GEOFFREY W. BROMILEYGeoffrey W. Bromiley is senior professor of church history and historical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, Californza. He is the author of Introduction to the Theology of Karl Barth and the editor of the English edition of Barth’s magnum opus, Church Dogmatics.

Karl Barth had “a decisive and dominant influence on the most important developments of the century.” So spake CT after his death in December 1968.

Barth’s well-trained theological eye had helped him see Hitler’s threat to the German church. And his staunch refusal to bow to the Nazis had inspired others to put their careers—and their lives—on the line.

But how does Barth’s courage speak to us today?

What cautions would he offer about the renewed involvement of conservative Christians in politics?

What is the church’s mission in the face of social injustice?

To commemorate the centennial of Barth’s birth—and to give us perspective as candidates begin to warm up for the presidential election of 1988—we asked Geoffrey Bromiley, a Christianity Today Institute fellow and one of the world’s foremost Barth scholars, to reflect on Barth’s teaching on the Christian’s relation to the state.

Born one hundred years ago, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth lived through two world wars, the Hitler nightmare, Communist expansion, and the beginnings of nuclear weaponry. Although he pursued theology as his primary ministry, he unavoidably came up against the questions of church and state and Christians’ role in society.

Barth’s first attempts to relate the church to society came when he was a young Reformed pastor at Safenwil in Switzerland. It then seemed he might be developing into a political activist, intruding secular concerns into the ministry of God’s Word. Championing the oppressed workers of his parish, he devoted much time to social and economic issues, helped to form trade unions, became known as “comrade pastor” and “the red parson,” joined the Social Democrats, marched behind a red flag, and was even invited to run for office. Far from distinguishing spiritual and secular concerns, he seemed to be confusing them along the lines of the contemporary social gospel.

Even at that time, however, Barth’s approach was complex. The support of liberal theologians for the Kaiser’s war policy in 1914 had clearly shown him the limits of theological liberalism. On the other hand, the teachings of Johann and Christoph Blumhardt, Protestant evangelists and theologians who blended warm-hearted pietism with a strong social conscience, had taught him that God’s kingdom is transcendent and that God alone can establish it. His sense of pastoral responsibility had committed him to a ministry of the Word, to search Scripture for the message that he was charged to deliver. As he stated later, he never gave allegiance to the theory of the Social Democrats. He was interested only in specific issues affecting his people’s welfare.

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In sum, he was beginning to grasp the distinction between God’s kingdom and partial earthly attempts at reform. He also understood that his own ministry lay, not in social action, but in the proclamation of the gospel of grace.

Nevertheless, Barth could see from World War I the danger in too rigid a separation of the spiritual and secular kingdoms. As some Lutherans tended to interpret it, this separation meant that good Christians could engage in a ministry of evangelism and edification on the one hand, and yet uncritically support cynical and even brutal national policies on the other. Leaving secular matters to secular leaders involved Christian citizens in public practices that would be privately unthinkable. Although a distinction of spiritual and secular had to be made, it could not be absolute.

Separation Of Church And State

In 1921, when Barth was called to be a professor at Gottingen in Germany, he was shocked by the Germans’ political ineptitude. Nurtured in the traditional democracy of Switzerland, he was both amused and alarmed by the unthinking nationalism of the Christians—and even of his faculty colleagues—and by the slick way they found clever moral reasons for public brutality. Barth did not object to separating church and state in principle, nor did he wish to deny to Christians a loyalty to their country and its government. Nevertheless, he sensed that the separation of spiritual and secular ought not to mean that believers banish their Christian convictions from social, economic, and political matters, for that would allow the intrusion of non-Christian ideas, methods, and principles into an important area of their lives.

In 1928 Germany was already moving toward the crisis that would produce Hitler, and Barth was lecturing on ethics in his new post at Münster. It was here that he made a first effort to systematize his thinking on church-state relations. Accustomed to a state church, Barth favored establishment if the state thus decided and if all religious bodies enjoyed full toleration. Yet he drew a clear-cut distinction, and made a careful comparison, between the nature and functions of church and state. The church should serve as a sign of the new order of life based on God’s reconciling work in Christ. As such, it has the task of reconciliation through its ministry of preaching, worship, and loving service. The state, too, should serve God’s reconciling work, but very differently—by establishing public order and promoting the public good. Since both church and state express the same divine order, they cannot be absolutely separated.

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The church takes precedence over the state as a sign of God’s new order. Barth thus presented a much revised version of Pope Boniface VIII’s claim (1302) that both the “spiritual sword” and the “temporal sword” belonged to the church, but that the “temporal sword” was delegated to the state to be used for the church. Barth argued that Christians belong to the new aeon. They are thus church members first, and only then citizens. However, the church’s supremacy, being spiritual and not secular, excludes neither a practical subjection to the state nor cooperation with it—so far as the state’s concerns coincide with its own. In case of divergence, the church must renounce all co-responsibility. If acute divergence results in conflict, it must protest, though only with its own weapons.

Barth never thought that the church as such should resort to secular action (for example, by forming a Christian party, adopting a secular program, or promoting ecclesiastical figures as political leaders). Obviously, individual Christians might engage in political action, and the church as such should speak out on specific issues. But they should never do so with the illusion that they can thereby establish God’s kingdom. The church must always take care not to transform itself into a secular agency.

The Crisis

The Hitler crisis in the early 1930s tested Barth’s convictions both personally and ecclesiastically.

As a professor at Bonn with both German and Swiss citizenship, he was personally tested. As state employees, Barth and his fellow professors faced a new demand that they should swear direct loyalty to Hitler. Suspicious of the implied totalitarian claim of National Socialist ideology, Barth agreed to do so only “so far as his responsibility as an Evangelical Christian allowed.” He found little sympathy. Colleagues argued that his reservation might be left unstated, and the government first suspended and then retired him in 1935.

His ecclesiastical convictions were tested when Hitler tried to win over the churches to his cause, by appealing to law and order, to anticommunism, to national self-respect, and to economic reconstruction. Hitler also tried to achieve a distinctively German Christianity by fusing Christian belief with the ideology of racial superiority.

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Barth had joined the German Social Democratic party because the group at first seemed to offer some hope of political resistance. But he did not focus on political action, especially as he saw this party come under a government ban. Instead, he concentrated on doing good theology “as though nothing had happened.” In fact, since the ultimate Hitlerite challenge was theological, Barth’s theology was his real response, a response with the church’s own methods.

In his pamphlet Theological Existence Today (1933), which sold rapidly until the authorities confiscated it, he presented the church’s case in the simple axioms that Christians can have no other gods but God, that Scripture is their only guide, and that the grace of Christ is enough for forgiveness and renewal.

Then, in May 1934, Barth opposed the National Socialist infusion into the church by joining in the formation of the “Confessing Church”—an alternative church movement led by World War I U-boat hero Martin Niemoller. Barth drafted the Barmen Declaration, a manifesto of this church’s final commitment to God’s revelation in Jesus and of its inalienable freedom from adulterating ideology.

The Declaration did not address the church-state relation directly. It went deeper. For Christians, it stated, Jesus Christ is, according to Scripture, the one Word of God they must trust and obey. They can recognize no rival source of proclamation. This primary thesis cuts right across any attempted combination of the gospel with an alien theory or principle, whether this be right or wrong in its own field. It involved an unavoidable collision with the ideology of race, blood, and people that National Socialism wanted to impose in the form of a distinctively German Christianity.

Unhappily, many church leaders and members were unable to relate their faith critically to secular thinking or policy. They failed to understand how the civil religion the authorities desired was a threat to the gospel—just as many believers in other ages do not perceive the dangers inherent in equating the gospel with other causes. The Jewish issue brought the matter into focus in Hitler’s day. At one sermon Barth preached, some members of the congregation walked out when he stressed that Jesus Christ himself was a Jew.

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No Neutrality

Back in his native Basel (1935), Barth gave what help he could to the Confessing Church. He regarded it as his spiritual duty to oppose National Socialism both nationally and internationally. In his lectures of 1937–38, he took a fresh look at church and state.

The separation of the temporal and spiritual kingdoms, Barth contended, does not put the state outside God’s rule and purpose. God is Lord of both, and both serve him in their different ways. The state renders a “political service of God.” When it does this properly, the church must give it positive cooperation. When it does it badly, the church should refuse responsibility. When it turns its service into tyranny, the church has to resist, even to the point of seeking to overthrow the government. Beyond that, the church asks only for freedom from political restriction or intrusion.

In Barth’s view, Hitlerism destroyed a true church-state relation by hampering the church’s ministry and perverting its own. During World War II, then, he summoned Christians everywhere to work for its defeat. The Swiss, ringed by German armies and prodded by German protests, tried to enforce neutrality by censorship. Barth believed that his duty to speak out, whether by addresses at home or open letters abroad to French, Dutch, and British Christians, transcended his country’s demand. In principle, Barth saw an overlapping of the Allied cause and the Christian cause, which justified Christian support for the Allies.

Basic Barth

Very few theologians have become adjectives. Saint Augustine produced Augustinians; John Calvin produced Calvinists. And Karl Barth produced Barthians. But he shuddered at the thought. (And he would have had good reason to shudder had he been able to foresee where some “Barthians” took his theology.)

Although his explosive ideas left lasting craters in the landscape of European theology, he carefully kept his humility. In the front of his own printed copy of the second edition of his Romans (1922), he wrote this quotation from Luther: “If you feel or imagine that you are right and suppose that your book, teaching or writing is a great achievement … then, my dear man, feel your ears. If you are doing so properly, you will find that you have a splendid pair of big, long, shaggy asses’ ears.”

Rather than point at himself, Barth pointed to Scripture and to God. The liberal theology on which Barth had been educated spoke of God, but listened to man. Barth’s beloved teacher, Adolf von Harnack, stressed the moral side of Christianity, especially human brotherhood, to the exclusion of Christian doctrine. And by the time World War I broke out, the Christian identity of theological liberalism had disintegrated so far that one theologian could tell Barth, “All religion is right for us … whether it is called the Salvation Army or Islam, provided that it helps us to hold out through the war.”

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Thus, when Christian theologians Barth respected suddenly pressed their ideologies into the service of the Kaiser’s war effort, Barth was shaken to the core—and driven to the Bible:

“We tried to learn our theological ABC all over again,” he wrote, “beginning by reading and interpreting the writing of the Old and New Testaments, more thoughtfully than before. And lo and behold, they began to speak to us—but not as we thought we must have heard them in the school of what was then ‘modern theology’.… I sat under an apple tree and began to apply myself to Romans with all the resources that were available to me at the time.… I began to read it as though I had never read it before. I wrote down carefully what I discovered, point by point.”

The resulting commentary, as well as his subsequent writing and teaching, emphasized that no human institution—no theology, no philosophy, no political party, no humanitarian cause, no patriotism—was to be identified with the kingdom of God. He had learned that the hard way in the school of disappointment. And the Word of God showed him how all things human fall under the judgment of God.

Barth’s writings explicated the radical distinction between God and this world. But they also spoke hopefully of how the knowledge of God would change society.

Not an otherworldly theologian, Barth for many years quietly spent his Sundays preaching to inmates at the Basel jail. (His job was less to convince the prisoners that they were sinners, he said, than to convince them that he was a sinner.) He believed that the “knowledge of God is not an escape into the safe heights of pure ideas, but an entry into the need of the present world, sharing in its suffering, its activity and its hope.”

Although he wrote 200 books, including a monumental but unsystematic Church Dogmatics, Barth’s theological concerns remained basic. Though he accepted the notion that the Bible was full of “errors,” he stressed that it was not man’s word about God, but God’s word about man. Christ was, in his person, God’s message to mankind. Thus, with a little humor—and a lot of truth—he answered the query of a sophisticated American student in his Basel seminars. What was the most important concept of Christian thought to him? the student wanted to know.

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Barth’s reply: “Jesus loves me; this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”



After the war, Barth showed flexibility in his thinking. He still distrusted the Germans politically, but he believed it was the Christian task to further reconciliation and the reconstruction of Germany. He himself gave guest lectures at Bonn and actively promoted practical relief efforts.

Barth’s approach provoked opposition from different sides. In a sermon on Matthew 11:28 in Switzerland, he angered many listeners by extending the Savior’s call to former members of the Hitler youth and the SS. But he also caused a storm at a Wiesbaden memorial service by remembering resistance fighters and victims of the concentration camps along with the military dead.

A wider problem developed as many Christians came under the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. What attitude should they now adopt toward the state? Since communism stands openly opposed to the gospel, Barth perceived a different threat from that of National Socialism—in spite of their common totalitarianism.

Christians in Communist countries, Barth thought, should take the path of coexistence, steering a middle course between revolt and collaboration, seeking whatever freedom they could secure, and focusing on their primary ministry of the Word. Many Eastern Europeans followed his advice, but critics vehemently accused him of inconsistency and possible leftist sympathies. In fact, Barth warned Eastern Europeans against any confounding of Christianity with Communist ideology, just as he would warn Westerners against equating Christianity with the Western system.

Barth had little fear of any such hybrid as Marxist Christianity—but then he lived before the days of liberation theology and seemed to think the Western hybrid of faith and politics to be a more serious threat. He had no difficulty in denying categorically that he himself either was, or ever had been, a Marxist.

Barth attempted a new definition of the church-state relation in the address “Christian Community and Civil Community” (1946). Expounding the fifth thesis of the Barmen Declaration, he presented church and state as concentric circles, with Christ at the center. Christians belong to the inner circle but also fall within the outer. They thus accept solidarity with the state in political action, but always under Christ’s lordship. The church for its part offers a model to the state by its own action. And insofar as the state follows this model (again under Christ’s authority), its achievements serve as parables of God’s kingdom, though they do not and cannot establish it.

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Barth tried to show how secular policies might follow the church’s example, but critics quickly complained of a lack of realism both in detail and in general principle. We must note, in fairness to Barth, that his concern that the church be an exemplary society outweighed any illusion that the state might consciously take it as a model.

In later statements, Barth clarified some of his earlier acts and positions. He insisted that his youthful concerns at Safenwil were with actual injustice, not political theory. Similarly his joining the German Social Democrats was a protest against Hitler, not an approval of the party program. Christians, he thought, may belong to parties, but only under their commitment to Christ, so that they will support the right irrespective of party allegiance. In old age he had little confidence in any party, but thought it best to go by individual issues.

Although he did not propose any essential connection between Christianity and democracy, Barth had a robust attachment to the Swiss system and urged Hungarian students to ensure it a place in any order they might establish. The church as such need not take up every issue but should stick to its own agenda, playing a part in politics only when serious perversion results in blatant wrongs or menaces the gospel or its purity. The church’s preaching should use both the Bible and the newspaper, but it should apply the Bible to the newspaper and not read the Bible in the light of the newspaper.

If the church must avoid becoming a sacral ghetto, it should also avoid degenerating into a secularized institution. Firmly and consistently, Barth rejected any idea of building God’s kingdom by human effort; he advised one student who talked this way to seek any career but that of a pastor. God himself will manifest his kingdom; waiting and hastening are the Christian’s tasks.

Missing Links

Barth’s contribution leaves obvious gaps. He never faced the financial issues that trouble church-state relations in America. Other areas of conflict like abortion (which he opposed except in cases where the mother’s life was in danger) were not big issues in his day. He said little about the possibilities and problems of Christian leadership in secular affairs.

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Barth also exposed himself to serious criticisms: inconsistency regarding totalitarianism; naivete in many suggestions; a general leftist inclination that colored various judgments; a patent anti-Americanism after the anti-Communist drive.

Yet for all the gaps and failings, Barth takes us to the heart of the issues. A wall may separate church and state, but God looks over the wall, reigns over both, overrules the confusion in both, impresses both into his service in different ways. In its dealings with the state, as in its own life and work, the church owes absolute obedience to its Lord. In this obedience it must draw its message from the one biblical source and dedicate its energies to its primary task, proclaiming the gospel. Under these commitments, Christians may and must serve in the secular sphere, but only within their higher allegiance and responsibility, the more so when they are called as ministers of the Word.

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