So far in the book the part that has had the biggest impact on me is Bonhoeffer's struggles in the early days of the Confessing Church, from 1933 to about 1938, when those who would not give their loyalty to Hitler fought to have their churches recognized as legitimate, even though they were separate from the church that was loyal to the Reich. It is chilling to read about the Reich Church -- the state church of Germany, the traditional Lutheran church -- that accepted as a matter of course that Christianity must be divorced from its Jewish roots; that the Old Testament was not to be read or trusted much because it was too Jewish; that the essence of Christianity was a set of principles, rather than a relationship with Jesus Christ. This traditional church had been deeply shaped by the legacy of scholars like Schleiermacher and Adolph von Harnack, who moved theology away from trust in the Bible toward a humanistic, scholarly, philosophical approach to Christianity that attempted to get away from the "mythological" elements of miracle stories, personal prayer, belief in a relational God, etc. Bonhoeffer and others stood against these movements. When Hitler appointed a Reich Bishop -- a church leader who would be a state official, loyal to the Nazis, in authority over all the pastors and churches in Germany -- the Confessing Church demanded to be recognized as a separate church.
It strikes me that much of Central's move away from the ELCA -- starting in 2004 and culminating in our vote to leave in 2009-2010 -- was informed by the Confessing Church and those who stood against the Reich Church in Germany in the 1930's. Certainly the ELCA is not demanding loyalty to a human leader like Hitler. But the liberal scholarship that is the rule rather than the exception within mainline denominations -- certainly including the ELCA -- casts doubt on the authority of the Bible and in many cases attempts to "demythologize" Christianity. Scholars like John Shelby Spong in the Episcopal Church or Marcus Borg in the Lutheran tradition are respected and honored while they teach that the "historical" Jesus was nothing like what the gospels portray. In other words, they teach that Jesus was certainly not born of a virgin, that he never physically rose from the dead, and that most of the miracle stories in the New Testament were non-historical inventions of the human authors designed to make a theological point. Mainline seminaries and colleges teach an approach to the Bible and Christian history that is based on the methods of Schleiermacher and von Harnack. Skepticism toward the Bible and toward the historicity of the gospels is the rule, not the exception, in mainline higher education.
This liberal scholarship could not help but give rise to loosening theological standards, which then leads to a tepid, passionless life on the part of the average member. What fruit has been borne in mainline churches over the last fifty years? We have come to a point where most mainline churches are actively pursuing policies that directly contradict a plain reading of the Bible. Denominational gatherings spend more time talking about malaria prevention and fair trade chocolate than they do about Jesus. Missionaries from mainline churches, as a rule, go into all the world not to make disciples for Jesus Christ but to do social service work. They expect to live out a gospel of tolerance rather than giving their passion for Jesus and his kingdom.
We at Central -- and I daresay other churches that have abandoned liberal denominational structures in the last few years -- are not innocent in these things. We are infected by the same complacency. This bothers me so much precisely because I see myself as infected with this same skeptical nonbelief rather than living out of a passion for Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer is such a role model for me precisely because in the face of complacency and compromise, he fled to the cross and lived at the feet of Jesus. It excites me to think what that life might mean for me, for us, here and now.