Check out this definition of the church’s mission.
‘The Church’s commission, which is the foundation of its freedom, consists in this: in Christ’s stead, and so in the service of his own Word and work, to deliver to all people, through preaching and sacrament, the message of the free grace of God.’
That’s it. That’s the mission of the church. Proclamation.
Now, without cheating, see if you can guess where this comes from. And when.
Well maybe you think these are the words of some one-eyed fundamentalist, divorced from any pressing social or political needs. Perhaps you think this definition represent a cowardly retreat from the social and political realities of the day?
And into that context, this determination to view the church’s mission simply as gospel proclamation proved to be the most provocative political challenge possible. This is precisely because it refuses to engage with the world on its own terms. The Nazis are confronted because the Confessing Church occupies itself with its one true Fuhrer (Christ), its one true Reich (God’s Kingdom) and its one true commission: delivering ‘the message of the free grace of God’. Far from creating an ‘ecclesiastical ghetto’ for the Confessing Christians, this single-minded determination to let the Gospel set the agenda for the Church brings it into its most significant contact with the surrounding culture.
Barmen is profoundly political. But it is so by refusing any other agenda but the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Nothing could be more explosive.
A few years later, Karl Barth (who authored Barmen) was back in his native Switzerland. (Interestingly it was his lectures on preaching that were the last straw for the Nazis, the Gestapo bursting in and forcibly deporting him. Apparently his last words to his students on the train platform was the admonition: “Exegesis, exegesis, exegesis!”) Anway, a young pastor from Brandenburg wrote to him in distress. He had been sacked after preaching against Mein Kampf from the pulpit. The pastor expected sympathy. Instead Barth replied that the pastor had made a “decisive mistake”:
Your job, when you stand in the pulpit, is to again make well the sick church of Germany. That can be done only by the Word alone. You are to serve that Word and no other. But you can’t do that if you seize on Mein Kampf… Was it not a shame, each minute that you wasted with this book instead of reading the Bible? (William Willimon, Conversations with Barth on Preaching, p248-249)