Learning from the Barmen Declaration of 1934: Theological-Ethical-Political Commentary



[1] The Barmen Theological Declaration was crafted and adopted in May 1934 by a scholarly team whose guiding figure was Karl Barth. The context for this theological statement included the increasing machinations by the German Christians, supported in their efforts by the Nazi regime, to control and dominate the Protestant churches in Germany through the formation of a national church. Up to this time the Protestant churches had existed in a federation constituted of Landeskirchen, regional church bodies related to the state territories within Germany.

[2] The Theological Declaration of Barmen was formulated during an historical moment in which questions about the flight and migration of endangered persons was becoming acute. This document provides theological, ethical, and political implications for the political responsibility of Christians in response to the flight, migration, and integration of displaced persons also in our own time.  This essay presents in entirety each of  the six articles of the Barmen Declaration followed by contemporary theological-ethical-political commentary.[1] Importantly, this commentary begins with a confession of failure on the part of the teaching office of the church both then and now.

Article 1

[3] “‘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.”

[4] Commentary: One of the acute and enduring failures of the church in the exercise of its teaching office has been the inability to make clear the distinction between the worship of God in Jesus Christ as our ultimate loyalty and the service of one’s nation as a penultimate loyalty. For example, we in the United States have failed miserably in differentiating between following Jesus Christ as a way of life and the requisites of American civil religion. This is so much the case that many church members continue to conflate Christian faith with nationalistic patriotism. This leaves them subject to being misled by those religious leaders who confuse their nationalistic political agenda with faithfulness to the God of the Bible. While citizenship is one arena in which Christians are called to live out their faith in daily life, the measure of good government involves how it tends to the common good and particularly how it protects the most vulnerable persons in society. This is in accordance with the Great Commandment to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind and your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:34-40).

Article 2

[5] “‘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.”

[6] Commentary: A second acute and enduring failure of the church in the exercise of its teaching office involves the bifurcation of Christian existence into two separated realms, a public realm ruled by the state and a private realm belonging to the church. This is due to a misinterpretation of Luther’s two kingdoms teaching and a misunderstanding of the United States’ insistence on the separation of church and state.  The result of these misunderstandings leads to relegating religion to a private (religious/spiritual/ecclesial/churchly) compartment of life. Instead of understanding the Gospel of Jesus Christ as setting us free for serving neighbors through political engagement for justice and peace in the world, a distortion of the two kingdoms limits Christian existence to what happens through church programs and activities. Instead of understanding separation of church and state as a constitutional protection from the imposition of religion by the state, a distortion of the establishment clause leads Christians to think Christian faith precludes political involvement. In both cases these misinterpretations have resulted in political quietism by Christians leading to passivity in the face of great evil. Jesus Christ is the Lord over all of life who calls us to discipleship in every arena of our daily lives, including political responsibility as citizens.

Article 3

[7] “‘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’(Ephesians 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.”

[8] Commentary: A third acute and enduring failure of the church in the exercise of its teaching office involves the disproportionate authority given to Romans 13:1-2 in defining the relationship of church and state: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” While government that functions to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” (Preamble to the U.S. Constitution) is a gift for which we in the U.S. can give God thanks, the Bible also testifies to the necessity of holding rulers accountable and engaging in resistance to tyranny. In the Hebrew Bible the law establishes protections for the most vulnerable (the poor, widows, orphans, strangers) and the prophets forcefully denounce injustice by rulers and elites. In the New Testament Jesus proclaimed a kingdom in which the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, and the poor are privileged. Revelation 13 authorizes resistance to the Roman empire, even as Romans 13 advises obedience. According to the Bible, Christians fulfill their political responsibility not only by rendering obedience to just government but also by resisting oppressive government. History is replete with instances where Christians were obligated to hold the governing authorities accountable, not only to render obedience, as guided by ethical criteria of what makes for the common good of all.

Article 4

[9] “‘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.’ (Matthew 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.”

[10] Commentary: A fourth acute and enduring failure of the church in the exercise of its teaching office relates to how the church has disproportionally protected its own self-interests in relation to the state rather than risking its own welfare in defending the weakest and most vulnerable persons in society. The fatal flaw of the Barmen Declaration was its myopic focus on protecting the members and interests of the church from the interference of the state, rather than understanding its essential calling as coming to the defense of all those in harm’s way of state injustice, including those who were not Christian. This meant that the church primarily sought to defend its own clergy and ministry from state oppression, while failing to intercede for endangered neighbors who were not necessarily Christian: Jews, gypsies, Jehovah Witnesses, disabled people, homosexuals, and others. A contemporary analogy would apply to efforts by the church to focus its efforts in charity and advocacy exclusively on its own members and interests, while neglecting to intercede on behalf of endangered neighbors who are not necessarily Christian: Muslims, immigrants, refugees, indigenous people, homosexuals, and others. Today the church is summoned by God in Jesus Christ to pray for all endangered groups (including in the intercessions at worship), and to advocate for just policies, minister to the victims of state injustice, and, when these measures fail, participate in peaceful civil disobedience against state injustice on their behalf. The threefold counsel of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Christian political responsibility in relation to the state is instructive.[2]

Article 5

[11] “‘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.”

[12] Commentary: A fifth acute and enduring failure of the church in the exercise of its teaching office is the confusion of church and state under the conditions of Christendom. One poignant instance of this confusion has been the development and use of just war principles by Christian leaders to legitimate war (for example, last resort, legitimate authority, legitimate cause, likelihood of success, peace as goal, proportionality of means, distinction between combatants and noncombatants). Whereas disciples of Jesus Christ in the pre-Constantine church refused to participate in war, under the conditions of Christendom the church consistently has appealed to Christian faith to authorize war making by the state with reference to just war principles. By contrast, the church under the conditions of Christendom never has developed comparable principles by which to measure the legitimacy of just civil disobedience. It becomes urgent in times of increased militancy by the state for Christians to consider also those principles that would counsel resistance to war. The support of extreme nationalism by Christian leaders today perpetuates the confusion of church and state under the conditions of Christendom. This tendency increases the likelihood that such leaders will endorse and legitimate future military endeavors rather than giving reasons to test and, as necessary, resist them, effectively making the church an organ of the state.

Article 6

[13]”‘Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20). “The word of God is not fettered’ (2 Timothy 2:9).

“The Church’s commission, upon which its freedom is founded, consists in delivering the message of the 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 declares that it sees 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 invites all who are able to accept its declaration to be mindful of these theological principles in their decisions in Church politics. It entreats all whom it concerns to return to the unity of faith, love, and hope.”

[14] Commentary: Jesus Christ is the one and only Lord sent of the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit to be Sovereign of this world. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the source of all faith, love, and hope now and forever. This Jesus Christ alone is the One we are called to worship and serve with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. The Gospel sets us free to serve neighbors in every arena of daily life. This includes active participation in citizenship to advocate for the common good of all, showing partiality to the weakest and most vulnerable, including an endangered creation. Clarity about the centrality of Jesus Christ provides the only foundation upon which Christian life and discipleship can abide against injustice, oppression, persecution, and tyranny. Confessing Church then and now centers on Christology (justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone) as the central article upon which we stand or fall. We are called to be mindful of these theological convictions as we seek the unity of the church and live out our political commitments again in our time.


[15] The Theological Declaration of Barmen remains an instructive document to inform Christian political responsibility in relation to the state, both in its achievements and limitations. This commentary highlights several implications of the Barmen Declaration from the struggle of the Confessing Church in the Nazi period for the situation of becoming confessing church today in relation to flight, migration, and integration of refugees, especially in the United States. It is vital that Christians learn not only from the accomplishments but especially from the limitations of earlier efforts that called for confessing church, in order to attain greater faithfulness in our present calling to political responsibility as churches.



[1] Citations of the Barmen Declaration are from: The Theological Declaration of Barmen, Confessions of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. http://www.westpresa2.org/docs/adulted/Barmen.pdf.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave threefold counsel regarding Christian responsibility to the state: 1) advocacy of just laws, 2) aid to victims of state injustice, and 3) civil disobedience when legal channels fail (“not just to bind up the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel but to seize the wheel itself”). See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works: Berlin 1932-1933, ed. Larry L. Rasmussen, trans. Isabel Best and David Higgins (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 12:365.

Craig L. Nessan

Dr. Craig L. Nessan is Professor of Contextual Theology and Ethics, and the William D. Streng Professor for the Education and Renewal of the Church at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa.  He teaches courses in the areas of leadership and theological ethics. He holds degrees from Michigan State University, Wartburg Theological Seminary, and the University of Munich.  His theological interests include diakonia as a paradigm for the future church.