In this chapter, I explore how this subversion of Christianity has happened in the past and how it has affected the witness of the church. This is a constant danger and it can come from many directions. The implications of what has taken place before can be seen in our current context in many ways. While not everything from the past is relevant to today in scope or intensity, there are still lessons that can be learned and applied. Please ignore any typos or formatting errors. I pulled this over from the PDF and not everything transferred correctly.
Chapter 3: The Subversion of Christianity
“ Those who attack Christianity usually do it, then, by pointing first to our disastrous practice.” —Jacques Ellul
Jacques Ellul, born in France in 1912 to a humanistic father and Protestant mother, became a Christian in 1932 while studying as a Marxist at the university in Bourdeaux, his hometown. He began to delve into the teachings of the Bible and found them to be a more satisfactory explanation to reality than what he had found in Marx. Exposed to the teachings of Karl Barth and neo-orthodoxy, Ellul rejected the rampant secular humanism that had invaded the church. When the Germans invaded France, he saw his father arrested and later die in a Nazi prison (1942), and he spent the rest of the war in hiding in the French countryside with his wife as a member of the French Resistance while also working to help Jews escape the death camps. I cannot help but think that his influences and experiences led him into his later writings as he explored the intersection of technology, sociology, politics, and the Christian faith. While Ellul was a universalist, he also firmly believed that the most important thing in life was individual faith in Christ for salvation and adherence to his commands in all of life. Ellul died in 1994.
Ellul is important for the scope of this study in relation to something he called “the subversion of Christianity.” Ellul’s thesis in this regard is that the true Christianity of Jesus and the apostles had been subsumed under some other form that was a marriage between human ambition, the state, the larger culture, and the desire for ease and prosperity. He said that the true faith and practice of Jesus was very offensive to human desire and understanding and that instead of trying to actually live out what Jesus taught, people ascribing to a form of cultural Christianity had subverted it with their own desires for power, wealth, and authority. Ellul claims that Christians have done this knowingly—they clearly see what scripture says, but choose to ignore it or refashion it to their own desires and expectations or the reality that they are bound to as they live according to the dictates of this world.
Ellul asked why Christianity had fallen into this ditch as he looked at the compromise of the European state churches within a larger society that wanted nothing to do with the actual teachings of Jesus. Why did Christians give in to this society that opposed God and his ways? Why did they knowingly go along with the ways of the world? This is the question that must be asked of the white evangelical church in the American South in regard to racism, slavery, and segregation. Why did white Christians treat their black brothers and sisters in Christ with such contempt when the Bible clearly says that if you hate your brother then the love of God is not in you? How could they see the teachings of Jesus, the apostles, and the prophets as a support for an oppressive social system and division and abuse among Christians? Ellul says that it was for their own aggrandizement—or for their own increase in power, wealth, importance, and safety and security. In other words, instead of laying down their lives in obedience to Christ and in sacrificial love of others, even their enemies as Christ commanded, the white Christians who supported and benefitted from a racist, segregated society did so for their own advantage. To oppose such a society would be to oppose their own life, safety, security, and present and future prosperity as they understood it. Instead of following the Way of Jesus, the Southern white evangelical, just like the European Christian during World War II who went along with Nazi Germany, submitted to the prevailing powers to preserve his own way of life. Of course, not all did this, as we will see. And, of course, not all who claimed to be Christian actually were. But we are here talking about the prevailing way of the larger church during this time.
The only chance for recovery would be to return to the actual words and life of Jesus in both devotion and practice. This recovery, if it were to happen, is not a popular venture, but it is necessary if one is to call himself Christian. It is called “repentance” and it is something that Christians are to do regularly. We are to repent of attaching ourselves to the perspective of the world and living according to the ways of the world. Our Christian practice is to match the faith that we profess. We are not only a confessional people, but we are also to be an alternative, alien community of people who take the teachings of Jesus seriously and seek to live them out together, often in direct opposition to the culture that we find ourselves in. Failure to do this not only weakens our witness as Christians, but it also allows the world system to proceed in its evil unimpeded by any prophetic restraint. When Christians give allegiance to evil and oppressive practices in the world, it tells the world that such things are permissible and are even possibly God’s will. This is what Ellul was seeing in Europe and it was the message sent by the white evangelical church in the South in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, at least in regard to race.
This disconnect is not just a product of previous centuries. We are going to dig a bit into history in this chapter and see that what happened in the South among evangelicals has happened throughout the history of Christianity. But before we look too far back, let us also admit that this disconnect is still happening today. David Kinnamon and Gabe Lyons conducted a broad range of interviews of Americans in the twenty-first century to find out their views of Christians. They found that a primary objection to Christianity from unbelievers was that “Christians no longer represent what Jesus had in mind, that Christianity in our society is not what it was meant to be.” They quote one non-Christian from Mississippi who said, “Christianity has become bloated with blind followers who would rather repeat slogans than actually feel true compassion and care. Christianity has become marketed and streamlined into a juggernaut of fearmongering that has lost its own heart.”
This kind of observation causes us to ask the questions: If non-Christians can see that Christians are not living up to the ideals of Jesus and that we are betraying the teachings of the Bible in our public posture, then why can’t we see it? Why do we go on as though everything is fine? Why are we not gripped with the crisis of the fact that we are often essentially denying the faith with the way that we act, the things we approve of, and our general way of life? Why did this not occur to white Christians in the slaveholding and segregated South when black Christians were asking for freedom and equality? Why did we not consider our witness to the life and teachings of Jesus? If Jacques Ellul is right, we knowingly subvert true Christianity to something that we have created in our own image for our own perceived advancement and pleasure. We don’t see a problem with what we are doing because it is not to our perceived benefit to see it. to address it would cost us something—perhaps even our lives. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” In the same way, it is hard for a Christian to understand that his position in the world might be wrong when his way of life depends upon him not confronting it. This is why we regularly need God to open our eyes and our ears. We need a miracle.
Many have called the marriage of Christianity with the prevailing culture by the name of Christendom. Pointing to the Roman Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 AD that brought an end to Christian persecution and paved the way for Christianity to become the state religion of the Roman Empire, some observers and church historians have posited that this was when the church began to dance with the world in a deadly embrace.The church that was once persecuted and on the run with only Christ to cling to, would now be out fitted with worldly wealth and power. As the Roman Empire fell in the fifth century, the Roman Catholic church would step in and fill the void, blessing kings and raising up armies. For a thousand years in Europe, the church and the state and the culture were wed in an unholy marriage of worldly ambition and concern and ecclesial authority. In a familiar anecdote that traditionally involves St. Francis of Assisi and Pope Innocent II in the 1200s, we find the pope sitting before his money and saying, “You see, the church can no longer say, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’ St. Francis replied, ‘true, holy father, but neither can she now say, ‘Rise and walk.’”
The joining of the church with state and society was not good for either. It weakened the church by admitting to its membership all those who were born into the state. Infant baptism marked everyone born in an area dominated by the church into the church, whether they were an actual follower of Christ or not. This arrangement was also not good for the state/society because it gave the false impression that what the state/society did was the Christian way. In the Middle Ages, we see great devotion to Christ by many, but we also see great abuses and evils done in the name of Jesus. True Christianity had been subverted to a state church and to popes, bishops, kings, and armies that used warped interpretations of the lowly Christ and his teachings as a divine mandate for their own self-promoting (or self-defending) actions. The Sermon on the Mount was not often seen as a reliable guide to daily living.
The Crusades (1100–1300)
A major objection by skeptics to Christianity involves its historical stance in regard to war, nationalism, power, and violence in the name of Christ. With merit, critics point to the inconsistencies of the church in these areas in comparison to the actual teachings of Christ. The claims of Jesus are seen as unbelievable when his own followers so dreadfully misrepresent what he intended. That is the charitable critique made by those who at least know that Jesus’s teachings are dfferent from the practice of the church. Unfortunately, many have come to believe that Jesus is a sham because of the subversion of true Christianity by Christendom. Those who hold to the actual Way of Jesus are generally persecuted because the Cross always gets in the way of the goals of the world system. It always gives offense and calls us to lay down our grasping for power and control and riches and security. It calls us to depend wholly on Christ and to take up our cross and follow him. This is not the message the world wants to hear, so it subverts the message to its own agenda. When the church is wed to the state and the culture, it puts real Christianity away in the attic while the less than genuine thing is what is displayed in the front room.
The Crusades were an example of what happens when Christianity is subverted. Islam was advancing against the Byzantine Empire in the East and had taken over the Holy Land in Palestine and Jerusalem. Christian pilgrims were being attacked in their journeys to the Holy Land and Muslim armies were advancing everywhere. The Roman Catholic church and the Christian kingdoms of the West had suffered indignities at the hands of the Muslims for centuries. Of course, the Crusades were complicated—much more so than described by secular critics of Christianity. As sociologist and historian, Rodney Stark explains, the Europeans were not entirely to blame for the Crusades. They can rightfully be seen as a defensive series of wars, or at the very least, a “just war” response to four hundred years of Muslim aggression against Christendom.
However, while it might have been appropriate for the European kingdoms to wage defensive war against Muslim aggressors in Spain, north Africa, and at the Danube River and into the Balkans, the involvement of the Roman Catholic church in calling for the Crusades, sanctioning them, and promising heaven to all who died in Holy War against the Seljuk turks is surely a dark period of Christianity. Sanctioning open warfare with attending atrocities against enemies is in complete contradiction to the teachings of Jesus. The church found itself in the predicament of calling for war against Muslim precisely because it had wed itself to worldly powers and ambitions, even though the prevailing perspective is that the Crusaders were serving God. In this regard, the church used the European kingdoms to advance its interests, and many atrocities followed in the name of Jesus. Eventually, the church would be used by those same powers to sanction their ambitions. But that comes later. Although Muslims are also to blame, part of the legacy of the Crusades that occurred a thousand years ago has been continual warfare and animosity between the West and Islam, with resulting instability in the Middle East.
Inquisitions, Holy Wars, and Age of Reason (1100–1800)
As the Roman Catholic church gained power in the West, it needed to secure and keep that power. Theological dissent was not allowed, lest the Catholic church find its hegemony eroding. Instead of allowing for inquiry, discussion, and freedom of conscience and religion, the church made sure that it maintained a uniform confession from the inhabitants of the Christendom in Western Europe. To aid in keeping its power intact, the church established the Inquisitions around 1100, roughly the same time that the church was calling for the Western kingdoms to march on to Jerusalem in Holy Crusade. The consolidation of power had to occur both at home and abroad. The Inquisitions used torture and death to purge the church (which encompassed all of society, effectively) of heresy. The 1578 handbook for inquisitors (Directorium Inquisitorum, edition of 1578, Book 3, 137, column 1) the goal of punishing people for heresy: “for punishment does not take place primarily and per se for the correction and good of the person punished, but for the public good in order that others may become terrified and weaned away from the evils they would commit.”
The world system is a brutal taskmaster. Focused on power, pride, wealth, prestige, autonomy, the pursuit of pleasure, and personal freedom, it seeks to establish its own rule over and against the teachings of Christ and the glory of God. It seeks after its own glory. One mark of those who live by the world system is an “ends justify the means” mentality, or pragmatism. Something is right and true if it is successful in helping us get what we want or arrive at the destination we have decided is most appropriate. Instead of relying on revelation from God, man uses the means available to him by his own power to arrive at the end he deems appropriate. The Roman Catholic church, convinced of its own supremacy on Earth as the representative of Christ and protector of the holy doctrine, saw no problem with using the power of the sword to protect its purity within and interests abroad. But as Jesus predicted, those who live by the sword will die by the sword. The Protestant Reformation of the 1500s would occur, in part, as a response to some of these abuses.
As the Renaissance and Reformation took place in Europe in the 1500s along with the Age of Exploration in discovering the new World, the power of the Roman Catholic church began to wane. Humanistic thought began to throw off the power of the church to define life and meaning and began to look within for purpose and identity. Whereas the man of the Middle Ages might have said, “I worship, therefore I am,” Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am” (1637). The locus of identity shifted from God and the church to man’s individual pursuit for life, liberty, property, and ultimately happiness. This is obviously a cursory explanation, but by the 1700s, Enlightenment philosophers were busy sketching out what life would look like apart from depending on revelation from God. A major reason for this involved weariness from the abuses of the Roman Catholic church, religious wars in Europe between Protestants and Catholics that had lasted more than a century (the Hundred Years War), and Christian imperialism that accompanied exploration and colonization. The state church in Europe had proved inffective in converting the masses to true Christianity because it had often altered Christianity itself, and now, the power of the church that had wed itself to the state and culture was crumbling under the weight of its own claims to be the holder of absolute truth when its actions did not match its assertions. Enlightenment thinkers could see that the emperor had no clothes and they were ready to mark out a new path based on human reason instead of divine revelation that only seemed to them to be a front for a corrupt church to continue to try and wield power.
Nazi Germany and the Lutheran Church (1930–1945)
A perhaps more extreme example of Christianity being subverted could be found in Germany after World War I. Germany had suffered a devastating loss in the Great War and had seen its economy collapse in the 1920s with rampant inflation, unemployment, and bleak prospects for the future. The Allies had enforced draconian measures in victory over Germany as laid out in the treaty of Versailles, and Germany was beaten and broken. The time was ripe for a political savior who would point to a common enemy to bring the German people together with a common goal to rebuild, reload, and begin again their militaristic drive for conquest. Of course, that political savior was Adolf Hitler and the common enemy that he pointed to was the Jews. Hitler, in his personal manifesto, Mein Kampf, would lay the blame for Germany’s predicament upon the Jews and he would lay out a plan to deal with them. As Hitler came to power in the early 1930s, he would institute an entire program of oppression against the Jews and reformulate all of German society to eventually separate, imprison, and attempt to eradicate the Jewish people from German society, resulting in the death of 6 million Jews. This shameful history is well-known.
Of particular interest to our study is the response of the state church of Germany, the Protestant Lutheran church. When Hitler was coming to power and establishing his firm grip on Germany, the Protestant church was ready to support him, for the most part. (I make the argument for this assertion throughout this section. What happened to the German church is a historic fact that was ultimately addressed in the declarations of repentance after the war.) The loss of economic prosperity and political ascendancy for the German people had created a corresponding loss of confidence in themselves and fear for the future. Hitler was seen as the savior to restore Germany’s fortunes. His charismatic personality and rhetoric convinced the German people, including the church, that his program for recovery was the way to go. The Lutheran church in Germany mostly went along with Hitler even after he had begun his moves to oppress the Jews.
It was not just the state church in Germany that was beguiled by Hilter’s early promises. An example of this can be seen at the Baptist World Alliance meeting in Berlin in 1934. William Lloyd Allen, a church history professor at Southern Baptist eological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, chronicled the response of the 1934 Southern Baptist delegation to Berlin by saying that parts of the delegation (especially correspondents from the state Baptist papers) were favorable to Hitler’s approach, even after he had begun to crack down on the Jews and take rm control over Germany.
Allen, writing in 1982, asks the question that all of us would ask at this point: Why were the Southern Baptists visiting Germany in 1934 respond- ing favorably to Adolf Hitler? Did they not have discernment? Couldn’t they see the monster that he was to become? other Christians in Germany were seeing it. Why couldn’t members of the Southern Baptist delegation? We must remember that Hitler was pulling the German people out of the morass of economic depression that occurred after World War I. Because he was helping to restore the economic fortunes—in large part by military spending and expansion—of the German people and was lling them with pride again over being German, many were looking upon his attempts at resurrecting the German nation with approval.
Allen also points to the way that Southern Baptists of this time period did theology and saw the world. Instead of thinking holistically, they saw morality from a personal perspective. The Southern Baptist delegates approved of Hitler’s personal stance against the use of alcohol and tobacco. He opposed women smoking cigarettes and “wearing red lipstick in public.” other Baptist visitors from the South were excited that Hitler had cracked down on sex literature and risqué and violent movies and that he was burning books, especially those of the Jewish and communistic variety.
Allen’s analysis of the events in Berlin in 1934 and the reaction of Southern Baptists to Hitler’s rule illustrates the argument of Emerson and Smith earlier. Evangelicals, concerned most notably with personal morality, order in society, and social sins related to alcohol and sex were not able to see the larger evil that was emerging in the culture. They were missing the forest of anti-Semitism and growing militarism that would soon engulf the world, because the branches of personal immorality and debauchery were being pruned by force and they were happy with that. Order and “right” living was more important than justice and mercy. As Jesus said to the Pharisees, they should (to paraphrase) not have neglected the former while attending to the latter. Personal morality and holiness before God is important, as is right worship and theology. But that morality and holiness and theology is worthless if it does not lead to justice, mercy, humility, righteousness, and sacrificial love toward God and others, especially those who are being oppressed. There is no holiness when one turns a blind eye to his neighbor in the ditch or allows exploitation of the weak and needy. Holiness is defined by who Jesus is and what he did and commands us to do, not by a code of behavior that we attend to and enforce upon others. Because Baptists and other evangelicals in the Germany of 1934 were more focused on the creation of a society that would be good for them and their way of life in regard to moral virtue, as they tried to understand God’s intent for them, they missed the evil means being used to bring about the ends of which they approved. Their eyes were blinded by their own vision of what was appropriate and they missed the evil incarnate right in front of them.
Allen cites reasons for this blindness, chief of which involved how the Southern Baptists gave evangelism primacy over other concerns. Quoting Baptist leaders present at the conference, Allen shows how their main, and possibly only focus, was on creating space for evangelism. They were not concerned with justice or economic issues or the reign of terror that was beginning in Germany. They wanted the door to be open for evangelism so that people could get saved and go to Heaven when they died. Their view of the Gospel and its implications was truncated and they were willing to accept great moral evil in society in relation to how people were treated so that they could do evangelism. As Allen said, “Some Baptists believed that evangelism and the world order existed on separate planes that never intersected, and that the church belonged only on the evangelistic plane. As long as governments like Hitler’s did not interfere with soul-saving, they could be tolerated.” This view of the almost complete separation of the spiritual plane that the gospel was concerned with, from the worldly, temporal plane that was of secular concern, explains well how white Baptists in the South were able to separate concern for the treatment of blacks from their religion. The Hitler-approving Southern Baptists visiting Germany in 1934 were just doing there what they did back home. They were separating their transcendent, personal faith from how people different from them were treated and how society was structured in the world that they lived in. But is this a proper separation? Should evangelical Christians only be focused on the soul while not caring about what happens to the body? There were many reasons for this separation of the spiritual from the physical that can be traced all the way back to gnostic Greek dualism (spirit = good and holy; physical matter = evil) that attacked the early church in the first centuries after Christ.
Also influencing this perspective was the reaction by conservative evangelicals to the influence of the social gospel as illustrated in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy of the 1920s, coming to a head in the Scopes Monkey trial in 1925 and the arguments over evolution. By the 1930s, evangelicals, especially those more fundamentalist, had largely retreated from the public sphere and were concerning themselves primarily with getting souls saved. In other words, we were at this point dealing with a truncated gospel of personal salvation for the individual, to the exclusion of the implications of the gospel having an effect on the larger society.
Many white evangelicals and fundamentalists were also affected by dispensationalism and the idea of a pre-tribulation Rapture for the people of God. They spent a great deal of time telling their churches that the demise of society was inevitable and that the faithful Christian was to concern himself primarily with his personal morality and personal evangelism. This teaching says that the only way to bring about change is by sharing the gospel of personal salvation and by being a “soul winner” so that individuals are converted. In this view, as far as any real change or improvement in society, that was unlikely until Jesus returned.
Finally, in the American South, except for the past one hundred years or so, Baptists had historically been the group decidedly not in charge. Much of their theology caused them to see themselves as people who were persecuted or who only wanted freedom of religion so they could quietly live for God and do evangelism. But this was a seventeenth-century concern and did not reflect the reality that Baptists had amassed great power and wealth, especially in the South; and with great power and privilege also comes great responsibility. Their theology had not adapted to the reality that they were no longer under the heel of the Anglicans or Puritans and were no longer being put in stocks or being beaten for simply preaching. They were now the ones making the rules and running institutions and they had not adapted their public stance to their changed status. What happened in Southern society was now up to them. They could change things, but they continued to see themselves as just needing the right to go to church, worship, and do evangelism. They had largely privatized their faith. So, it is not a huge surprise when they applied this same concept to their analysis of Hitler’s Germany. As long as German Baptists had room to worship as they pleased and could evangelize, Southern Baptists were satisfied. But their own concerns caused them to miss the evil before them. Soon, however, they would be sending their sons to fight and die in North Africa, Europe, and the Pacific to stop the evil they had overlooked in 1934.
Admittedly, the ability of the church to impact all aspects of life and culture is limited. The Kingdom of God has come in Christ and is coming, but it has not yet arrived. We know in part, and we experience God’s reign and rule in part, but evil is persistent. We cannot change everything. Proponents of a more individualistic gospel will say that Jesus and the early church were not concerned with the evils of the Roman Empire.They simply lived out their Christian life and engaged in evangelism as they could. And this perspective would be right on the surface, but it is incomplete. The latter part of this book will show that the early church actually did engage society holistically and that the world was turned upside down through a way of life that included both evangelism and sacrificial love for others and living out justice among the oppressed. The gospel reconnects us to God vertically through the sacrificial atonement of Christ, yes. But the implications of the gospel affect all of life. We must proclaim the gospel of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus and affirm that salvation is by faith and grace alone (Ephesians 2:1–9). But we must also recognize that the implications of the gospel move horizontally into all human relationships, tearing down dividing walls of separation and racial division and hate and violence and producing good works of love and service (Ephesians 2:10–22). This implication of the gospel seemed to be missing among the Baptists in Berlin in 1934 because it was missing back home in the American South as well.
William Lloyd Allen goes on to explain the reasons for this false separation between the spheres of the spiritual and the temporal at the Berlin BWA of 1934 and among German Baptists under the Third Reich. Allen says, “Racial pride was a strong factor. While on page three of the Alabama Baptist the editor was praising an association for having ‘the purest nordic blood among a larger proportion of its people than in any other county in the state,’ on page six of the same issue M. E. Dodd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, was giving a lengthy defense of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews.”
As Baptists and other white fundamentalists and evangelicals in the South separated the influence of Christianity from the social and political spheres by not prophetically calling for justice, peace, and righteousness in how the oppressed were treated, they allowed for injustice on a massive scale—and even went along with it. Their silence, under the guise of being spiritual and engaging in evangelism, was actually an acquiescence to the status quo that benefitted their own position and way of life. The embarrassing response of Southern Baptists to Hitler’s regime in the days before World War II was a result of a century of justifying their own complicity with the oppression of another race of people whom they simultaneously used for their own benefit and feared as a threat to their way of life. They were ill prepared to see the evil rising in front of them because it justified what was in their own hearts. As we have seen, they soon would be sending their sons off to war against Hitler’s murderous plan. What if they had seen the evil earlier instead of siding with it back home? Perhaps nothing could have been done to stop it, but Baptists surely could have worked to sound the alarm in 1934. Who knows what could have resulted from an aware activism? But deaf and blind people are not very effective in sounding alarms. Sin has a way of blinding us to the danger growing around us, especially when it is our sin that keeps us feeling safe and secure.
The Response of German Christians
Christians in Germany did not fare much better in their understanding of what was happening. Ellul’s theory of the subversion of Christianity was playing out within the established German Lutheran state church. As the 1930s wore on, Hitler increased his violent actions against the Jews until the death camps of Auschwitz and Dachau resulted. The majority of Christians in Germany were ill equipped to raise much of a protest against the evil power of the state in its murderous rampage because their first thoughts were of their own survival, safety, and prosperity. The problem plaguing white evangelical Christians in the American South was not peculiar to them. It was affecting German Christians as well and has affected the church down through the ages, as we have shown.
Erwin Lutzer tells the story of Hitler’s rise to power and the way he sought to co-opt and neutralize the church in Germany. Hitler did not mind if the church existed, but he did not want it to interfere with his plans for Germany. As long as the church kept to itself and let Hitler do what he wanted with the German people, the church would be left alone. This approach to church-state relations was called “positive Christianity” and Hitler enforced this view upon the Christians in Germany. The greatest good was what enhanced the German way of life, or Lebensart. As long as the church supported his program for German ascendancy and the ultimate Germanization of the church, then it would be allowed to tend to its own affairs. But when the church opposed Hitler’s goals, it would be seen as detrimental to the state and would be dealt with.
We will explore more of this situation later, but one can see how the church thought it was better to go along with Hitler than to oppose him. At first, this seemed like a good arrangement because Hitler’s plans were thought to be beneficial to Germany, but as time went on the church would learn a bitter lesson. By 1938, both Christmas and Easter would be cast in a nationalistic light to reflect Hitler’s goals through the “Germanization” of Christianity. Here again we see an example of the way of life of a people (Lebensart, in this case) dictating how the church would function, instead of the church affecting the way of life of a people through prophetic influence. to save its own skin, the German church was ready to bend its knee to Hitler.
Compounding the theological and practical confusion of the German church was the Lutheran doctrine of the “two spheres.” Lutzer explains that this doctrine was “interpreted to mean that Christ is Lord of the church, but the Kaiser (or Caesar) is, after a manner of speaking, lord over the political sphere. Allegiance to the political sphere was as high and honorable a duty as was one’s allegiance to God. Indeed, allegiance to God was best demonstrated by allegiance to the State.” To further complicate things, there was also an emphasis on Pietism, which placed Christian devotion within the heart and stated that the church should only preach the Gospel and not get involved in the larger affairs of the state or the culture. There was much merit to this approach, as the wedding of church and state had been detrimental to the church and had caused true devotion to Christ to turn cold. But when this pietistic emphasis allowed Christians to turn a blind eye to evil as they pariticipated in their own devotional practices in one sphere and gave allegiance to a corrupt state in the other sphere, it became a dangerous doctrine. It put German Christians in the place of blessing the actions of an evil government and in so doing thinking that they were obeying God.
As Hitler’s power increased and Germany went to war with the Allies, the iron grip of the Reich squeezed the church until it completely lost its voice. Some German Christians saw no problem with the complete support of the goals of the state. Others did not know what they could do and they sat helplessly while they watched Germany descend into hell. Many also covered themselves in their personal piety and tried to drown out the evil that was growing around them and choking the life out of Germany and its people. Lutzer repeats a story of German Christians who, during their worship services, could hear the nearby train passing. The train was filled with Jews on their way to the death camps.The Jews were yelling for help and crying in terror. The German Christian recounting the tale says that he would sing his hymns louder to drown out the sound. That is a horrific picture.
But what could anyone do to stop it? While the church is to act as salt and light, it cannot overcome evil with force. So, what could be done? That is the question that hangs around the neck of the German church that existed during Hitler’s reign. It is the same question that plagues the memory of the white church in the American South up until the late 1960s. What could be done to stop what was happening? If one person stepped up and tried to do something, then the crushing power of the state and culture—John Patterson, George Wallace, Bull Connor, the White Citizens’ Councils, to name just a few examples— would have obliterated him. He would have been martyred or personally destroyed and rejected and those joining him would have been persecuted as well. And is it the role of individual Christians to oppose evil through actually trying to stop it? Or should Christians just live in piety and do the best they can despite what is going on around them? What does faithfulness to God look like in these situations? These questions have been debated by Christians for centuries.
As previously discussed, one school of thought is that Christians should just focus on their own lives of devotion and should leave what happens in society up to God and those in charge. Using scriptural passages like Romans 13:1–7 and 1 Timothy 2:1–2, which says that we should pray for kings and those in authority so that we can live peaceful lives and be godly and holy, many have advocated a retreat from trying to influence society. When massive evil erupts, as in Nazi Germany or the American South in regard to slavery and racism, this view says that it is not the role of the church or Christians to intervene. Rather, Christians should submit to the governing authorities and be good citizens and live a peaceful, quiet life. Of course, they should not personally engage in any evil themselves, but they also have no responsibility to stop the evil perpetuated by oppressive governments. This view holds that the world is broken anyway and there will be tyrants and brutal governments and oppressive, sinful structures of culture and society until Jesus returns; that this is our lot and that the task of the Christian is to live a holy life within this turmoil and try to get people to accept the gospel of Jesus and be personally saved.
The other school of thought is that the Christian is, in some sense, responsible for what goes on in the world around him. As stewards over creation and as ambassadors of God’s kingdom, the Christian is not of the world, but is in the world, and is to promote justice. While not necessarily able to control what happens, the Christian is responsible to prophetically point to another way of living and to draw a contrast between the ways of the world and the way of God, even if he is persecuted or if martyrdom results. Using scripture like Jesus’s Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31–46), this view supports Christians not withdrawing from engagement with the world, but seeking to represent and worship Christ by caring for the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, and those who are oppressed, as well as speaking to and opposing the powers that traffic in the misfortune of those populations.
The Confessing Church and Call for Repentance
While these two views of the Christian’s role in society were often at odds with one another, there were those in Germany in the 1930s and ’40s who sought to combine the two emphases and live a holy life before the Lord in personal devotion and also care for their neighbor, the Jews, as well as oppose the evil that was growing in the Nazi Third Reich. Two such men were Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Neimoller, German theologians who helped form the Confessing Church in Germany, an expression of Christianity that broke from the state church, in a sense, to maintain its historic witness to Christ without succumbing to the program of the Nazis. The Jewish question became a major issue for Bonhoeffer and he saw that how the church treated those of Jewish ancestry was integral to whether or not it was actually the church of Jesus Christ.
Eric Metaxas, in his excellent recent biography on Bonhoeffer, details Bonhoeffer’s work to keep Christianity in Germany from being subverted by the Nazi culture that was looking for a path of ascendancy and power after the humiliation of World War I. Bonhoeffer wrote and presented to a group of ministers an essay in March 1933 (a year before the Baptist Congress in Berlin) entitled “The Church and the Jewish Question.” In this essay, Bonhoeffer opposed the Nazification of the church and the call to separate Jewish Christians (ethnic Jews who had come to believe in Jesus as Messiah) into their own churches distinct from German Christians as advocated and applied by what was known as the Aryan Paragraph. This was a clause placed in the constituting papers of civic organizations, businesses, and governmental agencies that limited participation to members of the “Aryan” or white/Germanic race, thus restricting Jews from participation in civil service or other aspects of German life. Bonhoeffer opposed on biblical grounds the application of the Aryan Paragraph to the church.
Bonhoeffer was addressing the central question for Christians in the midst of a corrupt society asking, “What can we do about it?” After agreeing that the church should be subject to the governing authorities as commanded in Romans 13:1–7, Bonhoeffer then addresses the role of the church in society and says that it is the church’s role to help the state be the state. e state should create an appropriate—therefore, just and moral—atmosphere of “law and order.” If it does not, then the church should prophetically speak to that situation and help the state ful ll its role before God and man. is is classic Lutheran theology and speaks to the vocation of the church in society as salt and light.
Metaxas goes on to explain two other ways that Bonhoeffer thought the church should act toward the state in addition to helping it maintain the proper perspective on keeping order. He declared that the church “has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society.” He was saying that when a society is constructed in a certain way, according to the desires of the state, and there are victims of that ordering, then the church is called to assist those who are being ground under a wheel of oppression. This is what it means to do good and to love one’s neighbor. In addition, Bonhoeffer said that the church also “has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.” Here, it became obvious that he was talking about the Jews; this was a direct confrontation of the goals of the Hitler and the state. We are not to look out just for the welfare of Christians, but for the good of all men, even those who are not Christians but who are suffering.
Bonhoeffer did not stop there. He pointed to another way that the church should act when the state is engaging in oppression or when people are suffering at the hands of a corrupt society. He said that the church “is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.” Metaxas says that Bonhoeffer was saying that “It is sometimes not enough to help those crushed by the evil actions of a state; at some point the church must directly take action against the state to stop it from perpetrating evil.” There are conditions, though. The spoke must be put into the wheel only “when the church sees its very existence being threatened by the state, and when the state ceases to be the state as defined by God.” Bonhoeffer then applied this condition to the situation that was causing the German church not to accept baptized Jews into its membership or to engage in “mission to the Jews.” If the state kept the church from obeying God and engaging in its mission, which was to bring all people together in Christ, then the state/culture should be opposed and a spoke should even be driven through the wheel of oppression.
The conclusions that Bonhoeffer drew here are shocking for the adherent of Subverted Christianity, and when applied to the American expression of the white evangelical church in the Segregated South, they are damning, to say the least. Bonhoeffer is essentially saying that the church that does not include both converted Jews and Gentiles in one church is no church at all. It has forsaken the gospel. And the church that is not actively engaged in mission to the Jews has also abandoned the gospel. In addition, the role of the church is to care for the victims of the abuses of society when it errs and to even put a stop to those abuses when it can by putting a “spoke into the wheel itself.” Bonhoeffer is here calling for a church that includes all people and that cares for all people, even those who are not part of the church, by making sure that society deals justly with the weak and the oppressed—and when it does not, it engages in civil disobedience and opposes that society of oppression.
For Bonhoeffer, the very existence of the church was at stake. If German Christians and Jewish Christians could not come together in one church, then there was no longer a church in Germany because the church existed of all of the people that God has called through Christ and all who have answered that call. It cannot be segregated into German and Jewish branches. In addition, how German Christians treated Jews who remained Jewish in their religion also spoke to the church’s validity. Bonhoeffer said, “What is at stake is by no means the question whether our German members of congregations can still tolerate church fellowship with the Jews. It is rather the task of Christian preaching to say: here is the church, where Jew and German stand together under the Word of God; here is the proof whether a church is still the church or not.”
Applying Galatians 3:26–28, which says that all those who believe in Jesus are sons of God together and are one in Christ through faith whether they are Jew, Greek, slave, free, male, or female, Bonhoeffer made the case that the church actually is only the church when it includes all those who have confessed Jesus as Lord. He was declaring that artificial divisions according to race or other factors, no matter how strongly they were enforced by the larger state/culture, could not be adhered to by those claiming to be Christians lest the gospel itself be forsaken. If those of Jewish and German heritage could not stand together under the word of God in the church, and if the church did not go to the Jew with the gospel of Jesus, then it was no longer the church. The gospel and the very existence of the church itself was at stake in Bonhoeffer’s call for the German church to resist the program of the Nazis in regard to the Jews. In addition to the ontological argument about what the church actually was in relation to the Jews, Bonhoeffer also stated that it was the church’s duty to stand against the Nazi oppression of the Jews, even the Jews who rejected Christ. The wheel of oppression must be spiked, so to speak, and it was the duty of the church to do it. Bonhoeffer would carry this philosophy till he hung from the gallows in a German prison camp on April 9, 1945 for his role in trying to spike the wheel through an assassination attempt on Hitler.
One might not agree with Bonhoeffer’s role in the attempted assassination of Hitler, as a strong case can be made that resorting to violence to stop the wheel of injustice is a step too far and perpetuates the violence; still, one cannot avoid responding to his denunciation of a church that allowed itself to be segmented along racial/ethnic lines and that was subverted by the evil of the state as no church at all. Bonhoeffer’s view is that the real church would suffer along with those who were suffering and would lay its life down for the oppressed. Instead of singing hymns louder to drown out the cries of the Jews on the trains taking them to the concentration camps, Bonhoeffer sought to lead the German church to a position of prophetic response to a great evil—to tell a different story and to stand in the place of rescue, even if its own life was in danger. Instead of seeking to protect his own way of life, Bonhoeffer lost his life for the sake of the gospel and became a witness that the church must reflect the sacrificial love of Christ instead of seeking to preserve and advance itself at the expense of others.
Repentance as a Way Out of Subversion
The German church, by and large, did not heed Bonhoeffer’s prophetic call and instead continued along the path of acquiescence to the Nazi agenda. In 1933, out of a population of 65 million, 41 million Germans were registered as evangelicals (Protestant) and 21 million were registered as Catholics. Germany was a nation immersed in Christian teaching and history. Yet, German Christianity was subverted as the vast majority of Christians went along with Hitler, at least in their fear and silence. German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller, a Bonhoeffer contemporary who helped to found the Confessing Church, summed up the subversion of the church in Germany in his famous poem, “First They Came . . .”:
First they came for the socialists,
And I didn’t speak out, because I wasn’t a socialist.
en they came for the trade unionists,
And I didn’t speak out, because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
And I didn’t speak out, because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then, they came for me,
And there was no one left to speak for me.
In this poem, Niemoller captures the sentiment of German Christianity during the Third Reich. As long as the way of life of German Christians was not being hindered, then they had little concern for what happened to others that they might not have agreed with or identified with. But because their focus was on their own safety, security, and prosperity instead of on Christ and others, they did not see the danger growing all around them. The state they had come to depend upon for their security finally betrayed them and began to devour them. It was only through the intervention of outside forces—the Allied armies utterly destroying Germany’s war-making capability—that the church was spared complete destruction at the hands of the Nazi regime. But in ceasing to care for its neighbor and turning a blind eye to evil, the church experienced a different kind of destruction—a destruction of heart and witness and of the essence of what made it the church of Jesus Christ. If there was to be any future for the church in Germany, This spiritual death had to be identified and dealt with.
The Christian concept of “repentance” means to confess and turn around and go a different direction toward Christ. It is considered an essential aspect in the path toward forgiveness and restoration and it is foundational to biblical Christianity. Niemoller understood this. Because of his witness, he was imprisoned in a concentration camp from 1937–45. After the war and the utter destruction of much of Germany, Niemoller led the German evangelical church in adopting the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt (October 19, 1945), which stated, in part:
With great anguish we state: through us has endless suffering been brought to many peoples and countries. What we have often borne witness to before our congregations, we now declare in the name of the whole Church. We have for many years struggled in the name of Jesus Christ against the spirit which found its terrible expression in the national Socialist regime of tyranny, but we accuse ourselves for not witnessing more courageously, for not praying more faithfully, for not believing more joyously, and for not loving more ardently.
Other German Christians were struggling with similar issues of guilt, confession, and repentance over the evil that they allowed to spring up and grow in their midst. They had come to consider themselves responsible for what happened in their country and for the horrors unleashed through the death of six million Jews, as well as what was unleashed upon the rest of the world. On the annual Day of Repentance and Prayer in November 1945, church leadership in the Berlin-Brandenburg region called upon their parishioners to examine their hearts, repent, and ask for forgiveness. They engaged in a period of introspection and asked how the evil of Hitler and the Nazis could spring up in the nation that fostered the Protestant Reformation. How did the land of Luther give rise to the plague of the Third Reich and the ovens of Auschwitz? These ministers issued the following statement about their own guilt:
We did not fear God above all the powers of men and governments, we did not trust and obey God unconditionally—that is what brought us under the sway of the tempter, that is what cast us into the abyss! That is what gave the demon of inhumanity free rein among us.
And now the righteous judgment of our holy God has fallen upon us. Before His judgment seat we are not subject to the verdicts and standards of other human beings who also stand in fear of His judgment and are thrown upon His grace. Before God we are being questioned concerning our own guilt, our great, immeasurable guilt. Before God we cannot excuse ourselves.
Before Him there cries out against us all the innocently shed blood, all the blaspheming of the His Holy name and all the inhumanities which occurred in our midst especially against the Jews. If we know ourselves to be innocent—humanly speaking—of participating in the atrocities . . . we yet cannot, before God, escape the great burden of need and guilt which rests upon us.
Now, this confession of guilt and repentance and turning back to God did not erase the past. I do not think that these confessions of guilt and repentance mean that everyone in Germany or all German Christians saw their error and recognized that they had subverted Christianity. On the contrary, after the war, church attendance declined throughout all of Europe, and Germany was no exception. Rather, these statements of repentance by leaders in the German church changed the conversation from one of defensiveness over the role of the church to one of confession. They said, Yes, we were wrong! What you saw from us is not the way we should be! We need to make things right! This goes a long way to bring healing to a nation and to restoring the collective witness of the church. Even though the church was not synonymous with Hitler, naziism, and the Third Reich per se, it recognized its responsibility to oppose what was happening, even at the cost of its own existence, and it also recognized that it failed in its responsibility to the German people to witness to the crucified, suffering, Savior in their hour of greatest need. Confessing this failure positioned the German church for influence in the future, and, as we will later see, this influence was greatly needed in confronting another evil power that was to raise its head against the German people, namely Communism.
I found the German situation informative because it chronologically existed alongside what was happening in America in regard to race. Americans, including many Southern evangelicals and fundamentalists, went overseas to fight against the evil that was Hitler’s Third Reich. But they had not addressed their own evils of racism, segregation, and oppression back home, and their churches, instead of seeking to “spike the wheel” of injustice, were actually often greasing the wheel so it would turn more effectively. As I continued my quest of trying to understand how white evangelicals in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1961 could sit by while black Christians were attacked, I realized that I had to better understand the white evangelical Christianity that I had been taught all of my life.
Why did so many white churches seem to lack spiritual vitality in the South? Why did we have so much cultural Christianity and so little vibrant witness? Why was it so difficult to get people to live sacrificial, missional lives? Why did it sometimes seem that the hardest people to reach and to motivate toward true Christian living were the people who had grown up in church all their lives?
As a pastor, these questions were important to me as I saw a Christianity explained in the Bible that seemed very different from what I saw lived out before me. But then again, I recognized that I struggled with the same problems of lukewarmness and complicity with the culture. The “enemy” was not “out there” in the lives of others, but it was in my own heart—in “our” hearts. I was just as much to blame as anyone else. I understand that we are all sinners and we all struggle to live consistent lives. That is the “big picture” answer. But what was in our particular religious expression that kept us from confessing that we were wrong on the race issue until decades after the civil rights movement had ended? What was in our theology that caused us to feel secure in Zion while the world around us (including our own hearts and churches) was filled with evil and injustice? What did we miss back then and what were we missing now?
Trying to answer those questions led me once again way back into philosophy and history, and what I found was shocking.
[Chapter 4 deals with the origins of the philosophies that led to the subversion of Christianity and roots these ideas in Greek philosophy more than in Biblical Christianity.]