‘In the personal case of Jesus it is made clear that he rejects not only unjust violence but also the use of violence in the most righteous cause. It is no longer possible to misinterpret his teaching as simply a call to vigilance or to sensitivity in excluding the improper use of violence; what Jesus was really tempted by was the proper use of violence. It was concerning the use of the sword in legitimate defense that Jesus said that they who take it will die by it’.
‘The work of God is the calling of a people, whether in the Old Covenant or the New. The church is then not simply the bearer of the message of reconciliation, in the way a newspaper or a telephone company can bear the message with which it is entrusted. Nor is the church simply the result of a message, as an alumni association is the product of a school or the crowd in the theater is the product of the reputation of the film. That men and women are called together to a new social wholeness is itself the work of God, which gives meaning to history, from which both personal conversion (whereby individuals are called into this meaning) and missionary instrumentalities are derived’. (‘A People in the World’, The Royal Priesthood p.74).
‘The moral nonconformity of Christians is an indispensable dimension of their visibility. If the church is visible in that these people keep their promises, love their enemies, enjoy their neighbours, and tell the truth, as others do not, this may communicate to the world something of the reconciling, i.e. the community-creating, love of God. If, on the other hand, those who call Christ “Lord, Lord” do whatever the situation calls for just as do their neighbours, then what is communicated about their “religion” will probably be that just like the other cultures they have preachers and Sunday gatherings and prescribed ceremonies. The visibility of the witness, and therefore what is means to hear and accept it, is then misplaced’ (‘A People in the World’ p.81).
‘Using this particular point of entry to initiate our critique of Christendom enables us to see that the most important error of the Christendom vision is not first of all its acceptance of an ethic of power, violence, and the crusade; not first of all its transference of eschatology into the present providence with God working through Constantine and all his successors in civil government, not in its appropriation of pagan religiosity that will lead into sacerdotalism and sacramentalism, nor in its modeling church hierarchy after the Roman administration, nor any other specific vice derived from what changed about the nature of the church with the epoch of Constantine. These were all mistakes, but they were derived from the misdefinition of the place of the people of God in the world. The fundamental wrongness of the vision of Christendom is its illegitimate takeover of the world: its ascription of a Christian loyalty or duty to those who have made no confession and, thereby, its denying to the non-confessing creation the freedom of unbelief that the nonresistance of God in creation gave to a rebellious humanity’. (‘Why Eschatology is Social Ethics’, The Royal Priesthood, p.109).
‘It is clear in the New Testament that the meaning of history is not what the state will achieve in a progressively more tolerable ordering of society but what the church achieves through evangelism and through the leavening process’. (‘Peace without Eschatology?’, The Royal Priesthood p.163).
John Howard Yoder: ‘The Otherness of the Church’ in The Royal Priesthood
My current study book is a collection of essays by John Howard Yoder on the mission and nature of the church, first published in 1994 and entitled The Royal Priesthood. However, some of the material in this book is a lot older than 1994. It is collected and edited by Michael Cartwright who also contributes a lengthy foreword about John Howard Yoder’s work entitled ‘Radical Reform, Radical Catholicity’. I have to say that I did not find this foreword helpful, mainly because of Cartwright’s tendency to write sentences like this:
As such, Macintyre’s attempted reconstruction of a teleological ethic is designed not only as an alternative to Nietzche’s genealogical approach to morality, but also as a theoretical alternative to the sociological substructure of consequentialist ethics that pervades Western culture.
Hmm. Yes – I quite agree!!!
However, the first essay by Yoder (I’ve read two so far) is a firecracker. It was originally a lecture given at Drew University at some point in the winter of 1958-59, and I find it fascinating that Yoder was speaking so clearly about the end of Christendom – and celebrating it – so long ago, when most theologians either genuinely had not noticed it or were frantically trying not to notice it. Let me summarize the argument of this essay.
Yoder begins by acknowledging that Christendom has coming to an end, but also notes that even though some theologians recognized the fact, few were actually evaluating whether or not Christendom had in fact been a good thing in the first place.
He then turns to the biblical concepts of ‘church’ and ‘world’ and defines them.
‘World…signifies in this connection not creation or nature of the universe but rather the fallen form of the same, no longer conformed to the creative intent. The state, which for present purposes may be considered as typical for the world, belongs with the other exousia (‘powers’) in this realm. Over against this “world” the church is visible; identified by baptism, discipline, morality, and martyrdom…But behind or above this visible dichotomy there is a believed unity. All evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, the church believed that its Lord was also Lord over the world’.
(I cannot resist the temptation to give substantial quotes from this essay, as Yoder’s original wording is so clear and succinct!). Because the church believes this, it can speak a word to the state as well, in witness and prophetic challenge – demanding from it not so much Christian righteousness as simple human justice.
The clear distinction between church and world is what Constantinianism (i.e. the coming of Christendom) changes so dramatically. These two realities are fused and ‘there is no longer anything to call “world”; state, economy, art, rhetoric, superstition and war have all been baptized’. But of course thinking Christians knew that the mass of people flooding into the church had not really all been truly converted, and they therefore formulated the doctrine of the ‘invisible church’, meaning that the true church, made up of genuine believers, was known only to God. Also, the ethical requirements had to be adapted to ‘the achievement level of respectable unbelief’. For example, the statesman wants to be told that his profession is Christian, but what he does has not in fact changed. Christian norms for the exercise of his and some other professions are hard to find, hence the church adopts norms taken from pagan ‘justice’ instead. ‘The autonomy of the state and of the other realms of culture is not brought concretely under the lordship of Christ, with the total revision of form and content which that would involve; it has been baptized while retaining its former content’.
The 16th century Reformers took this a step further. The Reformation exalted the power and autonomy of the state. It surrendered the conviction that the work of the church is the centre of the meaning of history; now ‘the Prince is not only a Christian, not only a prominent Christian; he is now the bishop…the church confesses in deed and sometimes in word that not it but the state has the last word and incarnates the ultimate values in God’s work in the world’.
The Constantinian approach has shown itself to be incapable of making visible Christ’s lordship over church and world. We must now go back to the New Testament and there discover that ‘the church’s responsibility to and for the world is first and always to be the church’, because the meaning of history is not tied up with the defence of western culture or growth in prosperity but in the calling together “for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation”, a “people of his own who are zealous for good deeds”.
We must also recover the New Testament concept of ‘the world’: not all of nature, humanity or culture, but ‘structured unbelief’. Recovery of this concept leads to two conclusions. Firstly, Christian ethics is for Christians. Since Augustine this has been denied; ‘the first criterion for an ethical ideal for the laity is its generalization’. Hence people ask Christian pacifists ‘What would happen if we were all pacifists like you?’; what is right is supposed to apply as ‘a performable possibility for a whole society’. But that is not the New Testament concept of Christian ethics.
Second, ‘there may well be certain functions in a given society which the society in its unbelief considers necessary, and which unbelief renders necessary, in which Christians will not be called to participate’. This was self-evident in the early Christian view of the state.
Constantianism was not a victory. ‘Christ’s victory over the world is to be dated not AD 311 or 312 but AD 29 or 30. That church will partake most truly of his triumph that follows him most faithfully in that warfare whose weapons are not carnal but mighty. The church will be most effective when it abandons effectiveness and intelligence for the foolish weakness of the cross in which are the wisdom and power of God. The church will be most deeply and lastingly responsible for those in the valley of the shadow if it is the city set on the hill’.
This essay has crystalised for me all the convictions that have been growing as I have continued to study Anabaptism. I have long observed in discussions with people about pacifism that the conversation quickly moves in the direction of ‘What should we have done when Hitler came to power’ – and the ‘we’ here means not ‘we, the body of Christ, the international community of Christian disciples found in England and Germany and Canada and Japan and Italy and the United States, bound in love and service to one another and determined to let nothing hinder its unity in Christ’; no, it means ‘We, England’, or ‘We, the British Empire’. But this is a use of the word ‘we’ which would never have occurred to the apostle Paul and the other New Testament writers. The first question in their minds was not ‘what should we, the Roman Empire do?’ or “What should we, the Israelite nation do?” but “What should we, God’s holy nation and royal priesthood, the people of Jesus, do? What is our special vocation in the world as an international community of love and service, bound by our first loyalty not to our own nations but to our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb who was slain?”
To me this is the essence of the Anabaptist vision, which in this case is also the New Testament vision: let the church be the church, a distinct community of disciples of Jesus bound by our first loyalty to him to love our enemies, serve the poor and proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom. In this vision our first responsibility is not to be good Christian citizens but to be faithful followers of Jesus, knowing that at times this faithfulness will bring us into conflict with the demands of the state for our ultimate loyalty. In that situation, as followers of Jesus, we know what it is that we are called to do; we know to whom ultimate loyalty truly belongs, and we will pray for the strength to give it to no one else.
Professor Rowland, a gifted and engaging teacher, specializes in research on the Interpretation of the New Testament; the apocalyptic tradition in ancient Judaism and Christianity; the reception history of the Apocalypse; the biblical hermeneutics of William Blake; the theology of liberation; the radical tradition in Christianity; methods in grassroots readings of Scripture; group work and biblical study; and the interpretation of the Bible and developments in adult education.
at Launde Abbey a couple of weeks ago, and today I went down to her patch for a cup of coffee and a conversation. Ruth is the senior minister (not sure what your official title is, Ruth!) at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church in London. The life of their congregation is well described on their excellent website; suffice it so say that this is a congregation which is serious and intentional about reaching out to the neighbourhood around them and is finding all sorts of creative ways to do it.
‘First, a new conception of the essence of Christianity as discipleship; second, a new conception of the church as a brotherhood; and third, a new ethic of love and non-resistance’.
‘If the starting point of the pre-Anabaptist movement in 1523 was a view of Scriptural authority, the end point, which enabled the movement to become a force in history, was a view of the church. Negatively expressed, the product of the development from October 1523 to January 1525 was the Anabaptists’ rejection of the Corpus Christianum. Following the revolutionary changes in the relation of church and world which we associate with the names of Constantine, Theodosius, and Augustine, medieval Christendom had no room for the concept of ‘the world’. The consequences for ethics, for the doctrine of the church, for evangelism, and for eschatology, were revolutionary and yet were hardly noticed. So unconscious and so all-pervading was the acceptance of the identity of church and society that the Reformers, each working closely with the local magistracy and seeking to reform medieval Catholicism with as little commotion as possible, were not even aware of a problem and were able to pass off as political revolutionaries anyone who raised the question…
Only among the Zurich Anabaptists and those who learned from them was a new answer to the problem reached. Led by their simple Biblicism, abetted by the opposition of both civil and ecclesiastical authorities, they learned that the ‘world’ was just as significant a theological quantity in the sixteenth century as it had been in the first, and that the church is not simply an administrative subdivision of a monolithic society, charged with giving that society moral sanction and psychological stability, nor an invisible mystic communion of true believers, but a new kind of disciplined fellowship, taking shape within history by the gathering of confessing believers… Thereby evangelism, which for the ‘Constantinian’ reformers was by definition inconceivable, became a real possibility; alone of all the churches of the Reformation, the Anabaptists considered evangelism as belonging to the essential being of the church. Church discipline; a level of ethical requirements distinct from the average behaviour of the average citizen; economic fellowship within the local congregation, whether through common ownership of goods or through the deacon’s office; baptism upon confession of faith; refusal of the oath and of civil office; all the foci of disagreement with the Reformers fell into place as parts of a consistent whole once one dared, at the price of scandal and persecution, call into question the Constantianian synthesis, and to conceive of the church as being distinct from the world.
Franklin H. Littell has given us a most illuminating account of the missionary enterprise of the Anabaptists in his volume entitled The Anabaptist View of the Church. He says that “no words of the Master were given more serious attention by his Anabaptist followers than his final command: ‘Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you…’”. The evangelical Taufer became effective evangelists who went into the highways and along the ‘hedges’, preaching. Most significant were their assumptions that a great Christendom culture after a thousand years of Christian teaching, needed to hear the Gospel and that the responsibility of witnessing was not the professional task of a particular class of Christians. According to the Anabaptists, the Great Commission followed baptism and therefore it became the task of every believer. This was a revolutionary idea which if practiced generally would soon change the face of Christendom.
He then proceeds to take us on a hop, skip and a jump through the Gospel according to Luke, pointing out passages which are relevant to his thesis. He particularly highlights the fact that the ‘Zealot option’ (violent rebellion against the oppressors) must have been a continual temptation to Jesus, and points out moments in the story when Jesus was specifically rejecting it. His conclusion is:
Jesus was not just a moralist whose teachings had some political implications; he was not primarily a teacher of spirituality whose public ministry unfortunately was seen in a political light; he was not just a sacrificial lamb preparing for his immolation, or a God-Man whose divine status calls us to disregard his humanity. Jesus was, in his divinely mandated (i.e. promised, anointed, messianic) prophethood, priesthood, and kingship, the bearer of a new possibility of human, social, and therefore political relationships…No slicing can avoid his call to an ethic marked by the cross, a cross identified as the punishment of a man who threatens society by creating a new kind of community leading a radically new kind of life.
Yoder goes on to examine the idea of the Year of Jubilee, which included (1) leaving the soil fallow, (2) the remission of debts, (3) the liberation of slaves, and (4) the return to each individual of his family’s property. He traces elements of these ideas in the teaching of Jesus – particularly the remission of debt, which is resent in the Lord’s Prayer and in several of the parables.
In his next chapter Yoder looks at the violence of the Old Testament. He points out that the question of whether or not it is legitimate to use violence would not have occurred to the Old Testament authors, so it is not appropriate to use ‘the wars of Yahweh’ as an argument for the legitimacy of war, as this was not the issue being addressed. The real issue, he argues, is the number of times in which Israel is promised that ‘God will fight for you’ – sometimes without their participation at all – and the times in which they are rebuked for trusting in their own military prowess (or that of others) rather than in God’s defence.
And so Yoder’s argument goes on. He leads us through passages in the epistles which show that concern for Jesus’ social ethic continued in the early church. He asserts (overstating his case somewhat, in my opinion) that the concept of ‘following the example of Jesus’ in the New Testament is never applied as a general principle, but only in the context of following his nonviolent acceptance of the cross rather than resistance and retaliation.
In a particularly brilliant chapter he considers the subject of ‘Christ and Power’, examining the language of ‘Principalities and Powers’ in the New Testament and applying it to the powers and structures of society – structures which were created by God for our blessing, but which have rebelled and tried to become autonomous absolute rulers. Jesus’ Cross has ‘made a public example of them’ (i.e unmasked the evil that they do), ‘triumphed over them’, and ‘disarmed’ them of their weapon of illusion, the illusion that they are in control. The work of the Church, Yoder says, is not to attempt a frontal assault on the Powers (Jesus has already done that), but to live in joyful freedom from them, proclaiming that they have been defeated at the Cross.
In an especially controversial chapter entitled ‘Revolutionary Subordination’, Yoder examines the ‘house tables’ of Ephesians, Colossians and elsewhere, which are often asserted to show the essential social conservatism of the time, and shows that they are radically different from similar tables in the writings of the Stoic and others. He points out that if women and slaves were tempted to rebel against their accepted social position, it can only be because the preaching of Paul had taught essential equality. He notes that Paul takes the revolutionary step of addressing both sides of the structure (the Stoics only addressed the men in power, not those under their authority), and that Paul addresses women and slaves as free moral agents making the choice to accept a certain order ‘out of reverence for Christ’. Paul’s directions to those in power (husbands, fathers, masters) also point in the direction of equality, not dominance. In all of this Paul is moving in a completely different direction from the social conservatism of which he is often accused.
In a brilliant chapter on Romans 13 (which has often been used to show that Christians should submit to the State when it calls on them to serve in war), Yoder points out that this chapter is only one of the places in the New Testament in which the subject of the state is considered, and that if we hold it in balance with the others (places in which the state is seen as the province of the sovereignty of the devil, for intance, or as one of the Powers, or even as a Beast) we might get a very different view. He shows how Romans 13 should be interpreted in the context of the whole letter to the Romans, and concludes:
Romans 12-13 and Matthew 5-7 are not in contradiction or in tension. Theyboth instruct Christians to be nonresistant in all their relationships, including the social. They both call the disciples of Jesus to renounce participation in the interplay of egoisms which this world calls vengeance’ and ‘justice’. They both call Christians to respect and be subject to the historical process in which the sword continues to be wielded and to bring about a kind of order under fire, but not to perceive in the wielding of the sword their own reconciling ministry.
Yoder’s chapter on Justification is perhaps the least controversial in the book; the work of many fine scholars since The Politics of Jesus was written (notably N.T. Wright) have underscored the social dimensions of justification, which was not just about the curing of the neurotic consciences of troubled individuals but the restoration of right relationships, the ‘removal of the dividing wall’ between Jews and Gentiles and the making of one new humanity (Ephesians 3).
In his final chapter Yoder examines the liturgical passages embedded in the Book of Revelation and discovers there that the Lamb who freely offers himself in suffering love – who submits to death at the hand of Power and thereby triumphs over it – turns out to have the key to history. ‘Our Lamb has conquered; him let us follow’.
And so Yoder sets out his case for a Christianity which is social relevant, without being comfortably integrated by and into society as a whole. His vision of the Christian community is of a countercultural movement which challenges the Powers, neither by direct revolution nor by collusion in the unjust structures, but by being true to its own identity as the new people of God. He traces this pattern of thought directly back to Jesus, who announced the Kingdom of God in all its revolutionary distinctiveness, and who refused both the path of cooperation and the path of violent revolution. The community that follows this Jesus will be marked by social justice, radical equality (extending to the forgiveness of debt), nonviolence and love for enemies, revolutionary subordination, and a visible unity in which people groups which have traditionally been at each others’ throats are seen to be reconciled through the cross of Christ. This is a high calling, but Yoder has shown that faithfulness to it is essential if (to use the title of one of his other essays), the church is truly to be the church.
Loving God, you have baptized us into one body, and made us to drink the one Spirit. Now grant us pure and faithful hearts that we may serve one another diligently in love and find no cause to separate or divide. Call each of us to esteem others better than ourselves so we may remain together in peace and joy. Grant these mercies to us and all your people. Amen. (Tijs Jeuriaenss, 1569)
O God of heaven, watch over your sheep, who are such a little flock, that we may not depart from you or be led astray. Keep us under your protection and sustain us in your will. Grant that those who teach false doctrine may amend their steps and do your will. Fill us with your divine power, O God, for we have no other Lord in heaven and earth but you. Amen. (Eighteen Martyrs, 1528)
Lord God, I will praise you now and until my end because you have given me faith, by which I have learned to know you. When I felt the heavy load of sin in me, you came to me with the Word of your divine grace. For this I will now praise and magnify your glorious name forever. Strengthen my faith, O Lord. Do not forget me, but be with me always. Protect me and teach me with your Holy Spirit that in all my sufferings I may receive your consolation. Dear Lord, help me to bear the cross to the destined place, and turn yourself to me with all grace, that I may commend my spirit into your hands. I sincerely pray for all my enemies, O Lord, however many there may be. Do not lay their sins to their charge. Lord, I entreat this according to your will. May God finish his holy work and give strength to the end. Amen. (George Blaurock and Hans van der Reve, 1529).
I cry to you from deepest need
O God, hear my call
Send your Holy Spirit to us
To comfort our deepest despair
As you have done to now, O Christ
We rely on your command
but now they want to kill us.
The flesh is weak, as you know
It fears the smallest pain
So fill us with your Spirit
We pray from our hearts
So that we may remain until the end
And go bravely into suffering
And not fear the pain.
The spirit is surely willing
to undergo suffering
Hear us, O Lord,
Through Jesus Christ your beloved Son!
We pray also for our enemies
Who know not what they do
and think not of your wrath.
We ask you, Father and Lord
As your loving children
Kindle the light through Jesus Christ
Even more in your little flock
That would be our hearts’ desire
That for which we hunger and thirst
And would bring us greatest joy.
You have received us in grace
And made us your servants
This we have all done willingly
And fulfilled with your help
Keep us pure in your word
We want to be obedient to you
Give us aid and comfort
You, Lord God, are our protection
We lift ourselves up to you
So it is but a small pain
If our lives be taken from us
You have prepared for us in eternity
So if here we suffer insult and blows
It will not be for nothing.
Body, soul, life, and limbs
We have received from you
These we offer up to you
To praise and glorify your name
It is nothing but dust and ashes
We commend to you our spirit, O God,
Take it into your hands. Amen.
(Seven Prisoners in Gmund).