Prefacing Yoder: On Preaching and Practice

By | December 23, 2013

Christianity Today reported last week that MennoMedia, the owner of Herald Press, the publisher of the works of Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, announced recently that all of his works will now be prefaced with the following disclaimer:

John Howard Yoder (1927–1997) was perhaps the most well-known Mennonite theologian in the twentieth century. While his work on Christian ethics helped define Anabaptism to an audience far outside the Mennonite Church, he is also remembered for his long-term sexual harassment and abuse of women.

At Herald Press we recognize the complex tensions involved in presenting work by someone who called Christians to reconciliation and yet used his position of power to abuse others. We believe that Yoder and those who write about his work deserve to be heard; we also believe readers should know that Yoder engaged in abusive behavior.

This book is published with the hope that those studying Yoder’s writings will not dismiss the complexity of these issues and will instead wrestle with, evaluate, and learn from Yoder’s work in the full context of his personal, scholarly, and churchly legacy.

Whatever one thinks of MennoMedia’s new policy or Yoder’s theology in particular (being Orthodox and not a pacifist I am relatively uninterested myself), this nevertheless raises an interesting concern: To what extent ought the character of a theologian matter to their readers and students?

On the one hand, people generally have a natural skepticism toward theologians and pastors who lived less-than-exemplary lives (to put it lightly). On the other hand, logically speaking, dismissing an author’s arguments due to concerns about personal character appears to be an argumentum ad hominem. That is, however the writer lived, his/her arguments need to be evaluated on their own merits. How ought Christians to view John Howard Yoder, or, for that matter, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Martin Luther, or any other theologian or pastor whose life at times fell sorely short of their own teachings or calling?

This same sort of tension can be found in the Gospel. Jesus teaches, “You will know [false prophets] by their fruits.” He adds, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:16, 18). Yet he says regarding the Pharisees, “[W]hatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do” (Matthew 23:3). Listen to and follow their teaching, but don’t imitate their behavior. Moreover, he cautions us, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). What are we to make of this? Don’t these statements contradict each other?

Let us begin by examining the gut impulse that lands us in this conundrum: Do we feel this way about every professional? Would we distrust Einstein’s theory of relativity if we discovered that Einstein had committed some especially heinous sin? When asked about a scientist, plumber, economist, artist, et al., the logical side seems to win out: However such a professional lives, their expertise is still valuable and must be taken on its own merits.

Nevertheless, with a theologian, who teaches the knowledge of God, who is Goodness itself, the impulse seems to have more weight to it. That is, while one may be able to study all the mechanics of swimming, for example, and teach them to others from a purely technical point of view, people would naturally be skeptical about the value of this teaching if they discovered their teacher could not actually swim. In the same way, the content of a person’s character is relevant to evaluating the content of his/her teaching if that teaching happens to be about or depend upon upright character.

The underlying logic would then be that while ad hominem dismissals are errant, skepticism is merited and healthy when arguments concern a practical matter, of which a person has no first-hand experience or, worse, has demonstrably failed to uphold. Let’s imagine that our swimming instructor not only cannot swim, but despite his/her great knowledge of the mechanics of swimming, has on several occasions needed to be saved by another from drowning.

Ah, but there’s the catch: With regards to righteousness, from a Christian point of view, all of us need to be “saved by another”: Jesus Christ. Hence, we may consider the following from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers: “A brother sinned, and the presbyter ordered him to go out of church. But Abba Bessarion rose up and went out with him, saying: ‘I too am a sinner.’” In this way, the Gospel calls all of us to a sort of solidarity in sin.

Perhaps MennoMedia is right to warn others that the fruit of Yoder’s tree was poisonous for many. Christ warned his disciples about “the yeast of the Pharisees” (cf. Mark 8:13-21). Yet, for their part I hope MennoMedia has also taken the time to “first remove the plank from [their] own eye” (cf. Matthew 7:1-5) so that they could see clearly how best to handle such “complex tensions.”

Yet I also respect that MennoMedia did not cast out Yoder’s works entirely. This may be entirely because he is popular and his works likely sell well, but those who buy Yoder’s works do not do so for the sake of MennoMedia’s profits. People find something in them that resonates as true, and MennoMedia serves others in making Yoder’s works available. Jesus warned of “the yeast of the Pharisees,” but he also acknowledged that they get some things right (“whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do”)—he did not want his disciples to write off the Pharisees entirely.

But what right do I have to compare Yoder to the Pharisees (or the Pharisees to Yoder, for that matter)? If the only lesson we learn from this is to say with Abba Bessarion, “I too am a sinner,” then I think it will have born good fruit.

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  • Russ Eanes

    Dylan,
    As the publisher for MennoMedia, and Herald Press specifically, I just want to clarify something that perhaps you missed. The point of the statement is not so much to warn people away from his teachings, as it is to acknowledge for the sake of his many victims—and the many women who are similarly victimized—that we care about and are aware of them. John Howard Yoder was best-known for his teachings about Christian ethics and his behavior clearly was unethical. That has to be acknowledged as well.

  • http://everydayasceticism.com Dylan Pahman

    Dear Russ,

    Thanks for your comment. Yes, I understand that the statement is not to keep people from reading Yoder’s works. I think it is a difficult question and as I said I respect MennoMedia’s decision to acknowledge Yoder’s unethical behavior for the sake of his victims. The point of this essay is that the whole situation, and MennoMedia’s response, raises the additional question of how Christians ought to view theologians who did not always live the most godly lives.

  • Richard Kauffman

    Mennonites tend to believe that faith is first and foremost a lived reality. It becomes almost a crisis of faith for Mennonites when the most brilliant articulator of that faith in Mennonite perspective, probably ever, was “ethically challenged” in a significant area of life, namely, sexuality. Although the Bible gives many examples of it, Mennonites can’t quite reconcile themselves to the concept attributed to Martin Luther: “God can use a crooked stick to draw a straight line.”

  • http://everydayasceticism.com Dylan Pahman

    Dear Richard,

    That may be a good impulse on their part. It reminds me of another story from the desert fathers:

    Abba Arsenius was once asking an old Egyptian for advice about his temptations. And another, who saw this, said: “Abba Arsenius, how is it that you, who are so learned in the Greek and Latin languages, come to be asking that uneducated countryman about your temptations?” He answered: “I have acquired the world’s knowledge of Greek and Latin: but I have not yet been able to learn the alphabet of this uneducated man.”

    In case you’re interested, I wrote a reflection on this saying here: http://everydayasceticism.com/2012/11/29/learning-the-abcs-of-asceticism/

    As for me, I am not sure what is best, I tried to address the necessary nuance, but an universal answer eludes me. No doubt this is likely a subject where prudence is needed and what is best for each individual case may be different. In Yoder’s case, MennoMedia clearly knows their audience, and I would commend them, as I have, for taking the time to do something for the sake of Yoder’s victims.