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The Ecclesiology of John Howard Yoder paper

I am placing online the major paper I wrote this summer:  The Ecclesiology of John Howard Yoder: Scripture, Five Practices of the Christian Community, and Mission.

It is 96 pages and I don't expect many to read it but it might be helpful for someone. 

Here are my casual blogpost-informal introductory comments; you can read my academic phrasing in the paper. 

I find Yoder's writings on the church to be enormously inspiring.  Some people caricature Yoder as a "bury your head in the sand" "come out from them and be separate" sectarian who supports Christians huddling together as the world goes to hell in a handbasket.  (That's a lot of cliches).  His point of view is much better summarized as: "let's walk our talk"--Why do we expect people to want to become Christians if we don't live as Jesus did?  This seems to me to be basic Christianity.  (Make disciples . . . Matt 28:18-20).  Yoder writes a book called For the Nations in 1997, while Stanley Hauerwas wrote Against the Nations in 1992--note well the difference in emphasis.  Not only is this missionary emphasis explicit in his later writing, Yoder's emphasis on the importance of the church being missional is found in his 1967 essay "A People in the World" in The Royal Priesthood and greatly resembles the paradigmatic missional theologian Lesslie Newbigin's understanding of the church as missional.  (See page 70 of my paper.  By the way, Newbigin drew upon Yoder regularly in his writings and did not caricature Yoder). 

Similarly, in the last 17 years of his life (1980-1997), there is very little emphasis in Yoder's writings on pacifism which is what he is most famous / infamous for.  He deliberately tried in these later years to show that his ecclesiology was much more multifaceted and fruitful than this emphasis.  The idea that Yoder = pacifism is another caricature that must be debunked.  

Still, I do offer some critiques of Yoder's ecclesiology in my paper.  I argue that the five practices that he presents in Body Politics (as well as in various other places) do not adequately represent the main practices of the early church.  As he admits, they are "sample" practices--not necessarily the most central ones (and I argue they are of particular interest to him as an ethicist interested in moral discourse)--but the casual reader could easily get the idea that these are the main practices that characterize the New Testament church.  (See pages 13-15 of my paper).  I argue for example that the Acts 2:42-47 arguably better represent the early church's life than the five practices Yoder draws out of the New Testament. 

Along these same lines, I also think he does not adequately capture the importance of leaders (specifically the apostles in the New Testament) and teaching.  By his emphasis on the multiplicity of gifts and the open meeting, he gives the impression that we do not need leaders, nor someone to show up at the open meeting adequately prepared to present something that edifies the community.  Though I am a huge fan of interacting with the congregation in preaching, shared leadership, and gift-based ministry, I think Yoder does not adequately address the central importance in the New Testament of someone like the apostle Paul.  There is no place in Yoder's ecclesiology for someone doing the kind of leading and teaching that Paul did and my sense is that this leading and teaching function need to be taken up somehow in all Christian communities.  I am making quite a pedestrian boring point here I think--churches are not wrong in thinking that often there will be a very good Bible teacher in the community who will also exercise leadership in shaping the direction of the community--Yoder does not want to say this because he is trying to emphasize the priesthood of all believers.  Again, you will need to read the whole paper to see my full arguments on these points. 

Therefore, here is my advice for people who are Yoder fans.  If you liked his Body Politics, you need to see how you can incorporate those excellent practices in your church but at the same time, you may need to keep other good practices like the practice of teaching Scripture. 

If you think the church is a boring, bureaucratic sleepy organization where mediocre people dutifully show up to pay their dues, then Yoder is what you need.  For Yoder, the church is the means by which God intends to change the world.  It is a laboratory run by revolutionaries who intend to undermine all that is wrong with the world by the way they love one another.  Amen to that. 

Download The_Ecclesiology_of_John_Howard_Yoder.pdf

Download The_Ecclesiology_of_John_Howard_Yoder.doc


See my posts:
Based on Yoder's five practices: Everything I needed to know about the church I learned at Taylor University.
John Howard Yoder on Voting
I recommended Yoder's Body Politics at my post: Best book on ecclesiology I read this year.

See also my major paper: The Missional Ecclesiology of Rowan Williams.

Books mentioned in this post: