7 Broken Men: John Howard Yoder

We come to the last of our 7 Broken Men and I’m going to take a somewhat more serious tone with this one.

Recent blog posts in this series have been presented with a lighter touch as we’ve noted the way our broken men have been used by God for the greater good. And while some of them did inflict suffering on others, their offences were long ago, making it easier to wave off the excesses of those trapped in the long distant past.

But now we come to the most troubling entry in our series, John Howard Yoder.

He has hurt people.

Many people.

All of them women, in fact.

 

And he did so relatively recently. Many of Yoder’s victims are still with us, although he isn’t.

God certainly used him. Powerfully. He is one of the primary thought leaders behind the modern Anabaptist movement. His teaching on the church, social justice and pacifism, peacemaking and capital punishment have filtered into both the mainstream evangelical and progressive evangelical movements.

True to his Mennonite roots, Yoder called on the church to resist the temptation to try to take over politics and society (remember, this was the era of the Christian Coalition). Instead, he argued, the primary responsibility of Christians is faithful presence, ie. “to be the church.” That meant that the church’s role was to model an alternative, redeemed society, right under the noses of those who sustained the broken system in which we currently find ourselves.

Many people, including those who haven’t read Yoder’s work, have been affected by his vision for the church.

Primarily John Yoder was an academic. He joined the faculty of what would become the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in 1958, where he taught until the mid-80s. In 1972 he published The Politics of Jesus which rocketed him to fame and served to popularize the Anabaptist principles that had previously been seen as the domain of Mennonites. That book was ranked by Christianity Today as the 5th most important Christian book of the 20th century.

Later he became professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, and a fellow of the Institute for International Peace Studies. He held that post until 1997.

His work provided a helpful theological framework for evangelicals and other Protestants to embrace pacifism, nuclear disarmament, and opposition to the death penalty.

I read The Politics of Jesus in the early 80s and it totally changed my worldview. I hadn’t encountered anything like it before. Yoder brought traditional Mennonite convictions to the attention of a wider audience and in doing so changed the church. He made being an Anabaptist cool.

 

But there was something dark at work below the surface for John Howard Yoder.

Later we discovered he had left Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in 1984 because of allegations of inappropriate behavior toward women. AMBS chose not to tell University of Notre Dame about the allegations (that’s how it rolled back in those days) so Yoder carried on as normal.

Except by normal I mean pretty abnormal.

His abuse of women was of a very peculiar nature. He would pull them into his belly and hold them very tightly for a painfully long time. They couldn’t escape his grip. Over the course of his career it has been alleged that he had touched or made sexual advances toward more than 50 women.

But the really creepy part of Yoder’s behavior was that he developed a theological defense for it.

Yoder called it “nongenital affective relationships,” and said that touching a woman could be an act of “familial love”, in which a man helped to heal a traumatized woman. These long, deep, full-frontal embraces were meant to be celebrations of familial security, rather than “provoking guilt-producing erotic reactions.”

Women felt if they complained about his behavior they were somehow betraying his higher ideals about human relationships. They felt abused by his behavior, but were also left wondering if the problem was theirs. Did they not have an enlightened enough view of human sexuality?

One woman, who blew the whistle on him, claimed that Yoder told her they were on the cutting edge of developing new models of sexuality for the church. He told her, “We are part of this grand, noble experiment. The Christian church will be indebted to us for years to come.”

All sexual assault is horrific, but I think it’s even worse when the abuser puts this sinister religious gloss on it.

Wanting to believe the best about Yoder, Marva Dawn and Mark Nation describe him as:

“…a man who had needs for intimacy and closeness that were unmet. This was a man with great intelligence, who in the midst of newly emerging sexual revolution, came up with a theory about sex that made it possible for him to satisfy his own needs while, as he convinced himself, serving others.”

 

To many of those others he was just a vile sexual predator.

I’m personally troubled by the presence of John Yoder. He helped shape my thinking in very decisive ways. The first time I’d ever heard the term Constantinianism to describe the unholy alliance of church and state, was in The Politics of Jesus. Yoder opened my eyes to the inherent dangers of Christendom and in many ways started me on the quest to rethink how church should navigate its role in a secular society. His book Body Politics changed the very way I see church.

Yoder once wrote, “That men and women are called together to a new social wholeness is itself the work of God, which gives meaning to history, from which both personal conversion (whereby individuals are called into this meaning) and missionary instrumentalities are derived . . . In every direction we might follow in exposition, the distinctiveness of the church of believers is prerequisite to the meaningfulness of the gospel message.”

I loved that! It sang in my heart.

But now I know that he was using that whole “theology of distinctiveness” line to force women to hold him.  Creep.

Do we reject what Yoder wrote because the guy was screwed up and because he screwed up other people? No, I personally can’t reject his work out of hand. It’s too good. But neither can I bring myself to quote him as an influence or recommend his books as sources.

God uses broken men, but that’s no excuse for us to revel in our brokenness or to refuse to be better. We need to grow up, to emulate the beauty and wholeness of our Lord Jesus, to show grace to those on the same journey, but to never lift our hand from the plow to which he called us.

 

Stephen Neil once said that the history of the Christian church showed that it had been advanced by “a feeble folk, not very wise, not very holy, not very patient. They have broken most of the commandments and fallen into every conceivable mistake.”

We’ve seen this in the examples of seven broken men.

And we’ve seen God still has his way, something for which all of us – including the victims of broken men – can be thankful.

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23 thoughts on “7 Broken Men: John Howard Yoder

  1. King David except he recognised his sin and repented there is a difference.

  2. I wondered Yoder would make it onto this list.
    It seems to me that, almost without exception, great people in history in and out of the church, are great but at such expense to other areas of life.
    Ie great theologians, civil rights leaders, leaders etc yet at the same time horrible fathers, husbands, friends.
    I think there is a good case for faithful mediocrity! The term hand to the plow is a good one – it seems the best way to keep our fallen egos and pride in check – the earthy recognition of our proximity to dust while at the same time the miracle of our sustenance appearing before us out of that very same dust.

  3. Sorry – I wrote the above on my phone. Reading it back, it’s a little cryptic. You’ll have to fill in a few words.

  4. Unfortunately, I went to seminary with an older man that never had any girlfriends. We didn’t think it was weird at the time but eventually just accepted it as normal. Over the years, this man would systematically and darkly pursue teenage boys. Part of his trap was to include religious reasons for his behavior. The boys would later grow up and testify against this man, who I used to call a friend. It was some of the darkest and egregious acts of sin I have heard about. The teens were convinced that God wanted to them to partake. I can only imagine that my friend was himself abused at some point in his younger years and was just acting out what had been done to him. Sexual sin just cuts to the very core of a person. I hope those men can find the help they need to repair a lot of the pain and destruction that was put upon them.

  5. Karl Barth had a mistress that lived in the house! Work that one out!

    Having said that, as a broken man, I am honestly amazed that God would use me at all. I guess that is why we are a community of holiness and grace.

    Thanks for a great series of blogs Mike.

    1. Thanks Mike for this series of posts. Yoder has caused a lot of anguish and heartsearching especially amongst his peers who like you embraced his seminal works like tbe politics of Jesus.
      Alan Barth’s situation as far as Charlotte von Kirsch aum was concerned was a lot more nuanced. Recent statements from tbe family bear this out.

  6. Since writing this, I’ve been alerted to this article which claims, “More than 100 women experienced unwanted sexual violations by Yoder, ranging across a spectrum from sexual harassment in public places to, more rarely, sexual intercourse.” https://themennonite.org/feature/failure-bind-loose-responses-john-howard-yoders-sexual-abuse/

  7. This has been a very worthwhile blog series. Much appreciated

  8. Eww! Makes your stomach turn. Thanks for the series though Mike. I have thoroughly enjoyed it – a healthy way to celebrate the grace of God in the midst of our own fallenness. O by the grace of God go we.

  9. Having journeyed with many women and men who’ve been sexually abused, this one was the toughest to read and process.
    Your comment that “God uses broken men, but that’s no excuse for us to revel in our brokenness or to refuse to be better. We need to grow up, to emulate the beauty and wholeness of our Lord Jesus” was incredibly helpful Mike.
    At some level it helps me to reframe brokenness (my own included) with grace, and point forward to a better way.
    I’ve genuinely appreciated this series of blogs.
    Peace.

  10. Thanks for your honesty and vulnerability in closing this series Mike. Many in the Church would do well to remember that we have all fallen short of God’s glory. Yoder in many ways encapsulates the darkest recesses of our potential to do just that.
    His crimes were horrendous. Yet his intelligence was without doubt a gift from God. It’s a shame when we use God’s gifts for our own gratification. That’s not a false claim to humility, but a confession.
    I would love to see this turned into a more developed work. Leadership can learn a lot from the faults of influential men and the vulnerabilities we face in acknowledging our heroes’ weaknesses.

    Thanks again mate.

  11. Thanks, everyone. I’ve enjoyed writing them. I considered doing posts on Henry Ward Beecher, Martin Luther King or Mark Driscoll, but I think the seven I chose come from a range of movements (Pentecostalism, Calvinism, the Jesuits, the Charismatic and Anabaptist movements, etc) – and reflect a range of brokenness (alcohol abuse, sexual assault, power trips, physical illness and gambling, promiscuity). Glad you enjoyed them.

    1. Look forward to the book 😉

  12. Interesting that you would quote Stephen Neill in this context; he too has a history of sex/power abuse.

    1. I did not know that!

  13. I have no problem with the notion that broken people say or write interesting religious stuff. But on what basis do we conclude that God used them? Because we were somehow shaped by their statements? Because people “came to Christ”? Is that evidence of God at work? Maybe God wishes Yoder et al had just shut up. The “being used by God” just seems too presumptuous to me

    1. Well, whether you buy my “used by God” language, we can at least say they influenced a great many people to do good things inspired by their faith in God.

    2. “God used” does not mean God approved, either now or into the future.
      There are many instances of God using people He didn’t approve of, and who we are told would be judged in Scripture.
      God can bring good from anything but that doesn’t mean everything is good.
      We do well to keep the two distinct.

  14. An interesting addition to this discussion arose just this morning when I arrived at an aged care residence in the country. Two men were by the door so I greeted them as I went past and then as I turned the corner I overheard “shagging her would be nice”. I then had to proceed to a room of elderly people who were faithfully attending worship carrying these disgusting words in my head as I began to remind the people of Gods love for them. It seems that there is no safety from this anywhere.
    I am now pondering as to whether I should have gone back and said something or it was better left. If I had more time I think I would have spoken to the man who seemed oblivious to the fact that I am not his to do what he wants with. Dirty old man comes to mind as it has been with our discussion.

    1. You’d like to think you get kinder and wiser as you grow older, but for many it’s not the case. Sorry you had to put up with that.

  15. I’ve enjoyed the series and appreciate the direction you have taken with this. Intruiging for the mind and a challenge for the gut!
    In my experience in Christian leadership circles, I have worked under, over and alongside many broken people. Some of the greatest damage done in my heart and spirit have been a result of more benign and subtle sin of those who had influence over me, such as the monster that is pride. I certainly won’t be one to belittle sexual sin. I’ve been a victim of sexual assault and the effects are life altering. At the same time, the damage done by the subversive sin of prideful men have contributed in a big way to an unraveling and rewinding of my own walk as a Christ-follower and leader in the church. I am still working, with the help of God’s spirit, to rebuild…er, actually, to construct anew…but my point is, there can be unspeakable and unadmitted damage done to others through less publicly offensive sins. Let’s not any of us rest on the laurels of our ranked sin – and all be thankful that grace allows any of us to be powerful voices in the world on Christ’s behalf.
    Thanks for this thought provoking series and the opportunity to share with your community of readers!

  16. Great series Mike – enjoyed it very much

  17. Thanks Mike for this series. I’ve appreciated the range of men & how you described their stories. I was just listening to a favourite singer & a song of his ‘men of a certain age’ where he penned;

    Men of a certain age are weary,
    Everything rolls along.
    Nothing has changed for thirty years now,
    It’s still the same old song.
    Apathy for your anger,
    Compromise replaced your rage
    Things you once stood for
    Now you stay seated,
    Men of a certain age.

    Men of a certain age are grumpy,
    Nothing has turned out right.
    All of those things you hoped to accomplish
    Seem to be set aside.
    Where is that great adventure?
    How can I turn the page?
    Rub it all out and start it over,
    Men of a certain age?

    But who told you to quit?
    Who said to step down,
    Who said to stop running?
    Who said that time had been called on your day?
    Who said the anointing had been taken away?
    The battle is won, the kingdom is come,
    It’s time to start running.
    So pick up that baton and get back in the race –
    Men of a certain age.

    Men of certain age are heroes,
    At least in their children’s eyes.
    Standing for what they once believed in,
    No hint of compromise.
    Running the race with patience,
    Until their final day,
    Faithful in every word and deed,
    You men of a certain age.

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