Prayer Partners

Since about the second week in May, whenever I have been in Oakham I have atended daily Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer at the parish church, All Saints’, at 8.00 a.m. and 5.00 p.m. The crowd has varied, but the vast majority of times in the mornings these two guys – Vyv Wainwright and Jay Ridley – have been my prayer partners

I haven’t been one to make much of public daily prayer in the Anglican tradition, but these past two months have converted me. When I get back to work, I’m going to commit myself to being there at the church, morning and evening. One day, I might be able to do for someone else’s prayer life what these two brothers in Christ and their Daily Office have done for me. And that will be a privilege.

Thanks, Vyv and Jay. I’ll be praying for you – daily…

‘What does Anabaptism have to do with Anglicanism?’ – Part Two

Already in the late 1950s Mennonite scholars were beginning to question Harold Bender’s thesis; a tribute volume published in honour of his sixtieth birthday in 1957 called ‘The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision’ showed the beginnings of some cracks in the edifice. Bender’s approach became known as the ‘theory of monogenesis’ because he had taken the style of Anabaptism which emerged amongst the Swiss Brethren in the early 1520’s as normative, and had seen everything else as developing from them. Whatever agreed with their approach, and with Mennonite Christianity as it developed from them, was seen by Bender as ‘true Anabaptism’; what did not agree with them was somehow less true.

In fact, as Mennonite historians began to point out, the real story was not quite so neat as all that. In recent years Mennonite scholars such as Denny Weaver and Arnold Snyder have developed an alternative theory of Anabaptist origins which they call the ‘polygenesis’ theory because it recognizes that 16th century Anabaptism did not in fact all spring from the same root. There were in fact at least three identifiable streams of Anabaptism in Europe in the 1520s, and it is not clear whether or not their beginnings were connected, although later on they may have influenced each other. Geographically, they may be distinguished as the Swiss stream, the Austrian and South German stream, and the North German and Dutch stream.

The Swiss stream began as a radical fringe of the Reformation in Zurich under Ulrich Zwingli, and it was in this context that the first adult believers’ baptisms took place in the home of George Blaurock in January 1525. Blaurock was a member of a small group of radical reformers who rejected Zwingli’s policy that the Reformation in Zurich should proceed at the pace set by the city council; in their view, the city council should have no authority over the Word of God and the church of Jesus Christ. Members of this group included Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz; other influential leaders in the days ahead included the priest Balthasar Hubmaier and the monkMichael Sattler. It was Felix Manz who had the sad distinction of being the first Anabaptist martyr when the city council of Zurich drowned him in the river, in a mocking parody of his adult baptism.

The Swiss Brethren were characterized by a sober and literal emphasis on obedience to the word of Jesus. However, they were not all of one mind on subjects which later became central to the Anabaptist tradition. For instance, although the Zurich brethren rejected the authority of the state and renounced the use of violence, Hubmaier was less ready to give up the ideal of a Christian state and was not a pacifist. He was certainly one of the most theologically literate of the early Anabaptist leaders and wrote one of the earliest Anabaptist defences of adult baptism.

The Swiss Brethren evangelized enthusiastically in the countryside around Zurich and the movement grew fast. It was very quickly subjected to persecution and most of the early leaders, including Hubmaier, paid for their faith with their lives. In 1527 a group of the early leaders gathered at Schleitheim to plan further evangelistic work. They also produced a document identifying their distinctive Anabaptist beliefs; it became known as ‘the Schleitheim Confession’. Michael Sattler, a former Benedictine prior, was the major author of this influential document; he was executed shortly afterwards in a particularly vicious manner.

It was the Swiss Brethren who most closely resembled Harold Bender’s threefold description of Anabaptism: Christianity as discipleship, the church as a brotherhood, and an ethic of love and nonviolence. They were also characterized by a Christ-centred interpretation of scripture which gave priority to the gospels and the words of Jesus, an emphasis on simple multi-voiced worship rather than the liturgy of the Mass, and a strong sense of separation from the world.

The South German/Austrian stream seems to have begun in 1526 and had no real connection with the Swiss Brethren. Its early leaders were Hans Hut, Hans Denck, and Melchior Rinck; later Pilgram Marpeck became one of the most influential Anabaptist theologians. The South German/Austrian stream was the most ‘spiritualist’ of the Anabaptist movements; many of its early leaders downplayed the importance of outward ceremonies and membership in the visible church in favour of an inner, spiritual experience of Christianity. The influence of medieval mysticism is clear in their writings. They were less likely than the Swiss to appeal to the literal sense of Jesus’ words, and more likely to appeal to the ‘spirit of love’ in his life and example. Denck was one of the most successful Anabaptist evangelists but in later life he abandoned Anabaptism altogether in favour of a purely spiritualist view of Christianity. Marpeck, who was trained as a civil engineer, was a mediating influence between the mystical and literal approaches, and his writings became highly influential.

The Hutterites were a distinct group within the South German and Austrian tradition. All Anabaptists stressed mutual aid and the obligation of Christians to help one another in practical ways, seeing their wealth as a way of serving the poor. However, the Hutterites went further, holding all possessions in common and living in community as a sign of their unity as the Body of Christ. Most of the South German/Austrian stream of Anabaptism was eventually wiped out through persecution; today it is represented in the Anabaptist world only by the Hutterite communities around the world and by the surviving writings of its leaders, especially Marpeck and Denck.

The North German/Dutch stream began in Strasbourg in about 1530 under the leadership of an apocalyptic preacher named Melchior Hoffman, who was so influential that his name was taken by the movement as a whole, ‘Melchiorites’. Hoffman had a strong interest in end-times predictions, believing that he was living through the last days and that the kingdom of God was going to come on earth in a visible way in his lifetime. Hoffman was a pacifist, but some who followed in his footsteps were not. The movement entered a second phase in 1533 under the leadership of Jan Matthijs, who saw himself as the new Enoch. He taught that the people of God should use their swords of righteousness to put down the wicked and usher in the kingdom. Thousands flocked to him, and in 1534 he and his followers took over the city of Muenster in Westphalia, which they saw as the new Jerusalem. Their revolt was put down with much bloodshed in 1535, but this fateful incident was to have a long-term significance for the Anabaptist movement, as in the eyes of the rulers of Christendom it showed the Anabaptists to be dangerous fanatics.

After the disaster of Muenster the north German and Dutch movement was rallied by peaceful leaders such as Obbe and Dirk Phillips, David Joris, and Menno Simons. Menno, a Dutch priest, had many of the emphases of the Swiss movement, and eventually emerged as the dominant leader of the north German/Dutch stream of Anabaptism. He was able to evade his persecutors and died a peaceful death, and his influence and writings were to define the movement which eventually took his name, the name of ‘Mennist’ or ‘Mennonite’.


‘What does Anabaptism have to do with Anglicanism?’ Part One

I’m beginning the process of trying to sum up some of the learnings of my sabbatical leave, in a form which I hope I might eventually present to a clergy day in the Diocese of Edmonton and perhaps in some other venues as well. I hope to explore what Anabaptism actually is, how it has developed in the world today, and the things that we in the Anglican tradition can learn from it. In the process I also hope to answer the question my friend Graham Old left on an earlier post on this blog: ‘How are you still an Anglican?’

I’m going to post this in sections as it is very much a rough draft and is taking shape in my mind as I write it. I must also apologise that I will not be giving references to materials I quote as I’ve already mailed a lot of the books home to England and am quoting from memory!

Please feel free to leave comments, as always!

Here’s the first installment…

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Anabaptist Anglican? How is that possible?

One of the churchwardens at St. Margaret’s, in explaining to the congregation what my sabbatical leave was going to be all about, explained that Anabaptism is ‘the spiritual movement represented in the world today by the Mennonite, Hutterite, and Amish traditions’. It seems difficult, on the face of it, to imagine what such traditions have to do with Anglicanism. On the one hand we have horses and buggies, little groups of pacifists who live in separated communities, speak German and practice adult baptism; on the other hand we have huge medieval cathedrals, ornate robes and elaborate liturgies, chaplains who bless battleships and archbishops who put crowns on the heads of queens. How is it possible for two such disparate traditions to connect?

That is the question I hope to answer in this presentation.

Let’s start by asking the question my churchwarden attempted to answer: What, actually, is Anabaptism? She explained that it is represented today by the ‘Mennonite, Hutterite, and Amish traditions’, and in a sense that is true; they are definitely the linear descendants of the 16th century Anabaptists. But I will argue that in some rather important ways their traditions are actually very different from the original ideals of their 16th century forebears. And I will also argue that some very unlikely people have a good claim to the name ‘Anabaptist’ today. J. Denny Weaver, in his book Becoming Anabaptist, argues that in different places in the world today there are people of many denominational backgrounds who are embracing some or all of the ideals of Anabaptism while remaining part of their own church families. Weaver sees these people as a legitimate part of the Anabaptist ‘family’.

So what makes someone ‘Anabaptist’? In the 1940s Harold Bender, a highly respected American Mennonite historian, addressed a group of scholars on the subject ‘The Anabaptist Vision’. Bender argued that the original vision of the 16th century Anabaptists could be summed up under three headings: discipleship as the essence of Christianity, a new conception of the church as a brotherhood rather than an institution, and a new ethic of love and nonviolence.

Let me unpack Bender’s definition for a moment before offering a critique.

First, ‘discipleship as the essence of Christianity’. This is the thrust of the well known quote from the 16th century Anabaptist leader Hans Denck: ‘No one can truly know Christ unless they follow him in life’. As distinct from the magisterial reformers of the 16th century who adopted the paradigm of the ‘believer’ to characterise the Christian life, the Anabaptists definitely opted for the ‘discipleship’ model. To be a Christian, to them, meant a commitment to following the example of Christ and putting his teaching into practice in their daily lives. And they understood this in a fairly straightforward and literal sense; hence their commitment to unfashionable practices such as nonviolence and pacifism, the refusal to swear oaths, and the avoidance of riches and ostentation.

Second, ‘the church as a brotherhood’ (excuse my sexist language, but this is how Bender phrased it in the 1940s). The Anabaptists began what another Mennonite scholar once described as ‘a spiritual emigration from Christendom’. They rejected the concept of the unity of church and society, and recovered the New Testament concept of the church as a gathered community of people who have voluntarily chosen to be its members, and have symbolised that choice by their commitment to Christ and to one another in adult believer’s baptism. They also embraced the practice of mutual ministry rather than the model of the ‘professional religionist’ (to use John Howard Yoder’s phrase) which characterised the state churches of their day.

Third, ‘a new ethic of love and nonviolence’. This followed from their commitment to obeying the teaching of Jesus in a fairly literal way. They read Jesus’ teaching about loving their enemies and turning the other cheek, and felt themselves bound to attempt to live by it. The most famous example of this was of course Dirk Willems, the young Anabaptist leader from the Netherlands who was running away from his persecutors when one of them fell through the ice and was in danger of drowning. Willems immediately turned back and helped his pursuer to safety, following which he was promptly re-arrested and later burned at the stake.

Discipleship, brotherhood and sisterhood, love and nonviolence; it was a compelling vision, and in the 1940s many found it attractive. But is it really true? Does this really describe the 16th century Anabaptists, and should it be prescriptive for Anabaptists today?


In the next installment I will critique Bender’s summary. In common with a number of contemporary Mennonite scholars such as Denny Weaver and Arnold Snyder, I will show that although there is a lot of truth in it, the actual historical reality was not quite so clear cut…

Sabbatical Report #22: Book Report


John Howard Yoder The Fulness of Christ

In this controversial book John Howard Yoder weighs in on what he calls ‘the model of the professional religionist’: the one professional minister who is identified as ‘clergy’ and in distinction to whom others are identified as ‘lay’, who has a special function which only he or she can perform – that function around which that special action happens which people think of as ‘church’. This office is almost universal in world religions, but is entirely absent in the New Testament. As Yoder says, ‘If we ask whether any of the New Testament literature makes the assumptions listed above: Is there one particular office, in which there should be only one or a few individuals (for whom it provides a livelihood), unique in character due to a ritual of ordination, central to the definition of the church ad the key to her functioning? Then the answer from the biblical material is a resounding negation’.

Yoder examines the New Testament material with respect to the various ministries to which Christians are called.

  • He finds there a considerable number of distinguishable ministries, and a great diversity in the number, naming, and interrelation of these offices.
  • There is no hierarchy of value and no hint of a ‘ladder’ whereby a person might progress upward to a more important office (this is the whole point of 1 Corinthians 12).
  • There seems to be a clustering of three terms used for the same office: ‘elder’ (from synagogue usage), ‘overseer’ (often translated ‘bishop’) and ‘shepherd’ (often translated ‘pastor’). These people constituted the collegial leadership of a self-governing local congregation, and there were several of them in any given congregation.
  • There is a slight linkage between the elder/overseer and the teacher; some elders are teachers.
  • There is no general pattern as to economic support.
  • None of these offices is priestly, either in function or vocabulary.
  • The office of deacon is conspicuous by its absence; most often the word ‘diakonos’ simply means ‘one who serves’ with no clear implication of specific office.
  • There is no concept of laity in the negatively defined sense, as ‘those with no ministry’. ‘The people (laos) includes all the ministries. The bishop is a member of the laity just like anyone else. The use of the word ‘lay’ to mean ‘non-minister’ is heretical, and arises only generations later’.

Is there a theological meaning to this pattern? Indeed there is! The distinct ministries are diverse, the ministries are plural (that is, several people seem to share any given ministry in a local congregation), and ‘everyone has a gift’. In Ephesians 4 Paul relates all this to the work of Jesus in salvation: ‘The multiplicity of gifts, assigned to all by the one Lord who fills all, is thus itself an aspect of Christ’s saving work and of his rule from on high. And in Hebrews 2:3 the author identifies four reasons for taking the message of salvation seriously: that it was declare by the Lord, that it as attested by the apostles, that it was witnessed to by signs and miracles, and that God bore witness by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. The giving of gifts is part of Christ’s saving work, the certification of his victory. In Ephesians 4:13-16 this universal giftedness and interrelatedness of ministries is called ‘The Fulness of Christ’.

Furthermore, the work of Christ is described in Hebrews as the abolition of the priesthood! Jesus is the perfect high priest who has done away with the need for any further priesthood and sacrifice, except the priesthood that applies to every member of the new covenant community. Parallel to this liberation from priesthood is the relative indifference of the New Testament to ceremonial issues.

‘The conclusion is inescapable that the multiplicity of ministries is not a mere adiophoron, a happenstance of only superficial significance, but a specific work of grace and a standard for the church. This follows from (a) the persistence of the various dimensions of multiplicity amidst considerable change in detail; (b) the specific disappearance of the priesthood from Judaism, whereas the other ‘offices’ of the Jewish order are maintained, (c) the specific attribution of this multiplicity, by the apostolic writers, to the work of Christ and the Spirit, and (d) the effective suspension for at least a generation of the universal anthropological drive toward the professional religionist’.

Yoder goes on, in the rest of this book, to explore how the church lost this apostolic order and reverted to the clergy/laity distinction, to the exaltation of one office of priesthood above all others, and how the tasks of ministry were concentrated in this individual, who became the paid professional minister or priest in a congregation. He looks at ways in which churches and traditions in recent years have tried to move toward a more every-member-ministry concept, but finds that in most cases they are still unwilling to concede that the clergy/laity distinction itself is unbiblical and wrong. He argues for flexibility; he is not specifically against the concept of a paid pastor but wants it to be seen as one office among many and wants churches to be free to explore other models as well.

I found this an exciting and inspiring book, but a frustrating one as well. Although I have been an Anglican minister for many years, I have never been able to make myself accept the common Anglican belief that ordination makes me an ontologically different kind of Christian. I cannot find any justification for it in the New Testament. Neither can I find any ground for the use of special titles like ‘reverend’, the wearing of special clothes like clerical collars and ceremonial robes, or the distinction between ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’. To me Yoder has made his case conclusively: all Christians are gifted, all Christians are a priesthood, all Christians are God ‘laos’ (people). Preaching and teaching is a ministry, serving others is a ministry, administration is a ministry, listening is a ministry, etc.

But how can this ever be put into practice in our Anglican situation? We see Episcopal ordination as essential to church order and disallow those who have not received it from exercising certain ministries. We isolate the sacramental and teaching ministries from the others, reserving them for a professionally trained and (usually) full time person who we call the ‘rector’ (which means ‘ruler’, as opposed to the biblical concept of ‘servant’). And we ask one person to be responsible for tasks which demand skills which are often incompatible with on another. How can a good listener and pastor also be a fearless prophet and a good administrator? How can a good visitor of the elderly also be an innovative youth worker?

This book raises more questions than answers for me. And yet I love these questions, and I am sure that as Anglicans we will have t wrestle with them if we as congregations are going to grow into the fullness of Christ.

Sabbatical Report #21: Book Report


John Howard Yoder: He Came Preaching Peace

This small (143 pages) book is a collection of twelve addresses (the author refers to them as ‘Bible lectures’ rather than sermons) on the subject of Christian pacifism, delivered in various settings by John Howard Yoder between 1968 and 1983.

In ‘The Way of Peace in a World at War’ Yoder uses the suffering servant texts as an example for Christians to follow (as Peter does in 1 Peter 2:20-22). Our cross as Christians is not any old suffering we may go through, but is specifically the price of our obedience to God’s love for all people in a world ruled by hate. We are a people called by God out of every nation, and so our primary nationality is ‘Christian’ and our loyalty to our brothers and sisters in all nations comes before our loyalty to any nation/state. Our primary loyalty is to the purposes of God who is calling together his own people through the witness of the Gospel.

‘I Have Called you Friends’ (John 15:15)’. Jesus was crucified by ‘the world’, the evil world system, more than by particularly evil individuals. Our response is not to hate people. God does not hate them. God sent his Son to save them; the God of the Gospel is a reconciler. This is the plan; we know that plan, and so Jesus says we are his friends, because we know our master’s business.

‘The Wisdom and the Power’ (1 Corinthians 1:18-25) takes the categories Paul outlines (‘Jews look for signs and Greeks look for wisdom’) and applies them to the way the world looks at the weakness of Jesus’ death on the cross. It is not a powerful sign because Jesus did not win; how can Jesus be Lord if he is defeated? Nor is it universal wisdom as in Greek philosophy; how can you ask everyone to love their enemies like that? But if it is true that the Cross is indeed power and wisdom then we need to learn to read history differently.

‘What Are you Doing More Than They?’ (Matthew 5:46-48)’ asks the question ‘How is the gospel more than just ordinary living?’ By grace, through faith, peacemakers are the children of God, and that is a joyful message because it is part of the kingdom coming. Evangelism, good news, is proclaiming the otherness, the moreness, the nonconformity of the church as a visible city set on a hill.

‘The Voice of Your Brother’s Blood’ (Genesis 4:2-16) starts with the story of Cain and his act of murder, and goes on to show that God has chosen to work with the model of Abel (who is the first of the faithful martyrs recorded in Hebrews 11, a line that leads to Jesus in Hebrews 12:1-3). 1 John 3:11-16 tells us that, rather than being like Cain, ‘we, too, ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters’. Like Abel, we can only be sure that this is the right thing to do ‘by faith’.

‘Glory in a Tent’ (1 John 1:1-18) looks at the points of view the writer was trying to correct – the continuing disciples of John the Baptist who saw Jesus’ kingdom mission as a failure because of the cross, the Establishment who preferred to stick with the law that came through Moses rather than moving on with the grace and truth that came through Jesus Christ, and those who denied that God’s Word actually became flesh in the human Jesus. Against all of this Jesus is God’s Word, which means that God has not revealed any different purpose or character through creation than what we now encounter through Jesus, who came among us in weakness, in suffering and in apparent defeat. So we now know what it means to become children of God, because we have seen one.

‘The Form of a Servant?’ (Philippians 2:5-11). Unlike Adam, Jesus did not grasp at equality with God but accepted it as a gift. He reveals to us that the nature of God the creator of the universe is that he takes the form of a servant. So we also ought to get along better with each other rather than grasping for sovereignty and pre-eminence.

‘The Hilltop City’ looks at various Old Testament texts in which God’s people are described as being a city set on a hill to which all the nations will stream. This is a teaching process in which the nations come voluntarily to learn the law of the Lord. The result is that weapons of war are concerted into farm implements, war is renounced as way of settling conflicts (although conflicts themselves are not said to disappear), everyone lives in economic security, and people decide no longer to live in fear. In Jesus the Messianic age has begun, and we need to discover how the renewal of God’s people can call the nations into God’s program of peace.

‘The Broken Wall’ (Ephesians 3:2-9). The ‘mystery’ revealed to Paul is that through his death Jesus has removed the barrier between the ‘in’ people and the ‘out’ people. The structures that enslave us have a stake in keeping us apart, but as Christians we celebrate and live out the reality that Jesus has made us one.

In ‘The Gift of Reconciliation’ (Matthew 18:15-18) Yoder revisits his familiar theme of the process of confrontation, listening, and reconciliation described by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-20. The purpose of the process if forgiveness and reconciliation. It involves going alone to my brother (not going in gossip to others). If I’m not heard, I take two or three witnesses with me, and then tell it to the church. The passage assumes that our communion has limits and that it is possible for those who will not listen to exclude themselves from it. The whole process is validated by the fact that Jesus promises that he is present in it; ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them’.

‘Your Hope is Too Small’ focuses on the Suffering Servant text in Isaiah 42. The Servant appears to have failed in his mission, but God tells him that in fact he has an even broader mission for him: it is not enough for him to aim at restoring Israel, but ‘I will make you a light to the nations so that my salvation will reach to the ends of the earth’. The Servant’s apparent defeat becomes God’s instrument to reach out to the whole world. The test of the Servant’s readiness to be a participant in God’s victory is his acceptance of his own brokenness. In that missionary miracle whereby God makes the nations to see his light and come to Jerusalem to learn the law, the servant will be used after all. And in the miracle which might follow if Christians in our day were found in the stance of the Servant, we might also find ourselves, unexpectedly, by grace through faith, usable.

‘Turn, Turn’ (Malachi 3-4) examines the text about God’s messenger turning the hearts of the fathers to children and children to fathers. The fathers in Israel wanted to be faithful to their heritage in the midst of the nations in the postexilic age; the children were tempted by the culture of the nations around them. If the forces of conservation and innovation cannot be reconciled, a civilization will be torn in two, each fragment reacting defensively and fearfully to the other with no room for trust or creativity, no new way out, unless there be some ‘turning’ of the ways. Jesus has shown us the way. He is more critical of the system than mere youthful revolt can ever be, and yet he also recalls God’s people to the true meaning of their heritage. You cannot get to Abraham and Moses by going back, because they were called to go forward!

Sabbatical Report #20: Book Review


Like many of John Yoder’s larger books, this one is difficult to summarise as a unit because it is a collection of addresses, given at different times and in different situations, and now rewritten as essays and grouped around a common theme. In this case, the common theme may be broadly stated as the church’s missional relationship with the world. Here, in no particular order, are some of the more important emphases.

The church is a ‘firstfruits’ of the coming kingdom of God. One of the church’s primary missional responsibilities is to embody in its own life, in a visible way, the character of God’s coming kingdom. In this way ‘the order of the faith community constitutes a public offer to the entire society’.

Five practices of the New Testament church which are primary ways in which it exemplifies God’s new society are: (a) baptism as the sign of a new community in which differences of race, gender or class are totally irrelevant, (b) forgiveness and reconciliation, achieved through a specific process of confrontation and listening as described by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-20, (c) eating together as an instrument of economic sharing, (d) the meeting of the community in which all are free to take the floor and in which the Spirit is expected to speak through the ‘sense of the meeting’, and (e) the giftedness, by the same Spirit, of every Christian, regardless of social status, in order to serve God’s purpose in the world.

Three ‘scandal factors’ by which the church – when it is being faithful to the call of Jesus, challenges the common way of life in the world at large are: (1) the practice of servanthood after the pattern of Jesus, rather than domination, (2) love of the enemy, and (3) grace and forgiveness.

The church as a community scattered in the world seeks the ‘shalom’ (peace, well-being) of the society in which it lives. The theme verse, which is extremely important in Yoder’s thought, is Jeremiah 29:7 where God tells the exiles in Babylon to ‘seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare’. The scattering of God’s people amongst the nations in exile is part of their vocation.

The criterion for Christian ethics is faithfulness; we measure our obedience by faithfulness to Jesus and not by a worldly standard of effectiveness or success. And so our cause continues to be valid, even if it seems as if we are not succeeding. The hope of the coming kingdom of God sustains an oppressed community even when that hope is not verifiable by immediate experience. The criterion guiding us in our struggle is not whether we win but whether we keep the faith. The vision of the Lordship of Christ over the Powers made it possible for the first Christians to see even tragic events as having positive potential (like the Cross itself). The Cross signals the conscious choice of a path of vulnerable faithfulness, despite the knowledge that it will be costly.

Christian obedience is for a minority; it was never intended to be generally applicable to non-Christian society. ‘Christian ethics is for Christians’.

The Christian community is a revolutionary community. The root meaning of the word ‘gospel’ might best be translated today as ‘revolution’: good news which impinges positively on the fate of the community. Jesus rejected four possible ways of being the messiah: (1) the way of compromise with the powers that be in order to get things done’, (2) the way of righteous revolutionary violence, (3) the way of withdrawal into a pure and faithful community, and (4) the way of living by a pure, separate and ‘proper’ religion in the midst of society. Instead Jesus chose to do what God had always done in history: he gathered a people around his word and his will. He created a voluntary community, mixed in its composition, and gave its members a new way to live. To repent and to believe the good news is to join this revolutionary community and in it to learn to think differently and therefore act differently.

The Christian community is called in the New Testament an ekklesia,which originally in Greek meant a parliament or town meeting. It is therefore ‘a decision making body, a place where prophetic discernment is tested and confirmed, the organ for updating and applying the understanding of the revealed law of God, the context for the promised further guidance of the Holy Spirit’. This ekklesia is mixed in race, class and gender. It can be a means of influencing other groups if it is faithful to the gospel vision for its life.

It is not possible to avoid political issues and be faithful to the Gospel. ‘Politics’ has to do with the ways in which people choose to live together, and in this context both activity and passivity, both speech and silence, are equally political choices. The servant songs of Isaiah show that God is concerned with bringing justice and political righteousness to the nations. Mary’s song (Luke 1:49-53) shows that the coming of the Messiah is a great reversal described in social and economic terms. But God’s kingdom is different from human kingdoms. It is characterized by forgiveness, by servanthood, by truth telling, by respect for the dignity of all people, by sharing, and by the rejection of ideology or idolatry. The church, God’s ekklesia, is meant to model this new political way.

‘We are not called to love our enemies in order to make them friends. We are called to act out love for them because at the cross it has been effectively proclaimed that from all eternity they were our brothers and sisters. We are not called to make the bread of the world available to the hungry; we are called to restore the true awareness that it was always theirs. We are not called to topple the tyrants, so that it might become true that the proud fall and the haughty are destroyed. It already is true; we are called only to let that truth govern our own choice of whether to be, in turn, tyrants claiming to be benefactors’.


God’s purposes are at work in the movements of history. However, what God is doing in the world is often not a ratification of our good intentions but a judgement on our unfaithfulness. God is at work in ordinary human existence, but the meaning of his work is not always discernable on the surface of events; it must be discerned prophetically, and that prophetic word must echo the meaning of Jesus: servanthood, the acceptance of suffering, the creation of a new community. And what God is really doing will usually be a surprise; the kingdom is like grain growing when no one is watching, or like hidden leaven silently taking over the flour bin.

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.