‘Growing up Amish:’ Law vs. Gospel

There is a love among Christians for stories about the Amish, but in telling those stories I fear that Amish life has been overly romanticized. I certainly remember reading teen fiction in the 1990s that revolved around the Amish. Those books were pleasant scenes of a far different kind of life.

I don’t mean to suggest that there is nothing we can learn from or admire about Amish people, but I am concerned that out of a love for times and ways gone by (and in some cases an attraction to pietism and asceticism) we’ve glossed over theological problems we need to be aware of.

I recently finished reading a book that I think Christians should read about the Amish. The reality of Amish life is not always pleasant, and can be downright traumatic as Ira Wagler makes very clear in his memoir: “Growing Up Amish.” This book is a New York Times bestseller and I highly recommend it. I read it in less than a week because it was so engaging.

His book presents a much more accurate picture than the novels I read as a teenager ever did. The book gave me a deep concern that Amish theology in many cases is so focused on tradition and legalism that the gospel can be entirely missed. Because of that, Amish people can remain lost in their sins.

Yesterday, I saw Today’s Christian Woman tweeted out an interview with Beverly Lewis from their archives. Since I’m not a subscriber I could only read a portion of it, but the timing was perfect since I’ve planned all week to sit down and tackle this subject.

Lewis, a best-selling author who has written many books that involve the Amish, had this to say about their theology: ” The Amish learn from childhood on to be content with what they have, not to want more. Their theology is uncomplicated; they embrace and follow Christ’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), as well as the Ten Commandments. Living those teachings eliminates voices from the world. Living simply also contributes to intentional time in prayer, doing good works, times of solitude. The Amish have time and space to hear the still, small voice of God.”

This bothers me for a few reasons. The “still, small voice of God” bit annoys me for a reason I’ve stated time and time again here at Steak and a Bible — the Bible does not actually tell us to listen for a still, small voice. But I digress. My bigger concern is that if she is correct and all they do is follow those parts of Scripture, then their theology is incomplete and seriously lacking in the gospel that can bring salvation!

Now, I’m no expert in Amish theology, but I did glean quite a bit from Wagler’s memoir and learned that, at least in his recollection, in spite of hearing the Bible preached throughout his life it was Amish traditions, not the gospel that he remembered hearing.

Describing Sunday services, he writes, “The sermons mostly consisted of a mixture of Scripture, gospel, and Amish rules. We heard from earliest memory the old Bible stories, spoken in intimate detail. From Adam, through Abraham and the patriarchs, all the way to the life of Jesus. And his death on the cross. It was all there, and it was all preached. And yet, somehow, the preachers all managed to weave the story into some strange brew of Amish context, the Amish rules and Ordnung. We were convinced, as children, that the Amish way was the only right way, the only true way.”

The result was mental oppression, hardly the romantic ideal of Amish life captured in novels.

Human sin still reigns in Amish communities. Living without modern technology, has not made them less sinful. The human heart is always in the same sinful state without Jesus Christ’s intervention. And without the gospel being clearly presented and understood how are those hearts going to be changed? I’m not saying that there are no saved Amish people. Likely some have understood the gospel and believed, but with so much emphasis on rules and extra-biblical tradition the gospel I think there is reason for concern.

Wagler recounts a tragic tale of bullying that he witnessed as a child, tyrannical Amish preachers who had the power to make their districts stricter (adding prohibitions like only wire-rimmed glasses, no plastic ones to the already long list), and more. “Disputes arise. Tensions flare. People come and go,” Wagler says.

Throughout Christian history some have pursued asceticism thinking that it pleases God, yet in Colossians chapter 2 Christians are warned against it.

“If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’ (which all refer to things destined to perish with use) — in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.” (Col. 2:20-23 NASB)

In “Growing Up Amish,” Wagler writes that at 15 or 16 years of age he and his friends ” … were stuck in a stifling, hostile culture, consisting of myriad complex rules and restrictions. More things were forbidden than were allowed. And that’s not to mention the drama, the dictatorial decrees, the strife among so-called brothers, and the seemingly endless emotional turmoil that resulted. We had seen and lived it all.”

The problem of course is that the law cannot save us. All it can do it condemn us. Heaping more man-made rules on top of God’s law only makes us fall even shorter. It’s a recipe for constant failure. And yet, this is what Amish life is like according to Wagler.

All of these additional rules about things that are not biblically-prohibited reminds me of Paul’s warning in Galatians 2: 16-21

” … knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? May it never be! For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”

Wagler was unhappy with the Amish lifestyle and left several times: “Because we harbored in our hearts the seeds of rebellion. Or maybe it was the seeds of life, of adventure, of freedom. Perhaps it was a little of both.” He returned time and again, sometimes out of homesickness, but also out of fear over his soul.

Each time, based on the theology he was taught, he believed himself to be utterly hopeless. He says Amish kids who leave run very wild because “once that line is crossed, there are no others.” They’re taught that if you leave you will go to hell and only returning can change that.

“I believed that what he [my father] said was true — that I had left the protection of the Amish fold and was as good as lost. That there was no hope for me, should I die. That there would never be any chance of salvation outside the Amish church,” Wagler says.

It is a good thing for a lost soul to know they are lost, but Wagler was wrong to believe that only the Amish church could save him. In fact, it was not the Amish church, but Jesus Christ who had already paid for Ira Wagler’s sins. And that forgiveness was available to him wherever he was. It wasn’t until many years later, he heard the gospel and understood it.

Wagler’s story has a happy ending. He became a Christian and eventually freely chose to leave the confines of the Amish life. But his story should make us wary of romanticizing the culture he grew up in and should compel us to pray for the Amish.

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4 Responses to ‘Growing up Amish:’ Law vs. Gospel

  1. Truth2Freedom says:

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