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Commentary on the Barmen Declaration: Fourth Article

Commentary on the Barmen Declaration: Fourth Article

The fourth article of the Barmen Declaration discusses the proper leadership of the church. This article more than the previous articles is most pertinent in its original context. The church in the West has never been the same since the corruption of the German national church.

The Scriptures

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to have authority over you must be your servant. Matt. 20:25-26

The words here quoted from Jesus might seem to be a source of conflict with other Scriptures. For it should be adequately shown that the rest of the New Testament does in fact endorse leadership and structure in the church. More emphasis should be placed on the contrast that Jesus puts forth (and that the Barmen Declaration picks up).

The point being this, when Paul speaks about the church and its leadership they are the foundation (Eph 2:20) upon which the church is built (Eph 2:21-22) and maturing (Eph 4:11-14). Thus they are not for Lordship but for service to God's calling. These purposes for the church have been touched upon in the previous articles of the declaration.

The Affirmation

The various offices in the Church do not provide a basis for some to exercise authority over others but for the ministry [lit., “service”] with which the whole community has been entrusted and charged to be carried out.

This affirmation draws us deeper into the comparison discussed above. The "authority" here denied cannot be seen as or confused to be the same as the genuine "ministry" of the church. For when the church leadership fulfills their positions faithfully, they are not in fact leading but shepherding as servants of God's sheep. Within the historical context of the declaration this was an important thing to stress as the ministry of God was set aside for the organizational value of the church in alliance with political parties.

We reject the false doctrine that, apart from this ministry, the Church could, and could have permission to, give itself or allow itself to be given special leaders [Führer] vested with ruling authority.

The Negation

In light of the previous affirmation the negation should seem obvious. Given the cultural setting of the declaration the negation should be obvious. This negation was a statement against Hitler and the Nazi party to stay away from the church. It was also a declaration of apostasy on the German national church that had aligned with the spirit of the age. 

It is easy to see how this article works together in a simple refutation of the past. But how does it stand in the future? How does it speak to the church today? I would admit that the modern church in america has not permitted any singular individual with such an authority. But the rise of cultish followings for celebrity preachers and theologians is disturbing. The fragmentation of the american church through the medium of the baptist denomination and non-denominational churches has perhaps reversed the course and given us many small Führers in place of one larger than life one.

How many churches have lost their ability to grow into the mature man at the hands of a Führer who is in the incarnation of Christ's warning in Matthew 20?

(Check out the IntroductionPart 1Part 2 & Part 3)

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