Copyright 2012 Reynold R. Kremer
To the Amish, the term martyr has special significance. It was in 1660 that Thielman van Braght’s first edition of his famous Martyr’s Mirror or The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians was published. Consulting over 350 sources, van Braght compiled in a single volume the writings and confessions of hundreds of defenseless Christians who died for their beliefs. Beheading, drowning, burning at the stake, and every other sort of cruel punishment was brought down on every Anabaptist who dared to stand up for his or her convictions, women and young people included. Catholics, Protestants, and the state all wished to put a quick end to the radical reformers who followed the teachings of a few young men from Zurich, Switzerland. The newly formed Anabaptist church (the re-baptizers) was soon savagely attacked simply because of its disagreement with the established authority. Some estimate that over 4,000 innocent martyrs died in the persecution. You will likely find a copy of this 1,300 page volume in most Amish homes, and you will hear it quoted frequently in Amish sermons.
This single book exposed the evils that mankind brought upon his fellow man. It showed what happens when one zealous religious group imposes its beliefs over individuals with whom they disagree. Indeed there were areas of strong disagreement, however; to destroy those who preached a different baptism was hardly a reason for persecution, torture, punishment and death.
It is easy for today’s Christians to say that such excessive punishment should never be tolerated. However, a different form of torture is now happening behind the scenes in some Amish districts. The circle seems to have been completed, except this time it is Amish against Amish. Causing mental and spiritual torture through the threat and use of silencing and shunning, some bishops have misused their authority to bring the wrongdoer to his or her knees (and even perhaps to the grave.)
For the first hundred years of the Anabaptist church, the believers held fast to their teachings as shown in their Schleitheim Articles and the Dordrecht Confession. These two documents were intended to both tie their groups of believers together and to tell the world that they were indeed a people who were Christians first not that different from the Catholics and Protestants. Their confessions laid out point by point their belief in the curse of sin, the need for a Savior, the love of God in providing a Savior, and the need to believe in that Savior to one day receive eternal bliss in heaven. Today Amish young people are taught these truths during their instruction prior to Baptism. Unfortunately the amount of time spent on such instruction is pitifully weak, measured in hours rather than weeks or years. This means that most Amish young people fall far short of the necessary training in the teachings of Scripture and in showing them the need for a personal relationship with Jesus.
Yes, the martyrs of long ago can still be found today; amazingly right within the walls of the Amish church. An Old Order Amish district in northern Indiana serves as an excellent example. (It should be noted that this district is not necessarily typical of all Amish districts. Many districts do adhere to the preaching of Jesus Christ and maintain their belief in the precious teaching of sin and forgiveness as found in the Good News of the Savior.) In this particular district (which shall remain unnamed) the bishop (who has established a reputation among other northern Indiana districts) rules with an iron hand. His feels his position warrants him to get what he wants. What rules he wishes to maintain must be followed, and whoever runs afoul of his expectations or opposes his will ultimately bears the scars. Only he has the authority to dole out forgiveness and then only to those he deems worthy. He has been known to insist that some members drop to their knees before the entire congregation time and time again pleading forgiveness for the same sin. The constant threat of being banned is held over members’ heads like a club ready to beat them down. And, of course, with that ban comes the terror and dread that their souls are eternally lost in the fires of hell. This bishop has become a man who has set himself up as his own god, and placed himself on the judgment seat of Jesus Christ.
There are many examples of this bishop’s actions. His district is well known among the Amish of northern Indiana. For one thing, he refuses to allow anything new to come into his church to adjust the church Ordnung which might make his members able to compete in the marketplace. No milking machines, no rubber tires, no allowing larger plows that might work bigger fields, and certainly no phone shacks at the end of members’ driveways – only at the cemetery and the school house. His aim is to keep his members poor and destitute and apart from any competition in the English workplace. And what if a member disagrees with him? Time and time again this bishop has sent many members to the mental institutions of Pennsylvania for “counseling and treatment” until they agree with his ways. It is little wonder that there has been a major exodus from this man’s district by members who could no longer endure his policies. There are many who now understand what is happening in his church. Unfortunately, many of them have left that district and uprooted their families to other locations. This has left a gaping hole among his members where once there was opposition to him. Now the only ones remaining in his district are those who agree to be led by him, shirking with fear lest they become the target of his wrath.
How sad! Where once Anabaptist martyrs gave their lives for their personal beliefs and convictions, today they are once again wearing the martyr’s cloak. Although the modern martyrs may not die by the sword or by the flames, the mental anguish that these outcasts and shunned members endure is excruciating. Weeks of mental torture turn into months, and months into years. Sleepless nights, weight loss, broken homes, and mental breakdowns are not unusual as this bishop systematically divides his congregation. Members turn on other members, and husbands and wives are divided against each another. Even the children are trained by the bishop to follow his wishes and words instead of their own parents.
Martin Luther once wrote: “Whoever employs the name of God for any sort of wrong profanes and desecrates this holy name.” The shameful practices of this bishop and any others who force their power on Bible believing Christians should be stopped. This is not what a church of Jesus Christ is all about. Rather it is a cult that is set out to destroy anyone who refuses to live by one man’s set of laws. And for those who still worship in such a church, they should ask themselves, “Is this truly what God intended for his church on earth? Is this how we employ the mercy given us by our Lord and Savior? Is this how we treat those among us who have shown penitence for a sin they had committed? Are our rules so important that they supersede God’s grace? Has our commitment to this church become a stumbling block that is keeping us from a personal relationship with the Good Shepherd? Is this all there is to the beauty of Christianity?”
God’s church was always intended to be a haven of rest, a place where the hurting find comfort, where the tired find rest, where the lonely find friendship, where the sick find healing, where the guilty find peace, and where the tearful find happiness. That was all part of God’s intent for his church. That is the sort of church that can raise its voice as one in worship and praise to the Lord Jesus Christ.