Confessing Church

The Confessing Church in Germany grew from such movements as Martin Niemöller's* Pastors' Emergency League and the free confessing synods, which sought to oppose the theology of the German-Christians* and the Nazi- supported church government of Ludwig Müller, elected Reichsbischof, 27 September 1933. Its theological basis was set out in the Declaration of the Barmen* Synod, 29-30 May 1934, which with the Synod of Dahlem (October 1934) provided for the direction of the Confessing Church through Councils of Brethren and a Provisional Church Administration.

The existence and tenacity of the Confessing Church helped to discredit Müller's regime, since despite coercive measures it was unable to secure the docile unity which Hitler looked for in the churches. But from the beginning the Confessing Church suffered near-crippling internal differences. Its member churches had varying legal positions. In “destroyed” churches (i.e., where the church government had been taken over by German-Christians, in, for example, the Old Prussian Union, Hesse, Nassau, Saxony), the Councils of Brethren sought to exercise totally independent emergency government; in “intact” churches (e.g., Bavaria, Württemberg, Hanover, Baden), they worked with the existing leadership. There as elsewhere, however, serious tensions developed between Lutheran and Reformed wings of the Confessing Church. Much support for the Confessing Church came from the tradition of the nineteenth-century confessional revival which had been concerned about the preservation of pure doctrine as defined by the historic confessional statements of the churches. But among Confessing Church theologians, in the line of Barth and Bonhoeffer, a new concept of confession stressed the act of confessing Christ in which the church is realized ever anew as the church of Christ.

In December 1935 the Provisional Administration under Bishop Marahrens of Hanover decided to cooperate with the Minister for Church Affairs, H. Kerrl, and with his National Commission under W. Zöllner. This decision implied that the Confessing Church had been unable to establish its legal claim to be the true Evangelical Church. The decision was opposed by Niemöller, who held to the Barmen-Dahlem line that the Confessing Church was not a movement within the church, but the true church itself. The split became obvious in the Synod of Bad Oeynhausen, February 1936; the Confessing Church lost the episcopally led, intact churches, and a new provisional leadership was appointed; many men drifted into cooperation with Zöllner's church committees as apparently the only way of exercising effective ministry. Harassed by the Gestapo, dependent on hard-pressed congregations for finance, the Confessing Church lived precariously in the years before and during the war, unable to play a large part on the public stage.

The Confessing Church was never a political protest movement against Nazism, though its mere existence embarrassed the regime; its witness to Christ's lordship over the world challenged Hitler's totalitarianism in principle. The wing led by Niemöller, to which D. Bonhoeffer* belonged, was especially aware of political responsibility, though often inhibited by its conservatism and nationalism from explicit opposition. On only a few occasions did the Confessing Church try to criticize the government for its general policies, rather than for attacks on the rights of the church; and then their political ineptness and the power of the police state prevented their orations from having significant effect. After World War II the Confessing Church structures were merged into the re-formed Evangelical Church in Germany. Its traditions have been kept alive by both radical and conservative movements in the church.