The Church struggle

2012-05-21 by . 2 comments

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Previously in this space, I noted four characteristics of the evangelical movement. George M. Marsden, a historian of American Evangelicalism, suggested a fifth: trans-denominationalism. In a nutshell, we don’t believe the Church instituted by Christ through His Apostles is confined to any human hierarchical structure, but is infused in all denominations in the form of individuals of faith. We are eager to cooperate with our like-minded Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant brothers and sisters because when God gathers together the Church in the end, there will be representatives from every Christian tradition.

Christians and non-Christians alike (though for different reasons) question how the proliferation of schisms, sects, denominations, synods, conferences, and offshoots fit in the plans of a monotheistic God. I don’t propose to answer that question here, but rather to tell a story of one significant split that I hope will help us think through the issues.


Luther in 1520. Our story begins in 1517 when a middle-aged, Augustinian monk named Martin Luther wrote a letter to his bishop protesting the sale of indulgences by a Dominican friar in Germany. Luther claimed that the transaction violated the Church’s mission to offer the free gift of salvation by faith to all people. This seemingly insignificant dispute sparked the first fire of the Reformation and simultaneously propelled Luther into a late-life career in which he translated the Bible into German, wrote numerous hymns and commentaries, standardized written German, and became a leading figure in the founding of the German state.

It was this last accomplishment that attracted German National Socialism to his writings. Sadly, the antisemitic movement found much in Luther’s work to reinforce their warped view of genetics and culture. Never mind that these opinions were expressed late in Luther’s life, opposed his earlier views, and were largely ignored after his death; any attack on Jews could be justified. (It probably didn’t hurt that Luther was particularly crass in those later years.)

Hitler himself was indifferent to Christianity, but many of his lieutenants were actively anti-Christian and wished to replace, what they saw as “the one immortal blemish of mankind” to quote Nietzsche, with something more Teutonic. Hitler was pleased to encourage the German Christian movement which busied itself promoting German interests and was only marginally Christian. In 1933, Germany reorganized Lutheranism into a centralized, national church. Initially, Friedrich von Bodelschwingh, a pastor who ran the Bethel Institution which provided care for orphaned children, mentally ill people and the poor, was elected to lead the new church as Reichsbischof.

But von Bodelschwingh resigned after political maneuvering a month later. Ludwig Müller, an obscure naval chaplain who was an early member of the Nazi party, eventually got himself appointed Reichsbischof. Within the year, he institituted the Aryan paragraph which removed pastors of Jewish decent, proposed removing the Jewish Scriptures from the Bible, and advocated a more “positive” Jesus. The last re-imagined the Jewish Jesus of the Gospels into what one German Christian called a “burst of Nordic light into world history“. A new German Religion based on Nazi ideals was poised to supplant Luther’s Christian denomination.

We might expect that interference of this level would prompt worldwide outrage within the Church Universal. It didn’t. Yes, there were great heroes to match the great villainy:

  • Martin Niemöller who spent 8 years in prison for attempting to help people dismissed from church employment for being Jewish or being married to a Jew.
  • Karl Barth who wrote the Barmen Declaration which was the founding document of the Confessing Church.
  • Friedrich Weißler, the Confessing Church’s lawyer and a Jew, who was tortured to death for leaking to the foreign press a memo the church wrote to Hitler. The memo made the Führer look bad.
  • Wilhelm Busch who was repeatedly arrested by the SS for leading youth in Bible study in his home and once for holding a church service that was too popular.
  • Bishops, teachers, and pastors who defied Vidkun Quisling‘s attempts to duplicate Hitler’s results in Norway. (While I am proud of my distant cousins, they did have the benefit of seeing what a disaster appeasement brought in Germany.)
  • Anglican Bishop George Bell who rescued many German pastors and their families from Nazi persecution, worked tirelessly to expose Nazi atrocities, and advocated for the German resistance movement.
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose complicated life story (told in Eric Metaxas’ brilliant Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy) ended a few weeks before he would have been saved by the collapse of Nazi Germany.

But ultimately, the majority of German pastors did not oppose the German Christian heresy until it was far too late. International ecumenical movements presaged Chamberlain’s folly by continuing to recognize the German National church after it was reorganized on Hitler’s terms. At the moment of crisis, the Church proved as feeble and irrelevant as her critics predicted which hurried Europe’s long process toward secularization.


From a human perspective, the Church has, at times, succumbed to the Iron Law of Oligarchy. That is, the preservation of the organization has occasionally overcome the expressed purpose of the organization. We see it not only in huge, globe-spanning hierarchies, but even in the little Bible study I lead for years until I finally let it go last fall. (To be honest, it had lost its focus on the mission and became more about me than about the Word of God.)

From a Biblical and historical perspective, the Church was divided right from her birth. Immediately after Jesus announced the ceremony that signified the Church’s unity, one of his hand-picked followers left to bring arresting officers in exchange for money. The other 11 scattered when it became clear Jesus wasn’t going to call down fire from heaven or angels to rescue him. His lieutenant, who had sworn to follow Jesus to the death, refused to even admit he knew his leader. Only one male follower and a few women watched him die. It was not a propitious beginning.

The Taking of Christ

Here’s how Augustine of Hippo explained the situation:

But let [the pilgrim city of King Christ] bear in mind, that among her enemies lie hid those who are destined to be fellow-citizens, that she may not think it a fruitless labor to bear what they inflict as enemies until they become confessors of the faith. So, too, as long as she is a stranger in the world, the city of God has in her communion, and bound to her by the sacraments, some who shall not eternally dwell in the lot of the saints. Of these, some are not now recognized; others declare themselves, and do not hesitate to make common cause with our enemies in murmuring against God, whose sacramental badge they wear.

In truth, these two cities are entangled together in this world, and intermixed until the last judgment effects their separation.

Nothing that we think of as the Church, from towering cathedrals to secret meetings in catacombs, will survive that last judgment intact, but neither will it all be lost. In the end, Jesus will draw out the true Church to Himself:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.—2nd Corinthians 5:17-20 (ESV)

Come back next week for Bruce Alderman‘s answer to “What is the Church?”

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