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!

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