Before I moved to Smicksburg, Pennsylvania, I always assumed that Amish communities across the nation were all the same. Like most “English” Americans, I thought that the people who drove horse-drawn buggies all followed a uniform way of life. Once I relocated, however, into the heart of Pennsylvania’s third-largest Amish community, and in proximity to several other Amish communities, I began to realize there were differences that make just about every Amish community unique in some way. I learned that there was something called the “Ordnung,” that governed every aspect of Amish life, and that every community’s Ordnung is different. So there are actually hundreds of different Ordnungs among the Amish. Some are more conservative and some are more liberal.
As an example, I learned that it is OK for Smicksburg Amish, among whom I live, to ride in cars and even pay English drivers to drive them, but they are not permitted to own or drive cars. The Johnsonburg Amish, however, just 30 minutes away, are permitted to own vehicles, but they are not allowed to drive them. So they also hire English drivers.
I’ve asked Amish folks what the moral difference is between sitting on the right side and left side of the front seat of a car, but so far, no one has been able to give me an answer. I’ve also wondered how paying someone to do what would be a sin for me to do is any different than committing that sin myself. If I paid someone to murder my enemy and then said, “I would never commit murder,” everyone would know I was only fooling myself.
I’ve heard some Amish folks say that the Ordnung is a guide, like road signs that help us navigate to a destination. Others compare it to a fence that keeps us from crossing into forbidden or dangerous territory. We all know, of course, that road signs and fences are good things, and who would argue against anything that keeps us from sinning?
That being said, I’d like to take a look at the first two Ordnungs that were introduced to the early church—the church founded by Jesus and His apostles that we read about in the New Testament. You may be interested to know that one of those Ordnungs was fully embraced by the early church, while the other one was completely rejected. Let’s first consider the Ordnung that was embraced.
The First Ordnung
The early church focused on, and strove to obey, the commandments Jesus gave them, because that is exactly what He commanded them to do. After His resurrection, He commissioned them:
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20).
So, Jesus commanded His eleven apostles to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe everything He had commanded them. And that is just what they did. The commandments He gave them came to be known as “the Law of Christ,” as they are called by Paul in Galatians 6:2 and 1 Corinthians 9:21. In fact, in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he contrasted the “Law of Moses” with “the Law of Christ” (see 1 Cor. 9:19-23). Just as the Law of Moses consisted of all the laws that God gave Israel through Moses, so the Law of Christ consists of everything Jesus commanded His disciples. That would include, for example, everything Jesus commanded in His Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5-7). It would also include His “Great Commission” that I just quoted from Matthew 28:18-20.
Some folks claim that the “Great Commission” was only given to Jesus’ eleven apostles. That idea, however, is disproven right within Jesus’ Great Commission, because in it, He told the Eleven to teach people of every nation to observe everything He had commanded them. Of course, everything He commanded them included the Great Commission. So Jesus’ original apostles taught their disciples to also, “Go…and make disciples of all the nations…teaching them to observe” all He had commanded. The Great Commission is a perpetual commandment that is binding upon every Christian generation.
In any case, the first and only Ordnung that the early church embraced was the Law of Christ. There is no evidence that the apostles added hundreds, or thousands, of additional laws or rules to the Law of Christ as guidelines or fences for the early Christians. In fact, during the subsequent centuries that followed, for at least 1,500 years, no true Christians ever saw a need to add hundreds or thousands of additional rules to the Ordnung that Christ gave the church—His commandments. And for good reason that we will soon see.
Beyond this, there is a lot of biblical evidence that the apostles strongly opposed adding any additional laws or rules to the Law of Christ, as indicated by how they reacted to some Jewish Christians in the early church who attempted to add the Law of Moses to the Law of Christ. Another way of describing what happened is that some teachers introduced a second Ordnung to Christ’s Ordnung.
The Second Ordnung, and the Apostle’s Reaction
Here are the details: Some Jewish Christians began teaching that if Gentiles (non-Jews) wanted to be saved, they had to be circumcised as required in the Law of Moses, as well as keep the Mosaic Law’s many other regulations (see Acts 15:1, 5). They tragically did not understand that God gave the Mosaic Law to only one group of people—the descendants of Israel—and that He gave it to them only temporarily, until their Messiah would come and inaugurate the new covenant. They also did not understand that God was saving Gentiles the same way He was saving Jews—by grace through faith, and not by their works (see Ephesians 2:8-9).
Their false teaching caused such a stir in the early church that a convention was called in Jerusalem that included the most preeminent apostles, including Paul, Peter and James. The entire story is recorded in Acts 15, and you can read it for yourself. At that convention, some Pharisees who had believed in Jesus stood up and, concerning the new believers among the Gentiles, said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses” (Acts 15:5).
There was much discussion. Peter eventually spoke:
Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are” (Acts 15:7-11).
I so appreciate Peter’s honesty. He declared what everyone at that convention knew was true, that none of them, or their forefathers, had kept the Law of Moses. How hypocritical it would have been for them to expect Gentile believers to obey laws that none of them had consistently kept!
And that reminds me of what I’ve observed among some of my local Amish friends. Although phones are forbidden in the very-conservative Smicksburg community, those “in the know” have told me that there are hundreds of secret phones among them. Home electricity is forbidden within the Ordnung of the more liberal Johnsonburg community, but many Amish there have it. That rule is not enforced. Can you imagine them telling other Amish who were considering relocating to their community, “If you move here, you should know that home electricity is forbidden!”?
Did you also notice that Peter reminded everyone at the convention how God used him to first proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles? You can read all about that in Acts 10. Peter was divinely directed to visit the household of a Gentile man named Cornelius. As Peter told Cornelius’ household about Jesus, he proclaimed:
“And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.”
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 10:42-48).
Clearly, God accepted and forgave the Gentiles who believed Peter’s message—as evidenced by the miracle of them speaking in other tongues, just as had occurred on the day of Pentecost to Peter and more than 100 other Jewish Christians (see Acts 2:1-4). God’s forgiveness was obviously not dependent upon them being circumcised or keeping the Mosaic Law. They were saved by grace through faith (see Ephesians 2:8-9).
After Peter was done speaking at the convention, Paul and Barnabas then stood to recount many of the miracles God had done through them to get the attention of Gentiles, and they reported how God had transformed Gentiles without any requirement of circumcision or their adopting the regulations of the Mosaic Law.
Finally, the apostle James stood up and quoted an Old Testament passage that foretold how God would one day save Gentiles. He then recommended that the convention attendees send a letter to all the new Gentile believers in order to inform them there was no need for them to be circumcised and start keeping the Law of Moses. James did recommend, however, that the new Gentile believers avoid a few practices that were particularly offensive to Jews, but not as a requirement for salvation.
So the early church soundly rejected the second Ordnung that was introduced, an Ordnung that would have added hundreds of additional laws to the Law of Christ. Perhaps even more significant is that the rejected Ordnung was one that actually had divine origins. God Himself had given it through Moses. But the early apostles understood that it was never intended to be binding upon Gentiles, and most of them eventually understood that it was not binding on Jewish believers in Jesus either.
Now read slowly: If the early church rejected an ancient, divinely-given Ordnung that would have misled many into thinking salvation was not due to God’s grace, but that salvation depended on people keeping a set of laws that no one had ever fully kept, should we not pause and think before we embrace any Ordnung of human origin that similarly adds hundreds, or even thousands, of laws and regulations to the Law of Christ, especially if those laws and regulations mislead people into thinking their salvation is not due to God’s grace, but depends on keeping those laws—and especially when no one actually keeps them all?
It is an irrefutable fact that the early church, led by the original apostles, taught their disciples to obey all that Jesus had commanded them, and they did not add any fence laws or man-made rules to the Law of Christ. They, in fact, universally rejected a second potential Ordnung that some false teachers attempted to introduce.
Interestingly, the original Anabaptists of the 16th-century—from which most modern Amish people are descended—all rejected the Ordnung that the Roman Catholic Church had added to the Law of Christ. They rejected every man-made church doctrine and law that could not be found in the New Testament. How odd it is that the modern Amish churches, in contrast with the original Anabaptists and the apostles of Jesus Christ, have adopted second Ordnungs that contain hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of additional rules that can’t be found in the Law of Christ, and a vow to obey those rules is required for church membership. Church members who unrepentantly break any Ordnung rule are excommunicated and told that they will go to hell. By what authority do Amish church leaders have to make such claims? Have they forgotten that Jesus is the Head of His church? Do they think they are God? They invent and endorse rules that cannot be found in the Bible and tell people their eternal salvation hinges on keeping those rules! The original apostles and original Anabaptists would have been horrified by even the suggestion of such an idea!
Paul’s Letter Against “Legalism” (Salvation by Works)
This important topic is not only found in the Acts 15 story of the Jerusalem apostolic council. The apostle Paul actually wrote an entire letter on this subject, namely, his letter to the Galatians. The Galatian church had come under the same influence of Jewish Christians who were teaching that Gentiles needed to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses in order to be accepted by God. In his Galatian letter, Paul mentioned circumcision by name at least fifteen times. Below are four of those passages in which he mentioned circumcision a total of nine times:
Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law (Gal. 5:2-3).
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love (Gal. 5:6).
Those who desire to make a good showing in the flesh try to compel you to be circumcised, simply so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For those who are circumcised do not even keep the Law themselves, but they desire to have you circumcised so that they may boast in your flesh (Gal. 6:12-13).
For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation (Gal. 6:15).
I’m sure you noticed Paul’s solemn warning to the Gentile Galatians that, if they “received circumcision,” Christ would be of no benefit to them. Paul could only have meant that Christ’s sacrificial death and the salvation He provided through it would be of no benefit to them. What could be more tragic than that?
Being a circumcised Jew himself (see Phil. 3:5), Paul certainly was not saying that the state of being circumcised automatically nullified all the benefits provided by Christ. He obviously believed that he, as a circumcised Christian, was benefitting from Christ. His concern regarding the Gentile Galatian believers was, of course, their basis of salvation. They were in danger of transferring their faith in Christ for salvation to faith in circumcision for salvation.
This concept is underscored again in two of the other above-quoted verses. In one of the final sentences that brings his Galatian letter to a conclusion, Paul wrote, “For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:15). That is, it doesn’t make a bit of difference if a person is circumcised or not circumcised. All that matters is if a person is a “new creation,” that is, one who has been spiritually reborn through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Just a few sentences earlier, Paul similarly wrote, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Again, circumcision has no part in salvation. Salvation is by faith, and the proof of genuine faith is love. When people believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s love is poured out within their hearts through the Holy Spirit who comes to live inside them (see Romans 5:5). The first fruit of the indwelling Spirit is love, something Paul tells us in the same chapter of Galatians (see Galatians 5:22). So “faith working through love” is what matters, not circumcision.
The Application to Us
Obviously, it would be safe to conclude that Paul would say the same thing about anything that anyone might claim is essential for salvation other than faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, faith that results in a new creation who manifests love. If someone, for example, made the claim that to be saved, one must become a member of a certain church denomination, be baptized using a certain formula, cut their hair or trim their beard in a certain way, wear a certain uniform every day, never own a phone, never drive a car, and so on, Paul would solemnly warn them, “If you do those things in order to be saved, Christ will be of no benefit to you.”
This is an irrefutable conclusion. If you agree with Paul that making circumcision a requirement for salvation nullifies the benefits of Christ, you must agree that making anything a salvation requirement—other than faith in the Lord Jesus Christ—also nullifies the benefits of Christ.
“But,” some will say, “the Bible says that faith without works is dead and cannot save anyone.” Yes, that is true. True faith always produces works. Genuine faith in the Lord Jesus Christ always results in obedience to His commandments. If I believe that He is Lord, I will strive to obey Him. Adherence to man-made rules and traditions, however, is not an indication of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ any more than adherence to Chinese laws is an indication of United States citizenship. Man-made laws are by definition not God’s laws. When professing Christians subscribe to man-made laws thinking that they must adhere to them to be saved, they reveal that their faith is not in Christ for salvation. Rather, their faith is in their own works, and worse, works that aren’t even prescribed by God and that do not have the indwelling Spirit as their source. Just as Paul told the Galatians, he would tell such folks that Christ is of no benefit to them.
Salvation is a gift granted to us by God’s grace and received through faith in Christ. It is not something we earn through our own works. And along with forgiveness of our sins, God also grants us the gift of His indwelling Spirit who motivates and empowers us to live righteously. As Paul wrote to the Ephesian Christians:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10).
That passage, I think, should be memorized by every Christian, because it is so important and concise. Salvation is a gift. By definition, gifts are not earned. So salvation is not the result of our works, just as Paul said. Salvation does, however, result in our doing good works.
The “equation of salvation” is not rightly expressed by this formula: Good Works = Salvation. That is legalism. Neither is it rightly expressed by this formula: Faith + Good Works = Salvation. That is semi-legalism. Rather, it is best expressed by this formula: Faith = Salvation + Good Works. True faith in the Lord Jesus Christ results in a spiritual rebirth, a salvation that is always accompanied by obedience to Christ’s commandments.
Notice also what Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:8-10 about the nature of those good works that originate from the gift of salvation. They are a result of God’s “workmanship” in us. They are works that “God prepared beforehand.” So naturally, they align with God’s will and God’s commandments. They are primarily acts of loving one’s neighbor. They are certainly not works that have their origins in man-made traditions or cultural rules. Born-again, Spirit-indwelt, new creations are not inspired and empowered by God to follow man-made religious rules and traditions! They are inspired and empowered by God to follow His laws!
So is it wrong for Christians to follow man-made traditions? Yes, if they contradict or subvert biblical truth. Jesus once said to some Jewish leaders: “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matt. 15:2). He also said, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition” (Mark 7:9).
Again, if I keep man-made traditions because I think I must keep them to be saved, then following those man-made traditions contradicts biblical truth. On the other hand, if I keep them to express love for my neighbor, then keeping them is not wrong. In fact, keeping them is a form of doing good.
Let me offer a biblical example. Although Paul strongly warned the Gentile Galatian believers against being circumcised (as we have already read), he himself once circumcised a Gentile convert:
Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. And a disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek [a Gentile], and he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted this man to go with him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek (Acts 16:1-3).
Why did Paul circumcise Gentile Timothy? It was because he wanted Timothy to help him spread the gospel in a region where there were many Jews, and no Jew would listen to an uncircumcised Gentile teach them about God. So, in order to remove a barrier to the gospel, Paul circumcised Timothy. But you can be sure that Paul didn’t tell Timothy, “I’m doing this because you can’t be saved unless you are circumcised.” Absolutely not!
Paul’s concern regarding the Gentile believers in Galatia was that they were “seeking to be justified by law” (Gal. 5:4), a very grave error. In fact, Paul believed it was a spiritually-deadly error:
You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace (Gal. 5:4).
People sometimes ask, “Is it possible to fall from grace?” According to Paul, the answer is “yes”—if someone who formerly was trusting Jesus for salvation begins to trust his works. It was Paul, not me, who told the Galatians that they had been “severed from Christ” and had “fallen from grace.”
The Gentile Galatian believers were not only lining up to be circumcised, believing it was required for salvation, but they were also starting to observe Jewish “days and months and seasons and years” (Gal. 4:10), all because they had been duped by false teachers who taught such things were required for salvation. Paul was very worried: “I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain” (Gal. 4:11). Everything that had been gained for the gospel in Galatia was in danger of being lost!
And that is why Paul opened his letter to the Galatians by bluntly expressing his shock at what was happening among them:
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ (Gal. 1:6-7).
Paul called the Jewish circumcision message a “different” and “distorted” gospel that was not aligned with the gospel of “the grace of Christ.” He considered their false doctrine so deadly that he went on to say:
But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!
And Paul didn’t stop with wishing for a curse upon the false teachers. Near the end of his letter, he wrote in exasperation: “I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves” (Gal. 5:12). Other less-subtle English translations use the word “castrate” instead of “mutilate.” If the Jewish teachers were so sure of the spiritual benefits of some foreskin removal, maybe they should try, on themselves, a full genital removal!
Modern Amish Ordnungs
In light of all we’ve considered so far, let’s now return to thinking about modern Amish Ordnungs. It goes without saying that, if anyone believes they must keep the Ordnung to be saved and reach heaven, they are no different than the deceived Galatians who believed that they had to be circumcised and keep the Mosaic Law. Such Amish people are not trusting Jesus for salvation but are trusting in their works, and even worse, they are trusting works that are not grounded in God’s Word. For example, there is nothing in the Bible that says it is wrong to own and drive a car, or that we must drive horse-drawn buggies. If you are driving a buggy because you think you must to get to heaven, you are trusting in your works and Christ will be of no benefit to you. And the same could be said for any other Ordnung rule if you are keeping it because you think you must to get to heaven.
If, however, you are keeping the Ordnung out of love for others and not because you think you must keep it in order to get to heaven, that is different. You could do that and still maintain faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, trusting Him alone for salvation.
That is exactly what the Apostle Paul did. He knew that keeping the Mosaic Law was not necessary for him to be saved. However, in order to not erect Jewish barriers to the gospel, he kept the Law of Moses when he was around Jews. And in order to not set up barriers to the gospel to Gentiles, he did not keep the Law of Moses when he was around them:
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law [of Moses], as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law [Gentiles, to whom God never gave the Law of Moses], as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it (1 Cor. 9:19-23).
Clearly, Paul did not believe that he, a Jew, was required to keep the Law of Moses. Just as clear is the fact he also believed that he, as a Christian, was required to keep the Law of Christ.
So too, newly born-again people of Amish background should know that God does not require them to keep any man-made rules of their community’s Ordnung, but He does expect them to obey all that Christ commanded.
Should such people, however, keep the Amish Ordnung when they are around Amish people who are not yet born again in order to not set up a barrier to the gospel, in hopes of winning them to genuine salvation by grace through faith?
That is, I believe, an individual decision. But we should keep in mind that many Amish-background believers continue to live in full view of Amish neighbors, unlike Paul who alternately traveled between the somewhat-separated worlds of Jews and Gentiles. Paul was primarily an “apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13; 1 Tim. 2:7), so he spent limited time keeping the Mosaic Law trying to not offend Jews.
Also keep in mind that, by continuing to keep the Amish Ordnung, Amish-background believers potentially could strengthen the self-deception of Amish people who think the Ordnung must be followed in order to one day go to heaven. By not keeping the Ordnung but keeping the Law of Christ, Amish-background believers send a clear message to unregenerate (non-born-again) Amish people that they believe keeping the Ordnung is not essential for salvation.
If I was an idol-worshipper prior to being born again, I would not continue to worship idols in order to try to win my idol-worshipping friends. Rather, I would want every idol worshipper to know I was no longer worshipping idols, and was now worshipping the one true God.
Beyond all of that, born-again Amish-background believers who continue to keep the Ordnung might mislead non-Amish unbelievers into thinking that all the Amish lifestyle rules are required by God, which would hinder them from believing the gospel.
All of this is to say, if you are an Amish-background believer who decides to continue following the Ordnung, you have a moral obligation to tell unregenerate Amish as well as unregenerate non-Amish that your keeping the Ordnung has nothing to do with salvation, just as Paul made efforts to convey to unregenerate Jews and Gentiles that keeping the rules of the Mosaic Law had nothing to do with salvation. Remember, Paul was circumcised, and he circumcised Timothy, but he certainly never let anyone think that he or Timothy believed that circumcision was essential for salvation.
Of course, any Amish person who is born again and who begins to try to lead unregenerate Amish people to a genuine faith in Jesus Christ—a faith that includes believing the Ordnung is not essential for salvation—will likely soon find himself or herself excommunicated by their Amish community. Among regenerate Amish communities, however, that is not the case. Still, the question remains if regenerate Amish communities should follow any form of Amish Ordnung. By keeping their hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of lifestyle rules, they also run the risk of misleading Amish and non-Amish unbelievers that they believe keeping their lifestyle rules is essential for salvation.
Amish Ordnungs, of course, are the reason why virtually no outsiders ever join any Amish communities, regenerate or unregenerate. All outsiders naturally realize that if they were to join any Amish community, they would be expected to conform to all the Ordnung rules. If you are a part of a regenerate or unregenerate Amish community, be honest about this! You would only allow people to join your community who agreed to conform to your Ordnung. And if they agreed to conform and you allowed them to join, but then they did not conform, you know they would be excommunicated. If you say, “No, we would allow them to remain,” then your unenforced Ordnung is just a list of suggestions which anyone in your community can keep or not keep! So what is the point of your Ordnung?
Common Objections Answered
—”But our regenerate Amish community has arrived at our Ordnung by consensus! It has not been forced upon us by a bishop. Our Ordnung rules represent our agreed-upon convictions!” some say.
Still, together, you’ve set up rules that are not found in the Law of Christ, and you won’t allow anyone to join your community unless they agree to keep your Ordnung. Here’s another way of saying it: In your section of Christ’s church and body, Christians who only follow the Law of Christ aren’t welcome to join you. They must agree with all your lifestyle rules. Are you helping or hindering the growth of God’s kingdom, the kingdom where He is the King who makes the rules? Are you working for or against the unity of the church for which Jesus prayed in John 17:21?
There were, of course, differences of conviction among believers in the early church regarding lifestyle choices that were not specifically addressed in the Law of Christ. For example, some of the early Christians were persuaded that it was wrong for them to eat meat that had been sacrificed to an idol. Others, like Paul, believed there was nothing wrong with the practice. But neither side created an Ordnung over it, dividing into separate churches. Paul admonished both sides to be considerate of each other and walk in love, and especially those whose consciences were “strong” rather than “weak” (see 1 Cor. 8:1-13).
I am certain that, even within regenerate Amish communities, there are differences of convictions. As in any and all groups, stronger personalities dominate, and the convictions of those folks become the rules of the Ordnung, and those who disagree either outwardly conform or leave the group.
All of this is to say, why not discard any and all manmade rules and just follow Christ and His rules? Why not just be respectful and considerate of those followers of Christ whose personal convictions differ from yours, which is an act of obedience to Christ’s commandment to love one another?
Besides all of that, the truth is, no matter how rigorous or lax any Ordnung is, whether it is contrived by regenerate or unregenerate Amish, very few folks under any Ordnung are actually keeping it in its entirety, simply because everyone has different personal convictions. So every Ordnung makes liars out of people who declare that they will keep all the Ordnung but who in reality don’t!
—”But the Ordnung rules are like fences and road signs that keep us on the right path!”
Are you saying that God’s commandments and His indwelling Holy Spirit are not enough to accomplish that today, as they were 2,000 years ago for the early church? Are you born again or not?
—”But everyone follows rules that are not in the Bible! For example, there are speed limits on highways! Those rules are good for everyone!”
First, there is no danger that any speed limit sign might mislead anyone into thinking they will go to hell if they don’t obey it! I never saw a speed limit sign that said, “If you exceed 55 miles per hour, you will go to hell when you die!” Yet Ordnungs definitely have the potential to mislead people into thinking they must be obeyed to escape hell. In fact, in unregenerate Amish communities, that is exactly how Ordnungs are portrayed.
Second, many drivers, if not most drivers, regularly exceed speed limits, proof that rules really don’t change behaviors. People follow their convictions. People who care about others drive safely, according to what they deem to be safe, which may include exceeding the speed limit at times.
In reality, good people don’t need external laws to govern their behavior because they are internally governed by moral principle. That is why Paul wrote, “Law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious” (1 Tim. 1:9). If you think you need hundreds or thousands of external laws to govern your behavior, you are admitting that you are not internally motivated to do what is right. And that is an admission that you are not born again and you do not have the Holy Spirit living in you.
The fact is, people who are born again don’t even need God’s commandments to govern their behavior, because they have the Holy Spirit living in them to guide them. That is why Paul wrote, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law” (Gal. 5:18). Under the new covenant, God’s laws are written in our hearts (see Heb. 8:10).
So if born-again people don’t even need God’s commandments (externally) to govern their behavior, how much more do they not need any man-made rules to govern their behavior!
In summary, Amish Ordnungs, whether contrived by unregenerate or regenerate Amish communities, are not only affronts against God, as they betray a belief that His commandments and Holy Spirit are insufficient to produce behavior that pleases Him, but they are also tacit admissions that adherents are not righteous people who are self-governed by inward convictions, but unrighteous people who need external laws. Worse, those lists of rules make liars out of every Amish person, as they pledge to follow them, but don’t. Even worse, those lists of rules divide unregenerate Amish people and communities into factions and, among regenerate Amish communities, divide Christ’s body.
What is even most telling about Amish Ordnungs is that, among many Amish communities that are governed by thousands of rules, there is sexual immorality, including even child abuse and incest, as well as drunkenness and alcoholism, drug abuse, hatred, unforgiveness and broken relationships, dysfunctional families and marriage conflict, depression and mental disorders, and a host of other problems and sins that are clearly condemned in the Bible. Some Amish folks who are obediently driving horse-drawn buggies and wearing straw hats are sexually molesting children! There is an Amish community near me in which, over the past year, three men have gone to prison for molesting children! The reason is because, if you are not born again, you are, as the Bible says, a slave to sin (see John 8:34; Rom. 6:6-20).
It is not just Amish child molesters who are slaves to sin. All unregenerate Amish people are slaves to sin. Amish folks who aren’t born again (just like “English” folks who haven’t been born again) have difficulty keeping God’s basic commandments, much less all the man-made rules of their Ordnung. The solution to the entire mess is the new birth through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ! People who are born again have the desire and power to obey Jesus’ commandments, as Jesus Himself promised:
Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light (Matt. 11:28-29).
And as the apostle John echoed:
For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome (1 John 5:3).
The reason Jesus’ commandments are not burdensome is because He transforms those who believe in Him by His grace. In their hearts, they love Him, and they want to obey Him. And by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, they can obey Him! The problem in unregenerate Amish communities is hearts that have not yet been transformed by the grace of God. That’s it. And it is so tragic, because the entire basis of the original Anabaptist movement of the 16th century was the new birth by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
How Far Fence Laws Can Go
Amish folks aren’t the first people who’ve promoted the idea of fence laws. Many of the Jews in Jesus’ day followed thousands of fence laws that were designed to keep them far from disobeying God’s laws. For example, the Mosaic law declared, “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk” (Ex. 34:26). This law related to an occult fertility rite practiced by the Canaanites—whom the Israelites dispossessed after their deliverance from Egypt. God didn’t want His people practicing pagan superstitions. The Jews, however, ignored the spirit of that particular law and created fence laws to prevent anyone from getting anywhere close to breaking the letter of it.
For example, a person might, at the same meal, drink goat’s milk and eat goat meat. There was some chance—albeit a slim one—that the milk might be from the mother of the goat that was being eaten. Once mixed in the stomach and heated there, a “boiling” of sorts would occur, and one would be guilty of boiling a goat in its mother’s milk! So, a fence law was established to prevent such a “transgression” from ever occurring. That law forbade the eating of any meat and dairy product together, because you never know if some goat’s meat may have mixed with some beef at the slaughter house, or if some goat’s milk may have been mixed with some cow’s milk at the dairy!
If one ate any meat product, he must wait a specified time for it to be fully digested before consuming any dairy product, and vice versa, lest they mix in one’s stomach. And all meat and dairy products have to be kept in separate kitchens, lest there be any accidental mixing of the two. Moreover, completely separate dishes must be kept for eating meat and dairy products, because there was a chance that a small particle of cheese might remain on your plate from a previous meal. If that cheese was made from goat’s milk, and if you happen to eat some goat’s meat on that same plate, that goat’s meat might be from a goat whose mother’s milk was used to make the cheese, and thus when combined in your stomach, you’d be guilty of boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk! (It was because of these fence laws that I found it impossible to order a cheese pizza with pepperoni the last time I visited Israel.)
There were at least 1,500 fence laws surrounding the single commandment that forbade working on the Sabbath. Walking across a field on the Sabbath was forbidden, because you might inadvertently cause a grain of wheat to separate from its stalk, thus making you guilty of reaping on the Sabbath. Your foot might also step on a grain that had fallen on the ground, and by stepping on it, you might cause the wheat to be separated from the chaff, making you guilty of threshing on the Sabbath. It was also possible that your garment could create a breeze that would cause the chaff to blow away, making you guilty of winnowing on the Sabbath. And if a bird saw that grain and swooped down to eat it, you would be guilty of storing grain on the Sabbath!
Eventually, all those fence laws came to be considered as binding as the Mosaic Law, and they were compiled into what is called the Mishna. If there was disagreement between the two, the Mishna, by its own testimony, actually superseded the Mosaic Law. This Jesus condemned, citing an example of how the scribes and Pharisees invalidated the fifth commandment, and by their tradition released people from responsibility of caring for their elderly parents. Their doctrines were “precepts of men,” which proved that their hearts were far from God. Tragically, the same phenomenon can be observed in Amish culture today, where traditions take precedence over God’s Word. How it must grieve God. And the fence laws of the Jews couldn’t save or transform anyone, just like Amish Ordnungs.
If you are Amish, I want to ask you to imagine something. Imagine waking up one morning to a world without any Ordnung. I know that sounds unimaginable if you are Amish. But just try to imagine it for a moment. Imagine that all the bishops and ministers in your community met and agreed to abolish the Ordnung, so from then on, no one would be expected to obey any man-made rules, but only Christ’s commandments. No one would have to worry any longer about being watched, discovered, judged, put on trial, shunned or excommunicated for anything that at one time was part of the Ordnung. What would happen in your community? Would anyone’s behavior change?
I’m sure you agree that most Amish people’s behavior, if not all Amish people’s behavior, would change, at least to some degree. Many would start doing things that were formerly forbidden and stop doing things that were formerly expected. And their change of behavior would reveal their former motive for their former behavior. They did what they did, not because they wanted to, but because they were expected to. They would have preferred otherwise, but they did what they did out of fear of losing the approval of the group. Any Amish person who is honest will admit that is the reason they keep their community’s Ordnung to the degree that they do. And any Amish person who is honest will also admit that is also the reason they all regularly or occasionally secretly transgress their community’s Ordnung—as long as they think they likely won’t be caught.
Now take this imagination one step further. Just as all Amish people obey their community’s Ordnung out of fear of losing the approval of the group, there is also a possibility that many Amish people obey Christ’s commandments for the very same reason. That is, they aren’t obeying Christ’s commandments because they love Him or because they are born again, but because they want the approval of other Amish people. Their “holiness” is just a show. If they weren’t under peer pressure to act Amish, they would be disobeying both their Ordnung and Christ’s commandments.
Yet I can assure you, if your Amish community abolished the Ordnung as well as any expectation that anyone keep Christ’s commandments, those who are born again within the community might, with everyone else, no longer keep any of the former Ordnung’s rules, but they would not cease obeying Christ’s commandments. The reason is because they want to keep Christ’s commandments, because they are born again and indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
Here’s another test: Imagine how you would act if you found yourself in a state of the U.S. where there were no other Amish people. Imagine being hundreds of miles from any Amish community, so there was no chance of anyone reporting you to your bishop for transgressions against the Ordnung. How would you act? If you would behave differently far away from other Amish people, that reveals your motive for how you behave now when you are around other Amish people. You are motivated by fear of losing the approval of your group. Far from other Amish eyes, there would be no chance of being rejected, so all your motivation to obey the Ordnung would be gone. Many Amish readers won’t need any imagination for what I’ve just described, because they’ve already done what I’ve described on their vacations. One English driver told me that most Amish people whom she drives for any extended trip change their clothes to make themselves indistinguishable from non-Amish people. On the beach, Amish women are wearing bikinis (and no head coverings)!
If you would disobey any of Christ’s commandments when far away from other Amish people, that is sure proof you have not been born again. The outstanding characteristic of a born-again person is that he or she wants to obey Jesus’ commandments.
All of this is to say, not only can the Ordnung not save you, it also can’t transform you or make you obey God. All it does is constantly condemn you—all your life. All those fences and road signs just tempt you to do the opposite of what you want to do because you are a slave to sin. The only solution to your slavery to sin is faith in Jesus, who longs to forgive you, deliver you, transform you, empower you, guide you, and one day welcome you into His eternal kingdom.
What are you waiting for? Stop hoping your works will save you! Repent of your sins and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, making Him your Lord! He will forgive you and put His Holy Spirit in you. You will be a “born-again” “new creation in Christ,” with an inward love, joy, and peace that you never dreamed of!