The Ordnung: Rules But Not Sins

© 2012 Reynold R. Kremer

In the 1700’s the Anabaptist believers began to create rules within each congregation called the Ordnung, a German term that means order or discipline. This practice has survived to the present day especially among the Amish people. Today each Amish church district (congregation) boasts its own set of Ordnung rules. Although remaining unwritten, these rules are taught to Amish of every age beginning with the very young. Twice each year these rules are reviewed (at communion time) where they can be altered to add or subtract as necessary. The Ordnung is not necessarily considered the law of God, but rather a list of guidelines for daily living. They give each church its distinctive character. The Amish people feel it reflects God’s orderliness which stands in stark contrast with the disorderliness of the world.

The purpose of the Ordnung is simple. The Amish believe that without a detailed set of rules, over time the church will lose its identity. These rules govern everything that would threaten their existence such as style of clothing, family life, worship, and education. When a young Amish man or woman is baptized, he or she promises never to forsake the Ordnung. If they do, they will be excommunicated. One Amish woman said, “The Ordnung is not meant to tell us what to do, just what we are not to do.”

Ordnung rules vary from state to state, settlement to settlement, and district to district. Basically, there are two types of regulations: those that were written years ago in the confessions and regulations, and those that guide members in everyday areas of Amish life and are designed to bring about a feeling of oneness.

Some rules are universal, such as no public electricity, no central heating, no telephones in the home, no automobiles, no scissors or razor to touch a woman’s body, no mustaches for men and no education beyond the eighth grade. However on top of these universal rules one will find the details added by each district, including the width of a man’s hat brim, the number of pleats in a woman’s starched prayer cap, the color of paint to use in upstairs bedrooms, the wearing of only high top shoes, no part singing in church, no pictures hung in the homes, no carpeting, no use of milkers in the barn, and only single bottom plows. Within less than a mile, one district of Amish may be allowed to use milkers and have a phone shanty at the end of the driveway while the next district is forbidden all of those things. Some Amish congregations seem quite liberal in their rules, allowing Sunday school, pictures on the walls, and more modern conveniences while others like the Schwartzentruber’s are far more conservative.

All areas of the Ordnung, although discussed and voted upon twice yearly by every baptized member, are really under the direct supervision of the bishop. If there are dissenters against the bishop’s will, he may take them in a back room and try to “convince” them to vote otherwise. If a bishop has only his own power and authority at heart, he will oppress his congregation and force them to follow his wishes no matter how much it hurts his members. Such is the case in one northern Indiana Amish distrist where the bishop has consistently threatened his members with sever consequences if they should ever usurp his authority. If, on the other hand, a district has an evangelical and loving bishop who cares for his members, he will fashion the Ordnung to serve the purposes of the congregation as a whole as well as the welfare of the individual membership.

The Ordnung may well be a blueprint of expected behavior designed to maintain the Amish traditions that hold an Amish community together, however over the years it has become a millstone hung around the necks of many Amish people. A certain Amish woman who was once very active on her community decided to leave the Amish church. Of course, she was banned and excommunicated from her church district. When I spoke with her and asked the most difficult changes she had to make in crossing over to become an “English” person, she said the most troubling times were differentiating between which laws were God’s laws and which were man-made Ordnung rules. She felt the guilt of sin when looking at a colorful dress in a department store. She felt the guilt of sin when going to see a movie in a theater. She felt guilty when she listened to instrumental music. She felt that same guilt when she removed her prayer cap for the last time. Each of these actions was considered sinful in her former life as an Amish, yet none of them were ever condemned in Scripture.

Therein lies the problem! Where once the Ordnung served as a set of rules to follow for the purpose of maintaining identity, those rules have now taken on the very same significance as the Law of God instituted on Mt. Sinai. God wrote upon his tablets of stone that it is a sin to take his name in vain, to hate or kill, to commit adultery, to bear false witness, to disrespect mother or father, to take God’s name in vain, and to steal or covet. This was God’s moral law that he gave to all people. To go against God’s Law is nothing short of a sin. Yet over the years the Amish have placed their Ordnung on the same level as God’s law. To them, wearing a wrong size hat brim, driving a car, listening to the sweet sound of a violin, studying Scripture, enjoying higher education, parting one’s hair in the middle, installing a phone in the house, or having air filled tires is also considered sin, and even more-so, a sin that would cause one to be shunned and pronounced damned.

It is difficult to find when this transition began and the Amish started to intertwine man-made rules with God’s rules. But it is a fact that most Amish have no idea whatsoever which Laws God established and which were added by mortal men who wanted to control the lives of their members. Scripture says that dancing is a sin, if it causes me go against God’s commandments. Music is a sin, if it causes me to sin against God’s commandments. My clothing is sinful, if it causes others or myself break God’s commandments. Notice that each of these cases is viewed according to the light of God’s law, never man-made rules.

Beverly Lewis, acclaimed author of many best-selling books on the Amish, once wrote that the Amish are “steeped in 300 years of tradition-doing things the same way, adhering to the bishop’s rulings, and, in many cases—if those expectations are ignored—then being excommunicated and shunned from family, friends, and the church community.”

Many Amish lives have become so clouded with the Ordnung rules that they have lost sight of the glorious light of the Gospel. In a way they have traded away “the one thing needful” for a list of rules that will keep the community together at any cost. Is it any wonder that there are so many Amish today who are starving for the true Gospel of Jesus Christ when all they see around them is a church built upon work righteousness and founded upon threats of hell and damnation? Why? Because they didn’t wear the right style of suspenders, they sang in four part harmony, or they cut their hair the wrong way!