Yoder the Sinner

Back in December, I edited a special edition of On The Road focusing on ‘Catching up with Yoder‘, as in the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. I’ve been meaning to put up articles I wrote in it ever since, and now as the next issue of OTR is about to come out, I’m finally going to do it.

Yoder the Sinner

Our heroes let us down – even our theological heroes. Of course Yoder was a sinner. Everyone’s a sinner. But more than most of us, Yoder’s sin had public consequences. With the publication this year of Stanley Hauerwas’s memoir, Hannah’s Child, we finally have in print an account that gets specific about what Yoder did (without feeding anyone’s appetite for salacious detail). Hauerwas says that, over several decades, Yoder abused his position of power to initiate inappropriate physical contact with a number of women. It stopped short of sexual intercourse, and – most disturbingly for me – was justified to Yoder himself and the women with some convoluted theological reasoning. (p.243ff)

Yoder’s colleague Ted Grimsrud writes:

Like many others, I was shocked and struggled to make sense of it all. It was and remains difficult to hold together the profundity of Yoder’s peace theology with the allegations of pain and trauma inflicted by his actions toward numerous women.

For four years from 1992-1996 he submitted to a discipline process which included therapy, an accountability group and apologies to the women he wronged (Religious News Service, 1992). During that time, he was barred from various activities in his church. In this discipline process, the church was being true to Anabaptist teaching and Yoder’s own writings about the ‘Rule of Christ’ from Matthew 18:15-18 – a believer caught in sin who repents should be disciplined by his brothers and sisters before being restored to full fellowship. The Mennonite church took the discipline process seriously and restored Yoder to fellowship a year before his death.

What are we to do about it? Should we place an asterix next to everything he said? Forgive him and not mention it any more? Forgive him and mention it occasionally?

When we know that all of us fall short of God’s will, why are we singling out Yoder’s behaviour? Because it was sexual? Because it went on so long and involved a number of women? Because of his position?

It’s hard to know how we might even attempt to ‘downgrade’ our estimation of his work if we felt it necessary. Surely sinfulness doesn’t exactly change the strength of Yoder’s arguments or the depth of his insight? It could lead us to conclude that there is too much of a contradiction between what he wrote and what he practiced for us to take his words seriously. But that seems too strong a reaction; he was a scholar, always pointing to Jesus as our example, not to himself.

The matter is made more complex by the abuse of his public position involved in the misconduct and his  role as a teacher and writer on Christian ethics. Is there a sense in which the wider body of Christ is to forgive him and restore him to full ‘fellowship’? (But surely for us who weren’t in his local congregation, ‘fellowship’ is really only a metaphor?) Does forgiveness involve a kind of forgetting?

I haven’t answered all my questions; I can only commend Ted Grimsrud’s conclusion:

Ultimately, though, I believe that Yoder’s positive contribution to my life, the life of the Mennonite church and the life of the broader Christian church remains. His witness was compromised by his transgressions. However, we are reminded by the Apostle Paul that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4:7). Many of our great heroes have had feet of clay.


Ted Grimsrud, “John Yoder: A Faithful Teacher in the Church”, Peace Theology. Accessed online 20/12/2010: http://peacetheology.net/short-articles/john-howard-yoder-a-faithful-teacher-in-the-church/

Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans: 2010).

Religious News Service “Mennonite Theologian Disciplined” Chicago Tribune, 28 August 1992. Accessed online 20/12/2010: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1992-08-28/news/9203180387_1_john-howard-yoder-sexual-misconduct-mennonite-church .


6 thoughts on “Yoder the Sinner

  1. Hi Nathan,

    Two other posts by Ted Grimsrud on this topic may be found at:


    Was there anything in Yoder’s theology and ethics that could have pointed to his behaviour? Was Yoder just inconsistent? That is, was there just a gap between his valid theology and ethical theory and his praxis?

    John arthur

    1. Hmmm, good questions. I think I’m more worried by the suggestion by Hauerwas and one of the victims that he was not being inconsistent, but had worked out a justification for his activities. I’m glad the essay hasn’t been published, because it would be very disturbing, but it may need to be published for the sake of a proper assessment of this side of Yoder.

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