Sabbatical Report Number 19

John Howard Yoder: The Royal Priesthood – ‘part the fourth’…


I have now finished the remaining essays in John Howard Yoder’s The Royal Priesthood. I don’t intend to summarise all of them as some are repetitive (almost inevitable in a collection of essays originating in different situations but approaching the same general themes) and some of them are more relevant to the situation in inter-church dialogues in the 1970s and 1980s than to the situation today. But here are some of the highlights:

‘Christ, the Hope of the World’. In this essay Yoder analyses not only classic Constantinianism but also the various ‘neo-Constantinianisms’ which have followed it – all variations on the theme of an alliance between the church and the world, or a part of the world. ‘Each says that it is right to identify God’s cause with a human power structure… They differ only in that (in their view) the generation before made the wrong choice of which authority to bless’. Yoder goes on to discuss the church’s call to be a sign to the world of the lordship of Christ, who is the ultimate hope for the world.

‘The Nature of the Unity We Seek: A Historic Free Church View’. This essay dates back to 1957 and is one of Yoder’s earliest contributions and critiques of the ecumenical movement. He spells out a historic free church view of Christian unity, centred on the confession of faith in Christ arising out of the local gathering of Christians (in contrast to mainline ecumenical discussions which often focus on statements of faith made by national bodies). He also emphasizes the importance of an international orientation in ecumenical relations, as opposed to the kind of dialogues which are carried out between national churches (which do not give adequate testimony to the trans-national character of the church).

‘The Free Church Ecumenical Style’ dates from 1968. In it Yoder once again argues against the mainstream concept of ecumenical dialogue and critiques the approach to Christian unity which sees mergers between Christian denominations as the way forward. The problem, he says, is that these mergers usually do not deal with the real divisions in the churches ‘between rich and poor, between liberal and conservative, between races, between east and west. These divisions go down the middle of existing denominations and are the separations that would really demand reconciling initiative’. But he also critiques the ‘spiritualist’ view (i.e. the one that says ‘structures don’t matter because we’re already all united in Christ at a spiritual level’). True ecumenical conversation, in Yoder’s view, is primarily local; those who are most likely to meet together on an ongoing basis are the ones who should be entering into dialogue with each other.

‘The Disavowal of Constantine: An Alternative Perspective on Interfaith Dialogue’ dates from 1976. In it Yoder spells out what he sees as a ‘free church’ perspective on how interfaith dialogue should proceed. He asks what difference it would make if, instead of seeing each religion as represented by its most powerful ‘establishment’ branch, a specifically Christian witness in interfaith dialogue included the disavowal of the whole concept of ‘establishment’ (i.e. the Christendom situation where the church operated from a position of state-sanctioned power). What if ‘Christians were given the grace to say, “We were wrong. The picture you have been given of Jesus by the Empire, by the Crusades, by struggles over the holy sites, and by wars in the name of the ‘Christian West’ is not only something to forget but something to forgive. We are not merely outgrowing it, as if it had been acceptable at the time: we disavow it and repent of it. It was wrong even when it seemed to us to be going well. We want our repentance to be not mere remorse but a new mind issuing in a new way – metanoia”’.

Not that Yoder wants to back of from evangelism. “Mission and dialogue are not alternatives: each is valid only within the other, properly understood”. Indeed, he says that true dialogue must always involve the possibility that the other might persuade me to accept their point of view. But his vision of mission and dialogue starts from a position of repentance for Christian imperialism. “There is no alternative but painstakingly, feebly, repentantly, patiently, locally, to disentangle that Jesus from the Christ of Byzantium and of Torquemada. The disavowal of Constantine is then not a distraction but the condition of the historical seriousness of the confession that Jesus Christ is Lord”.
I found this one of the most exciting essays in the book. So often when I am talking with non-church people about Jesus and about church, I realize that the pictures those words conjure up in their minds are very different from the pictures I am seeing. My ‘Jesus’ is the radical Jesus who lived, died and rose again to change the world and bring in God’s kingdom of justice and peace; my ‘church’ is a community of radical disciples who have decided to follow Jesus in a counter-cultural way, no matter what the cost. But the heritage of Christendom means that other people have very different images of Jesus and his church, images involving wealth and power and abuse and imperialism. Repentance and open disavowal of this heritage, it seems to me, is absolutely vital for real Christian mission.
I suspect that from a practical point of view ‘Binding and Loosing’ may be the most important essay in this book. It is a study outline designed to explore the practice of church discipline as described by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-20 – a passage which is almost completely ignored in most mainline Protestant churches, and in most Roman Catholic churches is effectively reserved as the prerogative of the priest.

After giving his own translation of Matthew 18:15-20 Yoder then explains the twofold meaning of ‘binding’ and ‘loosing’; the words refer, in the first place, to forgiveness, and in the second place, to moral discernment. To ‘bind’ can mean not to forgive, and also to ‘enjoin’, to ‘make obligatory’; to ‘loose’ can mean to ‘forgive’ and also ‘to allow, to leave free’. The authority to bind and loose has been given by Christ to his church (by which Yoder means not an official church hierarchy but the gathered community of local believers in a given place), and the Holy Spirit is given to the church to help in this task. The purpose of this process is reconciliation and this governs the way in which it is carried out. Everyone in the church, and not just an ordained minister, shares responsibility for the reconciling approach.
I cannot go into sufficient detail to do justice to the superb way in which Yoder brings out the meaning of this text. All I want to say here is that I have gain been struck by how my own church, the Anglican church, has ignored this passage, and I have colluded with this act of denominational disobedience. Jesus says in this passage that if I see a brother or sister sinning, I should go and speak to them about it. If they do not listen, I should go back with two or three others, and if they still do not listen I should take the matter to the whole congregation gathered in the presence of Jesus to resolve the issue. This is done not in a judgmental way but because real love is not mere sentiment but genuine concern for the well-being of my sisters and brothers. If I see them going astray and say nothing, how is this a demonstration of concern for their spiritual well-being?
In historic Anabaptism this was accepted as a part of the meaning of believers’ baptism. Candidates for baptism understood that they were committing themselves not only to Christ but also to his church, and this commitment involved both the giving of this sort of admonition and a willingness to receive it. But in the Anglican church today (despite the fact that officially we are against individualism) we seem to have enshrined the right of the individual member to live their life as seems best to them, out of respect for the individual conscience. Knowing how easy it is for me to persuade my conscience to go along with the urges of my own greed and lust, I must confess myself doubtful of the wisdom of this approach! And yet I know that if I attempted to introduce a practice such as that commanded by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-20, some people would be seriously offended at the church’s (and my) presuming the right to interfere in their personal lives.
So the word of Jesus (as interpreted here by Yoder) is a challenge to me. I do not think that it is a challenge that I can go on avoiding.

‘Sacrament as Social Process: Christ the Transformer of Culture’. In this essay (which he later expanded into his excellent book Body Politics) Yoder describes five practices of the New Testament church and concentrates not on what later generations might (in some cases, did) call their ‘sacramental’ meaning, but rather on their sociological meaning for the body of believers. Fraternal admonition is the practice described in the previous essay and in Matthew 18:15-20; Yoder points out that on one level it is a merely human process, but the text says that God is working in it throughout: ‘Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven…’. The universality of charisma refers to the giftedness and the ministry of every member of the believing community, so that ministry is not hierarchical but is the activity of all.The Spirit’s freedom in the meeting refers to 1 Corinthians 14 and Acts 15 and describes the process in which an issue is raised in the church, every member has the right to speak, consensus emerges and ‘it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ that such and such a solution is the right one. Breaking bread refers to the Eucharist, but this is understood primarily by Yoder not in its later sacramentalist meanings but in the primary sense of economic sharing: ‘Do this in remembrance of me when you have your common meal’. Christ is present among us as we share our goods freely with one another. Induction into the new humanity sees baptism as an egalitarian act that does away with distinctions of race, class or gender – ‘neither Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female’.

Yoder goes on to point out that these are all human actions which in the gospel also become acts of God. They constitute the believing community as a social body. They could be a paradigm for ways in which other social groups might operate. They are not originally ‘ritual’ activities. They are enabled and illuminated by Jesus the Messiah, the Lord, and they root the process of change in the community, not in the autonomous individual.
I note once gain that in the Anglican church we have accepted a part but not all of this picture. We practice the Eucharist and baptism, but certainly do not emphasise the economic sharing dimension of the ‘breaking of bread’ and have often in our history allowed class distinctions in church to continue, despite what baptism says about this. ‘Fraternal admonition’ is almost nonexistent among us, and our meetings tend to run by Roberts’ Rules of Order and not by the process described as ‘the Spirit’s freedom in the meeting’. As for the universality of charisma – well, we may be moving in that direction, but we still often operate as if ordination makes someone an ontologically different type of Christian, someone ‘in holy orders’ as distinct from the rest of the body who presumably are in ‘unholy orders’! I find Yoder’s vision here exciting and challenging, and I know we have a long way to go before we reach the fullness of Christ as he describes it here.

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Sabbatical Report #18: More Essay Reports

Yoderian Essays Part 3

Here are my summaries of two more of the essays in John Howard Yoder’s book The Royal Priesthood, along with a personal reflection on one issue at the end.

‘Let the Church be the Church’.

In this essay Yoder continues to emphasise his familiar themes of the difference between the church and the world, and the distinctive calling of the church. The basic distinction in society is between those who confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and those who do not. For those who do, their confession commits them to a relative independence of other loyalties.

Some Anglican theology has seen part of the significance of the incarnation in the idea that God’s coming among us as a human being has sanctified every aspect of our ordinary human life. But in fact God did not come among us to sanctify our society and our vocations as they are, but rather to show what we must do and what we must leave behind. God’s pattern in incarnation was that of Abraham, the nomad who left behind his home civilization, not of Constantine, who sought God’s blessing on his society as it was.

The church in the past has often been represented by the ‘chaplain’ who is called on to bless an existing power structure. Some chaplains, strong people who serve well-intentioned ‘princes’ or ‘generals’, can use the power of their position to impose on all of society the vision of morality prescribed by religion; this is the ‘puritan’ pattern of chaplaincy, and tends to produce the two types of people seen in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. Other chaplains limit themselves to calling down sacramentally the blessing of God on society, sanctifying anything that society (or its prince) needs to do to keep society (or rather the prince’s place in it) afloat. This is the ‘court priest’ pattern of chaplaincy.

Both these patterns of chaplaincy are looking for a course of human behaviour that is possible for all women and men. But Christian ethics calls for behaviour that is impossible except by the miracles of the Holy Spirit! It also recognizes the minority status of the church, and rejoices in it because it helps us to renounce the idea that we must provide an ethic that is workable for people who have no faith in Jesus Christ.


The Christian community is the only community whose social hope is that we need not rule because Jesus Christ is Lord. And because it is from the cross that he reigns, we can be set free from the idea that our success is the thing that will bring about the triumph of God in human history. It is this sort of ‘disestablishment’ – ‘not of buildings and bishoprics but of the soul of the church’ – that we need more than anything.

‘Christ, the Light of the World’

This essay (like the previous one) was originally presented as an address to the Episcopal Pacifist Fellowship in 1964 and deals more directly with the implications of discipleship for Christian pacifism; it takes its title from a recent theme slogan of a meeting of the World Council of Churches, and as its starting point a book by one of the WCC leaders, Willem A. Visser ‘t Hooft, The Kingship of Christ. This title, Yoder says, is a resounding truth claim within Christendom.

In much of the Christian world there is an assumption that there is another self-evident body of truth, given to all humanity, which gives us reasonable guidance different from that which we might learn from Jesus. This body of reasonable truth is often appealed to by defenders of the just war tradition, and its effect is to marginalize Jesus – not just his words, but the significance of his life.

Jesus must be seen not just as a teacher or as an actor on the social scene but in the unity of his person and his teaching. ‘His life is a life according to the Sermon on the Mount; the cross is the meaning of his moral teaching’. The concept of incarnation is not discussed in an abstract metaphysical way in the New Testament; rather, it concerns Jesus’ perfect obedience to the will of the Father and thus his revelation of the nature of the Father. Jesus takes the side of the poor; Jesus takes a whip of cords and a cross, instead of a crown and a sword. The Gospel is that this is what God does for his enemies, and this is a revealed moral imperative for those who would belong to and obey God. There is also a sober realism about it – Jesus does not claim that the end result will always be happy. It is possible to live this way, if you are also prepared to die this way (‘take up your cross…’).

I quote one paragraph in full:

‘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’.

Increasingly, sober criticism of pacifism accepts the idea of a nonresistant Jesus, but then relativises him by insisting that we must appeal to some other ethical standard in our consideration of war – some ‘other light’. One such light is the doctrine of the ‘just war’, which deserves respect because it does admit that ethical judgements can be pronounced against the use of certain kinds of violence in wartime – in practice, in wartime, most Christians will not grant this (I am reminded of the outrage that greeted Bishop George Bell when he criticized the carpet bombing of German cities in World War Two on the grounds of the just war theory!). Other ‘lights’ include appeal to the ‘orders of creation’ (‘God created a world in which there is authority, whose bearers justify their violence by various moral claims; therefore we must take it on God’s authority that God wants us to operate that way’), or to immediate revelations from the Holy Spirit (from Montanus in the second century to the ‘situation ethics’ of the 1960s), or to an ethic of love whose content is different from that taught us by Jesus. All of these appeals call us to place our faith in some other channel of ethical insight than Jesus, and all find in this alternative channel another substance of ethical instruction.

What we are dealing with here is nothing less than an alternative revelation claim – not just filling in the gaps, but actually contradicting what Jesus taught. On the one hand, we have the teaching of Jesus that ‘In the world kings lord it over their subjects, and those in authority are called their nation’s benefactors. Not so with you’ (Luke 22:25-26); on the other hand, we have those who believe it is our calling to use power and violence to make history ‘turn out right’ (as we define ‘right’ from the place we are standing at present). This is to deny that Jesus is in fact the light of the world, and to appeal to some other source of light in his place.


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As I continue to read and ponder Yoder’s thoughts I find much to agree with, much to challenge me, and a couple of things I find troubling. One of the latter is what seems to be his belief that Christians may not take part in the government of their countries. To him, this flows naturally from Jesus’ words (which he quotes above) about not lording it over others, and also Jesus’ question, ‘Who made me a ruler and judge over you?’ “As he is, so are we in the world” is then taken to mean that because Jesus refused the roles of ruler and judge, so should we.
I see the strength of Yoder’s argument. The church has a distinct function in the world, to witness to the gospel by its words and actions and its life together, and as such the state role can be a distraction from this. Many Christians have indeed allowed it to be a distraction, and have fallen into the mistaken assumption (which he strongly and rightly refutes) that right at the centre of God’s plan of salvation for the world is found, not the church of Jesus Christ, but the civilian government of so-called ‘Christian’ countries. Moreover, in biblical times and in the era of the early Anabaptists, taking part in civil government involved people inescapably in two functions forbidden to followers of Jesus: the use of the sword, and the taking and making of oaths. Swearing allegiance to an earthly ruler (still required of members of parliament in Canada) would also be seen as a contradiction to one’s ultimate allegiance to Christ alone.
However, there’s another side to the argument. Jesus commands us to love our neighbour as ourselves; in modern democracies, where everyone has a voice, can it not be part of our obedience to that command to persuade the people’s government to act in just and loving ways toward our neighbours near and far? Was William Wilberforce wrong, for instance, to use his position as a Christian politician to work for the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire? Because it seems to me that if Yoder’s logic is followed to its conclusion, Wilberforce should have resigned from Parliament and spent his energies persuading his Christian brothers and sisters to free their slaves – no doubt a commendable thing to do, but not quite the victory for freedom that was March 25th 1807.
So I find I disagree with Yoder here. I find that modern democracy puts another tool in the hand of the Christian – not coercion or force, but persuasion. Persuasion was what Wilberforce and his colleagues used to such good effect. And Wilberforce made it quite clear by the way he lived his life that his first loyalty was to Jesus Christ and not to his prime minister or even the British crown.

However, I think that modern Christian politicians will always find themselves in positions of conflict because of the state’s power to compel and, in some situations, to kill. In these situations I think the force of Yoder’s argument still stands. Compulsion and violence is contradictory to the teaching and example of Jesus. And we must also recognise that some of the most important moments of history, seen in the light of eternity, do not take place in government chambers or battlefields but in small houses and situations no one has ever heard of. As my musical friend Martin Kerr sang to a couple of his friends on their wedding day, ‘Bono can’t change the world/any more than you two can’. Amen.

Sabbatical Report #17: You Meet Some Interesting People, Part 2

Chester Anabaptist Study Group

One of the things that I was looking forward to about my sabbatical leave was the opportunity to meet with a number of the regional study groups of the Anabaptist Network up and down the country; there are about fourteen of them, although some are dormant at the moment. Alas, it was not to be; for one reason or another, in most cases it has not been possible for me to get together with these regional groups. So it was a special treat for me last night to meet with the Cheshire Anabaptist Study Group, meeting in the Friends Meeting House at Cheadle Hulme, under the gentle and capable guidance of its convener, Brian Haymes.

About twelve people gathered, some of them newcomers like me; they were mainly Baptist and house church folk, with one Roman Catholic and myself making up the small-c ‘catholic’ side of Christianity. We each introduced ourselves, and Brian gave a special welcome to me as ‘the one who was least likely to come back!’ We then went right into a study of chapter four of the book A Culture of Peace, by Alan and Ellie Kreider and Paulus Widjaja, which deals with ‘Peace in the Church’. We discussed the story of Dirk Willems and what it has to say to us about peacemaking today, and we talked about what we can do as churches to train people in the reflex of loving and forgiving their enemies.

A little later in the evening we looked at the key passage on reconciliation in the church, Matthew 18:15-20. Our study book pointed out that this passage assumes that there will be conflict in the church. When it happens, we are to go privately to our sister or brother, without gossiping or involving anyone else in the process as yet. The aim is for listening to take place, and indeed it is possible and desirable that this be two-waylistening. If no listening takes place, we are to treat the offender as a tax collector or a Gentile – usually interpreted to mean excluding them, but the authors point out that Jesus’ way of treating tax collectors and Gentiles was to continue to reach out to them!!!

One thing especially struck me – the last verse, in which Jesus promises that where two or three are gathered in his name he is there among them. Brian asked, “How would we talk to one another in these situations if we knew that Jesus was there with us?”

We shared with one another our struggles with this passage, and a couple of us admitted that, being afraid of conflict, we didn’t find it easy to obey Jesus here. I reflected that a lot of trouble has come to me in my ministry because I have not followed the clear and simple instructions Jesus gives here. If I am to be serious about being a disciple in the Anabaptist tradition – in which peace and reconciliation figure so prominently – I have to stop thinking about this and start putting it into action.

All in all it was a very worthwhile discussion. We closed the evening with prayer and then a few minutes of friendly conversation before we went on our way. For me it was a wonderful experience of Christian fellowship amongst disciples who gathered together to discuss putting their Christian faith into practice. My evening with the Cheshire Anabaptist Study Group will stand out, I think, in a very simple and straightforward way, as one of the highlights of my sabbatical leave.

Sabbatical Report #16: Essay Reviews

More Yoderian Essay Summaries

I have now read five of the essays in John Howard Yoder’s book The Royal Priesthood.

  • The first essay, ‘The Otherness of the Church’, I reviewed in my previous sabbatical report.

  • The second essay, ‘A People in the World’, deals with the characteristics of the church as viewed from a broadly ‘Believers’ Church’ perspective. The classic reformation definition of the church as the community in which ‘the Word of God is rightly preached and the sacraments duly administered’ is seen as inadequate, firstly because it is so subjective (who is to define ‘rightly’?), and secondly because it s all about what the clergy do and not about what the people as a wholedo. Yoder therefore expands it to include Menno Simons’ list: holy living, brotherly and sisterly love, witness, and the cross of suffering for one’s loyalty to Christ.

  • The third essay, ‘Why Ecclesiology is Social Ethics: Gospel Ethics Versus the Wider Wisdom’ deals with the role of the church as the foretaste of the age that is to come. Starting from a statement by Karl Barth, Yoder goes on once again to argue for the distinctiveness of the church and its centrality in God’s plan. Christian social ethics are the ethics that characterize a community of believers, and they are centred on Jesus and his story, not on some ‘wider wisdom’ discovered somewhere else.

  • The fourth essay, ‘To Serve our God and Rule the World’, takes as its text what I believe is the New English Bible rendering of Revelation 5:10, and sets the discipline of Christian ethics in the context of what verses 7-10 have to say about the role of the church as doxology. To affirm that the Lamb who was slain is the ruler of the universe is to affirm that history is moving toward its fulfillment in the universal acknowledgement of his reign. Not all events in history will be viewed as ‘progress’ in the light of the reign of the Lamb, but only those events which conform to the character of the one who walked the way of the Cross.

  • The fifth essay, ‘Peace without Eschatology’, returns to the theme of God’s purposes for the world and their coming fulfillment. Yoder outlines the Christian understanding of history as composed of two aeons or ‘ages’ – the old age and the age to come – which overlap at our present time. The new aeon is characterised by agape – self-giving, non-resistant love, exemplified in the cross on which God demonstrates how he deals with evil and how he wins the victory over it. Discipleship is a matter of ‘as he is, so are we in this world’ (1 John 4:17). And yet the old aeon has also been brought under the reign of Christ, as is shown by New Testament passages such as Romans 13 which see the non-Christian state as having a role in God’s purposes of restraining evil. The church, however, is not seen in the New Testament as participating in this work; it has a different mission. True peace is seen eschatologically; it will be the work of God in the fulfilment of history, something the church can and should live toward, but cannot bring about by its own efforts. Christendom, by contrast, discounts biblical eschatology and sees its role as bringing about God’s peace now, usually using the methods of the old aeon (legislation, the sword) and not the new (love and nonviolence).

This is a very brief summary of the argument of these four essays; in no way should it be a substitute for people reading the essays for themselves. Yoder is a brilliant writer and biblical exegete and his prose is a pleasure to read; in a moment I will give some quotes. First, however, let me summarise a few themes that keep emerging (in no particular order).

  • ‘Jesus is Lord’ is not just a statement about the inner psychological preferences of individual Christians. It is an objective statement about the condition of the universe. The Lamb who was slain is at the centre of the throne. He is guiding history toward its consummation in the fulfillment of the new aeon, but even the old aeon is under his lordship. This is the basic message the church is called to proclaim: we are to announce the Lordship of Jesus Christ and live in loyalty to him rather than to any earthly ruler. This loyalty is what makes us distinctive.

  • The basic Constantinian error (which was maintained throughout Christendom) was to blur the distinction between the church and the world. The whole world was understood to be part of the church by virtue of being born into a Christian society and being baptized at birth. But then the church had to deal with the fact that many of those who were in its pews had little or no real faith in Christ. Christian ethics therefore had to be toned down to what was achievable by the virtuous unbeliever, and the distinctive gospel witness was thus obscured.

  • This leads to the next common thread: Christian ethics is for Christians. The Church has a distinct call in the purposes of God, and this gives it a distinct lifestyle appropriate for what it is about. It is not biblical to evaluate this lifestyle according to whether or not it is possible for the whole world, because the New Testament never claims that it is. To ask, “What would happen if we were all pacifists?” is to miss the point; we aren’t, and probably never will be! Jesus calls his true church a ‘little flock’ and expects that it will be observably different from the world around it.

  • The Gospel is not to be understood as being simply about how individuals can alleviate their guilt and find forgiveness and peace of mind. That is to read the tortured psychological history of Martin Luther back into the New Testament. The Gospel, according to the New Testament, is about the creation of a new people for God, formed from communities (Jews and Gentiles) which historically have been at loggerheads with each other. Thus the God who loves his enemies calls into being a people who are learning to imitate him and love their enemies. According to Ephesians 3, this is the centre of God’s plan; this is the great and amazing mystery which has been revealed to Paul.

  • The Believers’ Church tradition is sometimes referred to as ‘sectarian’, with the mainstream churches described as ‘Church’, but in fact the opposite is the case. The state churches (Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran) have historically been coerced by the state into blessing the nationalistic and territorial ambitions of self-centred rulers, and in thus blessing their ambitions these state churches have allowed Christ’s Body to be divided between national loyalties – in other words, to split up into nationally-defined ‘sects’. It is the Believers’ Church tradition, by contrast (and particularly the Anabaptist movement) which has insisted on the international character of the Church – that Christians owe their primary loyalty to Jesus Christ and his one undivided body which exists across national boundaries and transcends tribal divisions. In this sense, it is truly the Believers’ Church which is ‘the Church’ and the mainstream national churches which are ‘sects’! (For an Anglican this one hits home; you have only to think of all those national flags in Anglican churches!)

I could go on, but I want to conclude by giving a few choice ‘Yoderisms’:

‘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).


These are just a few choice ‘Yoderisms’; I could give many more! My reading of this book continues today; it’s pouring with rain in Manchester, where I am staying with my brother and his family, so there isn’t much else to do!

Sabbatical Report #15: Essay Review

John Howard Yoder: ‘The Otherness of the Church’ in The Royal Priesthood

41k8EPgcnULMy 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.

Sabbatical Report #14: You Get to Meet Some Interesting People…

 

This past week I have met two very interesting people in the context of my Anabaptist pilgrimage through England.
 
Professor Chris Rowland has the exalted title of ‘Dean Ireland’s Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture’ at Oxford University. A recent description of Chris’ interests reads as follows:

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.

 
Despite this formidable sounding list, I was interested in meeting Chris because he has participated in Anabaptist Network activities. He has told his own story of his discovery of the Anabaptist tradition here, and was one of the first people I contacted a few years ago when I became interested in Anabaptism. I decided to visit Oxford and emailed Chris (after having no contact for a couple of years) on the spur of the moment about getting together; to my delight he was available for a short meeting in his lair at Queen’s College. I found him to be a wonderfully welcoming person and a very provocative thinker; I was particularly interested in the connections he has made between Anabaptist thinking and radical movements in England in the 17th century, and also with contemporary liberation theology. I tend to practice Anglicanism ‘from the edge’ and I discovered that Chris does too – perhaps a slightly different edge than me, but nonetheless I found our conversation very affirming. Today I bought a book he has edited, a collection of Radical Christian Writings from the earliest times to the present day, and am looking forward to reading it.
 
I first met Dr. Ruth Gouldbourne at the Anabaptist Network Theology forum

 

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. 

 
Ruth has been a pastor, a college lecturer in history and doctrine, and also a ‘what?’ (you have to read her CV!), and she has also been involved in the Anabaptist Network for some years (she’s written about that here). Her interests are wide-ranging, from Church History to Gender studies to counseling to… – well, ‘Following Jesus’ sums it all up, I think! Today, after showing me around the church, she took me over to the British Museum coffee shop for a cup of coffee, and we had a delightful conversation about all sorts of subjects, with Anabaptism and its implications for life and ministry as a sort of controlling theme (although control was far from either of our minds!).

 


 
Talking with both of these disciples of Jesus brought home to me once again what a privilege it is for me to be having this sabbatical leave. It’s great to build relationships with people whose views are often very different from mine, but who are obviously grappling with the serious issues of following Jesus in the modern world and have found some inspiration for that in Anabaptism.

Sabbatical Report #13: Book Review

Guy F. Hershberger, Ed.: The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision

 

 

 

This is an old book, published in 1957, the year before I was born, and now out of print (my link above leads to some second hand copies on ‘Abebooks’). I read it on the recommendation of Ed Shirk, one of the hosts here at the London Mennonite Centre, and I’m very glad I did. I found much to admire, and also learned a lot about Mennonite history and Mennonite self-understanding.

 

 

 

 

This is a collection of essays to celebrate the 60th birthday of Harold S. Bender. Bender was a Mennonite historian and scholar who had an enormous influence on Mennonite Christianity in the middle of the 20th century. In 1943 he delivered a presidential address to the American Society of Church History entitled ‘The Anabaptist Vision’. Briefly put, Bender identified three elements as key to the Anabaptist view:

 

 

‘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’.

 

This crystalising of the key elements of Anabaptism apparently had an enormous impact on Mennonites at the time, galvanizing them into a re-appropriation of their heritage which in a very real sense had been in danger of being lost altogether.

 

 

 

 

This book of essays (which includes Bender’s original address, ‘The Anabaptist Vision’) was written at an interesting time; fourteen years on, Mennonites were still apparently excited about Bender’s vision and had not yet begun to ask critical questions about it (which came a few years later). So here in this collection we have twenty-four essays from a group of scholars, most of whom I’m unfamiliar with, although one of the pieces is by a very young John Howard Yoder (in my view, by far the best essay in the book), and other writers include Roland Bainton and Ernest Payne. We have historical essays on the rise of Anabaptism, a group of essays on Anabaptist theology (including Yoder’s ‘The Prophetic Dissent of the Anabaptists’ which examines the dialogues between the Anabaptists and the Reformed Christians in Zurich in 1523-5), and then a collection on continuing Anabaptist history.

 

 

 

 

Allow me to give a lengthy quote from Yoder:

 

 

‘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.

 

 

 

 

This is a truly rich quote from Yoder, and I plan to unpack it in a future post as I think some of the references will be unclear to some of my readers. But I was struck by his identification of evangelism as a key concern of the Anabaptists. History bears him out; the early Anabaptists were deeply committed to evangelism and the (largely lay and illiterate) evangelists traveled up and down western Europe making thousands of converts.

 

 

 

Lawrence Burkholder’s essay in this book, entitled ‘The Anabaptist Vision of Discipleship’, underlines this point; he identifies ‘obedience to the Great Commission’ as the first outstanding feature of the Anabaptist view of discipleship (the others are ‘love and nonresistance’, ‘suffering in the spirit of cross-bearing’, and ‘the separated life of holiness’). He says:

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Evangelism belongs to the essential being of the church; evangelism (understood as obedience to the Great Commission) is the responsibility of every Christian, not just a professional class. How startling to read, then, in this book, that before very long the Anabaptists – or, as they had then become, the Mennonites and Hutterites – ceased to practice evangelism at all!

 

 

 

 

How did this happen? In a nutshell, it was a result of years of persecution. Anabaptists were pacifists in an age when it was perilous to refuse military service. Many times in their long history they had to negotiate safe living space in new territories because the places where they were currently living were becoming very unsympathetic to their pacifism. Many times new rulers were glad to let them move in, because of their reputation as honest hardworking farmers who would go into new territory and open it up for agriculture. But over and over again, the agreements which the Mennonite leaders negotiated with these new rulers included their acceptance of a strict moratorium on attempting to make new converts. Abandoning evangelism was the price they paid for safety and survival. And what a price! Blaurock, Grebel, Sattler and the other martyrs of Zurich would have been flabbergasted to hear that their spiritual descendants would even conceive of such a thing! And yet, who can fail to understand the pressure these people felt to buy safety for their families in this way?

 

 

 

 

And so a movement which began with a burning desire to change the world, eventually, as a result (if I may reverently and respectfully say so) of ‘having the shit kicked out of it’ for years, came to find a different way of relating to the world – or, to be more accurate, two different ways. Broadly speaking, according to the authors of this book, Mennonites in later years did one of two things.

 

 

 

 

Some of them withdrew physically from the world, living in isolated communities protected from the world by geography and by their distinct language and culture. In effect (as Yoder has pointed out in another place), a movement which began as a protest against Christendom ended up forming many little Christendoms, in which the supposedly free choice to become a disciple of Jesus (on which Anabaptism had been founded) was replaced by all the pressure a distinct community can bring upon its members (especially its young members) to conform. And (as Rudy Wiebe portrayed it so graphically, a few years after this book was written, in his brilliant novel Peace Shall Destroy Many) keeping one’s distinctiveness from the world (which meant preserving the German language and culture as a hedge to keep out the world) effectively meant that evangelism of non-German-speaking peoples could not take place; after all, where would new converts go to church?

 

 

 

 

The other solution, which apparently happened in the seventeenth century in the Netherlands and later in Germany, was for Mennonites to conform to society, to gradually dull the edge of simple living, nonviolence, the refusal of the oath etc., and to become simply another pietistic form of Christianity like many others, which gave no challenge to the world around them except by pointing toward a faith in Jesus which had very little bite to it. This solution to the problem has a contemporary ring to it, and I suspect that Mennonites are far from being the only ones who have been tempted by it.

 

 

 

 

Hence the need to recover a distinctive Anabaptist vision – neither living like the world, nor withdrawing from it, but engaging it as committed followers of Jesus. Undoubtedly Harold Bender’s challenge to the Anabaptist world in 1943 had a hugely positive effect and went along way toward helping them recover their sense of mission and purpose.

 

 

 

 

However, later generations have noticed a few holes in Bender’s argument. Bender saw the pure Anabaptism as flowing from the Swiss Brethren in the early 1520s; he saw it as having been adopted by Menno Simons in his work of reshaping the Dutch Mennonite communities after the disaster of Münster and hence becoming the defining character of the Anabaptist movement as a whole. This has become known as the theory of ‘Monogenesis’ – in other words, Anabaptism had one pure source: Zurich, 1525.

 

 

 

 

The problem with this theory is that it leaves out many people who would have been thought of as Anabaptists in the 16th century, for no other reason than that they represent emphases which Mennonites later abandoned. And so Arnold Snyder and other Mennonite historians in the last thirty years have proposed a new theory, polygenesis. As Snyder outlines it in his book Anabaptist History and Theology’, it recognizes at least three emphases in sixteenth century Anabaptism:

 

  • Literal/biblical, oriented toward discipleship (mainly the Swiss Brethren)
  • Spiritual/mystical, oriented toward the inner work and voice of the Spirit (mainly the south German and Austrian Anabaptists).
  • Apocalyptic, oriented toward speculations about the end of the world (mainly the north German and Dutch until Münster – after that, Menno led them slowly into the more Swiss style).

 

 

 

The problem with Bender’s analysis is that it leaves out or marginalises great Anabaptist thinkers like Balthazar Hubmaier (who was not a pacifist) and Hans Denck (who was a mystic). It is neat and tidy, but real church history is rarely neat and tidy. And the fact is that the later Mennonites, who sometimes lapsed into legalism, could have used a bigger dose of the gentler mysticism of a Denck. Again, it is better and more honest to accept that the Münster people were Anabaptists who went off the rails than to pretend that they were never really Anabaptists at all.

 

 

 

 

I must stop here, but I must confess that I am thinking about the application of this principle to the UK Anabaptist Network as well. Sometimes I see some romantic idealizing going on. People talk about ‘Anabaptist values’, but it isn’t always easy to see how those values connect with the real Anabaptist groups – Mennonite, Brethren in Christ, Hutterite, Amish – who have lived their brave and flawed church lives in the nearly five hundred years since 1525. A ‘generic’ tradition can be a lot easier to romanticize than a real and imperfect denomination.

 

 

 

 

So – more to come on the Yoder quote, and more to come on the advantages and disadvantages of ‘generic Anabaptism’!