How do Amish review the unwritten Ordnung?

Reader Jim asks:

I am puzzled about how the twice-yearly ‘review’ of the Ordnung takes place if it is not a written document. By ‘not written’ I am wondering if you mean ‘not published’; that is to say it remains ‘in-house’,not something for sale, etc. I am thinking along these lines because a review would require some reference, something to refer to. Or what if there are disputes in interpretation of a rule; is there something to look up to settle these kinds of issues?

It’s been a little while since this question came in, but I wanted to ask someone from an Amish church.  With a little local help I passed this to an Amish friend in northern Indiana.  He responds:

First of all when people think or talk about the Amish Ordnung, rules come to mind but the Ordnung is not rules but guidelines.  I am not aware of any written guidelines on material things. And because guidelines vary greatly even within a community and even more so from state to state and Old Order to New Order.  It would be anything but practical to have actual written guidelines and would very likely cause a lot of disputes.

Amish Ordnung ResponseSince the original Amish churches were started around 400 years ago it has generally been progressing towards modernization but usually around 10 to 30 years behind the rest of America.  And basically each new bishop takes over where the retired one left off.  And in the twice yearly reviews he goes over the guidelines from memory, with help from deacon and ministers. When there are disputes (and there definitely are some at times), all on the ministers bench, including bishop and deacon, decide which is the best and most practical way to solve the problem.

To add a little more background, the authors of The Amish describe the Ordnung as an “Oral Map”, regulating “private, public, and ceremonial life by oral tradition rather than by written rules”. They quote an Amish person who says simply, “The people just know it, that’s all”. They observe that “because it is unwritten, it privileges the memory of older people” (The Amish, p. 118; Donald Kraybill, Karen Johnson-Weiner, Steven Nolt).

They also point out two “layers” of the Ordnung: implicit and explicit.  Implicit issues are the ones that are understood by all (eg, use of the horse-and-buggy, or men wearing beards but no mustaches) while the explicit issues are the ones that get discussed, examples being emerging technology or challenges to taboos (The Amish, p. 119). I believe these are the “disputes” which our contributor mentions above.

Finally, in Plain Diversity, authors Steven Nolt and Thomas Meyers bring up an interesting exception to the unwritten Ordnung:

Exceptions to this generalization occur in newer settlements where the population may be made up of migrants from several different communities who carry different understandings of Ordnung.  In such cases, residents sometimes produce a written Ordnung covering certain basic or potentially contentious points to make sure everyone understands the working assumptions that may differ from those that prevailed in their respective settlements of origin. Yet even such a written Ordnung is partial and does not cover every possible application. (Plain Diversity: Amish Cultures and Identities, p. 200, footnote #1 to “Chapter 3: Ordnung”)

The authors cite an early example of such a written Ordnung which came into being in 1871 in Daviess County, Indiana, a few years after that settlement was founded.

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    1. Damon Hickey

      Pushing the envelope

      Now I’m confused. As an outsider, I observe some Amish people constantly testing the boundaries of the Ordnung, to see what they can get away with that’s not actually forbidden. Or, in the language of this post, to see how far they can go beyond the guidelines. It seems to me that some Amish people, like people in any group, are essentially conservative, hewing as closely as possible to the norms, while others tend to push the envelope in order to get ahead. Reading this post, you would think every Amish person has the Ordnung written into his or her DNA and would violate it only by accident. If all Amish were that conservative, they would all have waited for approval before using cell phones. I also question whether the Amish are only 10-30 years behind mainstream Americans technologically and socially. In 1984, 30 years ago, American society included electric utilities, telephones in homes, private cars, and computers. Most of the Amish still haven’t adopted them.

      1. Ordnung Boundaries; 10-30 years

        Damon these are good discussion points; I wanted to present the Amish contributor’s response in original form.

        I’m glad you mentioned the quote about lagging behind. I don’t want to speak for the writer but I’d think the 10-30 years certainly doesn’t apply to things which challenge Amish identity and that Amish will not adopt, like cars.

        I’d like to hear his meaning, but might have been referring to the more progressive ends of Amish society which now essentially does have certain mainstream items including things like modern washers or computers in some form (albeit in the business not in the home).

        Or, while it might not be exactly 10-30 years, just the general idea that while they don’t adopt everything, Amish society does in a sense lag behind mainstream society and eventually do adopt certain technologies, after they’ve been in use in mainstream society for awhile. This is with the understanding that certain segments of Amish society are going to lag well behind other segments of Amish society. And again not everything is going to “catch up”, ever.

        Given the references to disputes, I don’t think the idea here is that Ordnung is DNA-encoded and that violations are accidental…the only thing that suggests that to me in this post is the quote about the people “just know[ing] it”.

        The people may “just know it”, but they can still push against bounds they know. I think this is more about how a lot of things don’t need to be discussed because they are either obvious sins or are so embedded in the culture and widely understood (eg, we don’t have to explain when reviewing Ordnung that you shouldn’t operate a sports bar or wear mini-skirts, because those behaviors are so far beyond the pale it is assumed).

        The Ordnung discussion in “The Amish” book which I linked above elaborates on how different segments of Amish society may adhere to the Ordnung to different degrees. For instance ministry sticking more closely to the Ordnung understandings (longer beards, broader hats) while lay members are allowed a bit more latitude, and non-parent lay members (who don’t have to be examples to children), even more. There are boundary pushers as well (your example of cell phones is a good one showing the human tendency to want nifty technologies, and its pocket-size makes it much easier to push the boundaries without others knowing about it).

        They also discuss how some bishops may be more lenient than others, and how adhering in one area may gain you a sort of social capital to be able to push boundaries in another area. I’ve only cited a little of it here, and if you haven’t already, that section starting on page 118 is well worth reading.

    2. Ordnung, Rule and Law

      I am reading “The Highest Poverty, Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life” by scholar Giorgio Agamben. Monastic Rule is much like Ordnung, specific for these people in that place, while sharing much in common with groups of the same Order. While specifics of the Rule are written to avoid misunderstandings, each abbot also interprets the rule for his house. The Rule, as the Ordnung, is not Law. Conformity is optional, although there are consequences for violating it. The basis for Rule and Ordnung is the love of Jesus Christ, which is interpreted as superseding the secular law. Rule and Ordnung do not replace the secular law – the groups are still subject to it – but at least within the group, they are regulated by living a life exemplary of Jesus Christ. I can write a lot more on this, but won;t here.

    3. Margaret

      This article has given me a lot to think about. Thanks for posting this, Erik. I like the fact it is not “written.” It is a matter of it (the standards by which we live) being written upon the heart…building character and integrity.

    4. Alice Mary

      This is a thought-provoking subject which I’ve thought about (mostly wondered about) many, many times. It seems to me that in general, “rules” (or the interpretation thereof) in any religion are what sends many “believers” packing. From reading today’s post & replies, I wish that other “mainstream” religions would adopt an “ordnung” (non-written “guidelines”) and give serious believers/followers of each religion more leeway in their own interpretation of such. As someone who grew up Roman Catholic, I learned (right or wrong–this was in the 1950’s-’60’s) that as a 12-year-old (meaning I’d reached the point of knowing right from wrong), I could end up in Hell if I were to die in a “state of mortal sin” before I could confess it to a priest, receive penance and absolution, thus restoring the state of my soul to a “clean slate.” That seemed wrong to me, deep within my heart. Rather than remain in my childhood “faith” and feel like a hypocrite, I left.

      That’s why my “relationship” with my idea of God remains without a label, which many people just refuse to consider as a valid form of spirituality/religious belief. So be it, aka, “Amen.”

      Alice Mary

      1. Sandra Kathleen

        Alice Mary — I get it! Amen! 🙂



        What suprises me is most ORDNUNG could or should be Biblicaly defined. And what surprises me is when these RULES are made they should be according to what is written in the bible. Gods bible was written to encourage us to follow Him and His Son Jesus Christ. Love and forgiveness are the nature of them. NONE of us are sinless except JESUS. YET HE had to die so we could have forgiveness and have a personnal relationship with HIM. He forgives us our sins if we ask him to. NO CHURCH CAN GET YOU TO HEAVEN. Therefore Ordnung must be if it is what is taught in the bible.If they are man made rules and you try to make them rules to excommunicate some one, I have a problem excepting that.Gods word stands alone.GOD IS LOVE.ONLY His love can overcome. My dealings with the Amish have always been great. I only remember once I bought Honey on honey farm. As I walked in was a beautiful child and I said to her Your really a beautiful child, The mother snorted at me we dont tell our childern that.I said to her she should be glad to have such a beautiful child. A CHILD IS A GIFT FROM GOD. Went back many times after that and they said they had appreciated what I told them.

    5. I think it is easy for non-Amish people to be judgemental of the Amish. I also think it is important that others remember that these people are human and doing the thing they know and getting it right or wrong as they live their lives. Most important to most Amish, after their belief in God and the Son, is that whatever they do conserve the community and church. Some things are not going to be possible to conserve as a way of life because they will become unavailable. If cell phones don’t break apart their ability to be a part of the church then they will be accepted.

    6. Ed from NY

      The Amish explanation makes sense to me. Often, with a written document, the first thing people do is look for loopholes. The assumption seems that one can make up their own mind about anything not specifically proscribed. Witness the ever-complex tax laws we have due to this situation, or almost any set of government regulations for that matter. Written regulations get very long, very quickly, because there are so many variations and different types of situations that must be covered.

      When the ordnung is unwritten, by its nature it must be thoroughly discussed and understood by all. There’s a ton of implicit understanding that goes into the ordnung. People focus on obeying the “spirit” of the rules, rather than the “letter” of the rules.

      Of course this is all predicate on a congregation with a stable size and where everyone basically knows everyone else. Few outsiders coming in who might challenge the rules, and a small enough group that everyone can agree (and mutually enforce) the rules.

      1. Ed, you make a good point which elaborates on why written guidelines may be worse. The unwritten also puts more good faith in the members of the organization to understand and stick to the spirit of the law.

    7. Slightly-Handled-Order-Man

      Ordnug, rules, strictness, and a nod to the "Join" replies

      In “So you want to join the Amish” I commented to great extent that an Ordnug was at least partially biblically inspired, particularly on published and well known subjects as “The 10 Commandments” of Moses and “The Law” [the Sermon on the Mount, specifically] of Jesus, and that if a seeker of any age wanted to follow rules from The Bible verses from Exodus and Matthew would be good ground rules on how to start of on how to be a little more Amish.

      As noted, Ordnugs of today originated from one, lets say, agreed to 400 years ago, but I wonder how fundamentally the same guidelines conservative Amish people today, semi-broadly, use compared to one or the disciplines of the guidelines adhered, espoused, to by apparently strict (and some would argue harsh) leaders like Jacob Ammann, or, we could ask this differently, would Mr. Ammann recognize the rules and strictness of his followers’ descendents today.

      Either the scholarly experts or the neck deep Amish friend of Erik’s commented suggested that a written Ordnug would cause dispute and allow for people to seek loopholes in the rules, but this is one of the myriad of fascinating things regarding the Amish, I think, today’s Amish faith communities came in place as they stand currently because of dispute and disagreement, in fact Anabaptism as a broad grouping came about in exactly the same way.

      And then there are the Confessions…, their essentially biblically rooted “statement of faith” which are often cited (at least online)

      Great article Erik!

    8. Don Curtis


      I asked my son, Mark, about the Ordnung at Belle Center. He told me that the Belle Center Ordnung is written out and is read out twice a year when they have Ordnungs Gmay (Ordnungs Service). However, the Ordnung doesn’t contain all of the rules of the Church. Some of them are unwritten and you just kind of have to pick up as you go along. For example, Mark was at shoe store with some Amish friends and picked out a pair of shoes with Velcro straps instead of laces. He was quickly advised that shoes like that weren’t allowed. Shoes had to be mostly black and had to lace up. Also, Mark said that the Ordnung can change to allow something. But, it can also change to forbid something that used to be allowed. For example, Mark told me that the “centrifugal spinners” used in some Amish homes in Belle Center used to be forbidden. Families that had gotten them had to put them away. Later minds changed and they were allowed. But, by the same token, Mark told me that little lawn tractors used to be allowed. They couldn’t be used to mow yards but just to pull little trailers and haul things. However, the Church became alarmed by how many were being used on the road, etc. and the witness they portrayed and later they were forbidden. Families that had them had to sell them and they are still forbidden.

      Mark has a copy of the Belle Center Ordnung. He said that I could type it in here. However, it is a whole page long and I’m not sure my 91 year old fingers could handle it.

      1. Slightly-Handled-Order-Man

        A written Ordnug

        Don Curtis,
        Do you have a scanner in your place, or do you know someone who does? Scanning the document and then emailing it to Erik so he could share it with us, sparing you the work of typing out the whole thing, would be easier (or at least have Erik type the thing out if it is hand-written), and it would give us readers and those interested in what an Ordnug would read like a chance to read such a document, not to mention creating a almost self writing blog entry for Erik to post, or maybe result in a “How To Lead A Godly Life” style series.

        It intrigues me that the Belle Centre community has such a document, a number of posts and replies have strongly noted that such a document is unusual.

        Thank you so much for being a great source of information and insight on behalf of your son and his community

        1. Would be glad to do that but also don’t want to put Don to any extra trouble. Another option is taking a photo/photos and emailing that in an attachment.

        2. Don Curtis


          Well, I don’t have a scanner. I’ll see what I can do about getting this copied and sent to Eric. Eric, I’m not sure I have your e-mail address anymore because I changed server companies and a lot of my stored e-mails got wiped out.

          1. Hi Don, just dropped you an email on this. But if it doesn’t work out maybe I’ll be able to pick it next time I’m in Ohio.

    9. Jim

      Thanks for taking the time to respond to my questions regarding the Ordnung and how it works. I find it fascinating. I can see how an oral Ordnung works to knit the community together with shared understandings. And the regular process of review both keeps it alive and allows for responses to new contingencies that come up.

      Thanks again,


      1. Gladly Jim, and I am glad you had a chance to see it. Just sorry it took a little while to get this posted.

    10. stephanie

      Our church has the Ordnung (or in English “standard”) written. We all habe a copy. I attend a Beachy A&M church and it is read twicw a year around counsel for communion. My friend (who is Old order also has her church Ordnung written as we compared our once. Hers was 2 pages long. Ours was 18 if you include backs of paper. Many things were jjust to be known to them so they were not spelled out but dress and youth matters were spelled out.

    11. Alex

      Admiration from a different corner

      As an individual with a free religious philosophy I express my admiration of the Amish. Please maintain your adherence to the Ordnung in the acceptable form that meets your needs. I would love to have a philosophical conversation with an Amish individual of standing, it’s just one of my interests. I have absolutely no desire to critizize this belief, just would like to learn and draw conclusions. I am a fluent German speaker and would very much be interested to get a feel for the variation from “then” to today in the language. Knowing the German language as well as other languages, it has become apparent to me that there are unspoken and “unwritten” meanings in the practice of these languages that only become evident in its intense use and historical backgroud. Case in point is that the word “Ordnung” has quite a bit more meaning to me in certain situations than can be gleaned from a dictionary and so it is to me with the Amish Ordnung. Many thanks to you who adhere to this philosophy as it is a strong statement for what this country stands for.