Karl Barth on Church and State

August 5th, 2007 / 4 Comments

I believe the contemporary Church in America is largely confused about the church’s role in the relationship between church and state.

For example, the liberal church (and I’m throwing Jim Wallis in this camp) falsely assumes, through a misuse of the prophetic literature, that the Kingdom of God is realized by putting national resources (particularly money) towards social welfare programs. Thus, advocacy and lobbying become the primary methods of Christian responsibility and witness, and the role of the church is replaced by that of the state.

At the same time, the conservative church falsely assumes, through a misreading of Romans 13, that the state IS the Kingdom of God and that we need only to bring our nation back to “the way it was” in order for the state to receive all of the blessings God has prepared for it. Thus, individual morality as patriotism becomes the primary method of Christian responsibility and witness, and the identity of the church is fused into that of the state.

In either case, I think the Church in America could benefit from the teachings of Karl Barth. Barth, a theologian in Germany during the rise and fall of Hitler, saw first hand the problem of attempting to weld together the church and the state.

For Barth, politics begins with the Word of God and God’s action in Jesus Christ, and therefore any political movement that is based on or incorporates human action fails to be any type of politics that we could call Christian.

In his essay “Justification and Justice” (the church and the state) Barth argues that while justice is necessary and appropriate for organizing a society – and as the Church we can voice our support for justice in the world, justification (salvation by grace) is the political program of the Kingdom of God available to us from God through death and resurrection.

Thus, the ideal Christian political position is for the church to be identifiable apart from the state as a witness to the Kingdom of God which is made possible by God’s action.

Comments (4)

  1. Mike Fay / September 21, 2007

    It seems that Karl Barth was a Swiss. It seems Barth in his politics between the World Wars supported a soft form of loyality to the people of Switzerland as a “soft” nationalism as opposed to marching to the glories of a “Greater Germany” visioned by national socialists in the Homeland. It does not mean that Barth who did his advanced theological studies in prenational socialist Germany should be called a “German” theologian. Barth’s public views seem to be “universal” and
    not limited to a distinct nationality based on linguistic preference. The modern probem in The United States with Prostestant Christianity is the Church’s or the congregation’s relationship to secular society and not the classical issue of Church and state. Karl Barth, if he was still living in the current Century would present a path somewhere between the two as he sought to
    define or characterize the “word of God” as beginning of political action in the Christian sense. Americans in their politics are not questioning whether Church or State should lead or equally share in claiming virtue [family values]for the general public. The issue is whether there is a common ground for Americans with religious beliefs and practices to share with citizens of atheist and agnostic views or even an ecumenical theology. Karl Barth would have thoughts in this direction.

  2. Scott Lenger / October 16, 2007 / http://scottlenger.com

    Thanks Mike, I’ve revised the post to be clearer regarding Barth’s nationality.

    Although I agree that the present political landscape in America is quite different from that of Third Reich Germany, the teaching of Barth on Justification as the starting point for political engagement is an idea that many in the modern Protestant church would do well to remember.

  3. » Nationalism Mt. Tirzah Baptist Church: Our Fellowship in the Gospel of Jesus Christ / June 15, 2009 / http://www.mounttirzahbaptistchurch.com/2009/06/15/nationalism/

    [...] In America, Christianity has become almost totally absorbed into our national identity. Now we even have a Bible devoted exclusively to “Patriotism.” Something similar was true in America and Germany during Word War I. Churches on both sides of the Atlantic identified the cause of Christ with their own national causes. The scandal of that situation shocked a young pastor from Switzerland named Karl Barth into realizing that German Christianity was guilty of base idolatry and a fatal syncretism. (See Scott Lenger’s excellent discussion.) [...]

  4. James Summers / June 24, 2009

    Church and State, Barth; with introduction by Muller, J.S. Conway, Confessing Church, A. Cochran, Confessing Church; Barth, Barmen and the Confessing Church, J.S,Holloway all should be careful studied by pastors and churches with the on set of the Obama adminstration. There is must to be learned, much to compare with what is happening today in America and much to learn about how and what the Church should do in response.

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