Hitler came to power as chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. That same year military chaplain, Ludwig Muller was elected bishop of the German Evangelical Church, with Hitler's blessing. Muller favored a Reich Church consisting of a federation of Protestants and Catholics who supported the National Socialist state. Nazis infiltrated Catholicism with the signing of a Nazi-Vatican concordat on July 20, 1933. This treaty guaranteed the Catholic Church certain rights in Germany, but restricted opposition to the Nazis.
Protestants favoring National Socialism were known as the "German Christians," but there was considerable dissent among some pastors. The German Christians resolved that Jesus was an Aryan revolutionary fighter against all things Jewish, which was given as explanation for his murder at the hands of Jews. It was further resolved that baptized Jews within Germany would be dismissed from the church. And finally, the Old Testament was dismissed as Scripture, rejected as Jewish myth. Some theologians sought to combine Christianity with German folklore advocating Aryan superiority.
A group of ministers and theologians met in January, 1934 at the synod in Barmen. They drafted the Barmen Declaration, written principally by Karl Barth and issued in opposition to changes proposed by the "German Christians." The Barmen Declaration is often considered the founding document of the "Confessing Church" who resisted the merging of National Socialist politics and Protestant Christianity. While some in the Confessing Church became part of an underground resistance to the Nazis, other members continued to offer allegiance to Hitler.
Nazis eventually began closing down Confessing Church seminaries due to resistance within that movement. This was in 1937 which proved to be an eventful year. That same year, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was operating an illegal Confessing Church seminary in Finkenwalde (which the Gestapo finally shut down in 1940). Also in 1937, Bonhoeffer's friend, Pastor Martin Niemoller was arrested after a sermon in which he declared, "God is my Fuhrer." He spent eight years in concentration camps for having allegedly used the pulpit to vilify the state. By this time the Nazis had made sure that all church elections were won by "German Christians."
It was also in 1937 that Bonhoeffer's book The Cost of Discipleship was published. His most famous first chapter pits "costly grace" against the notion of "cheap grace" in response to the national church concept which tends to produce marginal "Christians" wherever it has been tried. People are considered Christians by virtue of simply having been born as citizens of the nation. Moreover, Bonhoeffer was responding to common mis-readings of Luther's teaching on "grace alone" as license to live unethical lives with the false assurance that grace has one covered.
While written against the backdrop of nationalism's threat to the church, the book transcends time and culture as an uncompromising call to die to self and follow Christ. It insists that there is no real faith without discipleship. A good portion is an exposition of the Sermon the Mount, insisting that Christian ethics never be set aside even when the state insists upon contradictory allegiances. This led Bonhoeffer to pacifism during this time in his life, a view that evolved as World War II came along and even family members were persecuted.
It's in the chapter on "The Saints" that Bonhoeffer states in a footnote that "doctrinal sin is more serious than moral." This is best understood against the backdrop of striving to be a disciple while living in Nazi Germany and within the context of the Barmen Declaration, which lists numerous Reich Church resolutions as "false doctrine." So in paraphrased summary, here are some stands taken by the Confessing Church, of which Bonhoeffer was a part:
- There is no true source of revelation apart from Jesus Christ.
- There is no compartment of life that does not belong wholly to Christ.
- There should be no co-opting of the church's message in the interests of political ideology.
- The church appoints its own leaders.
- The state is not to usurp the church's vocation.
- The church is not to engage in selfish agendas.
In light of the above doctrines it's easy to see why Bonhoeffer named doctrinal sin as more serious than moral. If you don't get the above doctrines right, then morality falls as well. Morality and doctrine are so intertwined as to be inseparable. Bonhoeffer concludes his footnote, "It is impossible to separate doctrine and morality in the Christian Church."
This is true when the doctrine taught is truly biblical doctrine. While some doctrines take priority over others the choice may be between love and ordinance, but never between morality and doctrine.