The word “Christian” is a loaded term today. Is it not? Ask 100 people to give you a definition and you could probably come up with at least 50-75 different concepts – and some probably would not be “suitable for family entertainment.”
I asked a group of Christians in their twenties and early thirties to give me three reactions that popped into their mind when they see the word. After a ton of discussion, this was a summary of their response:
• Judgmental at times
• Imperfect but redeemed
• Outdated/Old-fashioned/Stationary in some churches but not all of them
• Some try so hard to be relevant and trendsetting that they lose focus of what it means to be Christian … just be real
• Superficial – many use the term but don’t live it because they don’t know what it really means to be a Christian
Are you surprised by the reaction of Millennial Christians to the word that defines themselves? However, where did the word come from and what does it really mean? Because we are living in a world of connotation vs. denotation in many regards.
In fact, we who call ourselves Christians struggle to define ourselves in the broadest of terms. There are an estimated 30,000 to 45,000 different kinds of groups/sects/denominations in the world who would call themselves Christians, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (click here and here). So … what does the word REALLY mean?
In Acts 11:26b we find these words – “And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” The word simply is a noun and it is used sparingly in the “New Testament” – only 3 other times – and it means “Christ follower” or “follower of the Messiah.” That’s it … nothing else.
The disciples were followers of Jesus the Messiah/Christ. Sounds easy on the surface until one realizes what the idea of Acts 11:26b meant to the disciples in Antioch. They tried to emulate completely Jesus’ example and life. They followed His teachings because they believed what He taught and that He really was who He said He was and is. Even to the point of martyrdom and imprisonment.
Now … do we who profess to be followers of Jesus live up to Acts 11:26b today? Perhaps in some places in the world such as North Korea or China or with the Karen people in Myanmar but not in the places where it is comfortable (i.e., socially easy) to use the word “Christian.”
And we most certainly did not anywhere in the world during the 1930s and 1940s. Sadly, back during the rise of Nazism in the 1920/1930s and during the worst days of World War II many wore the label Christian but few reflected the part of being a true follower of Messiah Jesus.
We could re-hash the inadequacies of the Roman Catholic Church and Pope Pius XII … but that has been done. We could consider how the German-state church was complicit in the rise of Hitler … but you more than likely know that story as well. Instead Tzedakah Ministries and Explore Messiah…? will examine two lesser known examples: one of outright participation and one of Christian apathetic inaction. For I would argue that these lesser examples give you the real story of how individuals who wore the label of Acts 11:26b during the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich failed when the relatives of the Jewish Jesus needed them the most.
HITLER’S THEOLOGIAN – GERHARD KITTEL (1888-1948)
Depending on whom asks, Gerhard Kittel was either a naïve pawn of the Third Reich or should today be seen as a pariah who chose expediency over the truth of Scripture. I vote for the label of pariah.
However, life did not begin this way for Kittel who was the son of a German theologian and became a theologian of moderate renown himself in a pre- and post-World War I Germany. Disgruntled by what he considered the failures of the Weimar Republic and the moral laxness of 1920s Germany, he was one of the first German theologians to join the Nazi Party in May 1933.
Now many in the academy were joining the Party in order to keep their professorships (i.e., the golden chalice called tenure). However, Kittel not only joined the Nazi Party but also became a member of the Reichinstitut für Geschichte des Neuen Deutschlands (basically the Reich Institute for the History of New Germany) in 1936. This “institute” was designed for the sole purpose of researching and examining what was euphemistically known as the “Jewish Question.” The idea of a theologian being interested in the “Jewish Question” is disconcerting enough but it is the publication of his Die Judenfrage (The Jewish Question) in 1933 that is the most problematic on a number of levels.
Inside his work The Jewish Question, he wrote the following: “The true and complete answer is afforded only the Jewish problem is correctly placed on a religious basis and when the fight against Judaism is endowed with a Christian significance. My people should not engage in this struggle nor occupy themselves with the Jewish problem unless they hear therein the voice of God.”
Now … Kittel did not call for the extermination of the Jewish people in his work nor in any of his lectures of teachings; HOWEVER, he argued for their segregation or displacement if you would prefer a gentler term … I don’t. In fact, if you read his 1933 work, you could see where the genesis or ideas for the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 could have received their theological backing. Not that the Nazi Party needed theological validation but Kittel’s rationalization provided a cover, I would argue, for what they hoped to accomplish.
So while Kittel was “not as bad as other Nazis” in that he did not participate in the actual murder of the Jewish people, the fact that he was a theologian and that he was utilized (not used) by the Nazi Party to give their hatred of the Jewish people a veneer of religious sophistication makes it in some ways worse. Julius Streitcher of Der Sturmer had no such veneer and was a brute of the first degree. Kittel purported to have a degree of civility and to know Jesus the Jewish Messiah even if the latter years of World War II, he denied even the truth of Jesus’ ethnicity as well.
Therefore, Gerhard Kittel indeed was one of Hitler’s theologians. Where he could have stood up against the theological lies of the Third Reich, he contributed. Where he could have proclaimed the truth of the Jewish Jesus, he compromised. Where he could have sought to stop the insidious influence in the German Church, he became complicit and sadly he was not alone. He and others wore the label Christian but failed to reflect the part of being a true follower of Messiah Jesus. And for this fact, Explore Messiah…? and Tzedakah Ministries apologizes.
Barnett, Victoria J. “Barmen, the Ecumenical Movement, and the Jews: The Missing Thesis.” The Ecumenical Review vol. 61, no. 1 (March2009): 17-23.
Ericksen, Robert P. “Theologian in the Third Reich: The Case of Gerhard Kittel,” Journal of Contemporary History 12 (July 1977): 595-622.
Head, Peter M. “The Nazi Quest for an Aryan Jesus.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 2.1 (2004): 55-89.
Weinryb, Bernard D. “Jewish History Nazified.” Jewish Record (1 April 1941): 148-67.
JACOB GARTENHAUS AND THE TRAGIC APATHY OF THE SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION DURING WORLD WAR II
Jacob Gartenhaus (1896-1984) was not your typical Southern Baptist. He was born in Galicia (situated between modern-day Austria and Poland) to an Orthodox Jewish family. After immigrating to New York City around 1915, he discovered the truth of Jesus through the witness of his brother Zev and the Williamsburg Mission to the Jews.
After theological training at Moody Bible Institute and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he was enlisted by the Home Mission of the Southern Baptist Convention to serve as the “Field Secretary of the Jewish Department” in 1921. He would serve in this position until 1949; however, he would continue to do the work of Jewish evangelism until his death in 1984 via his own ministry based in Chattanooga, Tennessee – International Board of Jewish Missions. However, we are going to focus here on the 1930s, the war years and Gartenhaus’ service with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) because it impacted and formulated his mission work as well as the SBC to this day.
For in his 1980 autobiography, Traitor?: A Jew, A Book, A Miracle, it could be argued that his year pre-World War II years with the Southern Baptists weighed heavily on him in retrospect:
I often experienced sorrow as a new believer because of the attitude of fellow Christians. For one thing, I was censured for warning the American public in the early days of the Nazi uprising. It is quite possible that, had I not been silenced, the Christian world might have averted World War II and the slaughter of six million Jews—among them about a million children—by the Nazis.
Hyperbole? Perhaps? For the Southern Baptists were not the yet the largest Protestant denomination in the United States; however, the reality of the loss of his family who had not escaped the Holocaust and his impending mortality only four years away in 1980 probably gave him pause and time to think about the recriminations and obstacles he faced from his fellow leading Southern Baptists during the 1930s when someone could have and should have stood up against the horrors that were about to engulf the world.
So what was the reaction by the Southern Baptist world to Hitler and the Third Reich during the 1930s and to Gartenhaus’ opposition to the Nazi regime from among his fellow pastors? Here is a short summary:
• Ben Bridges, Secretary-Treasury of the Arkansas Baptist Convention, wrote in the 29 March 1934 edition Arkansas Baptist News perhaps the persecution of the German Jews could be politically based and therefore Hitler could be 99.4% justified in his opposition. Basically, the article was a hit piece on Communism and blaming the Jewish people for all the Communist and immigration-related problems. It is full of all the stereotypical accusations against the Jewish people you can imagine from the 1930s and it is shameful that a pastor would write it.
• M. E. Dodd who was president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1934 and attended a meeting of the Baptist World Alliance in Berlin that year. He met with Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller and wrote a report of the meeting for the Baptist and Reflector (13 September 1934) in which he again defended Germany’s opposition to Jewish Communist agitators and wrote the following: “Naturally excesses occurred and irresponsible persons committed some atrocious deeds. But at the worst it was not one-tenth as bad as we had been made to believe.”
• Incidentally, Gartenhaus was at the same meeting (Baptist World Alliance) and wrote the following for the Atlanta Constitution 3 September 1934: “Jews are being murdered every day in Germany. While a delegate to the Baptist World Alliance in Germany last month, I talked with many Christian Jewish pastors of the Baptist faith. They had been exiled from Germany not because they were Baptists but because Jewish blood coursed through their veins.”
• Perhaps this is why letters were written after the Baptist World Alliance to Gartenhaus’ supervisors with the Home Mission Board seeking to have Gartenhaus removed from his position or seeking to muzzle Gartenhaus’ criticism of Hitler.
As a member of a Southern Baptist Church, I personally am saddened by my denomination’s past. My own church is active in the work of Jewish evangelism (or I would not be a member of it); however, this is still something as a denomination that we need to be respond to with repentance and recognition of our failures. I for one can only apologize for what we did not do. I am sorry and if I could I would apologize personally to Jacob Gartenhaus for what he experienced from those he called fellow believers as well.
I hope and imagine that we have surprised you with our transparency. It is not a past that we should be proud of; however, it is something that we need to confront and admit. People like to sweep the past under the rug but the dirt is still there until we confront it and face it.
Let’s discuss it further at the CAFÉ Kehillah Discussion Board. We might not be available immediately but we will be ready to discuss your questions and opinions with you as soon as possible. In the meantime, please go on to the next section of this difficult explore — https://www.exploremessiah.com/christians-not-fight-to-stop-the-nazis/.
Bridges, Ben. “Baptists, Hitler, and the Jews.” Arkansas Baptist News 29 March 1934.
Dodd, M. E. “My Impressions of the Baptist World Congress.” Baptist and Reflector 13 September 1934: http://media2.sbhla.org.s3.amazonaws.com/tbarchive/1934/TB_1934_09_13.pdf.
Gartenhaus, Jacob. Traitor: A Jew, A Book, A Miracle. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1980.
Joiner, E. Earl. “Baptists and the Holocaust.” http://floridabaptisthistory.org/docs/monographs/baptists_holocaust.pdf.
Robins, Walker. “Jacob Gartenhaus: The Southern Baptists’ Jew.” The Journal of
Southern Religion 19 (2017): http://jsreligion.org/vol19/robins/.