Shunning: Why do the Amish do it?

Shunning is another term for church discipline. It is a religious practice fundamental to Amish identity. In healthy situations, the practice of shunning helps hold the Amish church together.

Amish woman walking alone in a bleak field

Shunning is often seen as harsh by outsiders. It is also often misunderstood by non-Amish – as well as some Amish themselves.

  1. What is Shunning?
  2. Biblical basis for Shunning
  3. An Amishman explains the purpose of Shunning
  4. When does Shunning happen?
  5. How long does Shunning last?
  6. Different approaches to Shunning
  7. Criticisms of Shunning
  8. Common Questions about Shunning

What is shunning?

Social shunning (also known as Meidung) occurs when an individual has violated Amish church rules (also known as the Ordnung) and has been excommunicated from the Amish church (also know as being in the Bann).

Shunning is a form of social avoidance, or changed public social behavior. It is an alteration of behavior towards an individual who has willfully violated rules of the church.

Two Amish men in blue shirts and vests talking
Shunning affects how Amish people interact with an excommunicated church member. Photo: Don Burke

Shunning may take the form of eating meals separately, not doing business with a person, not accepting gifts or rides from a shunned individual, and generally excluding a person from church community activities.

In healthy situations, Amish will still converse with an individual in the Bann, and will offer assistance if needed. But for all intents and purposes, that individual, through his own choice, is considered outside the flock.

Not all churches or individuals necessarily approach shunning in the same way. More on that below.

Why do Amish practice shunning? The Biblical Basis

Amish practice shunning as a means of enforcing an individual’s commitment to God, made along with the Amish congregation. Amish see a Biblical basis for shunning.

Passages often cited in support of shunning include:

  • Matthew 18
  • 2 Thessalonians 3:14“And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed”
  • 1 Timothy 5…”Lay hands suddenly on no man, neither be partaker of other men’s sins: keep thyself pure”…
  • 2 Corinthians 13:10“Therefore I write these things being absent, lest being present I should use sharpness, according to the power which the Lord hath given me to edification, and not to destruction”
  • and numerous others.
Cover of an English-German language Bible
Amish base the practice of shunning on numerous Biblical passages

Amish practice shunning out of “tough love” in order to get a deviant person to see the error in his ways, change behavior, and re-affirm his commitment to the church. Without rules and shunning, the integrity of the Amish church would rapidly disintegrate.

An Amish Person Explains: What is the purpose of shunning?

One Amishman explains the purpose of shunning:

“Shunning” as practiced today could perhaps be best described 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. Notice I said “with” as opposed to “to”.

It is also a statement that the rest of the flock has no intention of leaving the fold and that it takes its commitment to the Lord and each other seriously. But most of all it is done so the soul of the deviant may be saved on the day of Judgement.

As this Amishman explains, shunning is done out of concern for the “deviant” member. Shunning is also done to protect the body of the church. Shunning in some ways is a fence that keeps the wolves away from the flock.

Multiple Amish buggies traveling down a road on a sunny afternoon
Amish church members affirm church rules twice yearly at special services. Photo: Jim Halverson

Amish often point out that an individual can’t “sit on the fence”. Were the Amish to accept any practice or belief that came along, the body of the church would be in danger of being corrupted and members led astray spiritually. Membership in the Amish church would be meaningless.

Another way to think of it is that all groups of any value, whether they are religious, social, or other, have rules and standards that members are expected to adhere to. Without a commitment to the group, shown in par through adherence to agreed-upon standards, “membership” loses meaning. Any group that one can enter and leave as one pleases, with little to nothing required of individuals, rapidly diminishes in value.

When does shunning happen?

In a healthy church, Amish place an individual in the Bann, and employ shunning, as a last resort. Typically, church leadership will first visit an individual to discuss the issue at hand, often a violation of the Ordnung, such as use or ownership of a forbidden technology, or otherwise universally recognized sinful behavior.

The aim is to bring about a change of heart and get the individual to cease his errant behavior. In some cases, such efforts are effective. The individual will either make a confession to the bishop, or in front of the church itself, and be placed in a temporary (usually lasting a few weeks, can be as many as six weeks) period of excommunication.  After this period, all is restored, and the deviant behavior forgiven and forgotten.

Amish man in a pony cart hauling a solar panel
Use of unsanctioned technology can bring about discipline from the church. Photo: Don Burke

But if an individual deliberately flaunts church rules, refuses to change behavior, to “put away” a forbidden technology, or otherwise continues down a sinful path without regret and attempt to change, the bishop will move to excommunicate him or her (also known as being in the Bann).

Amish researchers Hurst and McConnell note that in the Holmes County community, even those who refuse to confess will receive a “grace period” of six to twelve months during which members attempt to persuade the disobedient member to change behavior. Later, there is a vote by the members on excommunication, which must be unanimous (An Amish Paradox, Hurst and McConnell).

As alluded to above, excommunication is done as a last resort and with much remorse on the part of the church body. As the Amishman, himself twice placed in the Bann, explains, “shunning is usually done with great reluctance and only once there is nothing else left to do”.

How long does shunning last?

As described above, Amish may be placed in the Bann temporarily for minor transgressions for which they show remorse and ask forgiveness.  Otherwise, excommunication is for life.

At the same time, the Amish always allow the possibility of return, confession, and reinstatement into the church.  Though this is not too common once an individual leaves, when it does happen, it is cause for much joy in a church.  “Upon repentance the relationship is restored and what is in the past stays in the past,” notes the Amishman.

Different approaches to shunning

Different Amish groups take different approaches to shunning. There remains disagreement among Amish today as to how shunning should be applied, echoing the original issue which led Jakob Amman to break away from the Mennonites and form the Amish branch in the late 17th century.

1. “Strict” Shunning

Some Amish, such as those in Lancaster County, and in more conservative affiliations, follow what is called strong or strict shunning, aka streng Meidung. In this form of shunning, an individual will be subject to Meidung for life, unless he or she returns to an Amish church (in some cases, his original church) and makes a confession.

Side view mirror showing Amish woman in brown buggy at a stop
More conservative Amish are among those who follow strict shunning. New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. Photo: Don Burke

2. “Milder” Shunning

In the milder form of shunning, practiced by numerous Amish communities in the Midwest, the Bann will be lifted if the individual joins a related Anabaptist-umbrella church, such as a Beachy Amish or more progressive Mennonite church (as often happens with individuals who leave the Amish).

Individual Amish may vary in their approach to shunning as well. Amish-born scholar John A. Hostetler notes that some Amish dislike the practice of shunning, and may only perform it symbolically.

Hostetler provides a story to illustrate:

“One mother prepared two separate tables, placed them within several inches of each other, and covered both with one large tablecloth. Each table had separate benches. The children and the excommunicated ate at one table and the members at the other. Only the adults knew what had transpired.”

Which other religious groups practice shunning?

As shunning is a concept with Biblical basis, other groups have practiced it in the past. Some still do so today.

The Catholic Church excommunicates members, though social avoidance is not practiced. Other Anabaptist groups, (particularly Plain churches) such as Mennonites and Hutterites, also practice forms of shunning.

Shunning is seen in some other Christian groups including Jehovah’s Witnesses. There is a history of shunning in Judaism as well, though the practice has largely ceased.

Criticisms of shunning

Shunning is a controversial practice. It is often seen as harsh by outsiders. Many people don’t agree with the practice of shunning. And in fact, conflict over shunning was one of the reasons Amish Christianity came about.

There are several main criticisms of shunning. They include:

  1. Using church discipline to handle serious criminal offenses
  2. Taking shunning to extremes
  3. Focusing more on following Amish church rules than on Christ’s teachings

1. Shunning instead of reporting to police

One serious criticism of Amish groups is for using internal church discipline to handle infractions that are in fact serious violations of the law.

In 2009 Amish in Missouri drew criticism and faced charges for failing report child abuse in their community. At the same time, not all Amish would take this approach, and do report actual crimes when they occur.

2. Taking shunning to extremes

Another criticism is that individuals involved may make the human mistake of taking things too far. In some cases, Amish bishops may wield church authority in a heavy-handed or overly authoritarian manner.

When ministerial authority is exploited, such criticisms can very well be justified. As bishops are subject to human weaknesses, it is true that sometimes church discipline may be taken to an extreme.

Two Amish women walking down and asphalt road
Amish feel that shunning, when applied in a spirit of love, strengthens community. Photo: Cindy Seigle

3. Focusing on church rules over Christ’s teachings

Some also accuse Amish of being overly legalistic in their application of shunning and missing the point of Scripture. These critics accuse the Amish of being a “rules-based” church, and believing that following Amish church rules is enough to gain salvation.

Shunning is controversial, yet serves a purpose

Despite the criticisms, Amish maintain that shunning is meant to be done out of love. It’s a system operated by humans, so by definition will be imperfect, and subject to human error.

At the same time, shunning is a key element upholding the integrity and fabric of Amish life. When done in a spirit of love, church discipline is a mechanism which helps undergird a strong community based on Christian principles.


Questions about the Amish & Shunning

  1. What is the Bann?
  2. What is shunning?
  3. What is the Ordnung?
  4. Why and how are Amish excommunicated?
  5. Why do the Amish practice shunning?
  6. Who decides whether an Amish church member should be excommunicated?
  7. Who can be shunned?
  8. Are there different types of shunning?
  9. Can ex-Amish return to the church?
  10. Are the Amish the only religious group that practices shunning?
  11. Isn’t shunning cruel?

1. What is the Bann

Being in the Bann is how the Amish describe being excommunicated from the church. The Bann may be temporary or permanent (to the extent that it lasts until the excommunicated member reconciles with the church).

2. What is shunning? 

Shunning, or Meidung in Amish parlance, refers to the practice of social exclusion and discipline. Shunning happens following excommunication of a church member for thwarting church regulations or other transgressions.

Amish base this practice upon numerous passages from Scripture, including 2 Thessalonians 3:14 (“And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed”).

An Amish family walking down a gravel road in Sunday best clothes
Shunning is intended to encourage the excommunicated to return to the church. Photo: Jim Halverson

In practice this means a change in social behavior towards the individual in the Bann (in other words, an excommunicated member). Amish can still speak with and offer aid to a member in the Bann, but do not accept any form of assistance, nor eat together in certain situations, nor conduct business with the excommunicated member.

Shunning is meant to be implemented as a final resort after other entreaties have failed. It is performed as a reminder of the altered relationship due to the transgression, and is intended to encourage an errant member to change behavior and return to the fold.

3. What is the Ordnung

Mutually agreed-upon church rules and guidelines for daily living, the Ordnung covers sanctioned and disallowed technologies, style of dress, and other matters. The Ordnung varies across churches and communities, sometimes significantly. It is reviewed and reaffirmed by each individual congregation twice yearly during the Council meeting which precedes Communion.

4. Why are Amish people excommunicated?

Church members may be excommunicated, or placed in the Bann, for exhibiting sinful behavior, owning, using, and refusing to stop using forbidden technology, or other violations of the Ordnung (the communally-agreed church rules and guidelines for daily living).

Excommunication usually happens as a last resort, after other methods of convincing a member to change his or her ways have failed. There must be a unanimous vote from the congregation for an individual to be excommunicated.

5. Why do the Amish practice shunning? 

Amish derive this practice from their close adherence to principles laid out in the Bible. Amish feel that shunning helps preserve the integrity of the church and protects faithful members from “bad sheep” who might disrupt unity and lead others away from their commitment.

6. Does the Amish bishop decide who should be shunned?

Excommunication and shunning are decided via a vote of the congregation. The vote to excommunicate must be unanimous. It should not be a unilateral decision, though of course the bishop and other leaders can wield an influence. The bishop has the power to raise the issue of Ordnung violations and excommunication for the congregation to vote upon.

Excommunication is usually seen as a step of last resort, after personal meetings with leadership and other church members have borne no fruit. In dysfunctional churches it may be invoked for the wrong reasons, including personal motives.

7. Who can be shunned?

Shunning only applies to baptized church members. Though the term is sometimes used loosely, it does not apply to unbaptized members or non-Amish people.

8. Are there different types of shunning?

Yes. In fact there is a division between churches who practice streng Meidung (strong or strict shunning) versus those who follow a milder approach to shunning. Adherents of streng Meidung maintain the Bann until an errant member confesses and returns to the Amish church (his home church).

Amish families on a long asphalt road
Swiss Amish are among those who practice Streng Meidung (strong shunning). Adams County, Indiana.

Milder forms of shunning allow the Bann to be removed when the individual joins any other Amish church, or even a non-Amish church with Anabaptist roots and beliefs (often a more progressive Mennonite church). Adherents of strict shunning include Swiss Amish, Lancaster County Amish and their sister communities, and Swartzentruber Amish.

9. Can excommunicated Amish return to the church?

Yes. Though this happens infrequently, if a member shows a contrite heart and makes amends, he or she can and will be welcomed back into the church.

One Amishman says that when an errant member returns, “The parable of the lost sheep in Matt 18 is very descriptive.  Many tears are shed and there is a feeling of restoration.” There have even been examples when an excommunicated person returned to the Amish church in advanced age, after many years in the Bann.

10. Are Amish the only group that practices shunning?

. Some Mennonite groups as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the religious groups which practice forms of shunning, though the specific form it takes may vary.

11. Isn’t shunning cruel?

Shunning is sometimes depicted as cold and cruel. No doubt, if it is unjustly practiced, it can be those things. Especially if applied in a heavy-handed manner and without a sense of love and concern for the individual, shunning can create great pain and alienation for the excommunicated person. As imperfect humans are involved, the practice does not always meet the ideal or intention.

However it is also an understood and widely-accepted part of Amish life. When someone chooses to be baptized into the church, he or she is aware that their baptismal commitment means accepting the Ordnung and the consequences that entail if it is broken. While some may disagree with the practice, Amish see a Scriptural basis for excommunication and shunning.

For more info, see:

  • Kraybill, Donald B., Steven M. Nolt, and David Weaver-Zercher. The Amish Way: Patient Faith in a Perilous World. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.
  • 1001 Questions and Answers on the Christian life. Aylmer, ON: Pathway Publishers, 1992.
  • Wagler, Ira. Growing Up Amish: A Memoir. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2011.
  • Kraybill, Donald B., Karen Johnson-Weiner, and Steven M. Nolt. The Amish. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.
  • Amish Society, John A. Hostetler
  • An Amish Paradox: Diversity and Change in the World’s Largest Amish Community, Charles E. Hurst and David L. McConnell
  • Kraybill, Donald B. The Riddle of Amish Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

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    22 Comments

    1. iluvhanssolo

      I watched ” The Shunning” on HALLMARK channel. It was very sad. Does it have any truth in it? Can you really be shunned and still live in the same home as other Amish?

      1. Donnie Conklin

        Gods Law Only

        I believe according to the bible only God has the right to punish the sinners and is not given to man.

        1. Sheryll

          Shunning

          Shunning is org crimminal activity that members of org group are gathered together ….
          Judge someone accounce shunning to inflict spiritual death and human death upon them .
          It is illegal for street gangs and folks gathering claiming amenity to the law claiming they are a Church..
          No they a cult … an org gang cult …

    2. Spousal shunning

      Hans, it is true that you can live in the same home. Sometimes it occurs between spouses. Shunning is practiced differently in different Amish groups though. I have not seen the film though so cannot comment on the rest of it.

    3. Lynn

      Banning of Music??

      I’ve heard the Amish forbid any music. Not sure if this is just in church or at all times but I’d be interested in knowing this.

    4. Helen Curtis

      Swiss Amish joining the Old Order Amish

      Would a Swiss Amish person be shunned for marrying an old order person? Could a shunned Swiss Amish person be accepted into the old order church? And if so, how would this be accomplished?

    5. Sheyll

      Shunning

      Shunning is a practice done by folks whom believe they are God . This practice said it done in love does damage to folks being shunned and that’s what they want. They judge then punish when in the group .. while raising a family you have to be mature enough to teach your kids value, love and acceptance .. if you think your God..and want punish, and cast out into the pits of hell …then your not marmture enough to raise kids ..

    6. Sheyll

      Shunning

      What we do know now as a society regarding this primitive abuse done inside these compounds that make up thier own rules after isolating from birth from TV, radios, electric, and are educated according to the education level of the person elected to educate them and that is also filtered.
      So then they shunn and kick out their own that have been isolated and have no knowledge on how to survive in the world .. with limited education , social skills ..
      They then have thrown out on society …
      Uneducated folks and juveniles
      Contributing to homelessness,
      Poverty
      Mental health problems
      And crimminal problems
      It is irrisponsible on the folks that want to play God multiply and shun.

      1. TJ

        The Amish I do business with seem to be adequately educated. They are certainly better educated than some non-Amish people I deal with. Sheyll, your education seems to have neglected basic grammar and spelling.

        1. Sheryll

          shunning

          I’m sure you business with them.. matter of fact you sound very eager to point out the splinter in someone’s without seeing the log in your own.. you obviously are uneducated about the practice of shunning .. which cult were you shunned from??
          . I was shunned from the same type of cult.
          And don’t do business with them or contribute to thier funds .
          When shunning as I’m sure your well educated they judge kick them out and they aren’t allowed to do business with them.
          So I don’t contribute to thier businesses, funds, or anything .
          Your not well educated ..you must be thinking of well fed .

    7. Sandy

      This guy claims he dose business and claims to be educated?
      I question his reading ability .
      An eye for an eye
      Why would you do buisness with folks whom claim they are godly and practice shunning? One of the shunning rules is they don’t do buisness with the folks they have shunned.
      So since they have grouped together judged and sentenced them by shunning them.
      They just sinned and by thier own rules . Nobody should be doing buisness with them.
      The shunners become the shunned until they become godly .

      1. Will

        To Sandy/ Sheryll (you appear to be the same person)

        “This guy claims he dose business and claims to be educated?”

        Wow. You just lost all my sympathy. I can’t understand why a cult would shun you — you seem so rational and clearly well educated. Sheesh.

        Respond if you wish, but I won’t see it. I checked back on this site after not being on here for awhile. Now I am reminded why I took a hiatus.

        1. Sheryll

          Shunning .. the act of adult bullies

          Oh I get bullies … matter of fact I get the fact that organized crimminal bullling … and banning together in an org group to bully and harass and indv is against the law what county were born in??,
          See in America we have freedom of religion as long as religious group don’t organize .. assimble together and claim they want someone dead.. that they are an evil spirti and together I gage in org crime …

          People have freedom to choose which religion or form they wish .. without org groups coming after them or thier kids .
          I can tell your not from this county ?? And not well educated . Which county are you from?? Or which school were in charge of bulling at???
          We all learn in the Bible what Jesus taught .. and what he teach?? He broke up a group of folks that thought they were Godly and threw rocks at a women and wanted kill her .. and he break up???
          I leave you to read a study your bible and learn what to shun …like coffee ,, hate of people .. shunning hate thoughts … all the stuff thought as a responsible society ..
          Try to have a nice day!!? and remember god views all sin the same… we are all Gods Children not just who we pick and choose ….
          and it appears your an abusive controlling person!!!

          1. KF

            Coffee? Seriously? LOL!!!

          2. Garrettsville Ohio 44231 Tamara Cell 12417 Honeylocust Lane #80 Garrettsville Ohio 44231

            Shunning/Abuse

            I have to agree, Miss Shelly, that your attempt at the English language in writing is atrocious and lends Creedence to illiteracy! If you want to make a point, at least you spellcheck when you attempt to do so. As it stands, although I agree with what you say the way that you say it IS So poor that it actually makes you come across as anything but knowledgeable. Things are misspelled. Words are left out & to read your writing makes ME feel inept:( Reread before posting

    8. Sandy

      That reminds me Jesus came and fed the multitudes . He’s God son prince of prince and he fed the multitude.
      He didn’t say I’m the son of God and you folks aren’t following his ways I’m eating here and you all can’t eat with me.
      Throughout the Bible Jesus sat and ate. Walked with , was nailed on a cross next to a thief and told thief he would be with him in paradise .. he could have shunned him but he turned and spoke to him

      Folks make up and do thier own religious rules..from thier own educated inturputations from the Bible.
      And some really sad.

    9. Just Me

      1 Corinthians 5:5
      Matthew 18:15-17
      1 Corinthians 5:11
      Titus 3:10,11
      Matthew 18:15-17
      1 Corinthians 5:5,6
      2 Thess. 3:14,15

      I’d encourage you to read those verses Sandy and/ or Sheryll.

      1. Sheryll

        Shunning under which flag ?

        I’d in courage you to…
        Look up at the flags flying around in America were people volunteer for service to defend the right of freedom in America.
        That’s the right to leave a church .. cult or whatever you wanna call practices.:
        Without “volunteering” thier kids… which is Interference with child custody…
        Without volunteering property … which is theaft ..
        Or volunteering any thing or families..
        I would in courage to practice your volunteer shunning and crimminal acts on folks claiming it’s of God and here’s the verses to prove that God judges and we are God idea …
        Folks that criminally shun .. claiming were God … here’s the verse … God says this I interpret to mean this .. and I am God here’s another verse God says he’s going to this and I’m God here too..
        I really incourage you to volunteer looking up laws regarding illegal activites regarding shunning ..
        Read on and with humbleness that you aren’t God..
        Have a nice day…

    10. Sheryll

      Shunning

      Wait I forgot something .. shunning the act of adult criminal bullies assembled together to cause bodily harm and or death of another … have a nice day…

    11. Lawrence

      Shunning

      There is a big misconception here. Physical aggression has nothing to do with Amish shunning. The Amish are non resistant. They are not violent, but gentle people. In the Midwest, shunning is practically not. I have met 3 sisters visiting at an Amish home. Two were wearing dresses to the ankles and one was wearing blue jeans and had a mini van. The worst it gets is eating at seperate tables in the same kitchen. And if the individual has joined another approved church that is not deemed necessary also.

    12. Bob

      Generational shunning

      Does shunning go beyond the one individual? My dad was in PA as a sales rep and was talking with 2 Amish men. They recognized the last name, spoke with him, they went home that night, the next day and the remainder of the week, they would not speak with him. The general manager had to pass the conversation back and forth between my dad and the two Amish men. Supposedly, I think my great-great grandfather might have been Amish and left PA for the western states – IA, NE, etc. I would go to PA and ask but am afraid I might hit the same wall.

    13. Liz Nesbitt

      I Don't Agree

      I honestly don’t agree with shunning. I find it a very silly thing to do.