How should the church relate to politics? There are moments when this perennial question becomes suddenly urgent. In August 1934, eighteen months after Hitler’s rise to power, Eberhard Arnold spoke to members of his community, the Bruderhof, whose German branch had already been raided twice by Nazi forces. For them, Christian witness to the state was no longer just theory.
Arnold’s address had personal poignancy: among his listeners was his eighteen-year-old nephew Hermann, until recently an enthusiastic Nazi and member of the Storm Troopers. But Hermann had just experienced a conversion, requesting baptism and announcing that he would take the risky step of publicly repudiating Nazism. Eberhard set out to explain to the young man what kind of Reich (kingdom) he was signing up for by becoming part of the church of Jesus Christ.
It is an immensely wonderful thing when a human heart is touched and moved by God. This is something only God can do; no human has this power, as truly as God is God. For no one knows the thoughts of God except for God’s own Spirit (1 Cor. 2:11).
The only human being able to show what is in God was himself born of the Holy Spirit: Jesus. The manner in which his birth through Mary took place is the unique sign and example for how every new birth from the Spirit takes place. The Spirit came to Mary. Mary believed, and received the living Word of God. Because she had faith, the Word took flesh and form from her.
Today too the living Word wants to take human form: the eternal Christ wants to have a body. It is for this that the Holy Spirit is sent from the throne of the Father and of the Son. And this is why Christ broke down the barriers and walls through his cross – so that his new embodiment, his new manifestation among humankind, might come into being: the church (Eph. 2:14–16).
Just as the eternal, living Word once took on a body as Mary’s son, so today it becomes flesh anew in the church. This is what the apostle means when he writes that a “mystery” has been entrusted to him, the mystery of the body of Christ (Col. 1:24–26). What does it mean that the church is Christ’s body? In the church, Christ receives a physical form that makes him visible and tangible in the world – otherwise the word body would be meaningless. (Theologians who speak of an invisible body of Christ only prove that there is a kind of nonsense of which theologians alone are capable. The apostles did not believe in ghosts.)
The Embodied Church
In the Letter to the Colossians, the apostle describes how this process of becoming visible is made manifest in the church. He speaks of “the mystery” of the body of Christ, “which is Christ in you”; and secondly, he speaks of the expectation of Christ’s future coming in majesty – the “hope of glory” (Col. 1:27).
These phrases have become so trite that they no longer convey anything to us. To experience their power, we must translate them into the language of today. “Hope” in the New Testament is the expectation and assurance of a completely new order. “Glory” means Christ’s majesty following his accession to the throne. This is the glory: that God, through Christ, now truly rules over all things. It means that all political, social, educational, and human problems are solved in a concrete way by the rulership of Christ. This is what glory is.
Only very few people in our time are able to grasp the this-worldly realism of the early Christians. It is in this realistic sense that the Word of God, Christ, is to become embodied in the church. Mere words about the future coming of God fade away in people’s ears today. That is why embodied, corporeal action is needed. Something must be set up, something must be created and formed, which no one will be able to pass by.
“Christ in you” is the first part of this mystery. Just as Christ was in Mary, so Christ is in us who believe and love. When this is the case, we live in a particular way. The character of our conduct in our daily lives shows forth the character of God’s future. This is not a matter of moralistic effort or juristic fiat; it is something organic. It takes place now, through Christ in the church. In the church, his future kingdom receives form.
This is the reason why the church lives in perfect peace and perfect justice, and why it cannot shed blood, tolerate private property, speak a lie, or take an oath (Matt. 5–7). This is also why the church cannot tolerate the destruction of bridal purity, that is, of the faithfulness between a man and woman in a marriage under the church.
For the same reason, the church must remain free of all actions by which human beings are made great. The church lives for one purpose: that God may bring everything under his rule on the throne of his kingdom. Thus in the church there can be no idolatry of human beings; no one should imagine that this or that individual is a second or a third or fourth Christ. Christ’s body, his new incarnation, is not the individual believer, but rather the church in the entirety of its corporeal life.
Through its work in the natural world, the believing church community molds physical things in accordance with the simpleness and singleness of Christ. Great art is simplicity of line. So too, the simplest life is the most beautiful. Closeness to nature – to the world created by God – gives freedom from all unnaturalness and artificiality. This is why the work done in the church community ought to be in keeping with the simplicity of Christ, for example architecture and tableware. By the same token, voluntary poverty belongs to the embodiment of Christ, especially if it arises out of love. Because we as the church are called to serve the whole world, especially those in need, we must live as simply as possible in order to help as many people as we can.
The Church’s Politics
It is a widespread error to mix this specific task of the church with public affairs. As Paul shows very clearly, the church, with its task of being the embodiment of Christ, is thrust in among the nations as a unique anticipatory presence which points forward to the coming of the kingdom on earth (Col. 3:1–4; Eph. 1:9–14).Accordingly, it is not the task of the body of Christ to attain prominence in the political power structure of this world (1 Cor. 1:26–29; 2:6–8; 2 Cor. 4:7–10).
Thus, according to the apostolic teaching, there is no such thing as a Christian state. A Christian church fights neither for the interests of the state nor against them. No head of a state can legitimately wield the sword in the name of Christ, and no church is permitted to bless any attempts to do so. Nor can there be a “Christian politics” in international organizations such as the League of Nations. If the League of Nations decides to organize an armed punitive police force, no one can rightly claim that this is done in the name of Christ.
There are two distinct and separate spheres of life: one is the state and the other is the church. National or international politics are not the Christian’s politics. The apostle says that our politics is in heaven, from where we expect our Lord Jesus Christ to come (Phil. 3:20). Our politics is that of the kingdom of God.
Therefore, beloved Hermann Arnold, I want to entrust you with the very highest and greatest thing which can exist for a human being. You are asked whether you can take upon yourself the task of serving the church in its mission as an embassy of God’s kingdom. The apostle Paul says we are ambassadors of the kingdom of God (2 Cor. 5:18–20). One must understand this statement in the sense of diplomacy. When the British ambassador is in the British Embassy in Berlin, he is not subject to the laws of the German Reich. The grounds of the embassy are inviolable: in the residence of the ambassador, only the laws of the country he represents are valid.
Paul says that we are ambassadors of God, representing Christ, the Messiah King, the regent of that last kingdom – a kingdom represented not by any state or government of this world, but rather by the church. We are ambassadors of the reign of God. This is something enormous. It means that we do nothing at all except what the king of God’s kingdom would himself do for his kingdom. And the will of this king is to unite. This is why the apostle says we are God’s ambassadors on behalf of Christ, appealing to all people, “Be reconciled to God.” Our task is reconciliation and uniting, and nothing else. There is nothing else we have to do in this world.
When we take this service upon ourselves we enter into mortal danger. Whoever goes the way of Christ goes the way of the cross, for the world, the state, and society are not willing to follow such a call. Nevertheless, there is in every human heart the certainty that this is the only way of truth. As Paul writes, our testimony will bear witness to every human conscience that it is the truth (Rom. 2:15; 2 Cor. 4:2). This conviction gives us the courage of love, because we sense that what we are proclaiming is what all our fellow human beings want as well. At the moment, to be sure, they feel unable to begin this way because they are hypnotized, under a spell, and subject to the power of suggestion. Yet they themselves sense that God’s peace and justice is the way the world should be!
There is no greater bravery than that of faith. There is no greater courage than that of love.
Reconstructed from a transcript of Eberhard Arnold’s address to the Alm Bruderhof, Principality of Liechtenstein, on August 3, 1934 (Bruderhof Historical Archive, EA 255). Translated by Nicoline Maas.
Article edited for length and clarity.