Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

By What Criteria Does a "Grand, Noble Experiment" Fail? What the Case of John Howard Yoder Reveals about the Mennonite Church

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

By What Criteria Does a "Grand, Noble Experiment" Fail? What the Case of John Howard Yoder Reveals about the Mennonite Church

Article excerpt

Abstract: This essay argues that the attempts by the Mennonite Church to address Yoder's problematic sexual explorations revealed and heightened at least three tensions internal to the Anabaptist tradition that affect its polity in very practical ways: 1) the tension between the "Anabaptist vision" and "Mennonite reality"; 2) the tension between church discipline and anti-Constantinian resistance to power; and 3) the tension between the Anabaptist desire to separate from sin and the need for continued dialogue in disagreement. After describing how these tensions are narrated in Yoder's writing and manifested in the competing perspectives concerning his disciplining process, the essay argues that--even though the circumstances are radically different--the same tensions are present in the current discernment process devoted to same-sex marriage and LGBTQ inclusion in the church. In so doing, we clarify the implicit theo-logics appealed to by differing groups in the Mennonite Church in order to facilitate better understanding among those representing various perspectives in these often impassioned discussions.

John Howard Yoder was not a saint. This much is patently obvious given the revelations from the discernment group about his numerous sordid sexual activities. (1) But, while virtually all Mennonites condemn his abusive actions and remain mystified about the theological justifications he created to defend them, in this essay we argue that Yoder's theological outlook heightened several internal tensions within the Mennonite Church that unwittingly and ironically affected its polity in very practical ways. Thus, if we are to learn from the case of John Howard Yoder, we cannot stop at simply condemning his actions; we must also face the deep-seated and still unresolved tensions in the Anabaptist tradition--as part of the broader believers church tradition--that surface in Yoder's thought and that are also manifested in contemporary Mennonite ecclesiology and its attempt to come to grips with the complexity of a Christian understanding of human sexuality.

To begin this process, we attend to three particular tensions within Yoder's thought that have generally been escalated by the occasionally overt but usually implicit (or even vestigial) assumption that Mennonites bear the burden of being the pure church, or, in Yoder's language, of being the church that is the "first fruits" of the kingdom of God. The three specific tensions that emerge out of this tradition are:

1) the tension between (a) the high normative standards of the Anabaptist vision (whether stated in the form of Harold S. Bender's "The Anabaptist Vision" or some other formally analogous description) and (b) the daily recognition that Mennonite reality falls short of this ideal; (2)

2) the tension between affirming (a) the power of the church community to exercise discipline and, at the same time, (b) the subversive anti-Constantinian resistance to the exercise of power; and

3) the tension between (a) the need for identification of, and separation from, sin and (b) the need to continue dialogue in disagreement.

Although the first of these issues--the tension between a high normative ideal and the actual practice of lived experience--has a long history and is familiar to those in the Mennonite world, many have come to see this tension as more acute and complex in the wake of the case of Yoder than it is usually understood to be. Tending to this tension, we suggest, leads to consideration of the further tensions, which are, at present, very pressing concerns for the Mennonite Church.

To make our arguments concrete, we demonstrate how these tensions are currently playing out in another discernment process within the Mennonite Church USA, namely, on whether or not to affirm non-celibate LGBTQ persons through ministry licensure and ordination. By describing the formal parallels between the tensions in Yoder's thought and the current tensions over same-sex marriage and LGBTQ inclusion, we hope to show the ways in which Mennonites have inherited the assumptions and tensions within their tradition, regardless of the "side" they are on in the current debates concerning sexuality, celibacy, and ordination. …

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