In my last post, I described some of the beliefs and practices of the Amish. In this post, I will review and critique the theological roots of the Amish. In my next post, I will provide a further critical evaluation of Amish theology and practice.
Although a visitor to Amish country today might view the Amish as very far removed from mainstream Protestant evangelical Christianity, in fact the spiritual ancestors of both the Amish and modern Baptists were part of the same group, the Anabaptists, in the early days of the Protestant Reformation (beginning in 1525). The Anabaptists were savagely persecuted, not only by the Roman Catholic Church, but also by the Reformed Church and the Lutheran Church, because they taught that baptism should only be performed on persons who have expressed faith in the gospel message, and therefore not on infants. Various groups of Anabaptists subsequently developed, and the ancestors of the Amish were part of the group known as the Mennonites (after Menno Simons, who died ca. 1559).
Beginning in 1693, and culminating in 1700, the Mennonite wing of the Anabaptist movement experienced a split over the issue of church discipline (Ordnung). The majority party, led by Pastor Hans Reist, continued to identify themselves as Mennonites, while the minority party, led by Pastor Jakob Ammann (Reist’s former student), became known as the Amish. First Corinthians 5:11 was one of the disputed texts: I am writing unto you not to associate with anyone who is named a brother, if he is a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such a one no, not to eat. In some ways, Ammann’s exegesis was much superior to Reist’s, though the way he applied the text to his contemporary situation was faulty. Ammann and his supporters were correct to insist, from the Bible, that when church discipline is applied, those under discipline must be shunned. Reist and his supporters were wrong to maintain that Matthew 9:10-13 and 15:11 apply to the issue of church discipline, and that Christians should have normal social interaction with people who have been excommunicated from the assembly. Ammann, however, appears to have condemned his former teacher Reist far too hastily and sharply, insisting that he be placed under church discipline for holding an incorrect view of church discipline. Reist, for his part, refused to acknowledge the error of his exegesis, even after seven years of dispute and a last-ditch effort by Ammann and his followers to reconcile. But both men and their followers were wrong on the critical issue of identifying those to whom church discipline should be applied. The group in question that was placed under church discipline by both parties was fellow Anabaptists who allowed their babies to be sprinkled (“baptized”), and who attended Reformed church services, in accordance with Swiss law, reasoning that the baby-sprinklings were nothing but harmless washings. While I agree with Ammann and Reist that these Anabaptists were compromisers, it is an issue on which good men could plausibly disagree. Ammann certainly went way too far when he labeled the compromising Anabaptists as idolaters (because they were in communion with Reformers who supposedly worshipped a false Jesus), and to demand the application of church discipline to them for this reason. Reist and Ammann appear never to have disputed the question of whether church discipline should be applied in the case at hand. Ammann was also wrong to apply church discipline to Reist, labeling him as an apostate and a heretic, and his followers as false brethren, because of his wrong view of church discipline. The issues at stake, with regard to both Reist and the Anabaptist compromisers, were disagreements over practice, not heresy or a serious, ongoing lifestyle of immorality of the type described in 1 Corinthians 5:11. In fact, all Christians have at least a few errors in things they believe and practice; if church discipline was to be applied for any error, we would all be under church discipline! The legacy of Ammann’s hotheaded application of Scripture was twofold: on the one hand, his followers have indeed remained a separate group until the present day, and have maintained their old ways and traditions; on the other hand, the Amish have continued a practice of church discipline which is far too strict, shunning anyone who leaves their church for any reason, including a legitimate change of conviction on doctrines that may reasonably be disputed. Reist’s view that Christians should not shun false brethren also left a legacy in the Mennonite church, which has cooperated with the World Council of Churches and other ecumenical movements, much to its detriment.