Lessons from History Part 2: World War II, National Socialism and the Church

Judges 5:18 “Zebulun is a people who jeopardized their lives to the point of death, Naphtali also, on the heights of the battlefield.”

On this year of the 75th anniversary of the end of WW II, who stepped forward to confront the Nazis? Who, like Zebulun and Naphtali, were the only two of the twelve tribes of Israel, to respond to Deborah’s call in Judges chapter 5 to confront Israel’s enemies? When German Pastor Paul Schneider read the story of Deborah in Judges 5:18, he saw the same crisis facing the Church as Nazi Socialism came to power.

He vowed that even if he was a minority, he must obey Christ. It cost him his life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer announced that “You must never forget the name of Paul Schneider. He is our first martyr.”

On July 18, 1939, Pastor Schneider was given a lethal injection in Buchenwald concentration camp. The only reason he was in Buchenwald was he refused to follow the Nazi order to leave his congregations. He’d be released by simply agreeing to stop pastoring his churches. Even under severe torture, he refused.

When Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, Schneider, like many other pastors in Germany, believed Hitler would lead Germany into a bright future. But Pastor Schneider, a dedicated follower of Jesus Christ, quickly saw Hitler’s true character. He could not stand by and listen to Nazi leaders ridiculing the morality of the Church and the Gospel. His preaching against the Nazi opposition to Christianity drew attention.

Soon after Hitler’s rise to power, in the winter of 1935, the Nazis brought in Schneider to be interrogated for his protests against Nazi Socialism. For the next twelve months, he would be brought in twelve different times, each time the Nazis gathering information over the contents of his sermons and letters.

His friends warned him that if he continued speaking from the Bible and confronting the Nazis with the truth of God’s word, he could be sent to prison. He told them “I don’t seek martyrdom, but I must follow my Lord. My first responsibility is to prepare my family for eternal life, not ensure their material well-being.”

Pastor Schneider, like Pastors Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, started the Confessing Church, which was a group of pastors who publicly confessed allegiance to Christ over allegiance to Nazism.

From the time of Judges in 1300BC to 1939, God’s people have taken a firm stand on His word and the Gospel. This was also the case in the early growth of Christianity during the Roman persecution.

In 112AD, the Governor of the Roman province of Bithynia, named Plinius Secundus, in the northwest corner of Asia Minor, wrote this letter to Emperor Trajan on how he was dealing with the Christians.

“Having never been present at any trials of the Christians, I am unacquainted with the methods and limits in punishing them, whether any distinction is allowed between the youngest and adult. Whether repentance admits to a pardon, or if a man had been a Christian it avails him nothing to recant; whether the profession of Christianity, without the commission of crimes, or only the charges associated therewith, are punishable.

The method I have observed towards those denounced as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were in fact Christians; if they confessed it, I repeated the question twice, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed. A placard was put up, accusing a large number of persons by name. Those who denied they were, or had ever been, Christians, and who offered formal worship before your statue, and who finally cursed Christ – none of which, it is said, those who are really Christians can be forced into performing – these I thought it proper to discharge. Others named by anonymous informers at first confessed being Christians, and then denied it, saying they had been but they had quitted it. They all worshipped your statue and the images of the gods, and they cursed Christ.”

Pastor Schneider, like Zebulun, Naphtali and the Bithynia Christians, stood boldly for Jesus Christ. Before they murdered him, every morning of his solitary confinement at Buchenwald, Pastor Schneider’s voice rang out, when tens of thousands lined up for roll call: “Our Lord Jesus Christ came into the world to save us from our sins. If we have faith in Him, we are put right with God. We need not fear what man may do to us. Jesus said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He that believes in me shall never die.’ Accept the Lord Jesus as your Savior, and God will receive you as his child.” From 1300BC to 112AD to 1939 to today, the Gospel message, proclaimed by the faithful to all of humanity regardless of consequences, hasn’t changed.

The Evidence of Faith’s Substance – Article #416

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