Sort of Off Topic – The John Yoder Problem

John Howard YoderThis is out of place in my normal book blogging.  But over the past several months I have been thinking about the John Yoder problem (or to a lesser extent the AW Tozer problem that I discussed on my review of Tozer’s biography.)  What prompted me to write this post was a very good article in The Other Journal about Yoder and the problems of his legacy.  (Although I started writing this about a week before Mark Driscoll was removed from Act29, so there are some parallels there as well that I did not intend when I started the post.)  The actual issues, while I think grounding them in some real cases makes them more concrete are not particularly about Yoder, or Tozer or anyone else.

In simple terms, the John Yoder problem is what do we do with Christian leaders, authors and pastors that sin.  Of course all Christians sin.  But there is sin that would seem to disqualify a person for public ministry based on some of the implications of I Timothy 3:2 and the surrounding passage, but also examples from the Old Testament with Eli’s sons and others.

This is not a topic I take at all lightly. But I believe it is a rejection of the teaching of scripture to allow pastors and other Christian leaders to remain in office while flagrantly sinning.  The issue, of course, is what the line from normal sin that is part of the human condition and the sin that is such that should remove a person from office within the church.  Different parts of the church would highlight different sins as disqualifying, which is again part (and benefit) of the problem of a diverse church.

As an example, I think that AW Tozer was probably a bad father and husband, but not someone that I think should have been removed from ministry. It would have been appropriate for a community of people around Tozer to attempt to help him become a better father and husband, but that is not the same thing as removing someone from office.

The example of Yoder is clearly different.  Yoder, from evidence that has been gathered over a long period of time, was sinning in a way that deserved some type of censure and real rebuke.  The accusation is that he sexually harassed women, exposed himself, and abused his power with female students. It is likely that he also coerced women into having sex (which may have crossed the line to rape, although no charges were ever filed with police).

Because I have not directly read Yoder myself, but only through others, I was not familiar enough with his work to know some of the additional problems of his theology that may have contributed to acceptance of this type of sin by others around him.  The Other Journal article and other blog posts have suggested that Yoder in his concepts of non-violence and submission was setting up structures where it was inappropriate to counter acts of oppression within community.

While at the same time Yoder expanded the concept of violence to include verbal abuse and coercion as violating a person’s dignity and therefore describing it as a violent act.  So by his own definitions Yoder was being violent against women in a way that his public theology was opposed to.  But was he was helping to structure local Mennonite communities to be less responsive to interpersonal violence or at least sexual harassment.

In an ideal world, where sin did not exist and where power was not ever abused, Yoder’s concepts might work. But in our real sinful world his theology seems to have helped protect himself and would theoretically protect other abusers.

The Other Journal article notes that Yoder used the Matthew 18: 15-20 passage to stop or hinder his victims from speaking out against him.  I have seen this passage trotted out a number of times lately to do the exact same thing. It seems to have been used frequently by SGM to stop public discussion of sexual abuse of children and used to terrorize victims long after the initial abuse by forcing victims to confront abusers and forgive them publicly while not holding the abusers accountable for actually changing their actions.

So what do we do with Christians that not only sin, but use the church structures of to hide their sin?

I don’t think that it is coincidental that it took years after Yoder’s death for the full story of his actions to come out.  He was popular, often the only Mennonite that other Evangelicals knew of, and spoke about non-violence (the opposite of the types of sin he was being accused of.)

Honestly I have no good ideas for long term solutions. The problem is that as culture has become more technologically focused, church discipline has become harder. The larger the church the harder it is to actually know people at that church well. The non-denominationalism of mega-churches, which were reacting against overly rigid hierarchies, also lack institutional controls that can provide church discipline when those church structures are unhealthy themselves.   Less attachment to particular communities of faith make it easy to encourage people to find another church instead of the hard work on confronting sin (and conversely, people can easily leave when confronted with sin.)

Social media and blogging is both blessing and curse in this regard.  While, social media and digital space can allow small voices (and victims) to be heard, the rise of very narrowly concerned ‘watch bloggers’ can lead to their own problems.  It was at least partially blogging that forced the exploration of Yoder.  Long work by Recovering Grace eventually led to Gothard being removed.  And bloggers played key roles in Sovereign Grace Ministries and a variety of Catholic sex abuse cases.  But there are also bloggers that have raised concerns that have proven unfounded and the recent case of the suicide of Ergun Canor’s son is a case where a watch blogger may went to far and may have contributed to pushing a teen over the edge.  (Although in this case there has been a clear apology and some good introspection that we might be able to learn from.)

Some have called the work of exposing sin gossip. However, my concern is that the meaning of the word gossip has become slippery. Is it possible to address issues of sin with in a church without it being gossip?  Should church discipline only happen within a local congregation? Is there a place for censure or disassociation if there is not a oversight role (especially in the Evangelical world where church and ministry autonomy is a common practice)?  What about nationally known pastors and ministries that have a foot print that is far larger than their physical geography?

I think one of the findings of the Catholic sex abuse cases is that reputation is important in a variety of ways. In the short term, it appears that Bishops and others in authority dismissed or covered up allegations because of concerns it would harm their reputation. And I don’t mean only the personal reputation of the bishop or priest or pastor, but the institutional reputation of the Church of Jesus Christ. I think everyone knows that disclosure is usually better than hiding at this point and the cover-up is almost always worse than the crime. But when the actual responsibility for disclosing sin and/or repenting is your own, it is easy to forget that disclosure usually bring about healing while cover-ups usually cause the problems to fester and grow.

As Christians, I think we have a particular call to listen to the less powerful, the victim, the poor and the non-institutionally connected person.  I have been aware of (and sometimes participating in) too many instances of institutional or personal cowardliness where something could have been done, but wasn’t because of fear (of losing income, prestige,reputation, influence, etc.)

What I do know, is that we need to find a way to hear victims, appropriately call perpetrators of sin to repentance (and assist them toward restoration), and we need to depend on God’s strength to allow us to overcome our fear and do the right thing especially when it is hard.

And I think that ‘rules’ are not going to solve any of these problems.  There is no rule that will allow a person to know where the line is between real concern and gossip that will always be true.  Our motives are always a little mixed.  Rules often keep the powerful in power instead of elevating the concerns of the powerless.

So here is the start of some questions that have been troubling me and that I don’t have answers to:

How do we build institutions that take the reality of sin into account better than some of our predecessors have done?

How do we appropriately use the theological work of flawed theologians? (And all theologians are as this post rightly notes.)

How do we rightly value claims of victims and the less powerful while still protecting and caring for those that will get unfounded claims?

How do we appropriately lead flawed leaders toward restoration and flourishing while not excusing ongoing sin?

How do we create institutions that value repentance and restoration over image and reputation?

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