"As You Go": John Howard Yoder as a Mission
Abstract: In this essay, I intend
to portray John Howard Yoder as a mission theologian who consistently
turned to the Scriptures and to the Radical Reformation tradition for
insight on current issues of mission and evangelism. In his missional
writings, missiology, ecclesiology and ethics are integrally and inseparably
interrelated. This essay describes Yoder’s missionary involvement, examines
some of the major themes in his mission theology and then identifies some
weaknesses of his missionary thought. It is important for the faithful
mission of the church today that careful heed be given to his unique alternative
perspective on such missional issues as "evangelism and social concern,"
"congregational missiology," "ecumenical unity," "interreligious
dialogue" and "migration mission."
The work of John Howard Yoder (1927?1997)
has been influential in the fields of Christian ethics and theology. The
theologian James W. McClendon has aptly described Yoder as "the bete
noir of contemporary moral theology, especially of mainline Protestant
He has provided a strong challenge and radical alternative to mainstream
theology that can hardly be ignored. "All constructive theology in
the Christian tradition," argues ethicist James Gustafson, "needs
to be defined to some extent in relation to [the] radical option’
that Yoder represents.
It is noteworthy that Yoder also wrote extensively in the field of mission throughout his denominational and academic careers. However, his writings on mission and evangelism have not been given due attention in comparison with those on pacifism and ethical methodology, partly because of the fact that a significant portion of them either were published in denominational popular journals or remained unpublished. Yet Yoder deserves to be considered as a mission theologian, for his acute insights and reflections on mission illumine fundamental issues and contribute greatly to current debates in missiology.
Yoder addressed major themes of missiology from an Anabaptist vision, persistently providing a unique alternative perspective based on his understanding of the particular character of Jesus and of the Christian mission. ?A more resolute attention to Free Church orientation,? he argued, ?might illuminate our missionary thought in more places than some would have expected.? However, Yoder’s mission theology was not without weaknesses. His meager attention to the individual Christian as a mission agent, his rather too sharply drawn distinction between the church and the world, and his failure to recognize fully the unique place of the Third World in God’s redemptive mission need to be critically examined.
YODER’S MISSIONARY INVOLVEMENT
Yoder was born into a Mennonite family with a notable interest in mission. His great-grandfather, Christian Z. Yoder (1845?1939), was actively involved in evangelistic ministry and played an important role in founding the Mennonite Board of Missions. Yoder’s maternal grandmother, Mary Ellen Good (1881?1973), worked in the Mennonite city mission in Chicago, which had an influence upon the upbringing of his mother, Ethel (1903?1992). Yoder’s father, Howard C. (1897?1983), served two terms with Mennonite Central Committee, one in Russia and the other in Western Europe.
Moreover, the Oak Grove Mennonite Church in Smithville, Ohio, where Yoder was reared, was progressive in its theology and polity and, at the same time, was deeply evangelical, emphasizing outreach and conducting regular revival meetings. According to his mother, Yoder professed his personal faith in Christ at age twelve. While studying at Goshen College, he regularly engaged in door-to-door evangelism. An evangelism partner vividly described Yoder’s participation in evangelistic ministry:
John and I walked the streets of the Locust Grove community in Elkhart, Ind., every Sunday morning to share the Good News about Jesus. With Bibles in hand, this very intelligent young man and I knocked on doors and sat with low-income, poorly educated, wonderful people and shared our lives. He was able to do this in a beautiful way. I wish you could have heard his comments and prayers.
In 1948, a year after his graduation from Goshen College, Yoder applied for an assignment with Mennonite Central Committee where he served from 1949 through 1954 supervising the work of two children’s homes and directing post-war relief and social work in France. Then, while studying full-time at the University of Basel in 1954?1957, he oversaw a relief program of the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities in Algeria following that country’s 1954 earthquake. After returning to the United States in 1957, he served as an administrative assistant for overseas missions at the Mennonite mission board (1959?1965), and then as associate consultant (1965?1970).
From 1959 to 1966 Yoder was involved as a mission strategist in the Mennonite mission in Nigeria. There he developed a new kind of postcolonial mission strategy for southeastern Nigeria. According to mission historian Wilbert Shenk, ?Yoder’s gifts of penetrating analysis, theological acuity, wide acquaintance with both ecumenical and evangelical missions, and awareness of the literature of the day were crucial to the process.? In particular, his understanding of ecumenism’in which he argued for Christian unity as a biblical call and imperative’proved highly relevant to the very conflictive, confusing and fragmentary church situation in the region. Edwin Weaver, the first Mennonite missionary in southeast Nigeria, wrote to Yoder:
The other day I opened one of our barrels containing books. The first I got out to read again was your The Ecumenical Movement and the Faithful Church. I was very much impressed. I didn’t lay it aside until I had completed it. Your booklet has applications and implications for us here.
Among the courses Yoder taught at Goshen College Biblical Seminary and later at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries from 1965 to 1977 were ?Theology of the Christian World Mission,? ?History and Theology of Ecumenical Renewal,? ?Ecclesiology in Missional Perspective? and ?The Nature of the Church.? Believing in the biblical basis for the unity of the church, he actively participated in the World Council of Churches in various roles for more than two decades. As William Klassen has stated, Yoder ?opened up the world of the Anabaptists, especially their hermeneutics, to the ecumenical church.? Throughout his career, Yoder was ?broadly ecumenical,? engaging various Christian traditions in his theological work as well as choosing to teach at a Roman Catholic university.
THE RADICAL REFORMATION AND CHRISTIAN MISSION
Yoder faithfully and untiringly developed his missiology from a radical Anabaptist vision. Of all the churches of the Reformation, the Anabaptists alone renewed and retained the essential missional character of the church; the absence of missionary thinking and practice in the magisterial Reformation, he argued, correlated with its ?subservience to the state and subsequent provincialism.? In other words, the church’s bondage to the state and provincialism led to the loss of its missionary vision. ?The numerical fusion of church and society,? stated Yoder in a 1978 essay, ?made it simply unthinkable that the Christian faith could be propagated in another form than the extension of the political and cultural sovereignty of Christendom.?
Trusting that resolute attention to the historic Free Church tradition would illuminate Christian missionary thought, Yoder delineated some of its distinctive marks in relation to mission. First, the Radical Reformation rejected the Constantinian ecclesiology that identified baptized Christians’then the majority of Europe’s populace’with true believers, and insisted instead that the church be distinguished from the world, even from the world claiming to have been Christianized. The Anabaptists recovered the crucial importance of voluntary personal decision in Christian faith; when the element of voluntary commitment is lost, the church comes to have no concerns beyond its own membership. Without the notion of personal decision ?there was no self-evident need or opening to call men and women of other peoples to a faith contrary to that of their birth.? The radical wing of the Reformation further understood that the church is not a branch of the local state, but a distinct, voluntary, disciplined, missionary fellowship, and that ?only a church free from the promise to sanctify a given society can conceive its mission as universal.?
Second, Radical Reformation churches recovered the place of the peace message in the witness of the church. For Yoder a peace witness is not a sectarian peculiarity, but ?something very central to the Gospel . . . always a part of the Gospel.? Nonresistance based on God’s love and concern for everyone is not something to be added to the message; it is to be the message. The credibility of mission and evangelism is therefore inseparably related to love of one’s enemy as a component of the Gospel message. In particular, mass killing of non-Christians in a war at the call of the government ?is a disobedience in the field of missions.?
Third, the recovery of the peace message in mission would dictate a missional posture and practices appropriate to the message. Centuries of colonial domination by Christian nations had built walls that old ways of mission could not surmount. Yoder believed that the only possible way left was to ?get under the wall.? ?It takes more people and it takes more work than going over the top, but this is our calling and this is the place of our peace witness in evangelism.? The cross simply cannot be proclaimed from a position of domination and violence, but from that of service and humility, which he claimed, is a distinctive Free Church way of carrying out mission.
EVANGELISM AND DISCIPLESHIP
The integration of evangelism and discipleship is another mark of the Radical Reformation mission. Yoder refused to separate evangelism and the demands of discipleship or obedient commitment, insisting instead that ?evangelism is an invitation to discipleship.? An evangelism that fails to mention nonresistance, commitment and servanthood in all their details is not truly proclaiming the good news.
As with the message of peace, both the call to and the content of obedience are to be understood as part of the good news, and not simply as its consequence. Yoder was critical of North American evangelical missional practice in general for its tendency ?to relegate matters of ethical concern to secondary or derivative status.? Such dualism implies that conversion with regard to the substance of morality is either postponed or considered of lesser importance.
Yoder doubted that growth in church membership is always and only good; ?membership can be an alternative to authentic commitment and can stand in the way of faithfulness both of the individual and of the church.? Raising critical objections to the ?Church Growth? movement led by Donald McGavran, Yoder rightly questioned the validity of sharply separating initial evangelizing and the subsequent nurturing for the sake of enhancing church growth or of making the Gospel easier to accept. Without clear, identifiable content for the first step of following Jesus, conversion is only an empty word. Yoder’s claim that ethical content is not to be set aside for the sake of numerical growth continues to be relevant for contemporary churches, which often become captive to the success mentality of our culture.
EVANGELISM AND SOCIAL CONCERN
For Yoder the foundational motivation for mission and evangelism is clearly ?the command of Christ and the joyful and grateful response of Christians to the grace of God which no one can experience without wishing to share it’; therefore, ?every Christian is called by Christ to witness and to make disciples.? He did not, however, allow any dichotomy between evangelism and social responsibility.
Reflecting on Jesus? practices of healing and feeding in his 1958 essay ?Missions and Material Aid in Algeria,? Yoder concluded that Jesus neither expected nor looked for any particular kind of results based on his physical and material aid; he simply acted out of compassion, the true spirit of which is expressed in its gratuitousness without calculation. The imperative for every Christian is to care about all the needs of the neighbor, whether physical or spiritual.
Yoder thus advocated a distinction between charity and missionary intention; missionaries are not to expect even ?a sympathetic hearing? for their message as a result of material aid. Otherwise, the material benevolence could ?appear like another form of the domination of the weak by the strong, the belief of the wealthy imposing itself on the needy, reproducing thus in the realm of personality, religion, and social relations the same domination which imperialism and colonialism were acquiring in the economic and political realms.? Material aid should neither be abandoned nor considered a sufficient purpose of missionary activity. Refusing to accept a false dichotomy between word and deed, Yoder asserted that ?mission and service work should both be done. Neither should be done alone and neither should be done for the sake of the other.?
Yoder was not uncritical of the agenda of liberation theology yet he was sympathetic to its import in mission fields, for God is not indifferent to exploitation, pain and poverty and his presence is clearly linked with their elimination. He pointed out that it becomes problematic when missionaries or mission agencies adopt political positions in their host countries so as to align themselves with or to appease people in power in their home countries. Yoder encouraged missionaries to seek to relate the Christian message to movements that favored greater social justice; however, he did not go so far as to regard the fundamental political structure itself as the injustice to be challenged. In his understanding of the church’s prophetic ministry, he assumed a certain legitimacy of the state. Recognizing the challenges faced by churches in countries of different political structures than those in the West, he said that ?we have yet to find how it is that our Lord wants us to respond to fundamentally repressive political regimes.?
Yoder’s most significant contribution to the field of mission in particular and to that of theology in general was his passionate call to recover the communal dimension of the church as an ethical and missional reality. He states that the redemptive work of God in Jesus is to be understood as ?the calling of a people . . . from which both personal conversion and missionary instrumentalities are derived,? and which ?is itself the ?mystery,? the Gospel now to be proclaimed.? Therefore,
the distinctness of the church of believers is prerequisite to the meaningfulness of the Gospel message. . . . There can be no evangelistic call addressed to a person inviting him to enter into a new kind of fellowship and learning if there is not such a body of persons, again distinct from the totality of society, to whom he can come, and with and from whom he can learn.
In other words, the prerequisite for personal change is a transformed context into which to enter.
For Yoder, peoplehood and mission cannot be separated; each upholds the genuineness of the other. The mission of the church is first and foremost to be and to remain the ?peculiar people? that God has called it to be. For the world, ?the testimony to the living Christ is a commentary on the visible life of the Church, and not the other way around.? Since the community of believers is the form of the mission, Yoder called for ?the congregational structure of the mission? rather than ?the missionary structure of the congregation.? For the same reason, Yoder was skeptical of the centrality of the classical mission society in Western mission, which often only does the sending and relocating, thus contradicting the understanding of the ?church as mission.? In fact, the Great Commission ?does not authorize sending by the church; it is the church that is sent.?
Yoder critically reflected on the Hoekendijk/McGavran debate on the issue of commitment to social and cultural segregation in churches so as to facilitate membership growth. His incisive response to the debate is strikingly pertinent to the challenges of multiculturalism facing the church in the twenty-first century. He questioned whether segregated congregations are not to be viewed as denying the Gospel and the faith rather than as manifesting mere ?incompleteness? or ?imperfection.? With Hoekendijk he thought that there could be an unfaithful Christianity that communicates something other than the Gospel. According to Yoder, racial and ethnic reconciliation is not a question of social ethics but that of the Gospel: ?it is about the meaning of the death of Christ, which was to ?make peace? between two categories of humanity,? one under the law and the other without law. What the cross has accomplished is the formation of a new humankind that defies divisions and transcends all barriers and boundaries. The social shape of the Gospel is thus the reconciliation of fundamentally different, incompatible kinds of people who form a community with a distinctive lifestyle.
Mark Thiessen Nation has perceptively observed that ?one way to read Yoder is that his whole life demonstrated his commitment to a ?special ecumenical vocation? and, often, an embodiment of ?ecumenical patience.?? As Klassen also noted, ?one of Yoder’s abiding convictions . . . was the need for Mennonites to be in dialogue with the larger church.? Yoder firmly believed that the unity of the church is a scriptural command and that, where there is no unity, the Gospel itself is at stake.
The kind of unity Yoder envisioned is not simple agreement based on the lowest common denominator that evades the truth question; it is rather reconciliation at the point of difference or division through dialogue. In ?The Nature of the Unity We Seek,? Yoder explicated his understanding of unity. First, it is through ?conversation,? prerequisite to which are ?a mutually recognized authority? and ?the willingness to move, to change positions.? True conversation seeks to find ways not to bridge over differences but to face them clearly, accepting both the claims of Christ upon each party and the authority of Scripture as the court of appeal. Second, the unity is to be ?supranational.? Yoder criticized the Reformers for having appealed to their local princes and city-states to guarantee their survival, which led to churches? division and subserviency to nationalism. Third, unity in ethical commitment is as central as unity in Christian teaching and worship: ?if there be one faith, one body, one hope, there must also be one obedience.? Fourth, the unity sought is not ?a common denominator.? A merger based on an attainable consensus functions simply on the level of business administration or efficiency and not of ecclesiology; ecumenical conversation on such a basis could further alienate churches with distinctive beliefs such as the historic peace churches.
In The Ecumenical Movement and the Faithful Church, a series of articles first published in the Gospel Herald in 1957, Yoder lifted up the Anabaptist movement as an example of following biblical teaching on unity in Christian history. Contrary to the common view that in their effort to form a faithful church the Anabaptists took the initiative in breaking off from other churches, they had in fact refused a break before being driven to establish a separate church in Zurich in 1525. Even after the rift seemed irreparable, they repeatedly asked the state church to reconsider and to discuss disagreements’mainly on the question of believer’s baptism’with Scripture alone as the court of appeal. In some parts of Switzerland and southern Germany from 1525 to 1540, ?more than a score of debates were held, almost always at the initiative of the Anabaptists.? It was the Anabaptists who went to great lengths in seeking to overcome division. Yoder would consider the Anabaptists as initiating the first ecumenical movement.
Yoder also sought to provide concrete ways to strive toward unity. First, with regard to cooperation in ministry among churches, he stated that the degree of communion and shared ministry is to depend on the level of reached agreement. The principle is ?to go neither farther nor less far than existing agreement permits’; ?what matters is that we do together all that we usefully and conscientiously can, without doing together things about which we disagree.? In other words, a different degree of unity is required in accordance with the nature of each common task.
Second, proper leadership training for ecumenical dialogue is important. It is particularly crucial in the mission field, in which division of the churches becomes ?much more troubling to the converts, and a source of offense for unbelievers.? In an unpublished memo of 1967, ?Leadership Training in Overseas Churches: A Study Prospectus,? Yoder underscored ?ecumenical representation? as an area for leadership training in overseas churches; adequate energy and resources are to be invested in educating leaders to reflect theologically and responsibly on ecumenical dialogue.
Third, faithful to his Radical Reformation tradition, Yoder insisted that the real ecumenical action be carried out not by mission agencies and task forces but by local congregations. For Christian unity to be visible, the local church must take a primary role in concrete encounters and ministries. It is in the midst of actual local gatherings for worship and business that the unity is to be tested and experienced.
THE GOSPEL AS PARTICULAR YET UNIVERSAL TRUTH
In the face of Western qualms about any truth claim, Yoder was unapologetic about the particularity of the Gospel, which he did not consider incompatible with its intelligibility. Jesus? story was utterly and irrevocably particular, yet its particularity carried with it and attested to the universality of the good news. The Gospel is thus a unique ?genre of communication which is at once particular and communicable.?
Yoder’s critical analysis of the scandal of particularity is enlightening. The embarrassment of particularity drives people to seek validation by appealing to a wider world understood to be ?more accepting, or more complex, or more tolerant, or more decisive.? Behind such embarrassment is the fear of vulnerability that can lead them to soften their truth claim, if that appears to reduce their vulnerability to rejection. However, if Christians were simply to sanction the truth criteria of a so-called ?wider world,? they would not have anything new to tell it. Yoder emphatically rejected the notion that there is only one publicly accessible truth-validating system and that its acceptance is prerequisite to any truth claim. The Gospel is by definition the alternative to the epistemology of the establishment; ?it refuses to be submitted for validation to the canons of intelligibility or credibility that were in force before it happened.?
Yoder drew a paradigm from some of the New Testament texts that attest to the credibility of the particularity of the Jesus story in the Hellenized, pluralistic Roman world. The early Christians ?refused to contextualize their message by clothing it in the categories the world held ready’; rather, ?they seized the categories, hammered them into other shapes, and turned the cosmology on its head, with Jesus both at the bottom . . . and at the top.? Their world was as pluralist and relativist as ours is today; what matters now, as it mattered then, is how to restate the message of Jesus in these pluralist or relativist wineskins.
Yoder’s writings upon interfaith relations and dialogue ?are more meager? than his writings on ecumenism. However, the depth of his insights and his vigor with regard to the issue of interreligious dialogue are far from meager. Carefully examining the challenges posed by the resurgence of other faiths and contemporary responses to them, Yoder sought to provide an alternative perspective faithful to his Radical Reformation tradition and to his belief in the particularity of the truth of the Gospel.
For Yoder the Christian view of other religions is at the deepest level ?a reflection or a projection of our [Christian] faith.? Since, however, the church’s accommodation to pagan culture and religion, begun already in the second century, led to new depths of unfaithfulness under Constantine in the fourth century, Christianity’s true encounter with other religions should start with the disavowal of Constantine, recovering and clarifying its own identity. Yoder believed that the disavowal of Constantinianism would fundamentally alter our perspective in interfaith dialogue, since Christendom was formed more by other religious cultures than by the Bible.
Among the marks of a non-Constantinian perspective is a ?concern for the particular, historical, and therefore Jewish quality and substance of New Testament faith in Jesus.? Yoder traced the beginning of the fall of the church back even further than Constantine to its separation from Judaism in the second century and its denial of authentic continuity between Judaism’s particular vision and its own. That separation and denial resulted in the church’s loss of uniqueness and particularity. Thus, for Yoder, the clarification of identity means returning to the vision of Abraham, that is, ?a radically historical alternative to a religious vision of cosmos.? The Abrahamic vision was later fulfilled by the particular historical figure Jesus of Nazareth, who represented the particularity of truth in direct opposition to the universality sought by religions.
Thus, at the core of Christian dialogue with other religions is Christology, that is, the question of who Jesus is. Yoder called for a Christology that relied less on the Nicean and Chalcedonian creeds formulated in the language of Hellenistic philosophy and more on the Jewish language of Christian origins, which would shed new light on the language of the Christian mission. The error of the Christendom mission was not that it tied itself too closely to Jesus but that in its alliance with imperialism and the use of violence it actually denied him. Thus, the corrective would be ?not to talk less about Jesus and more about religion, but the contrary’?that is, to radicalize ?the particular relevance of Jesus, enabling dialogue through the content of the message: the love of the adversary, the dignity of the lowly, repentance, servanthood, the renunciation of coercion,? and thereby to renew the critical impact of confessing Jesus. For Yoder, Christians? ultimate contribution in interfaith dialogue is to get out of the way so that people of other faiths might see Jesus more clearly and concretely, which will take place neither without repentance nor without disavowal of Constantine.
Prerequisite to interfaith dialogue is affirmation of ?the uncoercible dignity of the interlocutor as person and one’s solidarity . . . with him as neighbor.? Furthermore, we must accept the vulnerability of the Gospel message in the sense that it must remain noncoercive if it is to be valid. With such a posture, for Yoder, mission and dialogue are not mutually exclusive alternatives; each finds its validity only in relation to the other. This is because ?respect for the genuineness of dialogue demands in both directions that there be no disavowal in principle of my witness becoming an open option for the other.?
CHALLENGE OF ISLAM
As early as 1957, based on his experiences in Algeria, Yoder reflected on Islam’s challenge to Christian mission and particularly to Mennonites. For him, the origin of Islam is ?a condemnation of [unfaithful] Christianity? that had failed to witness to the radical newness and finality of Jesus due to its alliance with culture, nation and class. Moreover, Christianity’s reliance on violence in its relations with Islam through the centuries shamefully denied that Christ had come and revealed God’s love. It is natural, therefore, for Muslims to consider Jesus as ?a part of the religion of the people who have come among them, not to serve them, but to make them servants’; Jesus ?belongs to a different world from their own.? Thus, when they reject Christianity, they reject neither Jesus Christ nor the faith of the New Testament, but his veiled face and a distorted form of that faith.
The resurgence of other faiths including Islam is not only a judgment on the inadequacy and unfaithfulness of the Christian church’s missionary outreach, but also an invitation for the church to assume again ?the position of a minority, with no weapons but the intrinsic quality of their witness.? Disavowal of Constantine and refusal of imperialist mission does not mean saying ?no? to authentic Gospel mission. If Muslims reject Christianity, they should do so for right reasons and not by misinformation. Thus, ?a Christian group with convictions [of nonresistance] such as those held by Mennonites,? stated Yoder, ?has a very peculiar responsibility of its own, even greater than that of other Christian groups, to witness to Islam,? which needs to encounter the true face of Christ.
?AS YOU GO’: MIGRATION AND MISSION
The major themes of Yoder’s missiology are woven together most integrally in his vision of ?migration as mission.? As early as 1961 Yoder advocated ?migration? as a new way of mission and evangelism in the postcolonial era. First, in order to know another religion, Christians must go to reside where it is practiced so as to learn its language and culture and to live and struggle through the differences and the distance between systems. In going to a foreign country as migrants, missionaries would intend to be nationalized rather than expecting eventually to return to their home countries. Their own language and culture would not last more than one generation.
Second, people can learn to know who Jesus is only if disciples of Jesus come to them. Yoder suggested that migrant missionaries should go in numbers sufficient to create a functioning Christian fellowship, ?yet not so large to create a self-sufficient cultural island of their own.? A lone missionary or a small group of scattered missionaries would not be able to form a visible community whose life together and practices of reconciliation and service could be observed by the surrounding society. For Yoder, ?the very fact that a Christian community exists and that the life of this community is ordered by the Gospel itself is a witness.? Furthermore, as a community, the migrant fellowship would be able to respond more wisely to issues of contextualization than could an individual foreign missionary.
Third, the witness of missionary migrants could be more penetrating and transformative than that of traditional missions. They would seek to support themselves, rather than relying on financial support from churches at home, and they would be willing to live at the economic level of people they serve. Yoder believed that ?part of our Christian witness can be made only by way of economy,? that is, through an example of honesty and reliability. By their involvement in the local economy migrating missionaries would be able to make such witness through their daily contacts in work and marketplace. He also thought that migration mission has an effective way of making cultural contributions. By virtue of the missionaries? detachment from the local establishment and through their adherence to distinctive Christian values, they could be exceptionally creative and innovative. Finally, migration mission could ?sever the fetters of professionalization in missions that has immobilized our evangelistic imagination and commitment’ by encouraging all Christians, regardless of ministerial training and status, to become intentional witnesses on their own.
John H. Yoder consistently referred to the Scriptures, particularly the New Testament, and to the Radical Reformation tradition for unique insights and an alternative perspective on current issues of mission and evangelism. His mission theology was an attempt to recover the wholeness and encompassing totality of God’s vision of salvation, since ?nothing less than the whole will of God for the whole man can be the burden of our mission.?
In his missional writings we see an integral interrelation of missiology, ecclesiology and ethics. Since the Gospel itself issues in the creation of one new humanity, the church as a reconciled community is central in mission as the message, the method and the result of the Gospel. Understanding Christian obedience as a part of the Gospel’s call and context, Yoder rightly held ethics to be inseparable from Christian proclamation. The church as a visible ethical community is to experience, proclaim and witness to the new reality of human fellowship. Thus, the distinction between church and mission is inadmissible; the presence of the church is to be the message as well as its medium. It is crucially important that mission and evangelism not be separated from the biblically grounded vision of the faithful church.
Yoder also elevated the peace message to a central place in Christian mission. It is undeniably clear that enemy-love witnesses to the truth and power of the Gospel. Responsible Christian mission implies not only passive avoidance of violence but also active prevention of its use to attain any end. The Gospel cannot and should not be proclaimed by means of strength or from positions of cultural and political power. If we consider any person or group from the perspective of mission’that is, with concern for their being able to respond to the proclamation of Christ’then clearly ?it is impossible to kill anybody as a solution to an ethical problem.?
In the face of the resurgence of other faiths, Yoder’s understanding of the Gospel truth as particular yet communicable provides a refreshing, worthy alternative to traditional approaches. He would not subordinate particularity and identity to universality and communicability. ?Instead of seeking to escape particular identity,? said Yoder, ?what we need . . . is a better way to restate the meaning of a truth claim from within particular identity.? The truth claim, however, should be expressed from within the language and thought-worlds that a people inhabit and be made with utter respect for their culture and religion. Yoder held claims to truth in creative tension with the vulnerability of both the message and the messenger. Furthermore, his emphasis on the gatheredness of the community as the locus of both kerygma and dialogue deserves attentive hearing. Often interreligious dialogue is pursued by intellectuals and elites on the level of abstract religious systems and structures; however, the particular experience of truth’here and now, in the language of worship and practice of a community of believers’is to be shared. What we need in interfaith dialogue is to be particular and local rather than hierarchical and institutional.
Understanding the Gospel as the message of God’s acceptance of weakness, Yoder advocated that the practice of mission and evangelism be rooted in faithfulness rather than in effectiveness. He called for a restoration of trust in the weakness of the Gospel, which is the mark of the power of God and rejected a definition of success based on quantitative measures. On the one hand, churches today need to remember, with Yoder, that short-term ?discernible effectiveness? or apparent success is not to be equated with the progress of God’s kingdom. On the other hand, when the church is faithful, even failures should not call into question God’s ultimate victory. As Yoder emphatically stated, ?That God’s cause will triumph was decided on Easter morning’; therefore, ?we do not realize [Jesus’] victory; we manifest it.?
A CONCLUDING CRITIQUE
But Yoder’s theology of mission and evangelism is not without weaknesses. First, he paid relatively little attention to the individual Christian as a mission agent. Whereas he consistently stressed the priority of the communal dimension of mission, he did not give sufficient attention to the legitimate role of individual Christians as agents of transformation in the public arena. In fact, Yoder did not have confidence in the individual Christian as an agent for social change. He did not share the ethic of vocation that holds that the church’s task is simply to produce virtuous and moral people and then to motivate them to do some good for society in their own vocations. For him, ?the believing community as a social [visible] body is both the paradigm and the fulcrum for change, both the criteria and the forum for decision.? Yoder had legitimate doubt that Christians would do a better job in their public positions simply because they were believers. However, the missional calling of the church should at the same time embrace the missional calling of the individual believer more positively and intentionally than did Yoder. The church, itself a witness, is also to be a place where individual Christians are nurtured and equipped for self-conscious and intentional social and evangelistic witness’that is, their transformative presence and activity in their own social, economic and political loci.
Second, whereas his call for the church to be a visible, distinctive community is a critical imperative to churches that are too much of the world and thus have lost their missionary distinctiveness and countercultural witness, Yoder is in danger of ignoring the fact that the church is still in solidarity with the world. It is true that the distinctiveness of the church necessarily involves voluntary discipline and commitment on the part of its members. However, Yoder’s understanding of the church as an alternative community seems more profoundly grounded in an ethic of discipleship than in justification through grace. His concern to emphasize voluntary commitment, obedience and discipline tends to draw rather too sharp a line between the alternative community and the communities outside it and, thus, to be in danger of leading the church to ignore or weaken its solidarity with the world, which also is the object of God’s love and redemption.
Third, Yoder’s missiology does not appear to appreciate fully the unique place of the Third World countries in God’s grand scheme of redemptive mission. In ?The Third World and Christian Mission,? he agreed that we should take the Third World seriously as the theater of God’s missionary purposes. However, after critically reflecting on the nonmissionary character of ?Christendom? and on the appropriate posture demanded of the missionary church, he concluded that the missionary situation of the faithful church in any age and any place’even in overchurched suburbia in North America’is that of the ?third world.? For Yoder, ?third world? thus becomes a mood, not a place.
Such a statement has merit in the sense that the Gospel, in any missionary context, is to be proclaimed from a position not of power and strength but of weakness and vulnerability. It fails to recognize with full seriousness, however, the particularity and uniqueness of the cultures in the Third World countries and their concrete experiences of and struggles against various forms of oppression. When Yoder said that ??the third world? is the world of our mission wherever we be,? he was in danger of neglecting and ignoring the particular political and economic burdens of the Third World countries and the corresponding accountability and responsibility for them on the part of the Western churches.
Finally, although Yoder rightfully called for a disavowal of Christendom and criticized its past imperial missional practices, he failed to point out positive elements in the missional legacy of Christendom. Not everything done and left by Christendom has been negative. Indeed, in the expansion of Christianity, God graciously continued to work in and through and in spite of Christendom’s wrongful vision and ways of mission and evangelism. Since the second half of the twentieth century, the center of gravity of Christianity has shifted to the Third World. Its theology ?is now likely to be the representative Christian theology.? Yoder recognized the Third World as ?the theater? of God’s missionary purposes but failed to see it as now the center of Christianity and its churches as the primary agent of Christian mission.
Yoder legitimately lamented the failure of Christendom; however, God in his providence has worked even through the fallible instrument of Christendom to accomplish his larger and greater redemptive mission for humanity. For this we praise him.
. The author wishes to express his gratitude to Dwight P. and Lois Baker, Jonathan J. Bonk of the Overseas Ministries Study Center, Alan Kreider, John A. Lapp and Wilbert R. Shenk for their valuable suggestions; and to Emily Badertscher for her assistance with the collection of John H. Yoder’s unpublished writings.
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. The following biographical sketch of Yoder in relation to mission is based upon three works by Mark Thiessen Nation: ?The Ecumenical Patience and Vocation of John Howard Yoder: A Study of Theological Ethics? (Ph.D. diss., Fuller Theological Seminary, 2000); ?He Came Preaching Peace: The Ecumenical Peace Witness of John H. Yoder,? Conrad Grebel Review 16 (1998), 65?76; and ?John Howard Yoder: Mennonite, Evangelical, Catholic,? MQR 72 (July 2003), 357?370.
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. Based on his experiences in Algeria, Yoder wrote a series of five articles in the Gospel Herald: ?Islam’s Special Challenge to Christian Mission,? Dec. 31, 1957, 1142?43; ?Islam’s Challenge to Mennonites,? Feb. 4, 1958, 110?11; ?Our First Three Years in Algeria,? Feb. 18, 1958, 158?60; ?The War in Algeria,? March 18, 1958, 254?56; and ?Missions and Material Aid in Algeria,? April 1, 1958, 306?307.
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. Yoder’s unpublished writings during his service for the Mennonite mission board include ?Outline Commentary on Matthew 28:16ff and Acts 1:8? (1961); ?Anabaptist Understanding of the Nature and Mission of the Church? (1967); ?Leadership Training in Overseas Churches: A Study Prospectus? (1967); ?Proposal for a Group of ?Believers? Church? Theologians? (1968); and ?Creativity in Missionary Personnel Administration? (1969).
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. Wilbert R. Shenk, ??Go Slow Through Uyo’: A Case Study of Dialogue as Missionary Method,? in Fullness of Life for All: Challenges for Mission in Early Twenty-first Century, eds. Inus Daniel, Charles Van Engen and Hendrik Vroom (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003), 334. Kreider points out that the fruit of Yoder’s service was a ?Mennonite involvement, for the first time . . . among Western denominations, in the life of African Independent Churches (whom Yoder saw as having parallels with the Anabaptists)? without ?seeking to build Mennonite churches or add to global Mennonite numbers.??Alan Kreider, personal correspondence, Mar. 13, 2004.
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. Yoder claimed that, in contrast to the Reformers, the radical anti-establishment, anti-pedobaptist wing of the Reformation ?did . . . develop in Luther’s lifetime both the theory and the practice of evangelistic sending, proclamation, and church planting? (?Reformation and Missions: A Literature Survey,? in Anabaptism and Mission, ed. Wilbert R. Shenk [Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1984], 48).
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. Ibid., 46. According to Yoder, the core of the Free Church message is that ?the identification of the church with any culture, with its state and its economy and its race, is an antibiblical bondage.???Third World and Christian Mission,? 4.
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. John H. Yoder, ?Church Growth Issues in Theological Perspective,? in The Challenge of Church Growth: A Symposium, ed. Wilbert R. Shenk (Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1973), 42.
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. Ibid., 307. In ?Historical Perspective and an Outline of Current Issues in Europe,? paper prepared for the Europe Mission Study Conference, Liestal, Switzerland, July 18?21, 1967, Yoder said, ?If . . . we are convinced . . . that an active spiritual concern for the neighbor cannot be uninterested in his bodily and social needs, then the line cannot be thus neatly drawn between the things we do and the things which we leave undone or leave to government or to other agencies? ( 19).
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. See John H. Yoder, Christian Witness to the State (Newton, Kan.: Faith and Life Press, 1964). He rather passively said that ?the Christian witness does not provide any foundations for government, . . . but . . . rather accepts the powers that be and speaks to them in a corrective way? ( 41). To discuss Yoder’s view of state is, however, beyond the scope of this essay.
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. John H. Yoder, ?The Believers? Church: Global Perspectives,? in The Believers? Church in Canada, eds. J. Zeman and W. Klassen (Winnipeg: Baptist Federation of Canada and the Mennonite Central Committee, 1979), 7.
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. Yoder, ?People in the World,? 258?59. Yoder also said, ?The basis of evangelism is . . . the koinonia of those who together seek the will of Christ? and whose whole pattern of living reflects ?a real sharing of all life’s concerns? (?Discipleship as a Missionary Strategy,? Christian Ministry [January’March 1955], 29).
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. Yoder, ?People in the World,? 259. Italics in the original. See also John H. Yoder, The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1971), 110-11.
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. Yoder, ?People in the World,? 283. Italics mine. See also John H. Yoder, ?The Disavowal of Constantine: An Alternative Perspective on Interfaith Dialogue,? in Aspects of Interfaith Dialogue: Tantur Yearbook 1975?1976, eds. W. Wegner and W. Harrelson (Jerusalem: Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Advanced Theological Studies, 1979), 59.
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. John H. Yoder, ?The Imperative of Christian Unity,? summary of a lecture presented at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries in the course ?Church and Ministry,? Nov. 1983 (?John H. Yoder Collection,? Hist. Mss. 1-48, Box 74, File 11, Mennonite Church USA Archives, Goshen, Ind.), 2?3. Yoder thought that the current ecumenical movement was not addressing the problem of the division at a fundamental level’that is, at the level of theological differences and tensions. He listed a different set of questions to be asked in genuine ecumenical conversation: the meaning of membership, apostasy, scriptural authority and the relation between church and society. See John H. Yoder, ?The Free Church Ecumenical Style,? Quaker Religious Thought 10 (1968), 33?36.
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. According to Yoder, to appeal to the authority of Scripture is far from meaning ?a by-passing of the total hermeneutical task,? but rather ?a commitment to a constant recourse to the entire testimony of the New Testament.? The appeal is to ?Scripture alone and all of Scripture,? that is, to ?the fullness of biblical witness? (?Free Church Ecumenical Style,? 35).
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. John H. Yoder, ?Mennonites and Contemporary Ecumenical Movements,? prepared for Centennial Study Conference, General Conference Mennonite Church, Christian Unity in Faith and Witness, Donnellson, Iowa, June 20?23, 1960, 4.
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. John H. Yoder, ?On Not Being Ashamed of the Gospel: Particularity, Pluralism, and Validation,? Faith and Philosophy 9 (1992), 285. Yoder also said that intelligibility/communicability and authenticity/particularity do not contradict but mutually condition each other; ?they are not alternatives which one could choose between? (289).
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. John H. Yoder, ??But We Do See Jesus’: The Particularity of Incarnation and the Universality of Truth,? in Foundations of Ethics, ed. Leroy S. Rouner (Notre Dame, Ind.: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 66.
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. John H. Yoder, ?The Christian View of Other Religions,? prepared for a class, ?Theology of Mission? at A.M.B.S., 1970, 1. Yoder thought that Christianity as a culture religion, distorted and diluted, has given up its right to be unique. Thus, the issue of the uniqueness of Christianity ?calls for inward critique and not for self justification’; ?uniqueness is not a possession or an advantage, but a call, a vulnerability? (?The Finality of Jesus Christ and Other Faiths,? collected material from lectures and essays, reproduced in Fall 1983 for the A.M.B.S. course ?Ecclesiology in Missional Perspective,? 25?26).
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. Yoder understands part of the Radical Reformation’s character to be ?a different relationship to the Jewish heritage of Christianity? (ibid.). See his ?Judaism as Non-Non-Christian Religion? in his book of essays The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, eds. Michael G. Cartwright and Peter Ochs (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003).
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. Yoder, ?Finality of Jesus Christ,? 23. Yoder contended that both Jesus and Paul ?took the particular history of the Hebrews and claimed that that particular history [which began from Abraham] is now open to all: any one can become a child of Abraham? (ibid.).
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. Ibid., 61. Italics in the original. Gayle Gerber Koontz rightly argues that ?a confessional orientation like Yoder’s, which encourages making explicit and holding onto particular religious authorities (that of others as well as one’s own), seems to represent a more thoroughgoing commitment to truth seeking than positions which hold that the most radical commitment to it is the intention to enter dialogue with no absolute ?absolutes? in hand.? What is crucially ?important to fruitful interreligious exchange is the passionate confession of religious convictions and an underlying, corresponding commitment to defenseless dialogue,? which I think Yoder strongly called for (?Evangelical Peace Theology and Religious Pluralism: Particularity in Perspective,? Conrad Grebel Review 14 , 84).
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. Yoder, ?Islam’s Challenge to Mennonites,? 110. ?Since the Mennonite does not believe that everyone in a ?Christian country? is a Christian,? stated Yoder, ?he will be freed from the general misconception that everyone in a Muslim country is a convinced Moslem.??Ibid. Yoder repeatedly called attention to the fact that the Muslim nations are no more truly Moslem than the Christian West is Christian; not all Muslims ?have made . . . [their inherited] faith their own in such a way that to present another option would be to do them violence.???Disavowal of Constantine,? 60.
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. John H. Yoder, ?Teaching Ethics from a Missionary Perspective,? in Occasional Papers of the Council of Mennonite Seminaries and the Institute of Mennonite Studies, no. 2, ed. Willard M. Swartley (Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1981), 99.
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. Yoder pointed out that one distinctive characteristic of the historic free church is its doctrine of apostasy that ?an apparently successful ecclesiastical program may still fail to represent the intrinsic meaning of the message it was meant to carry.???Third World and Christian Mission,? 7.
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. See my ?Ecclesiologies in Creative Tension: The Church as Ethical and Missional Reality in H. Richard Niebuhr and John H. Yoder,? International Review of Mission 92 (2003), 332?44, for further discussion of Yoder’s ecclesiology.
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. I appreciate Shenk for alerting me that the defense of Christendom based on positive elements in its missional legacy due to God’s providence could “divert attention from the task of the theologian to struggle to evaluate practice in light of the divine intention.”?Wilbert R. Shenk, personal correspondence with author, Jan. 3, 2004. Although it is far from my intention, I am fully aware that such a statement could be used as an excuse not to respond faithfully and responsibly to the call to the renewal of Christian mission.
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. Andrew F. Walls, ?The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture,? in The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1996), 9?10. For instance, for the place of Africa in Christian history, see also Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2002); and, for Korean churches? missionary sending, Steve S. C. Moon, ?The Recent Korean Missionary Movement: A Record of Growth, and More Growth Needed,? International Bulletin of Missionary Research 27 (2003), 11?16.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
John Howard Yoder as Mission Theologian
MQR 78 (July 2004)