The image that most people have of the Amish is of a people driving horse-drawn buggies, rejecting tractors in favour of horses on their farms, and wearing plain clothing — the men with wide brimmed hats and beards and the women in bonnets.
These are the Old Order Amish, who chose to reject the mechanisation and onset of consumerism that came in with the Industrial Revolution.
We have seen how they are descended from the early Anabaptists and briefly traced their history through their split from the Mennonites, their migration to the New World and their growth over the last 100 years (October ET).
I want now to consider some questions that arise regarding this people who have become a media phenomenon.
Why have the Amish so prospered in the modern world? In this technological, multimedia age, we might expect a people who take their children out of school at the age of 14, reject car ownership, television, the internet and mains electricity to be as numerous as the dodo.
But the fact is that the Old Order Amish have grown from an estimated 5000 in 1900 to over 250,000 today and are said to be doubling every 20 years. How do we explain such growth?
It is not because of the popular interest they arouse. Very few not born into Amish families try to join them. Of those that do, only a small minority stay. Neither is it because of evangelistic efforts, for the Amish make no attempt to evangelise others.
The only explanation is the high retention rate of their children. 80-90 per cent opt to be baptised and join the Amish church, the normal family size being 7-10 children.
The Amish make great play of the fact that the request to be baptised is entirely the free choice of the individual, so why do so many make that choice? Someone who has come to a saving faith and left the Amish suggests there are a variety of reasons, but probably one underlying factor.
Some Amish youngsters are genuinely content with their way of life. They may have good family relationships and value the safety and security they enjoy within a strong community. The underlying factor, however, is fear.
Fear is a big issue in Amish culture. They fear what people will think or say; they fear losing family and friends and being isolated; they also fear God’s judgement. Most of them believe they will go to hell if they leave the Amish.
The great tragedy, as we saw in September’s ET, is that even if they do stay, they are taught they cannot know in this life whether they are saved. The Amish have hidden the gospel of their forefathers behind numerous rules and regulations and turned it into a religion of works.
But can a people who have lost sight of the gospel have anything to say to us? To some extent, at least; for, although the Amish have descended into legalism, much of their way of life has its origin in biblical teaching.
Insofar as the Amish lifestyle illustrates biblical principles, it remains a challenge to true evangelicals — who surely have the best incentive to live lives in conformity to the revealed will of God, since Jesus said, ‘If you love me, keep my commandments’ (John 14:15).
Let us briefly consider some pertinent examples. The Amish are noted and admired for the strength and quality of their family lives. The traditional Amish occupation of farming is still the preferred way of life, because the whole family can be involved, though shortage of land and high prices are making this more difficult.
Many who cannot afford to buy farms have set up family businesses as a suitable alternative. One of the Amish men featured in a BBC film gave up a lucrative construction business to buy a farm, so that he could be with his family more; ‘because’, he said, ‘love takes time’.
The family in our society is under attack on every side. Christians constantly face the pressure of the world to conform to its image and are in danger of letting newspapers, advertisers and soap operas formulate their concepts of acceptable family life and relationships.
We need clear, detailed biblical teaching on family roles and relationships, expounded and practically applied on a regular basis in all our churches.
We cannot all become farmers, but we can at least consider whether we have the option of taking a job that will allow us to give greater attention to developing biblical family relationships.
At the time of the eighteenth century revival, Amish bishops argued that evangelical preachers put too much emphasis on regeneration and a singular personal experience of salvation. They said this promoted individualism and encouraged people to feel independent of the church.
Today, the Amish will talk of the new birth, but say that just as natural birth is birth into a family, so spiritual birth is birth into the community of the church and is experienced, not in a singular conversion experience, but in an obedient walk. They say you cannot be Amish apart from the church.
The fears of the Amish bishops were not entirely ill founded. Paul says, ‘By one Spirit we were all baptised into one body’ (1 Corinthians 12:13). To become a Christian is to become part of Christ’s body, the church.
While the world is trying to force Christians into its mould, at the same time it encourages us to express our individuality (‘I did it my way!’). If we think our standing as Christians rests on our experience of conversion, we may feel we don’t need the local church to support our claim to be Christians, and are free to choose whatever level of commitment to a church we wish to make.
God certainly does treat us as individuals. He chose believers individually in Christ before the world was. Our names are written in heaven. Our Saviour bore our sins and Paul could say, ‘He loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). He calls us to faith individually and brings us from death to life, to repentance and faith. He has all our days written in his book and even the hairs of our head are numbered.
Clearly God deals with us as individuals, but he also tells us we are ‘one body in Christ, and individually members of one another’ (Romans 12:5). As such we are to ‘submit to one another’ (Ephesians 5:21) and ‘be the servant of all’ (Mark 9:35).
Being part of the body of Christ also means submitting to the discipline of the church: ‘obey those who rule over you and be submissive’ (Hebrews 13:17).
For too many, the church is little more than the place they go on the Lord’s Day to keep up appearances. Having done that, they feel free to do as they please. But God’s will for commitment to his people is clear.
The Amish demonstrate their commitment to one another in practical ways. Their famous ‘barn raisings’ are a case in point. If your barn burns down, your neighbours will turn up to help you build a new one.
If you are sick, there will be someone on hand to help with whatever chores need attending to. Few Amish have medical insurance. If you need expensive medical treatment, the Amish will raise the funds amongst themselves.
Like the NT church, the Amish do not practise a form of communism, nor ban the holding of personal property. Rather, no one said, ‘that any of the things he possessed was his own’ (Acts 4:32). The principle is that if anyone is in need and another has the ability to meet that need, he will freely give it. This is simple NT Christianity.
To concluded, in January 2014