A Flaw in the Amish Heirarchy

© 2012 Reynold R. Kremer

The Amish claim an interesting history based on Jacob Ammann (1656-1730). Jacob was an Anabaptist minister (and likely a tailor by occupation), who proposed several changes within the Anabaptist society. Those changes included a doubling of the celebration of Holy Communion from one day per year to two, that everyone dress in plain clothes, without the adornment of buttons, (granted, buttons were just coming into vogue in those days and their prohibition was not completely ungrounded. ) the washing of feet prior to Holy Communion, and the shunning of individuals who were unrepentant of their sins.

Unfortunately the other Anabaptist ministers near to Ammann’s congregation were cool to his suggestions, so he excommunicated the lot of them. After having second thoughts, Amman reinstated them all and instead excommunicated himself. This remains a very sensitive incident in the Amish past since the namesake they follow was himself an excommunicated Anabaptist preacher.

Soon the followers of Jacob Ammann grew into a sizable group calling themselves the Amish people. Little is known about Ammann after that. No writings have been found and no grave marker has been located for the man after whom an entire church body has been named.

The Amish church today follows a hierarchical system of leaders. In general, each church district (that is church congregation) is led by a bishop (minister with full power or Voelliger-Diener) who is responsible for the major rites conducted within the church and is a powerful force in all decision making. Next come the ministers or preachers (Diener zum Buch or ministers of the book), usually two of them, who are responsible mainly for the preaching at the regularly scheduled home services or at neighboring church districts on off Sundays. At the bottom of the hierarchy serve the deacons, (ministers to the poor or Armen-Diener) who are responsible for the daily busy work within the congregation.

These men are chosen strictly by lot, an intriguing system by which names are drawn from hymnbooks placed on a table, however not too far adrift from many other church bodies who call a minister from a provided list. In each case, the final decision is always left up to the Lord. Certainly this system is in agreement with the Lord’s command to conduct the work of the church in a decent and orderly way. God does not wish for his Church to become a disorganized confusion of leaders and followers. The Amish are careful to follow their policies to the letter.

Yet after all the meticulous striving for orderliness within the Amish church there seems to be a major flaw that was never intended. The simplicity of the Amish bureaucracy which includes no synods, headquarters, councils, conferences, boards or committees that rise above the local church district can often cause major problems. The local Amish bishop enjoys his status at the top of the triangle. Above him there is no power, advisors, or board that can question his decisions. As a result, the bishop enjoys complete freedom to exercise his will knowing that he is infallible. Like the pope, his word carries absolute power, and no one dares speak against him for fear that they will meet with his displeasure.

In districts where the bishop is a sincere and loving Christian man who has the interests of each member at heart, there is little problem. However, in districts where the bishop wields his power like a dictator, members shrink into obscurity lest they come under his wrath and, God forbid, his excommunication.

It is well known among the Amish where those dictatorial bishops reside. One in particular has been known to send his members to a counseling center in a neighboring state simply because they disagree with him. He carefully wields his power among his members with threats of sending them away, tearing apart their families, or even shunning. On the surface this may sound like a bombastic threat, yet to the Amish who live their lives in constant fear of being shunned (that means declared destined for hell) this means a lot. Some innocent Amish have felt this burden to the point of having mental breakdowns or thoughts of suicide, all due to the evil power wielded by the bishop. And to compound the problem, this process can take many years in developing as the individual is slowly worn down until he or she lives every day in constant fear.

Not only are such power hungry individuals using God’s name to lie and deceive, they have also lost all touch with the Gospel message of love and forgiveness. Terms such as cult and dictator are indeed fitting for such people. Yet, because church district lines are drawn geographically, members have no recourse but to grin and bear it or pack up and move.

Here lies the Amish flaw. Such dictators are completely untouchable. There is no church synod, hierarchy, or council that supersedes his power or that can call his actions into question. (There is a system in place whereby they invite three bishops from other districts called “strange faces”. These men can study a situation and give counsel or even silence the offending bishop.) For the most part, however, he is completely untouchable. He still holds the final say in all things. How sad that such a despot can work his evil among God’s flock and go unchecked–for life!

What is the purpose of the leaders in the church? God laid it out well in Ephesians 4:11,12: “He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” In any Christian church, the leaders and called servants are to hold in highest regard the uplifting of their members; the strengthening of their flock; the encouragement of the wayward sinner; the healing of the troubled heart. Never must such an office be used for vengeful power seekers. A true bishop of souls will always strive to serve and save those under his care (1 Timothy 4:15).