Karl Barth on Continuity and Change in the Church

During the 1950’s, theologian Karl Barth provided guidance to a distressed pastor serving in what was then Marxist East Germany. The pastor was wrestling with how the church was to faithfully continue in its traditional forms while being forced underground by the state. The following is an excerpt from Barth’s response:

“No, the church’s existence does not always have to possess the same form in the future that it possessed in the past as though this were the only possible pattern.

“No, the continuance and victory of the cause of God which the Christian Church is to serve with her witness, is not unconditionally linked with the forms of existence which it has had until now.

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“Yes, the hour may strike, and perhaps has already struck when God, to our discomfiture, but to his glory and for the salvation of mankind, will put an end to this mode of existence because it lacks integrity.

“Yes, it could be our duty to free ourselves inwardly from our dependency on that mode of existence even while it still lasts. Indeed, on the assumption that it may one day entirely disappear, we should look about us for new ventures in new directions.

“Yes, as the Church of God we may depend on it that if only we are attentive, God will show us such new ways as we can hardly anticipate now. And as the people who are bound to God, we may even now claim unconquerably security for ourselves through him. For his name is above all names, even above the name that we in human, all too human, fashion have hitherto borne in his service and in a kind of secular forgetfulness, confused with his own.”


[1] Karl Barth, “Letter to a Pastor in the German Democratic Republic,” in How to Serve God in a Marxist land (New York: Association Press, 1959), 64-65.

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