Karl Barth, Theology, and Adultery

Posted: Jan 04, 2022

It is possible to know all about doctrine and yet not know Jesus. The soul is in danger when knowledge of doctrine outsteps intimate touch with Jesus. Why was Mary weeping? Doctrine was no more to Mary than the grass under her feet. Any Pharisee could have made a fool of Mary doctrinally, but one thing they could not ridicule out of her was the fact that Jesus had cast seven demons out of her; yet His blessings were nothing in comparison to Himself.
-Oswald Chambers

Karl Barth (5/10/1886 – 12/10/1968 was a world-renowned Swiss Calvinist theologian. During the World War 2 era of the 1930s and 1940s, Barth had a significant influence on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who died in a concentration camp from his part in the plot to assassinate Hitler. Barth supported the Confessing Church, a movement by protestant churches in Germany to oppose Hitler’s efforts to create a single pro-Nazi church.

After World War 2, Barth authored the Darmstadt Statement where he laid out the need for German penitence and for the church in Germany to reconcile with churches abroad. Later, in the 1960s, he was a voice of resistance against the iron curtain of communism that was encroaching on Europe.

Barth is well known in theological circles for his four volume, 9,000 page, six-million word treatise on doctrine, Church Dogmatics, which was published in 13 books from 1932 to 1967. The doctrines Barth explored include the word of God, God, creation, and reconciliation.

In his later years, Barth lectured in seminaries and universities in the US. His picture was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1962, a sign of his influence on the modern church. Karl Barth passed away at his home in Switzerland in 1968. He was the husband to his wife Nelly and the father of five children.

The great theologian’s life looked good, on the outside.

In 2000, Barth’s elderly children revealed that Karl began an affair with Charlotte von Kirschbaum, his academic assistant and researcher in the 1920’s. Their affair was no secret to the family—Karl had Charlotte move into their home on October 15, 1929—in spite of his wife Nelly’s full knowledge that Charlotte was Karl’s mistress.

The tension in the Barth home was thick. In July of 2017, Christiane Tietz wrote an article on Barth’s affair that was based on love letters between Barth and von Kirschbaum, which included the following:

Barth and von Kirschbaum often intend to be nicer to Nelly, but obviously without great success. Nelly reports to Eduard’s wife Marguerite, that she very often lies down crying. Charlotte is depressed as well. She names the situation a “theatre of war” and also expresses her “right” against Barth very emotionally. Barth is getting tired of the conflicts and hopes for peace and a quietness in which he can “build his dogmatics tower.” He feels extremely lonely and unable to fulfill his theological task. Eduard at that time expresses his worries to a friend whether or not all three will stay alive internally and externally.

There was talk of divorce but they never went through with it. At one point Nelly gave Karl an ultimatum to move Charlotte out, but he refused. Christine von Kirschbaum, Karl Barth’s mistress, lived in his home with his wife and children for more than 30 years.

Karl’s mother, Anna Sartorius, disagreed with his adulterous relationship and voiced her opinion to her son. At one point she exclaimed: “What is the most brilliant theology good for, if it is to be shipwrecked in one’s own house?”

How can it be that a theologian of Barth’s stature would willfully commit adultery over a period of decades, right in his wife’s face? Somehow he missed the verses showing that adultery would get you stoned in the old Testament, and Jesus’ words on adultery in Matthew 5:27-30 that come with a warning:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

John Piper, former pastor and founder of Desiring God Ministries, says it well:

Look around in your life, in your church. How many Christians do you see bent with all their powers to know God more and more — more truly, more clearly, more sweetly? Or, rather, do you see thousands fighting graduate school sins with a grammar school knowledge of God?

Some of you might say, “Wait, there are as many PhDs in theology who commit adultery as less-educated people.” To which I would say, “Probably more.” Why is it that people with PhDs in theology commit adultery? They don’t know God!! You can read theology ten hours a day for forty years and not know God as beautiful and all-satisfying — as the highest treasure of your life. Who cares about knowing God the way the devil knows God?! He hates everybody. His knowledge of God helps him hate people.

By now many of you have heard of Ravi Zacharias’ story, how after his death he was exposed for using tens of thousands of dollars of ministry funds to support four massage therapists financially, which he used as leverage to coerce and manipulate them into having sex with him. Inappropriate images were found on Zacharias’ phone just months before his death.

Christian culture gives high praise to its celebrities and rock stars; those who dazzle us with their knowledge and oratory gifts. The Pharisees memorized the first five books of the Torah yet many of them ended up in hell. Bible knowledge alone isn’t an indication of a passionate love-relationship with the Lord, nor does belief and enthusiasm for one’s preferred doctrinal packaging signify obedience. Or salvation.

Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and don’t do the things which I say? Everyone who comes to me, and hears my words, and does them, I will show you who he is like. He is like a man building a house, who dug and went deep, and laid a foundation on the rock. When a flood arose, the stream broke against that house, and could not shake it, because it was founded on the rock. But he who hears, and doesn’t do, is like a man who built a house on the earth without a foundation, against which the stream broke, and immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.”
Luke 6:46-49

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
James 1:22

Last week I interviewed a guy for our radio show who attends a church in Phoenix that is known for its verse-by-verse teaching. During the interview he told me that when he asks other men when they last looked at porn, many will say it’s been two or three months, then blow it off as looking at porn isn’t a big deal. If pride in our church, doctrine, theology, or Bible knowledge has eclipsed our relationship with God to the point where we’re in denial about the sin we’re committing, as Oswald Chambers wrote, we’re in a dangerous place.

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
1 Corinthians 6:9

Uh-oh. If adulterers will not inherit the kingdom of God, and both Karl Barth and Ravi Zacharias were willfully committing adultery in the years and decades, leading up to their death, what does than mean for their eternal destination? There was no special escape clause given in the warnings in Scripture for theologians, seminary students, pastors, or any believer. I don’t know where Barth or Zacharias ended up, but I wouldn’t want to enter into eternity playing games with God as they did.

I write this because we see professing Christians whose relationship with God is stuck in their head. They can talk verses, doctrine, and theology but under the hood their lives are a trainwreck of sin. They take false comfort in their knowledge, education, the church they attend, or the Christian superstar they follow. Usually, when I ask them about their prayer life, I get a blank look. Prayer is our main power-line of connection with God; prayer doesn’t come easy when we’re living a double life. As I know from personal experience, when there is a wedge of sin between the Lord and me it’s nearly impossible to have a close relationship with Him. I can study the Bible all I want but it won’t do me any good until I yank the wedge that’s between us.

Our modern churches don’t do warnings. We do grace and love, but that’s only half the story. When we leave out the warnings in Scripture or shy away from delving into topics like sex, we put people at risk of being deluded into thinking they can play with or justify their sin. In a time when at least two-thirds of Christian men are viewing pornography (including pastors), half of professing Christians see nothing wrong with premarital sex, and sexual immorality is exploding in our youth, we should be waving red flags with a sense of urgency.

These are dangerous times that are shipwrecking the faith of many. Karl Barth’s mother nailed it… what good is theology if God’s people are ensnared in sin? If we’re too afraid to talk about sex or pornography on Sunday we don’t have a shot at equipping God’s people to be overcomers and warriors. They’ll stay in a lukewarm state, or worse, we’ll turn them into a flock of Pharisees.

No more silence, no more playing church, no more head Christians. Every believer must step up, speak up, and be willing to get in the game with the gifts they’ve been given. This always means prayer. You can also approach your pastor with the need to address sexual sin, start a support group for men or wives, share your story with others, or host a From Porn to Grace conference. Too many lives are being destroyed just because we’re a bunch of spiritual wimps.

Thankfully, if you’re one of those who are in bondage to sin, we always have the remedy, the rescue—the blood of the cross that wipes all sin. Confession and taking the action steps to run away from sin triggers the flow of grace.

PS – as I was writing this article, a story came out that the pastor of the fastest growing church in America, a 12,000 member church in Houston, Texas, just resigned over an adulterous affair. Stories like this have been flowing in the news for years.

The 2021 Numbers Are In

Pornhub, the largest porn site in the world, recently announced the results of its annual year in review. The countries who are the top consumers of porn in the world are:

  1. The United States. The US continues its reign as the top consumer and producer of pornographic material in the world. To our shame, the church is one of its biggest customers.
  2. The United Kingdom. Surveys show that as many as 70% or more of UK Christian men are viewing porn.
  3. Japan
  4. France
  5. Italy