Ever since Martin Luther nailed his theses to the church door at Wittenberg, the people of Germany had wondered about authority. Who is the true church? Who decides?
Some believed authority comes by virtue of office. “God established the offices of church and nation,” they said, “and gives authority to those who fill them.”
Others believed authority comes straight from the Bible. “We may disobey men to obey the Word of God,” Martin Luther roared at his audiences. But like the rest, he interpreted the Bible to suit what he wanted to do.
A small number of people in Germany claimed everyone is his own authority while a very large number shrugged their shoulders and asked, “How shall we know who is right? We know nothing and will not take it upon us to decide either way. That decision belongs to experts, to theologians and doctors of the church.”
On January 18, 1530, Andreas and Katharina Kolb, simple peasants of Zella Sankt Blasii, near Ohrdruf in Sachsen-Gotha, brought the question of church authority into clear focus and answered it with their lives.
A year and a half before that day, Andreas and Katharina had made a decision. A travelling messenger from Hildburghausen in Thüringen had appeared in the village where they lived. His name was Volkmar. He told the people: “Whoever will be a true Christian must leave everything he has and suffer persecution unto death.”
Volkmar spoke with conviction and power. His message, even though it frightened some, convinced many others who found it agreed with the voice of Christ in their consciences. When Volkmar called on them to seal their commitment to Christ in water baptism, Andreas and Katharina Kolb, with five other couples, did so on June 7, 1528.
No sooner did the Lutheran authorities of Sachsen-Gotha discover what had happened than they set out in hot pursuit of the new “Anabaptists.” Johannes, Elector of Sachsen, Thüringen and Francken, had passed a law that no one besides authorised pastors of the Lutheran church could baptise or hold communion in his territories, and—as Andreas and Katharina well knew—some who disobeyed had suffered torture on the rack or beheading.
Leaving their two children, a five-year-old and a one-year-old, with relatives, Andreas and Katharina fled. So did the other baptised couples. Hans Fock and his wife left their two-year-old behind them. Balthasar Armknecht and his wife left four children, the oldest of whom was nine. Kaspar Komel and his wife also left four small children, as did Georg Ungers, and Konrad Eigelers left their baby.
The authorities caught Andreas and Katharina first. They took them to Reinhardsbrunn, an old monastery the Lutherans had turned into a prison, near Gotha. There they interrogated them and threatened them with their lives.
Andreas told them the truth: “Yes we have been baptised on confession of faith.” He hid nothing from the authorities and his honest, humble, attitude moved them to simply warn him and his wife and let them go. “If I have erred,” Andreas told them, “I will gladly return to the state church.”
Back in the village, Andreas and Katharina became yet more convinced they had not erred in choosing to follow Christ. They kept on meeting with brothers and sisters who lived and dressed simply, who returned good for evil, who shared their things, and who prayed often together. A year later the authorities arrested them again, with seven others, and took them back to Reinhardsbrunn.
This time the torture began at once. Katharina, in pain and fright gave way and told the authorities she would obey them. So did Valentin Unger, Balthasar Armknecht, and Osanna Ortleb. But Andreas calmly persisted in what he had chosen. “I will stay with Christ,” he said, “and with those who follow him.” Four other prisoners stood with him.
At first Katharina felt desperate. “No Andreas,” she cried. “Don’t be stubborn. They will kill you and what shall become of me and the children!”
Andreas stood firm. “If the Lord allows them to kill me, he will take care of you. I cannot go back and do what I know is wrong. You know too it is wrong. Will you break your promise to Christ?”
Torn between love for her children, love for her husband and Christ, Katharina stood crying with Andreas in the torture room at Reinhardsbrunn. “If only this terrible decision had not come upon us!”
But it had. And in the end Katharina cast her lot with Christ. Lutheran authorities beheaded her with Andreas Kolb, Christoph Ortleb, Elsa Kunz, Barbara Unger, and Katharina König on January 18, 1530.
Two months later Martin Luther published an angry book he had written, based on the Bible (Psalm 82 in particular), that explained why the government should kill heretics. But the body of Christ, broken again, rejoiced in another victory won.