Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Church within a Church: The Lordship of Christ and the form of the Church 3

Some Churches in the Presbyterian Church (USA), who have gone to court to keep their property, are losing court cases around the issue of whether or not the denomination is a hierarchical institution. Whether one agrees or disagrees with going to court over property, the issue of the Church being hierarchical is also a part of the history of the German Church struggle.

The Lordship of Jesus Christ, the form of the Church and a hierarchical view of the Church were all intertwined in the confusion that existed before and during the rule of Hitler’s Nazis.

It was for this reason that many of the confessional statements written in the few years before the Declaration of Barmen had as their concern how the form of the Church must grow out of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. And it was for this reason that during the synod that produced the Declaration of Barmen a resolution was also approved that contained this statement about the Church:

“It is impossible to divorce the Church’s outward order from the Confession of Faith. …

The unity of the German Evangelical Church is also not achieved by recklessly setting up a central authority that is based upon a worldly F├╝hrerprinzip foreign to the Church. A hierarchical structure of the Church is contrary to the Reformation Confession of Faith.” (emphasis mine)

As has been stated this statement grew out of a dispute about the Lordship of Christ over the Churches. In Germany it was a dispute about placing a Reich bishop along with lesser bishops over the Church.

The writing of faith statements and confessions of faith began before the free synods and accrued until members of the Barmen Synod wrote and accepted the Declaration of Barmen. In this posting I deal with two statements written before the beginning of free synods and in the next I will look at two that were written during the free synod meetings. They are all concerned with the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the form of his Church.

There is not an English translation of the first one but Arthur C. Cochrane explains its content in his book The Church’s Confession Under Hitler. The “Altona Statement,” or “A Word and Confession to the Need and Confusion in Public Life” was written “a few weeks before Hitler assumed power.” One of its authors, Hans Asmussen, would later give the sermon that explained the Declaration of Barmen to the members of the Synod of Barmen.

This statement simply explained what the Church was, how Christians were to function in the public forum and the relationship between the Church and the State. It stressed the sinfulness of humanity and the forgiveness given by Jesus Christ to his people.

The second statement is the “D├╝sseldorf Theses,” written in May 1933. It began with a statement from the “Ten Theses of Berne,” written in 1528. “The holy, Christian Church, whose only head is Christ, is born of the Word of God, abides in the same, and hears not the voice of a stranger.”

The Theses emphasized that Jesus Christ was the head of the Church and that the ministries within the Church are “ordered by him." The statement speaks to each ministry, preachers, elders, teachers, etc., explaining what the duties are and that it is only in the grace of Jesus that they have their usefulness. The offices are always referred to as ministries and their authority is grounded in the grace of Christ.

Number 12 of the Theses is “Jesus Christ is the only ‘spiritual leader’ of the Church. He is its heavenly King who lives on earth through his Spirit in every one who is obedient to his commission in serving him in the Church.”

Only Jesus Christ has ultimate authority, any other ministry is just that a ministry. The authority of each ministry is established as it functions in the Spirit through the grace of Jesus Christ.

The Confessing Church appealed to the Reformation Confessions and declared that any other form of the Church grew out of arbitrary human ideals and was an unacceptable way of ordering the Church. Within the free synods a hierarchical Church was denied on the ground that Jesus Christ alone was head of the Church. It is with this denial that they stood against a corrupt German institution, a heretical Church.

1 “Declaration Concerning the Legal Status of the German Evangelical Church,” in The Churches Confession Under Hitler by Arthur C. Cochrane, 242. It seems to me that since we have the Declaration of Barmen in our Book of Confessions and since this statement is based on that and other Confessions that should be proof enough that we are not a hierarchical Church.

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