I am reading the autobiography of Dr. Helmut Thielicke, a book recently gifted to me by a Presbyterian minister friend. My friend knows that Thielicke is one of my favorite theologians. First, a word about his amazing life: Thielicke was born in Germany in 1908 and died in 1986. After earning his Ph.D., he began his teaching career but soon came into conflict with the Gestapo who were carefully watching his lectures and sermons. By 1940, Thielicke was married, had a young family, and was dismissed from his teaching position. His refusal to join the Nazi Party, his ringing declarations of what it meant to be a faithful Christian, and his popularity with young students provided sufficient reason for the government to dismiss him. His faith was costly.
In addition, Thielicke waa a supporter of the Barmen Declaration (1934). This declaration of faith is a model for the Presbyterian Confession of 1967 which appears in the “Book of Confessions.” Those of us who lived through the events of 1967 will remember it also as a time of war and massive social unrest— the question then, the question now is: what does it mean to be a faithful Christian in this moment of history?
Many in the churches fell in line with the Nazi ideology. This group is called the “German Christian” movement. Among this movement was a group with the name, “National Socialist Protestant Clergy.” They were Nazi preachers. They were anti-Semitic. They were willing to ditch the Old Testament (the only Bible Jesus and the early church had!). They were willing tools of Hitler’s plan. They had their own declaration, called the “Ansbach Recommendation of 1934.” One sentence captures the spirit of Ansbach: “As believing Christians we thank the Lord our God for giving our nation in its time of distress the Fuehrer to be our ‘pious and loyal sovereign’ and for wishing to establish good governance with discipline and honor through the National Socialist system of government.”
Standing against Ansbach, against the German Christians, and against a compromised church was Barmen. Barmen declared:
"The church reminds men of God’s kingdom, God’s commandment and righteousness, and thereby the responsibility of rulers and the ruled. She trusts and obeys the power of the Word through which God maintains all things. We repudiate the false teaching that the state can and should expand beyond its special responsibility to become the single and total order of human life and also thereby fulfill the commission of the church."
The Christians at Barmen took a bold step in declaring the church’s sole allegiance to Jesus Christ and a biblical view of the relationship between the church and state. Barmen, above all, speaks to idolatry. No voice can ever be elevated above the voice of God. After the unanimous vote to accept Barmen, the delegates all stood and sang the last stanza of “Now Thank We All our God,” sometimes called the German “Gloria Patri”—
"All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given, The Son, and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven—The one eternal God, Whom earth and Heav’n adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore."
I must admit: I wish I had been there to hear the voices lifted. Many of those singing would likely not live to see the end of the war.
So this is my take on the difference between faith and religion. Religion can be twisted to serve human agendas. Religion can be evil. In the name of religion many atrocities have been, and continue to be, committed. Religion can be captive to idolatry in its ugliest forms. Whenever you see religion divide people, punish people, demonize people, it is good to remember Thielicke and Barmen and the countless thousands who refused to bend the knee to the state or to idolatrous religion. Faith always calls us to risk.