The following is the paragraph I wrote almost two years ago for GAMEO (Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online) in my brief biographical sketch of John Yoder: In 1991 formal complaints of sexual misconduct were brought against Yoder by eight women. A task force was appointed by Yoder’s home congregation. Following a year of investigating the allegations the task force concluded that “the charges brought by the women are accurate, and John has violated sexual boundaries.” Moreover, said the official press release, Yoder “has acknowledged the truth of the charges and has expressed deep regret for the hurt his actions have caused for the women.” Therefore on June 27, 1992 the Indiana-Michigan Conference of the Mennonite Church began a process of formally disciplining Yoder. Yoder submitted to this process, which would last a little over four years. As a part of the process, Yoder acted to cut off any ongoing relationships that were deemed inappropriate and agreed not to pursue any new ones. He also agreed to undergo therapy “to work thoroughly with the issues involved.” In the summer of 1996 the discipline process concluded successfully, with the Church Life Commission and the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference saying that they encouraged “Yoder and the church to use his gifts of writing and teaching.” The semester before he died he once again taught a course at Associated [now Anabaptist] Mennonite Biblical Seminary.
I have decided, in the midst of the recent flurry of discussion of Yoder’s sexual misconduct, to say a little more than that. Though only a little more. Mostly I want to say I affirm the statement made by the faculty at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, my alma mater, where I went more than thirty years ago, largely to study with Yoder. I think it is a carefully worded statement that is quite appropriate.
I recently re-read the articles from The Elkhart Truth on Yoder’s sexual misconduct and the beginnings of the discipline process. I was quite appropriately repulsed by some of Yoder’s behaviors that were described. Re-reading these articles simply strengthened my ongoing resolve: never in any way to paper over the abusive and harassing behaviors Yoder engaged in. That is a commitment I always want to live by. Moreover, anyone who knows me well knows I am fairly clear about sexual immorality in general. Given that, I do not in any way excuse Yoder’s various acts of sexual immorality (whether abusive or not). I don’t want anyone who reads on to imagine otherwise.
However, I am also aware that I (and others I know) do not know enough to provide a full picture of Yoder and his relationships with women. Since I know more than the average person, I can’t help but begin to add nuance fairly quickly. And yet nuancing can feel like offering excuses. For instance, I mostly resonate with the reflections offered by my friend, Sara Wenger Shenk, president of AMBS in her blog post, “Revisiting the Legacy of John Howard Yoder.” I agree with Sara that egregious behaviors were allowed to go undisciplined for far too long—perhaps in large measure because of Yoder’s own efforts to avoid such discipline. All of this needs not only to be said, but to be brought to life with stories, real-life stories of women who were (and continue to be) hurt.
However, I am concerned that we can get the impression that the words abusive and harassing capture the sum total of Yoder’s relationships with women. Or, even worse, that these words are expressive of behaviors that reflect his attitude toward women in general. But is that true? Or are we rather dealing with various behaviors, without really knowing the roots of them? I spent an afternoon interviewing a woman who wanted to speak with me about her relationship with Yoder. She cherished her relationship with him, clearly seeing it as consensual and seeing him as respectful toward her. Her only complaint was that, in the midst of what she saw as a significant relationship, he would not have sexual intercourse with her. (She knew he was married; she was single.) I have also had lengthy discussions with several of Yoder’s former female doctoral students at The University of Notre Dame. All of them experienced him as supportive of them and their work and ministries; none of them experienced him as attempting to engage in inappropriate sexual behaviors with them. Which is not to say that they were unaware of Yoder’s interpersonal awkwardness, even weirdness, as one of the women put it. But mostly they experienced the sort of affirmation and support of women in ministry—of women in varied positions of professional expertise—that he had been articulating since the early 1970s. What other stories are out there that would contribute to a more complete understanding of Yoder’s views of women and his relationships with them?
Furthermore, is it relevant that his own revisions of sexual ethics—mostly lying between the lines in his unpublished writings on marriage and singleness—were being considered in the midst of the early stages of the sexual revolution in the U.S.? That is to say, it was not difficult for him to find intellectual/ethical support for the broad outlines of his views about physically intimate relationships outside of marriage. And then, who among those who knew John would have been surprised that his approach to extra-marital, intimate “relationships” would have been awkward or even weird and that he would have been quite unaware of how he was being perceived? (He was hardly alone. I was quite surprised to learn, e.g., that Carl Rogers—Mr. “Unconditional Positive Regard”—in the process of pursuing various sexual relationships, in the midst of an “open” relationship with his wife, in the end seemed to traumatize a number of women.)
These brief comments signal, I hope, the sort of added nuance and texture that would be necessary to provide a full description of John Yoder (including his relationships to women). To my mind such nuances are essential truly to understand John Yoder the man. Also, to my mind, they do not alter the fact that some of his behaviors were harassing and some abusive; he should have been disciplined sooner; he did finally submit to a four-year discipline process; he did what he was asked to do within the discipline process; there was closure of the process in 1996 in which the Church officials encouraged “Yoder and the church to use his gifts of writing and teaching.”
I am also aware that Yoder’s substantial intellectual gifts displayed in his writings continue to change lives—even though these gifts came in “an earthen vessel,” a “clay jar.” (2 Cor. 4.7ff.) And, as Tom Yoder Neufeld said at Yoder’s memorial service: “At the best of times [clay jars] have rough and chipped edges. And at the worst of times they fall and break; and the sharp edges of the shards can cut and wound, and wound deeply.”
I, for one, continue to mourn for those whom John Yoder wounded deeply. I pray for healing for them. I regret that more was not done when Yoder was alive—and done more quickly—both to stop Yoder’s wrong behaviors and to offer healing to those wounded by him. And I am grateful that many seem to have learned from mistakes of the past. We know that harassing and abusive behaviors cannot be allowed.