July 27, 1945. London is still slowly recovering from six years of war with Germany. Hundreds of thousands of British soldiers are dead. British cities are in ruins. As newsreels expose fresh horrors from the Nazi death camps, the British people wonder, “Is there no end to German atrocities?”
Thus, it was not surprising that many Brits recoiled when they heard about a memorial service at London’s Holy Trinity Church—not for England’s war dead, but for a German. The service would be broadcast on the BBC. Many wondered: Could there be such a thing as a good German, worthy of such an honor?
The answer was emphatically yes. The service was for Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis three weeks before the war’s end. Bonhoeffer is often remembered for his part in a plot to kill Hitler. But Bonhoeffer is also celebrated for his role in a significant event in the life of the Church—the drafting of the Barmen Declaration.
After Hitler rose to power, the Nazis tried to co-opt the German church, mixing Christian truth with Nazi doctrine. Shamefully, some church leaders allowed themselves to be drawn into this deal with the devil. Others, like Karl Barth and Bonhoeffer, refused.
As my former colleague Eric Metaxas writes in his inspiring new book, Bonhoeffer, in May of 1934, “the leaders of the Pastors’ Emergency League held a synod in Barmen. It was there, on the Wupper River, that they wrote the famous Barmen Declaration, from which emerged what came to be known as the Confessing Church.”
The Declaration boldly declared independence from both the state and a co-opted church. It made clear that the signers and their churches were not seceding from the German church; instead, it was the co-opted German church that had broken away.
To Bonhoeffer, writes Metaxas, the Barmen Declaration “reclarified what it—the legitimate and actual German Church—actually believed and stood for.” It rejected the “false doctrine” that the Church could change according to “prevailing ideological and political positions.”
This message is as relevant today as it was in Bonhoeffer’s time. In recent years we have witnessed our own federal, state, and local governments encroaching upon the church in alarming ways, attempting to force it to change to suit the prevailing political winds—particularly when it comes to same-sex “marriage” and health care issues like abortion and end-of-life decisions.
This is precisely why nearly half a million Americans—today’s Confessing Christians—have signed the Manhattan Declaration. We have pledged to defend the sanctity of human life, traditional marriage, and religious freedom. No matter the cost.
Like Bonhoeffer and his colleagues, we must constantly remember where our ultimate allegiance lies. Many of the signers of the Barmen Declaration were sent to prison. Bonhoeffer himself was executed for acting on his beliefs. We, too, may face suffering for standing up—and speaking out—for truth.
But the lesson of Bonhoeffer’s life and death is that God’s grace is never cheap. It demands from us everything—even our lives. Like Bonhoeffer, we may at times be called traitors by an earthly regime, but our true citizenship is in heaven.