One of the most controversial aspects of the Amish is their practice of shunning. Shunning means breaking most forms of social contact with excommunicated members or those who leave the Amish after becoming members. Amish are not permitted to eat at the same table as a shunned member nor to accept any gifts, rides, or other services from them. The exact boundaries of interaction are different from one Amish community to the next, but shunning always involves a strict and intentionally painful degree of separation from the community, including family members. The purpose of shunning is to protect the community by separating out any negative influence while also ideally using the shame and pain of separation to draw the person back into proper fellowship. If the shunned member returns to their community in contrition, they will, after a time, be received back into the community.
Who do the Amish Shun?
Shunning applies only to baptized members, and the Amish only baptize adults into the church. Amish parents never have to shun their young children because young children cannot be members of an Amish church. The Amish also do not shun outsiders or even family members that never choose to receive baptism, though their relationships with adults who are not members of the Amish church are always somewhat limited. They do not typically rush into shunning a member. Amish are admonished at least three times and given chances to repent before they are shunned. Amish members can be shunned for three broad reasons.
- Unrepentant Sin: In a sense, the Amish would say that this is the only reason they shun a person. The other two reasons are ultimately traced back to assumed sins. Still, it is worth making a distinction. If a person commits an act that the Bible plainly defines as sin (such as fornication, adultery, lying, stealing, etc.) and they will not repent of it, they are excommunicated and shunned, or "put under the ban."
- Unrepentant Violation of the Community Rules: Every Amish community has what is called an "Ordnung." An Ordnung is a community rule that governs what technologies are restricted, what a person may wear, trades a person may work, what forms of recreation are allowed, and a host of other details of daily life. The Ordnung is not, in theory, viewed as being an infallible moral law. Cars, electricity, or colored clothing are not, in and of themselves, necessarily "sins" since they are not biblically forbidden. They are things each Amish community has decided on as guardrails of separation from the world. For two reasons, the Amish see it as sinful for an Amish member to violate their own community's Ordnung. First, it is a sin of pride and divisiveness. The community has agreed together that it is wise to forbid these things. The only reason they can conceive of that a person would reject the rules of the Ordnung is a prideful desire to assert oneself over against the wisdom of the community and a divisive spirit. Thus, it is not really the car that is the sin. It is the condition of the heart that leads an Amish member to reject his traditions by getting a car. Secondly, violating the Ordnung is considered sin because it violates the Amish baptismal vow. Every Amish member has to take a vow as part of their baptism. That vow includes a promise to keep the community Ordnung. Thus, if you knowingly buy a coat with buttons and your community Ordnung forbids buttons (as most of them do) you are sinning by breaking your vow. In this way, they argue that a person who breaks one of these community rules and will not repent should be excommunicated and shunned even though the rule itself does not constitute a biblical command or a binding moral law.
- Leaving the Amish: This command is applied somewhat differently from one Amish community to the next. Many Amish will remove the ban and discontinue shunning the person if they join and remain faithful to a like-minded church, such as a different Amish sect or a conservative Mennonite church. Stricter Amish sects, however, insist that one must remain faithful to the church in which one was baptized and therefore will shun even a person who moves to and joins a neighboring Amish community. Again, this is argued primarily based on the assumption of prideful motives and on the Amish baptismal vow.
Some Amish have found themselves shunned for having attended the service of a non-Amish Christian church or a local evangelical revival meeting because this violated the Ordnung. Thus, while most Amish will claim to regard non-Amish Christians as fellow believers, many Amish are put in a position where it would be considered sin to actually worship together with faithful Christians who are not Amish. Indeed, they would be shunned by their community if they were unwilling to repent of this worship as a sin.
Is Shunning Biblical?
The Bible certainly prescribes a certain degree of separation from a professing believer who falls into sin and refuses to repent. Matthew 18:15-18 describes a process of privately correcting a brother who has sinned, then correcting him again with only a few witnesses. If he refuses to turn, you are finally to correct him publically before the church. If he still does not repent, "let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector." Considering the context in which Jesus spoke these words, they certainly implied separation. Paul likewise says:
"I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one," (1 Corinthians 5:11).
"Remove the wicked man from among yourselves," (1 Corinthians 5:13).
While many Amish communities may go too far in their approach to shunning, the general idea of separation from a professing brother who lives in unrepentant sin is biblically sound. The real problem is that they use this principle to impose their own man-made rules as a standard of fellowship and even render it a sin to worship with faithful Christians. Indeed, to insist that someone cannot even receive baptism unless they first promise to abide by man-made laws about clothing and transportation is downright pharisaical. To use baptism as a means to actually deny a person fellowship with the people of God is an abuse and corruption of biblical baptism. Baptism expresses our unity with other Christians everywhere (Ephesians 4:4-6). Paul may have promoted separating from a professing brother over actual sin, but in regard to disputed matters and traditions, Paul wrote:
"Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. " (Romans 14:1-6).
"Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way. I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men," (Romans 14:13-18).
So, while there may be a biblical basis for separation as an act of church discipline for real sin, there are no biblical grounds for the Amish doctrine of shunning. Amish shunning is bound up in legalism and human tradition. It simply allows the many Amish communities that have strayed completely from the biblical gospel to remain isolated from it.