Barth: the church must be political

“The Christian Church knows only one Lord, His system, His law, His power. But it knows this Lord as the Lord of all lords. It therefore sees His order, His will, His institution and His hand in political systems, with all their provisional and limited aims. It realises that political systems are run by men. But it sees a divine commission above and behind this provisional and limited work of man. It sees a necessary and wholesome gift of God in this work of man. What is at issue is the preservation of the common life from chaos. Political systems create and preserve a space for that which must happen in the time between the beginning and the end of which we have spoken: a space for the fulfilment of the purpose of world history, a space for faith, repentance and knowledge. They create a space for the life and mission of the Christian Church and therefore a space for something the whole world needs. … The Church knows all the more what political systems are for. Political systems may be as unecclesiastical as they like, but the Church cannot on any account be unpolitical, and that applies to all its members too.”

—Karl Barth, Against the Stream: Shorter Post-War Writings 1946-52 (London: SCM Press, 1954), 80-81


Dustin said…
This is spot on! A brilliant contextualization of the beginning of Romans 13.

Yet it begs the question: What does it mean for the Church to be political?

A kind of totalitarian take over like that proposed by the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority? Or perhaps a non-participatory, prophetic voice from outside, as advocated by some Anabaptist traditions? Or maybe something in between like that of Jim Wallis?

I tend to lean toward those non-participatory Anabaptists myself, but I'd like to hear what others have to say.
peter said…
“Theology is political simply by responding to the dynamics of its own proper themes. Christ, salvation, the church, the Trinity: to speak about these has involved theologians in speaking of society, and has led them to formulate normative political ends…Theology must be political if it is to be evangelical. Rule out the political questions and you cut short the proclamation of God’s saving power; you leave people enslaved where they ought to be set free from sin—their own sin and others” - Oliver O’Donovan, Desire of the Nations
D.W. Congdon said…

Thanks for the comment! I think Barth would reject all of those different options, including (at least to a certain extent) the non-participatory position. Here's why: According to Barth, Christ is the center of the cosmos, not just the center of the church. Are you familiar with his concentric circles metaphor? Barth uses concentric circles to diagram some of his most important points. The most famous one is the "threefold Word of God" with the Word incarnate in the middle, the Word written in the first circle, and the Word proclaimed in the outer circle.

Barth uses the same diagram for the church-world relation: Christ at the center, the church as the first circle, and the broader society in the outer circle. This conception means that the church does not and cannot stand "outside" as a completely non-participatory community. The church is not exactly a community of "resident aliens," as Hauerwas and Yoder like to think of the church. The Anabaptist model certainly has similarities with Barth's ecclesiology, but Barth has a much stronger doctrine of creation that refuses to place the world in any kind of opposition to Christ. This is the main failure of the Anabaptist tradition, and on this point I agree with Barth.

What Barth allows us to see is that the church can and must have a prophetic voice in our culture, but in its prophetic proclamation to the world, the church witnesses to the fact that the world belongs to and is defined by Jesus Christ. The world does not realize this truth, but the church proclaims that this is in fact the case. The church bears this witness by serving the world; it could not possibly have this witness if it were seeking political power. But neither is the church on the outside, so to speak; it is rather the heart of society, and there is no world abstracted from the church (or vice versa), and there is no church or world without Jesus Christ.

I hope that makes sense. I also don't think Jim Wallis presents a better way for other reasons. In the end, while Barth does not offer a concrete ethical program for the church (he disdains trying to identify with any certainty what the church must look like in its interaction with society), he does offer a far more robust and christocentric vision of the church and world than any I have seen.
Dustin said…
Hey David,

I realize this thread is pretty far down now, but I wanted to give a quick reply.

Thanks for expounding Barth's ideas a little more, I'm a bit of a Barth newbie--but I've become very interested in his thinking thanks in large part to your blog.

But I still wonder what kind of participation Barth would advocate within the US. I had a Mennonite pastor/ OT Scholar for my intro to the OT class at Westmont who refused to participate in elections but was very active in writing letters to elected officials, going before City councils, and protests of various sorts. So while he was 'non-participatory' in terms of direct involvement with the government, he was much more participatory than most people within the US. So his is really the model that I'm envisioning when I speak of the Anabaptist tradition (which is not always how this tradition is played out--the Amish for instance).

So I agree whole-heartedly with Barth in that the Church must be political--the Church, the ἐκκλεσια, is from it's very beginning political. It is, after all, the beginning of the establishment of a new Kingdom and proclaims a new Lord.

But as we consider the candidates and issues that will be set before us about this time next year, what action should the church be seeking? What should we as the Body be doing? What should we not be doing? Obviously these are rather big questions and difficult to answer, but I do wonder how Barth might advise us.
D.W. Congdon said…
Thanks for the probing questions. While I cannot pretend to speak for Barth, I am confident that he would not agree with the Mennonite "non-participatory" position. Barth believes that the church is called to be a community of witness -- i.e., a community which witnesses to Jesus Christ in its corporate life. The church is a foretaste of God's kingdom. To be more precise -- and to explain where Barth differs from the Anabaptist position -- Barth believes not only that the church is political but that the world is christological. That is, Barth agrees with the Anabaptists in arguing that the church is not part of the church. But he disagrees with the Anabaptists in arguing that the world is properly part of the church (unbeknown to itself).

Practically, this means the church must vote and participate in society like anyone else, but it does so consciously as the community of Jesus Christ. The church does not conform to the society -- picking a party or candidate, e.g. -- but instead seeks to conform society to the church, that is, to bring society back to itself. The church carries out is participation in society in a way that witnesses to Christ's lordship over the world. What this means in every situation cannot be absolutely determined, because Christ is Lord and not a particular ethical system or ideology.

In terms of the upcoming election, the church must continue to advocate on behalf of what is consonant with the gospel -- e.g., peace, non-violence, justice for all, equity for the least of society, health and welfare for all, etc. The church must be vocal in its advocacy -- always aware that it (and the world) belongs to Christ. But because Christ is the Lord of the world, we cannot identify any position with Christ. The church instead works to establish analogies of Christ's coming kingdom. The church advocates for correspondences to the eschatological reign of God, and that means participating in every dimension of earthly existence.

I hope this helps. Obviously more needs to be said. I recommend reading Community, State, and Church: Three Essay, particularly the essay "The Christian Community and the Civil Community." Also read Church Dogmatics III/4.