Amish believe the Ordnung–guidelines for daily living–helps them live better Christian lives
The Ordnung is the unwritten set of rules and regulations that guide everyday Amish life. Meaning “order”, or “discipline”, this German word takes on a deeper meaning in the Amish context. The Ordnung provides the foundation for the Amish Christian community.
The purpose of the Amish Ordnung
The purpose of the Ordnung is to uphold community. Adherence to the rules of the Ordnung is one test of membership. On one level, Amish feel that a community without rules, that anyone can enter and leave as they please, is hardly worth being a part of.
The Ordnung, however, serves deeper purposes as well. Rules of the Ordnung can help church members better live Christian lives, the Amish believe. The strictures of the Ordnung are generally not found in the Bible, but are frequently based in Scriptural principle.
One example would be rules outlining plain dress, which Amish base on several passages in Scripture. Restrictions on color of clothing and style of buggy, which some may see as harnessing self-expression, in fact help prevent pride and envy, though individual dictates on these issues are not necessarily found in Scripture.
On a deeper level, the Amish believe that submitting oneself to an Ordnung is also a way to demonstrate a humble spirit, an important, Christlike trait. One must subvert individualism and arrogance for the good of the community. Amish do this by faithfully adhering to the Ordnung.
What the Ordnung forbids
The Ordnung prohibits certain behaviors and technologies. These include:
- public electricity
- suing in a court of law
- owning certain technologies such as automobiles or televisions
- running for political office
Donald Kraybill notes that certain technologies and behaviors are categorically prohibited—not allowed in any situation. These would include technologies such as televisions or activities such as gambling (see The Riddle of Amish Culture, Donald B. Kraybill, pp. 112-116).
Other types of technology may be permitted in certain circumstances—such as vehicle use (as passengers but not as a driver), or even rental of an automobile (as in a business context, or when traveling long distances) but not ownership of it. The Ordnung often differentiates between ownership and usage, as in the case where an Amish employee may use a computer in a non-Amish work context, but would be prohibited from owning one at home.
Other activities that are more universally regarded as sinful, such as lying, cheating, and adultery, are understood to be off-limits and thus are not included in the Ordnung.
What the Ordnung requires
Just as the Ordnung prohibits certain behaviors and technologies, it also dictates certain facets of life. These include:
- style and cut of clothing
- marriage between baptized members only
- carriage design
The Ordnung can vary from church district to church district and between affiliations. A practice, style of dress, or technology acceptable in one district or affiliation may be prohibited in another. The Ordnung of certain affiliations prescribes characteristics that differentiate one group of Amish from another, such as the use of one suspender by some Amish groups or specific types of prayer coverings for women.
Who creates the Ordnung?
As the Amish respect tradition, the Ordnung changes only slowly. The Ordnung of a given Amish church district is a product of many years of history. Some universal proscriptions, such as the ban of telephones in the home, came about long ago in universal concern over dangers of a given technology or practice. Other elements of the Ordnung may develop in a local context, and even the Ordnung of neighboring districts can differ in significant ways.
Contrary to belief, the Amish bishop does not impose the rules of the Ordnung in a top-down fashion. His main power is in determining what issue will come to bear, and what issues will be voted upon in a member’s meeting. He may refuse to undertake consideration of a certain technology, for example. However, when enough members of a community feel strongly that something should be allowed, this can generate significant pressure on the leadership.
Church leadership may choose to temporarily allow a given technology before bringing it up for consideration. Amish may take a “wait and see” approach to see how a technology impacts another district. Being slow to change an Ordnung reflects a conservative approach that weighs the value of forefather’s decisions more heavily than innovation and passing fads.
Amish review the Ordnung twice yearly before Communion service. During the Counsel meeting, which takes place two weeks before Communion, the Ordnung is reviewed and members are asked for their concurrence. A congregation must be in unity over the Ordnung, and outstanding issues must be addressed in order for Communion to take place.
Violating the Ordnung
At times Amish may come into violation of the Ordnung. An Amish person may acquire a piece of forbidden technology, or openly flaunt church rules on dress or business activity. An Amish person may also commit acts more universally recognized as sin, such as cheating or adultery.
In such cases, church ministry will visit the offender to ask him to cease the deviant behavior or to “put away” a forbidden technology. If a wayward member remains in violation of the rules after entreaties of the ministry, the individual may be excommunicated by the bishop. Excommunication is also known as being in the Bann, and entails the practice of Meidung, or social shunning.
Even though an individual may be excommunicated, there is always the possibility of return. An excommunicated member may return at any time, make a confession before the bishop or the church, and usually after a six-week period, be reinstated into the church.
An Amishman describes shunning and excommunication as “a ritualistic reminder of having gone astray and having broken your commitment to the Lord Jesus and the body of believers you made your commitment and baptismal promise with.” The purpose of shunning is not punishment for its own sake, but rather as a statement that the rest of the congregation takes their baptismal commitment seriously. Most importantly, the Amishman (himself subject to the Bann twice) explains, it is done “so the soul of the deviant may be saved on the day of Judgement.”
Amish do not relish the thought of shunning. “Shunning is usually done with great reluctance and only once there is nothing else left to do,” explains the Amishman. “Upon repentance the relationship is restored and what is in the past stays in the past.” (Read more on Amish and shunning.)
Does the Ordnung ever change?
Just as society and technologies change, the Ordnung in fact does change over time as well. The Ordnung of the typical district today appears different than it did 50 or 100 years ago. For one, technologies which were not in existence then must be addressed in a modern Ordnung. Also, the Ordnung is not a rigid code. It may change over time as technologies are evaluated and accepted or rejected.
Respect for the Ordnung helps hold Amish communities together
Some criticize the Amish adherence to the Ordnung as being too legalistic. Outsiders may see little sense in rules dictating everything from the cut of clothing one wears to the way one lights the home at night. The Amish, however, recognize deeper meaning in submitting to the Ordnung.
The Amish view the Ordnung as an indispensable basis for Christian communal living. Following the Ordnung is important to Amish life, as such behavior demonstrates humility and submission, characteristics the Amish view as key to living full Christian lives. The Ordnung, along with the practices of excommunication and shunning, are considered key factors in the high retention rate of the Amish church.
For further information, see:
“God’s Order Within the Church”, an Amish bishop, Family Life, May 2003
The Riddle of Amish Culture, Donald B. Kraybill
Looking for more good reading on the Amish? Check out our list of best Amish books.