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.

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Tim Chesterton

Family man; pastor of St. Margaret's Anglican Church on Ellerslie Road, Edmonton; storyteller; traditional folk musician and occasional songwriter. Email me at timchesterton at outlook dot com.

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