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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