Amish Church Rules: How the Ordnung Guides Daily Life

What happens when Amish break church rules?

amish ordnungThe 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.

amish solar technology
The Ordnung determines what technologies are acceptable

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.

Church Rules: 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
  • divorce

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
  • hairstyle
  • marriage between baptized members only
  • carriage design
amish ordnung hats
Amish dress customs vary among groups

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.

amish shunning ordnung
The Ordnung has been likened to a fence

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.

Breaking Church Rules: What happens?

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.

ordnung amish community
Amish feel adherence to the Ordnung helps build community

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

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    36 Comments

    1. Cleone

      do all Amish follow these rules…i have known some that use the internet a lot

      1. tom

        If their family is following the Ordnung then they would not have electricity, nor (obviously) a computer with internet service. The ones that you say have internet, would be Amish who left the community to go it alone.

      2. Lauren

        Amish Ordnung

        Some of the Amish are allowed to use computers for their job not for personal use.

    2. Hi Cleone, Ordnung can vary quite a bit between congregations. Some Amish do use the internet, for example in a non-Amish workplace or by accessing it over a mobile phone.

    3. Wendy

      I believe some of the rules of the Ordnung. However, in some of it I read, for example divorce. They weren’t there, and they don’t know what happened in the marriage. Each divorce is different. Some divorces God does grant. If the person got divorced before getting baptized the divorce has been erased. Jesus is the only one who was born sinless. The Bible says the Judge is standing at the door, that we are not to judge. However, if we judge someone, than we will be judged twice as hard.

    4. Julie

      I recently was dating an Amish guy that had not joined church yet, and drives a car and has a cell phone. We dated for a bit, then he found out I had been divorced years ago…short term marriage. When he confronted his dad about it, his dad made us break it off, and threatened him if he see’s me again they will shun him. He is an adult, and should be able to make his own choices. His father was going to take away his job & family just because of me. Finally we separated because I didn’t want any trouble within his family life. Now we both agonize daily about it because we wanted to marry. We don’t know what to do.

    5. Alice Aber

      Julie, I feel so bad for you. You and your Amish man are in quite a situation. The bottom line is he will have to choose between you and his family from the sounds of things. That is not an easy choice to make for him. The bible says to honor your mother and your father. The Amish are very strict when it comes to divorce.

      With him not being baptized yet it would be easier for him to leave the Amish. However, his family could choose to shun him anyway.

      The only thing I can suggest is you both take time to pray about it and ask God to lead you both. I don’t know if it would do any good for you to talk to his parents openly and honestly about your previous marriage and how you feel now about marriage, church and God. Only you and he would know that. But maybe it is something to think about?

      I wish you the best and pray God guides you in this.
      Blessings, Alice

      1. Daryl

        talk to his parents

        It will do no good to talk to his parents. The law against divorce and remarriage is not an ordnung ruling but a biblical ruling. Their marriage will never be accepted by any conservative Anabaptist group. The only way those two can get married is if her ex dies.

    6. Tracie

      Can I buy a copy of the Ordnung somewhere?

      Hi there – I have recently become fascinated with the Amish. I was wondering if it is possible to purchase a copy of the Ordnung just for personal study and learning. I have searched the internet and don’t seem to find anything. Thanks for any feedback or suggestions.

      On a personal note, I am a Christian and have a Mennonite family heritage (though not Mennonite myself), and grew up near a smaller (than others) Amish community. I’m surprised about the misconceptions I had about the motivation behind Amish lifestyle and am interested in learning more. I don’t think that theirs is the best and/or only way to live a complete life in Christ, but their ideas certainly make me think about my own life and attitudes and whether I am living up to my own calling. Fascinating stuff!

      1. John Powell

        Divorce

        I am confused sometimes because truth frequently is in the mind of the one who is consulted..I have been a less than committed Christian the last 40 years..I married a second time after a marred marriage and that marriage ended too in divorce..I believe now that as is it explained in the infalibile Word of God, I am not to marry again unless my two wives die…What do YOU think ?

        1. Lattice

          It doesn’t matter what I think.

          I can tell you what the Amish Church, conservative protestant churches, and (I think) the Catholic Church believes the Bible teaches on this subject.

          God intended “One husband, one wife… for life.”

          Although there were Laws which dictated how divorces should be handled, Jesus essentially said that it was not in God’s plan for divorce to ever take place, and because of that, if a divorced person remarries, or if a single person marries a divorced person, both are committing adultery.

          So in essence, according to this understanding, a divorced person is not free to remarry unless his former spouse is no longer living.

          People come up with a million and one reasons as to why their particular circumstance is an exception to this “rule.” I cannot be the judge of that. It’s between them and God.

          Many say that they were not yet Christians when they were first married/divorced. Many say that their partner was abusive. Some claim their spouse was an adulterer/adulteress. There are many seemingly “good” reasons.

          I cannot say, and it wouldn’t matter what I said anyway. Our particular church stands by the notion that, if after remaining steadfast in prayer and after forgiving “70 times 7,” it is sad, but acceptable to separate from your spouse. Not to divorce.

          This topic has a tendency to make many people defensive and angry.

        2. Daryl

          Hi John
          Sorry to hear of your trials in what must have been painful and unpleasant life experiences, may you find comfort and strength in the Lord. Biblically, in answer to your query, you only have to wait for your first wife to pass on, or reunite with her if that would be possible. Your second wife was a forbidden marriage and thus she does not count as a legal wife biblically and you are not bound by her.

        3. Gary

          divorce

          Modern society, stress married couples, until the divorce.
          This guarantees to lawyers, judges, psychologists, lots of money and many customers.
          The state does not want the family together. A disintegrated family, is easy to control!
          Also a broken family, will have greater costs: two houses, two cars, double taxes, food allowance, etc. etc.

    7. Written Ordnung?

      Hi Tracie, the Ordnung is almost always not a written document. It is reviewed orally twice per year at special services. It also varies among the many different church districts, with different technology and dress standards, for example, among other things. Also, as mentioned above, it can change and does over time.

      The book The Riddle of Amish Culture by Donald Kraybill has good info on the nature of the Ordnung.

    8. Tracie

      Thanks1

      Erik – thanks! I appreciate the information.

      1. Brittney

        Written Ordnung

        I realize that your this comment was written awhile ago, but I figured that I would post this site anyways. Regarding a written version of the Ordnung, I found http://www.mcusa-archives.org/library/resolutions/amishdisciplines1568-1865.html to be particularly helpful. It doesn’t contain modern additions/changes, and it does not provide specifics for each community; however, it does provide the original guidelines/ordinances the Anabapist (and therefor the Amish and Mennonites) used as well as accepted modifications to them on a broad scale.

        1. Thanks for this Brittney. Daviess County, Indiana had a written Ordnung at one time. It can occasionally happen but uncommon.

    9. Rachel

      Thanks!

      This is so fascinating!
      I am a modern-orthodox Jew, and there seem to be a lot of similarities between the way our legal system that dictates behavior functions, and the Ordung.

      I know that you said that many don’t own telephones, but is there someone who I could talk to about this? I find it really interesting how people deal with the tension between tradition and innovation, and the attitudes surrounding this. I would love to learn more!

      Thanks so much!!

      1. Daryl

        I will

        Hi Rachel
        I would be most interested to speak with you on this subject as I have experience with both Yiddishkeit and Fromkeit.
        You can contact me at daryl.hartwell@gmail.com.

    10. tiffany rangier

      long talk

      I am sorry for that long reply about ordnung and divorce.

    11. tiffany rangier

      well now i am trying to retreat from kansas to kentucky,currently in marion illinois.could someone from church pick me up?i will be at a local church hopefully soon and have minutes on my phone 7854089304.I can work

    12. tiffany rangier

      ?

      yes relocating here to marion illinois and heading to pudicha ky brought many challenges.but with the precious name of jesus i should make it their.

    13. tiffany rangier

      odrung

      when i can print this i can read it more,some one explain better…is it about examples of our abdmonition?(I dont know if I am spelling that correctly)

    14. tiffany rangier

      odrung

      sorry,also practicing charity and compassion is a stong part of omish and mennonite?

    15. Arturo guluniping

      During this discussion thread on “Ordung” and
      The subject of divorce; I find that Erik is more
      Helpful than Daryl. It seems to me you have
      A motive Daryl- it is to say something is wrong?
      I know the Ordung very well myself and speak
      fluent old German “Spreaken Sie Gross’ ok here
      is my take on divorce- The Amish & Mennonite
      Communities I always known and biblically speaking
      on what I believe is Divorce is not acceptable meaning
      Divorce same as Amish and Mennonite say this:
      Jesus wants us to be saved, if you divorce yes you
      Must wait for that spouse to die first before Jesus
      Can bring 2 people together, Notice I said bring 2 people
      Together as one! This is how Amish & Mennonite
      Believe because it’s a unity that no man can put asunder!
      This is part of all Ordung, yes as Erik have said
      Different churches have different things they can
      Change from time to time depending on the community?
      May you come to be saved through Him!
      Blessings!
      Auf Weidersen!

    16. Jim

      Remembering the Ordnung?

      Hi Erik:

      First, I appreciate all the work you do on this site. Exploring it has been hugely helpful for me. A question: 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?

      Thanks,

      Jim

      1. Don Kosky

        The unwritten written word

        I am confused about how the Ordnung is the unwritten word,but it is in a book for reference or teaching purposes.

        1. Mark -- Holmes Co.

          The Ordnung is usually unwritten, but there are a few groups or communities where it has been written. Apparently someone got a hold of such a copy and printed it.

    17. Joseph Kretschmer

      Having lived around the Amish all my life, I can say they are to be admired in their self sufficiency and simple life style. They are honest, hard working, and clean. The only thing I would say is that they are in error on some things because of their private interpretation of Scripture which actually causes them to misinterpret many things. Scripture itself says there are many things in it that are difficult to understand and that take an authority to interpret correctly. Jesus founded only one Church, and that is the Catholic Church. We can see throughout history that this Church has been attacked both from within and from without and yet it still exists like the lamp on top of the table. Hopefully many Amish will look into these things and take to the integral Catholic Faith and adapt their lives yet keep those things that are good. God bless.

      1. Harold Metz

        Catholic church founding?

        Jesus did not found the Catholic Church. In fact it has so many things that disagree with the biblical scriptures. Protestant churches follow scripture much more closely. Martin Luther nailed his 95 thesis on the door naming the things that were not biblical for Catholics.

    18. faolan

      Divorce

      The Protestant faith Does allow divorce, which was one of the reasons Henry VIII based the Church of England on it’s tenets.
      It is wrong to expect an unhappy, abusive marriage to continue, or where trust has been completely destroyed by adultery. Not only is it cruel to the couple, but to any children they may have, to live in such an atmosphere.
      I was under the impression that the Abrahamic god allows free will, where is free will, when church elders are allowed to dictate what people may or may not do, and how they live their lives?.

    19. Publish date

      Hej Erik! I am writing an essay about Amish, and I have used many of your articles. To make my bibliography I need a publication date. I’m gonna write this on many of your posts btw.

      Kind regards, Anna Sofie Denmark

      1. Hi Anna, thanks for checking. The original publish date for this article is August 23, 2010.

        Please just send me a list of the articles’ dates that you need, rather than posting the same message on them. Thanks!

    20. Max

      I’ve noticed the old rules of the Amish: no telephones, powerline electricity, or motor transport, the extra rules like no radios, cameras, televisions or computers came later, but to follow Old Order Amish just the above 3 are shunned, thus some Amish are using anything battery-operated. These people are technophobes and I don’t agree with it, as a Puritan I can use all these technologies. The Amish faith is a bit hard on people and I don’t want to live like that.

    21. What is the Amish Ordnung?

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    22. Teresa Loman

      Thank you

      Thank you.

      This answered a lot of questions I never had the courage or/and time to ask when where were in Madisonburg PA.