This is the last of a series of three posts on the Amish. In this post, I will examine some of the theological problems with the Amish form of Christianity, while also recognizing commendable aspects of the Amish.
First, let me recognize that there is some variation among different groups of Amish, and what is said of some may not be true of others. But many ex-Amish will affirm unequivocally that the Amish are not genuine Christians. That is, they will say that the Amish are Christian in name and outward form only, and not in reality. Although I do not have personal experience in an Amish church, I assume this is because salvation in the Amish church is equated with baptism and church membership, with no teaching about the need to be converted at a specific point in time. Surely there is a point in time when every genuine Christian went from not having a relationship with God to having a relationship with God, from being lost to being saved, from not having the Holy Spirit to having the Holy Spirit, from not having his sins forgiven to having his sins forgiven, and so forth. In churches where there is no teaching regarding the need for a conversion experience, in fact most people in those churches have never had a conversion experience, i.e., a time in which they have prayed to ask God to save them, confessing their sins and their faith in Christ. But one cannot be saved by works, even if those works are baptism and church membership. If, as it seems, the Amish indeed do hold to a form of salvation by works, this would be their largest and most consequential error.
The requirement to take oaths in order to be baptized and join the Amish church is certainly unbiblical. The only biblical requirement for baptism is that one has been saved (by confessing one’s faith in Jesus as the crucified and risen Son of God, and asking God to forgive one’s sins through the blood of Jesus). Likewise, the only biblical requirement for joining a local church is to be saved and baptized. The Amish practice of swearing oaths to join the Amish community evidently originated in Jakob Ammann’s belief that the Amish were the only group of true Christians, and that therefore one could not be saved without accepting the Amish form of Christianity; however, this belief could only be correct if salvation were by works, and salvation is not by works (cf. Eph 2:8-9). Admittedly, there are numerous other Christian churches and denominations that maintain unbiblical requirements for baptism, and that require subscription to a church covenant in order to become a member of the church, but the oaths required by the Amish are particularly burdensome, and the Amish practice of shunning is severe.
The Amish belief in pacifism is certainly unbiblical. The pacifism of the Amish and Mennonites was a natural reaction to the savage persecution they endured at the hands of their “Christian” neighbors—whether those neighbors were Reformed, Lutheran, or Catholic. Those persecutions engendered a very passionate opposition among Anabaptists to any and all forms of physical violence. But Exodus 22:1, for example, affirms that it is no sin for someone to kill a man who breaks into his house at night. Warfare was frequently commanded by God during the Old Testament era, and in the New Testament the right of the state to wield the sword is affirmed in Romans 13:4 (cf. Luke 22:36).
An extreme aspect to the Amish pacifism is their opposition to proselytizing. This aspect of Amish theology is certainly unbiblical, given all the New Testament exhortations to preach the gospel, and all the New Testament examples of the apostles and their coworkers proselytizing unbelievers. One can see by this Amish practice the extent to which they follow tradition over Scripture. One also wonders how a Christian who truly cares about the lost people around him could refuse to share the gospel with them.
The Amish also seem not to care enough about the spiritual condition of their children. They take a “hands-off” approach to their children in their teenage years, not restraining them from participating in sinful activities. On the positive side, this ensures that their decision to join the church, if they do make that decision, is made of their own free will. But loving parents discipline their children, even as teenagers, and continually exhort and admonish them to do what is right.
The Amish insistence on a radical separation between church and state is another sour aftertaste from the persecutions they endured at the hands of state-sponsored churches. But there is nothing in the Bible which prohibits a government from adopting Christianity as its official religion, nor is there anything in the Bible which prohibits a Christian from participation in government.
The Amish opposition to higher education is probably necessary to preserve their identity. Education gives people the ability to think independently, which inevitably results in individuals contesting certain ideas held by the community. It is true that there have been many instances of young people departing from the teachings of Scripture after encountering anti-Christian ideas in academia, but it is also true that a church without education is a church which lacks depth and maturity. Christians have always promoted education as a means of understanding the Bible more fully and accurately, among other things.
On the positive side, the Amish could be compared to the Rechabites who are described in Jeremiah 35. The Rechabites were the descendants of Jonadab the son of Rechab, who was prominent at the beginning of Jehu’s reign, in 841 B.C. (2 Kgs 10:15-16). The events of Jeremiah 35 occurred about 240 years later. Jonadab had made his sons and their descendants swear to live as a separated people according to strict rules: they could not drink alcoholic beverages, they could not own property or valuable possessions, and they had to maintain a nomadic lifestyle. More than 200 years after Jonadab’s death, his descendants were still living according to the rules that he had set for them (Jer 35:6-10). Rather than ridicule the Rechabites as “legalists” or “weirdos” for making and keeping these peculiar vows, the prophet Jeremiah commended them, and blessed them in the name of the Lord. While the situation of the Amish is not identical to that of the Rechabites, the idea of living as a separated people who follow unique rules is not necessarily bad or unbiblical.
Certainly one must respect the courage and determination of a people who refuse so steadfastly to conform to the dictums of modern society and culture. Their rejection of modernity entails enduring considerable ridicule, and also enduring the hard work of performing all their labor by hand, without modern conveniences. It is true that there is a dark side to modern technology, and the Amish have avoided this dark side by refusing to accept technology. There is a sense in which one feels more authentically human on a quiet farm surrounded by crops and animals than in the artificial world of a modern city, full of streets and skyscrapers. Also, in a world filled with violence one finds something refreshing in the peaceableness of the Amish, even if their extreme of pacifism is not right. The Amish are a group of people who have clearly defined beliefs and strong values, which they practice with remarkable consistency.
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