In 1933 there were 28 regional church bodies in the young nation of Germany. Two-thirds of the German people were Protestant, majoritively Lutheran. Roman Catholics were in the minority, and a small group of Baptists and Evangelicals floated about the edges of church life. The great Protestant traditions, however, were uniquely given the distinction of being “state churches.” They received funding from the government, and clergy were treated as state officials.
As the Nazis came to power in Germany, they sought to take control of all aspects of the culture. Adolf Hitler and his regime saw the church as an important ideological battleground. As the new government began to exercise its power over the German Church, leaders like Bonhoeffer stood up to resist government involvement in the affairs of their local churches.
Rejected by the mainline leaders of the German Protestant Church as being too radical, Bonhoeffer and company departed to form Das Bekennende Kirche, The Confessing Church.
One of the first documents Bonhoeffer produced during the early days of The Confessing Church was “The Bethel Confession” of August 1933. It was one of the first and one of the strongest negative responses to Nazi actions in the church. “The Bethel Confession” was written in reaction to Nazi incursions into the territory of the church, like the Aryan clause, which put into law the prohibition of Jewish and other non-Aryan persons serving as clergy in German Churches. The document called for the church to not forsake its “kinship with Jewish Christians.” While in the end it was still boldly anti-nazi, “The Bethel Confession” was edited into oblivion, and it left Bonhoeffer very dissatisfied with the fear displayed by the Confessing Church.
During the so-called Brown Synod of September of 1933, the Nazi party successfully flooded the church vote and put Nazi leaders into positions of authority in the German Church. It was a major victory for the Nazis in the Church Struggle and everyone knew it. Bonhoeffer, rejecting an opportunity to serve in a German Church, moved to London, as a sort of self-imposed exile. Karl Barth accused Bonhoeffer of abandoning his post and wasting his "splendid theological armory" while "the house of [his] church [was] on fire," and he chided him to return to Berlin "by the next ship.”
Barth, a fellow German, was appealing to his friend’s sense of duty. Duty ran deep in German culture - duty to church, duty to family, duty to authority, duty to state. When the horrors of the war came to an end, many of those who had participated in atrocities hid behind the excuse of it being their duty to follow orders. Clearly, the sense of order and duty guided much of the German people’s ethics as well. Duty to the state led to the atrocities on the eastern front and those of the Holocaust/Shoah. Duty to family often guided people’s professional choices. Duty to the church led to many Christians keeping silent in response to the reign of the Nazi government.
This sense of duty grounded the Germans and locked them into ways of thinking, acting, and being. Bonhoeffer was very frustrated with people’s shirking of freedom in their keeping to duty. “The neutrals are a particular problem...They belong on the other side. But they themselves want to be neutral. It is therefore impossible to have an unequivocal attitude toward them as their own attitude is not unequivocal.” He claimed that the Confessing Church must break free of their connection with the now nazified German Church. “The Confessing Church can no longer avoid a clear decision.” Kierkegaard would have been equally frustrated by these German Christians. He would have called them out as surrendering their freedom in exchange for the alleviation of their angst. He would have been particularly angry at the Christians for their forsaking of the call to love their neighbors. Bonhoeffer engages in a similar stream of thought, calling the church to its responsibility to protect the weak and care for its neighbors.