Saturday, May 11, 2013

“The little ship of Christ’s church is sailing in a storm.” Lessons from the book, Paul Schneider: Witness of Buchenwald

Several years ago I wrote a post about Paul Schneider, a pastor in the Confessing Church of Germany who was martyred in a concentration camp. Over a long extended period he was beaten, isolated and finally poisoned to death. Since 2008 a German biography of Schneider, Paul Schneider: Witness of Buchenwald, written by Rudolf Wentorf and translated by Daniel Bloesch, has been available for the English reader.

The book is filled with documents, sermons and, various kinds of correspondence such as Reformed church session minutes and letters, correspondence from the Gestapo to German Christian Church leaders and even a church lady’s aid group pleading in a letter for the release of their pastor from detention.

Rather than writing the standard book review I have decided, using the book as reference, I will look at the various reasons Schneider was harassed by the leaders of the German Christians, the Gestapo and even the Nazi government.   Contemporary orthodox Christians will relate to most of the controversies that plagued Schneider, although rather than dealing with a dictator and extreme nationalism they deal with a culture increasingly intolerant of Christianity. A culture whose prejudices toward morality and faith feed into too many organizations and governmental bodies.

Reading Wentorf’s information and documentation, it is clear that the issues for Schneider revolved around morality, ministry to youth, church discipline, and false revelation. All of these issues needed faithful believers to affirm biblical teaching and lift up Jesus Christ as the head of the church.

According to Wentorf, Schneider became a pastor in 1926. He was installed in the churches of Hochelheim and Dornholzhausen after the death of his father, the churches’ former pastor. He still pastored those two churches when Hitler came to power in 1933.

The Nazi’s began programs that would interest youth and they held most meetings on Sundays. A motion with a statement was made by Schneider and his church session. It was to have the district synod send a message to be read in all churches and also to send it to “the youth clubs, sport clubs and gymnastic associations, including the Hitler Youth and SA [Storm Troopers] and SS-units[protection Squad] . For Protestant Christians our Sunday worship must be our top priority and will continue to be our main concern.”(68)

As the Nazi groups continued to take over most of the youth work in Germany the church fought a continuing battle to keep its young people.

The beginning of real hostilities had to do with a newspaper article which began with the statement that “Chief of staff of the SA Röhm is campaigning against sanctimoniousness.” The article was supposedly aimed at the “leaders and troops of the SA and SS.” But not really. According to Wentorf, it was aimed at denominational youth associations outside of the Nazi Youth groups. (84) And Schneider reacts. He places a protest in a glass case notice board in his congregation which includes this:

“If chief of staff Röhm thinks that the development of our people have nothing to do with morality and chastity and when he speaks of these things as being done by “eccentric moralists” he is mistaken and has not done our nation any favor by issuing this appeal. (84)

Letters go back and forth over Schneider’s protest. He is threatened with “preventive detention” if he does not renounce the statements. It is finally resolved but letters sent by the ruling consistory (made up of mostly German Christians) to higher church authorities suggest that there is hope to transfer Schneider to a different church. So for clarity, the first issue that Schneider dealt with was morality and the continuing need to protect the faith of the young people.

That argument continued in a different way when Schneider decided that those youths who came for a special celebratory communion and yet did not attend any other service or Bible class could not take communion. But they could attend a service of confession which would end in communion.  Even Schneider’s session disagreed with his plan. But always Schneider was seeking to place the church on its true foundation, Jesus Christ.  His heart was set on guiding the young people in the faith.

Once again the issue of morality was raised. Schneider attacked an essay written by Nazi Propagandist Goebbels, “More Morality, but less Moral Hypocrisy.” As author Wentorf points out the essay came as Nazi leadership not only pushed young Jewish and Polish women into brothels, killed those people who they considered unworthy to live because of disabilities and “so-called hereditary diseases,” and also encouraged sex outside of marriage in order to produce more, supposedly, Aryan children. That was a campaign called, “Give the Führer a Child!” (128)

Schneider was also incensed, as were other pastors, by a partially pagan rally held by the German Christians, “the Sports Palace Rally.”  Speakers at the rally threatened those Christians and pastors who refused German Christian ideology.

Spies were always in Schneider’s services taking notes. They reported on him and sent their notes to the leadership of the National Socialist Worker’s Party, (NSDAP), who then sent reports to the Protestant Consistory who were generally German Christians. After being called to a meeting with the Consistory Schneider naively sent his sermon to them.

The sermon is meant as a wakeup call to the congregations. He suggests that some in the church think the church should “organize its life from a political standpoint as the “German Christians” do. And then he compares the differences in the two worldviews:

Of course, they [the German Christians] must underpin the practice with the false teaching that the message of the church is not the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, the Savior of sinners and the Kingdom of God alone, but our national character and traditions plus the gospel. They are in fact breaking with the living God and his Christ by placing blood and race and the history of the nation as sources of revelation alongside God’s Word, alongside God’s will revealed to us in the Word of Scripture alone, alongside Jesus as the only mediator between God and man. The struggle in our church has erupted over this issue [the false revelation] and there can be no peace until the traitors of pure doctrine and those who have forced their way into the sheep pen as wolves have vacated bishop’s chairs and representative seats or until the confessing Christians have left this false church. (139)

After explaining all of the attempts of the German Christians, backed by the government, to stop the members of the confessing church from confessing that Jesus is the only Lord, Schneider states, “The little ship of Christ’s church is sailing in a storm.” And he uses this theme throughout the rest of his sermon showing that the storm is batting hard against the church and yet proclaiming that Christ was with the “little ship” in all storms. (139-145)

For instance:

We tolerated the teaching of Balaam, of liberalism among us, which praised the goodness and freedom of man, reduced the redemptive work of the Savior and God’s glory and dissolved the seriousness of eternity into a foggy notion … We do not hate the works of the Nicolaitians enough! The letters of Revelation warn us about the works of those who are morally lax, greedy, disreputable, and despise the Lord’s Day. We have had communion with obvious and unrepentant sinners. … And now the storm tide has swept over our church, and its little ship is swamped by ruinous and corrupting waves, and we need to scoop them out.


Do we not want to rejoice that this ship is given to us? See, it is not just a story of old, our gospel is a story of today, of the living Lord and his church, just as you have been singing this song in the village from earlier times: “O church of Christ, noble ship, how glorious your course, many a reef surely threatens you in the storm, many a wave surges up. But God is with you, so be confident, the Lord is leading you to your destination. However much the sea surges and rages, when he gives the command, it is still! (143)

Schneider did mention Goebbels in his sermon and later apologized for doing so, but still he was suspended and sent to a different church. It was during this time of ministry that he began the bigger battles that would lead to prison and death. One issue was paganism. The final issue was church discipline.  

After having moved to the parishes Dickenschied and Womrath, Schneider conducted a funeral for a young man, Karl Moog. Schneider in a letter to the superintendent complains that the district leader of the NSDAP had spoken and stated that Moog “had crossed over into the storm of Horst Wessel.”[1] Schneider would have nothing to do with such anti-Christian words at a Christian funeral. As he stated in his letter he had spoken up saying he protested and “This is a Church ceremony and as a Protestant pastor I am responsible for the pure teaching of the Holy Scriptures.” (153)

Schneider also wrote to the district leader about the occasion. He was arrested and held in what was called preventive detention. (153-155) Schneider would later be released but his final trial begun when he and his session, using the their Book of Order, backed by the Heidelberg Catechism and certainly by the Bible, attempted to discipline two farmers who among other problems, were spreading vicious slanders against the pastor.

 They were national socialist and wanted a German Christian pastor. One of them, Ernst Scherer, who wanted his son taught in a German Christian church, writes to the “Highest Administrative office of the Protestant Church” in Berlin and to the Consistory. Part of his letter to the consistory states, “In his opinion [Schneider’s] only those who have a green membership card of the Brotherhood Council Church [The Confessing Church]  are considered to be “genuine Christians” … Moreover, after having become familiar with his quite eccentric medieval goals with a fanatical zeal …”(206)

Schneider is eventually rearrested and with an agreement by the consistory. But the Gestapo steps into the final argument and makes the final arrest. All of the groups, Nazis and German Christians have their files full of his “misdeeds” and they all seek to end his influence on the church and the community. Because Schneider refuses deportation away from his church he eventually ends up in Buchenwald where he continues to preach to his fellow inmates. When his wife goes to pick up his body, as she looks at his face, she states, “Dead, but not defeated.” (384)

There is a great deal more to learn in Wentorf’s book. He has written about a culture completely given over to the Nazi ideology.  There is far too much material to cover in a blog posting. The Confessing Church continues to teach the western church about standing for Christ in a time of cultural madness. The Confessing Church continued on in East Germany during the Communist rule and withstood the contrary ideology of Marxism.

But the issues that Schneider and the other confessing pastors faced are not that different than those contemporary western Christians face. Only the context is different.  Issues of false revelation, immorality, a battle for the faith of youth, the need for church discipline, failure to uphold the Holy Scriptures and most of all faithfulness to Jesus Christ. Truly the little ship, the church, needs to face the future in the strength of Christ.   


picture by Viola Larson

[1] There is an article on Wikipedia about the German Horst Wessel who was glorified by the Nazis “Nazi propaganda glorified his life. The bimonthly Der Brunnen - Für deutsche Lebensart (Frithjof Fischer ed.) in its issue of 2 Jan 1934 declared: "How high Horst Wessel towers over that Jesus of Nazareth - that Jesus who pleaded that the bitter cup be taken from him. How unattainably high all Horst Wessels stand above Jesus!"[

No comments: