C HRISTIANS OF THE FIRST CENTURY were a tiny minority within a large and vast empire. On the best days they were ignored; on the worst they were persecuted. This fledgling religious group was at the mercy of the emperor, the appointed governors, and provincial leaders. Peter dies at the hands of the state. So does Paul. And many other Christians named and unnamed over the next 200 years.
Yet, to these outcast Christians derided for their faith by the pagan society around them, come these words. “Honor the emperor.” If this is written by Peter, then the emperor is Nero who begins the first systematic persecution of Christians.
Christians are in a very real sense to know two masters — God and human authority. When confronted with the problem of the Christians’ attitude toward the state, Jesus remarked “Render to Caesar ….” We are citizens of heaven but also the state. And that we are subject to every human institution. That, however, does not mean Christians consider both God and the social order their master on equal terms. That is not the teaching of Jesus nor of the Church.
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THIS VERSE (1 Peter 2:17) is perhaps the most comprehensive summary of the Christian faith and ethic to be found in the New Testament. Four parts: Honor all. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Honor is “to set value upon; to respect.” The New International Version reads “show respect for all people. Honor the emperor. The Greek word is the same word — different tenses. “Go on honoring the emperor.” “Begin to honor all people.” We are to honor all people as we honor the heads of state.
Let’s talk a second about “Fear God.” That is not be afraid of God. Fear in this sense means awe and reverence, not terror. Understanding that, we owe God the highest respect, highest honor. Higher than any person. Higher than institution.
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NOW, THINGS ARE FINE and good when these four imperatives mesh — Honor all. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the Emperor (or king or president). Life gets problematic when they don’t. What do we do when they conflict? When you can’t abide by all four? When you have to choose one or the other?
We are called to honor the emperor but to fear God; and on those occasions when we must choose whether to serve the one we honor or the one we revere, adore, worship, the choice should not be too difficult to make — though often difficult to carry out.
This conflict between the “four-point summary of Christian duty” is ongoing throughout Christian history. Our Book of Confessions contains statements of faith that come from times of intense debate. The Theological Declaration of Barmen was written on one of those occasions.
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THIS FAITH STATEMENT was written by a group of church leaders in Germany in 1934. They called themselves the “confessing church.” Barmen’s purpose (named after the city where it was written and approved) was to help Christians withstand the challenges of the Nazi party and of the so-called “German Christians,” a popular movement that saw no conflict between Christianity and the ideals of the government.
In January 1933, after years of economic depression and mass unemployment, Adolf Hitler was named chancellor. By playing on people’s fear, he persuaded Parliament to allow him to rule by edict. You might be familiar with the results:
■ He then consolidated power.
■ He outlawed all political parties except his own.
■ Police detained persons in prison without a trial, searched private dwellings without a warrant, seized property, censored publications, tapped telephones, and forbad meetings.
■ Hitler packed the judicial system with his ideological cronies. He initiated a systematic terrorizing of Jews.
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WHAT YOU PROBABLY DON’T KNOW is what’s going on in the German church at this time. Unfortunately, most church leaders supported Hitler. And on Sunday mornings they preached the union of Christianity, nationalism, and militarism. Patriotic sentiments were equated with Christian truth. The idea of “race, blood, and soil” became part and parcel of what it meant to be Christian. The German Christians exalted the rule of Hitler as God’s will for the German people.
As one leading theologian wrote in 1934, “our Protestant churches have welcomed the turning point of 1933 as a gift and miracle from God.”
Nonetheless, some in the Christian church vigorously resisted. The Barmen Declaration is part of that resistance. This declaration is a call for Christians to:
■ resist the lure of the prospects of church and state working in combination.
■ resist distorting Jesus to fit the ideals you and your political leaders espouse.
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THE DANGER for the German Christian Church was not a lack of faith; the danger was not the death of the church. The danger facing the German Christians was as one said, “evil under the cloak of faith.”
One writer explains it this way, “Jesus Christ was not at all absent from “German Christian” language. But he had become a figment of nationalistic dreams and desires that imposed on him the clothing of a [nationalistic] hero” In other words, Jesus himself was co-opted by the German Christian patriots.
In six statements supported by Scripture, The Barmen Declaration attacks the position of the “German Christians” and lifts up the core of what it means to be Christian — which is the centrality of Jesus Christ as he is known in Scripture. No other source has the authority of Scripture, they argue, and Jesus cannot be remade in someone else’s image. Our call, as Christians, is to testify in the midst of a sinful world, and to live our faith in obedience solely to Christ. There are no areas of life which do not belong to Christ.
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THE CHURCH CAN’T LET ITSELF be governed by the state, and the state cannot fulfill the work of the church. The confessing church spoke an alternative voice when it was dangerous and unpopular to do so. They would not keep silent in spite of the danger, and there were consequences.
■ The great theologian, Karl Barth, was escorted to the border and expelled.
■ The fearless pastor, Martin Niemoller, languished in a concentration camp for eight years as Hitler’s personal prisoner.
■ Dietrich Bonhoeffer suffered a martyr’s death — just days before World War II ended.
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WHAT TESTIMONY is needed for our time? In light of the conflict in our world today, what should we be saying as Christians? In a tense political climate, what should we being proclaiming in the church?
I know this, and it is confirmed in Scripture and affirmed in our confessions: While we are to honor the governmental leaders, we are to fear the Lord our God. Our Lord is greater than any leader, any nation, or even our own agenda. This is the courageous word of those who came before us, who confessed the faith, no matter what the cost.
— Keith Cardwell