A central concept behind much of the Amish lifestyle and practice is the idea of separation from the world. Of course, the Amish would agree that this means to be separate from overtly wicked worldly practices like murder, adultery, fornication, deceit, fraud, idolatry, and a host of other things obviously condemned as sinful in the scripture. To most Amish, however, the idea of separation from the world extends far beyond this. To the Amish, conformity to the seemingly benign cultural norms of fashion, hairstyle, and certain comforts of modern secular life reflect a desire to conform to the world around you and open oneself up to worldly influence. Communication and transportation technologies encourage people to live further and further apart from one another, destroy community, and promote an emphasis on individuality that flows from selfishness and pride. An electrically powered home and all the amenities that come with it give one a sense of self-sufficiency that destroys one's reliance on family, neighbors, and the local church. This also promotes pride and self-interest. In short, the Amish believe that separation from the world does not only mean separation from the explicitly immoral aspects of the unbelieving world but separating oneself, as much as is possible, from the world's whole way of life and living utterly distinctly from them. There is a certain logic to this, but it, in fact, falls into a trap the scriptures warn us against. Ironically, the Apostle Paul points out that such teaching is itself worldly.
"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," (Colossians 2:21).
Interestingly, the biblical logic is actually that if you have died to the world, the result should be that you do NOT create extra-biblical commands regarding frivolous, material things. The ways of the world do not consist of what they eat, what they wear, or the devices they use. The ways of the world do include, however, the religious impulse to wrap our righteousness up in such things. While the believer can sin in the area of food through gluttony, no specific kinds of food are rejected by the New Testament. Similarly, though the Christian can sin in the area of clothing through immodesty and indecency, no particular style of dress is mandated. A Christian can certainly use technology to separate themselves from God's people, to distract them from God's word, or to access immorality like pornography, but the sin is not in the technology, it is in these particular uses of it.
This is not to say that we shouldn't take the biblical texts about separation from the world seriously. We absolutely must! But to do so, we have to understand what the Bible considers to be worldly. That is what we need to separate ourselves from. As we have seen, inventing new commands to forbid mundane aspects of material culture is worldly. The mundane aspects of material culture themselves are not innately worldly.
The Amish primarily rely on four biblical texts to support their idea of separation from the world. Let's briefly consider each:
Be Not Conformed
Romans 12:2, "And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect."
This verse follows on the heels of Paul's admonition that we as the church present ourselves together as one living sacrifice. It is primarily about not conforming to the divisive ways of the world, who divide themselves between Jew and Gentile, Greek and Barbarian, Wise and Foolish, etc.
Romans 10:12, "For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him."
The context of Romans 12 is a call to come together as one people of Jesus Christ and to be united in service and love. As one reads carefully through the chapter, this becomes abundantly clear. If the passage is concerned about clothing at all, it is only in making sure your Christian brother has some to wear (12:13). The Amish are right to be concerned about the dangers of individualism and the violence this does to Godly Christian community, and Romans 12 is perhaps the first place I would go to make that very point! Their solution, however, not only is starkly different from the solution Paul offers, it ironically drives a wedge of separation between themselves and Christians of every stripe around the world. It creates a form of the very divisiveness and elitism that they intended to avoid. This passage is a vital one that every Christian should learn and bend to, but it simply does not teach separation from clothing styles or technologies. It is our minds that need renewing, not our wardrobes.
Love not the World
1 John 2:15, "Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him"
We must first note that of chief importance here is who or what we love. John has just said earlier in the chapter:
1 John 2:10-11, "The one who loves his brother abides in the Light and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes."
And he will say shortly afterward:
1 John 4:20, "If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen."
If you love God, you will love your brother. The godly love of the gospel necessarily produces love for one's brother. There is a direct, positive relationship between love of God and love of brother. Conversely, there is a direct negative relationship between love of God and love of the world. As we read in verse 15 above, "If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him." If you have true saving faith, it will lead you to love your brother, and it will likewise lead you not to love the world. But what does it mean to love the world? Verse 15 is immediately followed by the further explanation:
1 John 2:16-17, "For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever."
Love of the world, in this context, is lusting after fleeting and temporary things of this life. The primary concern here is the love of these things. It is our lusts that are worldly and are the problem. All of this fits together perfectly. Notice what John writes in the next chapter:
1 John 3:17, "But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?"
Notice that John assumes that believers do have "the world's goods." There is nothing problematic in possessing these goods, even though they are definitively "the world's goods." The problem is not having them. The problem is loving them. If you love your brother, you freely give up the world's goods for him when he is in need. You don't care about the goods; you care about your brother. If you love the world, however, then you close your heart to your brother so you can keep your goods. You cannot love the world and your brother at the same time. Eventually, life will expose which one you really love by which you give up for the sake of the other. This is why the one who loves God necessarily will love his brother and also necessarily will not love the world. It's two sides of the same coin.
Paul made a similar point about money when he noted:
1 Timothy 6:10, "For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs."
And then followed up:
1 Timothy 6:17-18, "Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share."
Paul is not saying that Christians should avoid all use of money, but rather that they should not love money and should instead freely give it up for the sake of those in need. As Jesus said:
Matthew 6:24, "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."
Come out from among them
2 Corinthians 6:14-18, "Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, “I will dwell in them and walk among them; And I will be their God, and they shall be My people. “Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,” says the Lord. “And do not touch what is unclean; And I will welcome you. “And I will be a father to you, And you shall be sons and daughters to Me,” Says the Lord Almighty."
This is unquestionably a call for Christians to be a distinct and separate people from the world, and this is a passage that Christian churches and individuals need to take very seriously. The call, however, is not to dress differently from unbelievers or to cook over a different heating source or ride a different kind of vehicle. The call is to be holy. Paul spells this out himself in the very next verse:
2 Corinthians 7:1, "Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God."
In one of the earliest Christian writings outside the New Testament, an unnamed Christian apologist wrote explaining Christianity to an unbeliever. His description of the Christian community is an incredible example of exactly what Paul is talking about here and a powerful contrast to the Amish interpretation:
"For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred," (Epistle to Diognetus, Chapter V).
The early Christians wore the same clothes, ate the same foods, spoke the same language, and used the same tools as the world around them. They were not a separate people in a worldly sense. What they were is something far more extraordinary. They were a people distinct from the world through their godliness and their devotion to one another and to the truth.
Enmity with God
James 4:4, "You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God."
By now it should not be difficult to guess that "friendship with the world" is not about electric stoves or belt buckles. But let's look carefully at what James does have in mind here. The passage begins:
James 4:1-3, "What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures."
As with 1 John, the focus is on desires for worldly things instead of love for the lowly brother. James warns early in his letter:
James 1:14-15, "But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death."
James 1:27, "Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world."
James 2 begins with a warning against the sin committed by some Christians in treating the rich well and neglecting the poor. James reinforces this, saying:
James 2:15-16, "If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?"
Chapter 3 likewise warns:
James 3:13-16, "Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing."
Friendship with the world, then, is not using the same daily tools and wearing the same clothes as unbelievers, but rather operating out of the same values and pursuing the same selfish goals. If we throw our brother under the bus to court the favor of an unbeliever, we are a friend of the world and therefore an enemy of God. If we live in comfort while our brother is in need, we are likewise engaging in a sinful friendship with the world and committing adultery on our maker. None of this condemns the computer or smartphone you are using to read this article right now.
The Amish have misunderstood these passages and built an entire infrastructure of unbiblical traditions around this misunderstanding. For many Amish, this has led to a false gospel where their cultural way of life has become a necessary element of their supposed pathway to heaven. For such men and women, they may well need to repent of these traditions as a part of turning from a false religion and coming to true faith in Christ. We must be careful, however, that we don't fall into the same error by telling all Amish people that they have to stop dressing and living like Amish people and instead live and dress like the rest of us if they want to be true Christians. There may not be any biblical command against cars and electricity, but there is also no biblical mandate for them either. Amish is as much a culture as it is a religion, and truly Christian and gospel-centered Amish communities do exist. There is room in God's kingdom work for Christians who speak Pennsylvania Dutch and plow fields with horses. As long as they do not insist that such eccentricities are mandatory elements of the gospel or are commands that must be obeyed to be saved, we need not add the stumbling block of our own cultural traditions when we call them to faith. If it is merely voluntary culture, it is within Christian liberty and there is no need correct it. We can be different and still be brothers. That's what makes us separate from the world.