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Best book on ecclesiology I read this year: Body Politics by John Howard Yoder

I am doing my doctoral work here at Duke Divinity School on "The Practice of Leading Christian Communities and Institutions" with my secondary concentration in "New Testament."  This spring each of my courses (Scripture and Ethics with Allen Verhey and Richard Hays, Church and Ministry in the New Testament with Richard Hays, and Theology of Mission with Laceye Warner) required me to read John Howard Yoder.  Yoder's 80 page, (that's right, very short), Body Politics is the book I find myself recommending almost daily. 

Here is my Amazon.com review of John Howard Yoder's Body Politics, which I just wrote tonight.  


5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding brief book of provocative ecclesiology, July 8, 2008
By Andrew D. Rowell (Durham, NC) - See all my reviews

John Howard Yoder (1927-1997), who was a professor of theology at Notre Dame and a Mennonite, outlines in 80 pages five practices that should be central to every church's life together. He argues that congregations need to recover these practices that are described in the New Testament and have since become distorted. This book grew out of a 1986 lecture at Duke Divinity School entitled "Sacrament as Social Process: Christ the Transformer of Culture," later published in his book The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical. In Body Politics, Yoder describes the five practices this way:
(1) Binding and Loosing
(2) Disciples Break Bread Together / Eucharist
(3) Baptism and the New Humanity / Baptism
(4) The Fullness of Christ / Multiplicity of gifts
(5) The Rule of Paul / Open meeting

In each case, Yoder argues that the original New Testament practice has been today almost entirely lost in most churches. (1) Binding and loosing - moral discernment through dialogue and forgiveness as described in Matthew 18 - is rarely practiced. (2) The sense of the Eucharist as a meal (1 Corinthians 11) where people share their food with one another is rarely practiced. (3) Baptism (Galatians 3:27-28) rarely communicates the profound transcending of social and cultural barriers - between Jew and Gentile, slave and free there is one baptism. (4) In almost every church there a few so-called "gifted" people who dominate the church while most congregation members are spectators. (5) And it is the rare congregation that truly opens the floor for all congregation members to participate (1 Corinthians 14).

What is compelling about Yoder's writing is his skill as a reader of biblical texts, his weaving of historical context (his dissertation work was on the Radical Reformation), and his ability to talk to theologians of many denominations (he did his doctoral work with the reformed theologian Karl Barth, taught at a Roman Catholic school, and strongly influenced the United Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas).

Yoder is also amazingly concise for a theologian. In my first year as a Th.D. (Doctor of Theology) student at Duke Divinity School, this is the one book I read this year that I find myself recommending to friends and family.

So, who will like this book? Yoder writes sympathetically denominational groups that have less formal hierarchy: Mennonites, Quakers, Methodists, Plymouth Brethren, evangelicals, Baptists, Pentecostals, Puritans, and house churches. If you are a part of any of these denominations, you will probably cheer all the way through this book and say "Aha!"

On the other hand, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Presbyterians will surely find Yoder's ideas radical, wild, far out, untenable, foreign and unrealistic. For example, a Roman Catholic might initially think about the five practices: (1) the priest facilitates confession, (2) the priest facilitates the mass / Eucharist, (3) infants are baptized, (4) the priests have a special religious ritual calling, and (5) the congregation is silent as the priests recite mass. Yoder argues from the New Testament that all of these developments are unfortunate! Thus, if you are coming from that perspective, it will probably be tough to swallow Yoder's ideas and he may not convince you to be a radical protestant in 80 pages! However, if you have a niggle of doubt about any of these things, Yoder is sure to fan it! It is also worth noting that many Roman Catholics want to recover the biblical meaning of these practices. For example, I read this year at Duke a number of books that get at this by Roman Catholic authors: Raymond Brown's The Churches The Apostles Left Behind, Michael Warren's At This Time, in This Place: The Spirit Embodied in the Local Assembly, and Vincent Miller's Consuming Religion: Christian Faith And Practice in a Consumer Culture.

Yoder, is most known for his book The Politics of Jesus and for his defense of pacifism but this little book is a gem. I would highly recommend this book for anyone thinking about church leadership or planting a church. I would also highly recommend it as a textbook for Systematic Theology III courses which cover ecclesiology. If you liked this book, read Yoder's For the Nations: Essays Evangelical and Public next.

Update: Other related posts that I wrote after this one:

Based on Yoder's five practices: Everything I needed to know about the church I learned at Taylor University.

The Ecclesiology of John Howard Yoder paper

A number of other books that I read in the past prepared me for thinking as Yoder does about ecclesiology: 

In all of his work, retired Regent College faculty member Paul Stevens argues for the empowering of the laity, for every-member-ministry, for a lessening of the clergy-lay divide. 
Sande in all of his work argues for the practical benefits of biblical conflict resolution, particularly Matthew 18. 
Pagitt describes the way that he encourages interaction at his emerging church - soliciting feedback during the preparation, inviting oral questions and comments after the sermon, and encourages dialogue about the sermon online afterward. 
This is one of McLaren's earliest books (now revised) where he stresses some basic ways most churches can improve.  It is the least provocative of any of his books.  It is basically how he would talk if he was gently encouraging pastors to consider change.  With his book  A New Kind of Christian, he decided to be more provocative and controversial. 
Retired Regent College New Testament professor Fee describes the lack of formal leadership structures in the New Testament. 

Hays (one of my doctoral work advisors) and Fee (a previous mentor) both describe the participative and fluid nature of the early Christian communities.  Barrett, Banks and  Käsemann, who Hays had me read this semester, all do the same. 
Banks's book is 48 pages and much faster to read than Yoder's 80 pages!  You can read for one afternoon and claim to have read two books!  
I also reviewed Barrett's book on Amazon.com since there were no reviews!
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent reflection on ecclesiology by a great New Testament scholar, July 8, 2008
By Andrew D. Rowell (Durham, NC) - See all my reviews
C.K. "Kingsley" Barrett preached at 90 years old in November 2007. He taught New Testament at the University of Durham from 1945 until 1982, writing commentaries on John, Romans, the Pastoral Epistles, Acts, and 1 and 2 Corinthians. This book "Church, Ministry & Sacraments in the New Testament" incorporates Barrett's love for the church and his New Testament scholarship.

Below are my summary notes from reading Church, Ministry & Sacraments:

Barrett begins the book by acknowledging that though he is a Methodist he has been highly influenced by Anglo-Catholics and has worked with many Anglicans at the University of Durham. In chapter one, Barrett explains that his thesis is a paradox: "that the church is both central and peripheral in the New Testament." On the one hand, calling disciples was central to the mission of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, Barrett argues, the formation of an organization was surprising necessity when the consummation of the age did not follow the resurrection.
In chapter two, entitled "Ministry," Barrett reflects on the leadership of the church as described in the New Testament - beginning with the Pauline literature. Every member was to be a minister. Functions are emphasized over offices. There was no leader who gathered money, administered the sacraments, oversaw worship or led church discipline. He points out that Paul was the authority in his churches while he lived and Spirit-gifting was emphasized. Churches also met in the households of rich people who probably exercised some leadership. Barrett emphasizes the importance of talented people and people who specialize in their ministries but also warns of the dangers of people flaunting their gifts, being enriched by them, and creating an aura of superiority.
Barrett then looks at the issue of presbyters and episkopos in 1 Peter. He wonders if presbyters may have been primarily older people rather than an office. The advice of 1 Peter is to lead with humility. In the Johannine literature, Barrett sees evidence of apostles, prophets, a leading elder, traveling preachers and witnesses. The criteria for evaluating these leaders is their teaching that Jesus Christ came in the flesh and in their love. In the book of Acts, Barrett again emphasizes the informal nature of leadership: evangelists, prophets, teachers, elders, apostles - not ordained but chosen by people and the Spirit. They are unpaid and part-time.
Barrett points out the diversity in the practice of the sacraments in the New Testament in the third chapter. He argues that the writer of the book of Acts is likely trying to point out that baptism is not magic because the Spirit and water are usually but not always together. Barrett argues that Paul too mitigates the importance of baptism in his comments in 1 Cor 1. Barrett theorizes that Paul may have infused the two basic practices (baptism of initiation and regular resurrection meals) with greater cruciform emphases because they were causing division in his communities. Thus, he argues, the sacraments like the church should be seen as both peripheral and central.
In chapter four, Barrett reflects on the development of the church into a more formal, priest-dominated institution. Barrett concludes that the church is at its best, is central, when it sees itself as peripheral.