God, in order that God’s people be of one mind upon earth and that we in faith experience what he himself has said: ‘I will never leave you, nor forsake you.’ Therefore, ‘Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’”
II. Theological Declaration Concerning the Present Situation of the American Church
History of the original German Churches responsible for the Barmen Declaration: According to the opening words of its constitution of July 11, 1933, the German Evangelical Church was a federation of Confessional Churches that grew out of the Reformation and that enjoyed equal rights. The theological basis for the unification of these Churches was based on both the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the recognition of individual church freedom within their shared organization.
Declarations from the original Barmen Declaration: The original work contained three declarations by these member churches. These statements are equally valuable for the American people today:
1) The Declaration of Unity: the Barmen Declaration stated its intent to stand together on the grounds of classic evangelical faith as an organization of churches. It reminds us even today that we are bound together by the confession of the one Lord of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
2) The Declaration of Diversion: the Barmen Declaration stated that shared common belief in the core concepts of the gospel of Jesus Christ were being challenged by outside influences from the surrounding culture. There were ideologies incompatible with classic Christian thought that were being inserted, sometimes forcefully, into their practice of faith.
- Be careful of any alterations in principle: “This threat consists in the fact that the theological basis, in which the… church is united, has been continually and systematically thwarted and rendered ineffective by alien principles, on the part of the leaders and spokesmen of… [those in government who would subvert the church for their own ends]. When these [nationalistic] principles are held to be valid, then, according to all the Confessions in force among us, the Church ceases to be the Church..”
3) The Declaration of Assertion: the Barmen Declaration stated that they must assert what they know to be true, according to their faith. “We may and must speak with one voice in this matter today. Precisely because we want to be and to remain faithful to our various Confessions, we may not keep silent, since we believe that we have been given a common message to utter in a time of common need and temptation.”
4) The Confession of evangelical Truths: the writers of the Barmen Declaration felt that their faith was under attack. To answer these unwanted concepts from those who would subvert their faith on behalf of governmental influence, they held that the following confessions of faith were crucial:
1. “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.
2. “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.
3. “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.” (Eph. 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.
4. “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.” (Matt. 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.
5. “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. [It fulfills this task] 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.
6. “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matt. 28:20.) “The word of God is not fettered.” (2 Tim. 2:9.)
The Church’s commission, upon which its freedom is founded, consists in delivering the message of th 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 declared that it saw 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 invited all who were able to accept its declaration to be mindful of these theological principles in their decisions in Church politics. It entreated all whom it concerned to return to the unity of faith, love, and hope.
A similar hope is offered to the churches of Christian faith in the United States of America. As people of faith, we reject any effort by outside forces to dictate how we are to practice that faith. Like the originators of the Barmen Declaration, it is also declared that American Christians should carefully consider these theological principles as they conduct the workings of their churches and their individual faith.
A PDF of this document is available for download here.