"As You Go": John Howard Yoder as a Mission Theologian

By Park, Joon-Sik | Mennonite Quarterly Review, July 2004 | Go to article overview

"As You Go": John Howard Yoder as a Mission Theologian


Park, Joon-Sik, Mennonite Quarterly Review


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 missiolo," "ecumenical unity," "interreligious dialogue" and "migration mission." (1)

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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 ethics." (2) 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" (3) 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of the fact that a significant portion of them either were published in denominational popular journals or remained unpublished.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." (4) 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. (5) 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. … 

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