I am nervous that a growing number of Christians nowadays distance themselves from the Old Testament. Sam already wrote a post about this, but I want to continue the conversation. I want to suggest another compelling reason why we must keep teaching the Old Testament unashamedly in the church.
Simply put, if Jesus is not understood in light of his Old Testament context, some other context will replace it. Often it’s a prominent political agenda or trending philosophical framework. This inevitably distorts the church’s witness to both Jesus and the gospel. History is littered with examples of such distortion. I want to focus on a rather extreme one: the seemingly impossible reality of Christians supporting and even executing some of Hitler’s most egregious crimes.
Hitler’s Christian Army
No one denies it. Hitler enjoyed widespread support from millions of German Christians (though by no means all of them). How could that happen? How did we get to a place where Christians could join Hitler in exterminating Jews?
Let me begin by saying that I haven’t read the minds of all Christians who joined the Gestapo. Nor have I waded through personal reflections on why they thought it was okay. Rather I am deducing based on their actions that their gospel was incomplete. And it is possible to locate at least some missing aspects.
The fact that Christians were willing so serve Hitler’s regime—the Third Reich—betrays their conviction that one is able to serve two kingdoms at once. “Reich” means empire or kingdom. The first two reichs, by Hitler’s count, included the Holy Roman Empire (800–1806) and the German Empire (1871–1918).
Following governmental propaganda, many German Christians felt comfortable pairing their nation’s agenda with God’s agenda. We have photographic evidence, for instance, that Nazi soldiers wore the slogan Gott mit uns on their belt buckles. That means “God with us.” America is certainly not unique in championing the notion of “God and country.”
Yet Jesus was quite clear that one cannot serve two masters. He called his people to seek first God’s kingdom (Matt 6:33). For him this had political implications. He neither joined the Roman empire nor sought to overthrow it on account of its injustices.
Jesus clearly focused on God’s kingdom and called his followers to do the same. He wasn’t crucified for promoting love or trying to make the world a better place. He was crucified for proclaiming a kingdom that rivaled the prevailing social order.
What does all of this have to do with the Old Testament? The answer is simple. If Christians of the Third Reich had accurate knowledge that Jesus was born as the messiah of Israel who fulfilled the Old Testament promise of God’s reign, they wouldn’t have participated in Hitler’s atrocities.
After all, the Old Testament tells the story of how God formed a unique community by separating his people from the kingdoms of this world. God himself had planned to be their king, but instead they chose to crown a human king like the nations had. In doing so, they deliberately compromised God’s designs for them. God condemned this decision and predicted its many problems in 1 Samuel 8.
Through the collapse of Israel’s two kingdoms and the exiles that followed, God began reforming his people according to his original vision. While that reform began in the Old Testament, it was completed in the New Testament. Jesus created the church as a people disentangled from every nation of this world. Only in this way could they properly represent God’s alternative to the kingdoms of this world.
It is thus a sobering reality that Hitler’s Third Reich was a continuation, at least in his mind, of the First Reich, which was the Holy Roman Empire. For all the good that the Roman empire did when it adopted Christianity as its imperial religion, it undoubtedly retied what Jesus had once and for all untied. It re-merged God’s people with world empires. Christian Nazis could exterminate all sorts of undesirables with a clean conscience precisely because Roman Christians had long been doing that sort of thing to unbelievers.
And Roman Christians could do that sort of thing for the same reason the Nazis did. That is, they defined Jesus and the church apart from the people of Israel and the kingdom that they were meant to comprise. Instead of receiving the Old Testament on its own terms, they mostly mistook it for a symbolic or allegorical portrayal of New Testament truths.
This is different from, but not altogether unlike what Christians are doing today. They don’t want to ditch the Old Testament completely, but they do want to de-emphasize it or read it in a way that restricts its authority.
Yet this places us in a similar spot as the Roman and German Christians. Like them, we marginalize the Old Testament at our own risk. We, too, pave the way for the gospel to be co-opted by some new political or philosophical agenda. That agenda may not be as atrocious as Hitler’s, but anything less than God’s kingdom falls short the church’s calling and glory.