Monday, March 05, 2012

Karl Barth on the Apparent and the Living Church

Picture from 1953's WCC. Barth is third from the right.
"When the Church dies, the horizon does not become clear, of course: a simple vacuum is not the result. It pertains to the darkness of the threat and temptation which besets the Church (or seen in another light, of course, it is a sign of God's patience) that something which seems to be and look like the Church, though not deserving that name, remains on the scene. Even a dead congregation, or the dead element of a living congregation, is accustomed to have the form of 'Church,' 'Church' tradition, and 'Church' life....

In fact it can even happen that the Church might cease to be the Church and that then the thing which is still called 'Church' really comes to life and gains might, splendor, and significance in world history. It can happen that precisely the apparition of the Church or the apparent Church, the Church with the sleepy, squinting, or blind eyes, the Church in which the confrontation of God with people and people with God is no longer an event, but only an institution, dogma, program, and problem, can fall on especially good days in this age and may enjoy the special respect of society and the state. If the Church falls on such good days, then it has indeed cause to ask itself whether it might not be the Devil whom it should acknowledge and thank for the fact that it has long since become the apparent Church. But the other question is also not to be silenced: whether, when bad days come, it might not be God's well-earned judgment which sooner or later must meet it already in this age, since it has become only the apparent Church....

Dead congregations can only be divided congregations, only falsely united in such a way that at any minute they might break into open conflict with each other. But the matter is yet more serious: the fact that living and dead congregations live together more or less in peace in no way suggests that they might become a single congregation.... The living congregation is itself not infallible nor beyond danger, and its own danger will undoubtedly become greater by the fact that it has this dead congregation, this apparent Church next to it and cannot exist otherwise than in contradiction to it.

This means the temptation for it to conform" or on the other hand "to become presumptuous and callous," judging everything "on the basis of ecclesiastical opposition as though this were the source of the revelation which fed it. This is the temptation of ecclesiastical self-righteousness, the realization of which would mean the death of this congregation, its transformation into an apparent Church."

- From Karl Barth's paper at the 1948 World Council of Churches,
"The Church: The Living Congregation of the Living Lord Jesus Christ,"
published in God Here and Now (2003), pp. 72-75.

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