Questioning Systems of Religion
Imagine growing up within an Old Order Amish community in Pennsylvania: a simple lifestyle, a deliberate avoidance of modern technology, a safe network of deep friendships, a strong work ethic, and the solidarity of a strong church community. What would happen if you choose to leave your Amish roots? A recent BBC television documentary, “Trouble in Amish Paradise,” offers an amazing glimpse into the lives of two young men whose journey into the Scriptures led them to question their heritage and the teachings of their church leaders.
One of the men, Ephraim Stoltzfus, is a dairy farmer who admits that “Amish is just following a set of rules.” He broke tradition when he began reading the Bible in the English language, meeting with others for Bible study and prayer, and sharing the good news of Jesus within his cultural context. Through the study of Scripture, he and several other Old Order Amish have became passionate followers of Jesus Christ, which has cause them to question everything they’ve been taught.
Not following the rules of the Amish order has serious consequences beyond the act of excommunication itself, especially when being shunned by your lifelong network of friends and family means losing your only safety net in times of financial loss or catastrophic medical circumstances. Stoltzfus realized these implications when his daughter was suddenly diagnosed with leukemia, but thankfully his Amish friends surrounded the family in their time of need since—by virtue of an ecclesiastical loophole—his wife and children had not been excommunicated by church leaders.
I couldn’t help but consider the parallels between this young Amish man and the Protestant Reformers who risked everything when, as Luther described it, their hearts and minds were captivated by the authority of Scripture. It causes all other allegiances to fade in comparison, even when it means you no longer fit in or your very life is threatened by those in powerful places. These similarities also extend to those who have left the institutional church (IC) and, for whatever reason, find themselves labeled as renegades or trouble-makers. One former pastor put it this way:
All the circles I used to run in, as a leader in the church, seem foreign to me now. I have a hard time mingling with church pastors, because I no longer feel driven to grow a church or to be seen as successful in those circles, and thus I lose interest in talking about the kinds of things pastors regularly talk about when they get together. Plus, when one of those pastors figures out I am doing a house church, either I become a threat, or not really “one of them”.
No doubt it must be difficult to leave a system of religion wherein you’ve invested most of your life. The Reformers didn’t sit down one day and decide to start a revolution within the Roman Catholic Church: the word “reform” means to change something from within. They would have been happy if their religious system had been willing to change, but they soon found out how deeply entrenched and obstinate the powers-that-be really were. Virtually overnight they became revolutionaries, rather than reformers; outcasts instead of brothers with legitimate disagreements with the system; and heretics to those who established and maintained the rules of their religion.
The Stoltzfus brothers made the same discovery when they began questioning the status quo of the Old Order Amish society in which they had been born and raised. And I’m sure that many of us who are leaving the IC would much rather see positive change—even gradual shifts in the system—than feel like there’s no other choice but starting a new life outside the walls of Zion. For me, I truly don’t know what that’s going to look like, other than the testimony of others who have gone before me, and it’s a little unsettling…probably because it’s so unfamiliar. But like other “reformers turned revolutionary” I’m optimistic that the unseen future must be better than the present frustration and misery that I’m experiencing within a system where my heart and soul are no longer nourished and encouraged (rather malnourished and discouraged).