On Contexualizing Two Failures of John Howard Yoder

& Yoder.

Mark Thiessen Nation, with Marva Dawn

 [Note: I write the following after having written two previous blog posts, in the first of which, among other things, I affirmed the statement formulated by the faculty of AMBS. Thus the following reflections should be understood in light of my earlier posts.  I should perhaps add that I have written two earlier biographical sketches of Yoder.[1] Those sketches were mostly intended as an outline of his Mennonite background and academic life. What appears below is more about Yoder’s personal life, attempting to capture who he was as a person rather than focusing on his academic lifeknowing that these cannot finally be separated. Marva Dawn has graciously agreed to be co-author of this essay. Marva, who is a prolific author, was both John Yoder’s doctoral student and his teaching assistant. Mostly this essay has been written by Mark; the personal pronouns are his. However, Marva has read the essay, corrected some grammar, added a couple of paragraphs and has affirmed that the essay is “descriptive of the John I knew.”]

My initial reading of the articles in The Elkhart Truth—especially the descriptions of Yoder’s behaviors that were harassing, abusive and terrorizing of these women—left me with a pain in the pit of my stomach. In fact I was reminded of the feeling I sometimes had when I was a child protective services social worker, when I would, for the first time, grasp the pain and suffering experienced by a child who had been abused by a parent. Or when, on other occasions, I would note that not only was a child the victim of an abusive father but so also was the wife a victim of abuse by the same man. I was a young man when I was a social worker, with only the first steps in experience of children of my own. But along with training, I had life experience. I could empathize with those who were abused because I had lived with an abusive stepfather for more than two years myself. I knew what domestic violence and terrorizing felt like.

I am sure it was partly because of my own experiences—and my close identification with my mother—that made it easier in my job to enter into these domestic situations and provide help for those who were abused and neglected. In the midst of this painful and complex work I learned much. Among many other things, I learned that abusive and neglectful parents (and spouses) vary tremendously. Some seem rather thoroughly horrible (apparently immune to change), some are repentant almost immediately when confronted by their behaviors and successfully make vital changes—and then there is a spectrum between these two extremes.

But however behaviors express who someone really is, if they are experienced as harassing, abusive, violent and terrorizing, then they must be stopped. Having accomplished that goal, the task lies ahead as to how to prevent the behaviors in the future, care for those injured to bring healing and wholeness, as well as work to understand the perpetrators to discern who they are and what caused them to engage in such behaviors.

As I reflect on the series of articles in The Elkhart Truth, I have several immediate responses. First, I am very saddened that Yoder was not stopped much more quickly from engaging in sexually immoral, abusive and harassing behaviors. Second, I am disheartened that the pain and suffering of the women involved was not given adequate attention at various stages in the process when authorities in the Mennonite Church and institutions became aware of what had been done to these women. Third, I am grateful that Yoder was finally convinced to submit to a discipline process in 1992 and that, so far as I know, he discontinued all of his extra-marital intimate relationships (including the abusive and harassing behaviors) from that point forward. Fourth, I understand why many believe we are not yet finished with what we have to learn from these years in which Yoder engaged in these behaviors without having been stopped by the Mennonite community or by its institutions. And fifth, I wondered how these behaviors fit with who Yoder was across his life in various contexts and varied relationships?

So, what I have just named is my own way of stating what is already apparent in many recent discussions regarding Yoder: namely, his failure in relation to destructive sexual behaviors. (And I have alluded to the failure of institutions in relation to his failures as well—though it should be said that there were valiant efforts on the part of some. As one who teaches historical courses, I need to add that we should not, anachronistically, expect the world of, say, 1973 to be the world of 2013.)

However, what has not usually been emphasized is that there is a second failure on  Yoder’s part that should also be highlighted. Yoder failed by the light of his own theological commitments.  In saying this I don’t mostly mean what is perhaps obvious: namely that his violating women flies in the face of his commitment to nonviolence. That is certainly true. And it’s important to discuss that. But, even if he was unable to see that, he taught many of us to recognize the need for accountability in the Christian community. And Yoder failed miserably in this regard. Yoder was told clearly and repeatedly—by colleagues and administrators at his seminary, Mennonite church members and church leaders, family members, friends, and colleagues in the academy—that he was profoundly wrong. And yet he did not listen. He ignored the counsel from trusted friends, including those who thought they had learned much of their theology from him. This was a major failure on Yoder’s part in relation to his own theological commitments.

In many previous writings I have offered my interpretations of and reflections on Yoder’s theology. In what follows I will attempt to contextualize Yoder’s sexual misconduct in a brief narrative of his life, attempting to live with the question: how do the harassing and abusive behaviors he engaged in between 1970 and 1992 fit with who he seemed to be across the span of his life, with special emphasis on his relationships with women? (more…)

John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Misconduct: Why Do I Care? Why Do I Write?

& Yoder.

Sometime in the early to mid-1970s Mark Hatfield, longtime U. S. Senator from Oregon, took a two-week retreat in the mountains of Oregon. During this important time away he read The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder. According to Richard Mouw, he returned from this retreat a convert to an Anabaptist perspective on how to be a Baptist Christian and a Senator.  From this point forward this affected how he conducted himself as a member of the U.S. Senate. (See Hatfield’s book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place.) “The one way in which he manifested that every year was that whenever the Senate voted on the military budget, he would stand up and he would make the same speech every year for about five years in a row. The speech was this, ‘The Bible says, ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.’ I vote against this whole budget.’”[1]

Last summer when I taught my course on “Biblical Foundations for Justice and Peacemaking,” one of my students was a man from northern Nigeria. This man has a ministry working for reconciliation among Muslims and Christians. He also offers training in discipleship to Muslims who have become Christians. He works in a situation where Christians not infrequently experience violence at the hands of Muslims. He himself carries the marks of torture. Early in our time together, I gave this student a copy of Mirror to the Church, a book by Ugandan theologian Emmanuel Katongole and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. This is an extraordinary book that examines the slaughter that happened in Rwanda in 1994, but also uses that situation to provoke probing questions for how we in Christian communities across the globe understand our lives in relationship to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Do we live our lives in such a way that reflects the embodiment of love of neighbors and love of enemies to which our Lord calls us? Even in ways that are difficult and costly?

Emmanuel Katongole, who now teaches theology and peace studies at The University of Notre Dame, wrote his doctoral thesis on the philosophical dimensions of the theological ethics of Stanley Hauerwas. Stanley Hauerwas was converted to pacifism through the theology of John Howard Yoder. The Nigerian student in my class this summer stayed up until 4:30 in the morning during the week of my course reading Mirror to the Church. Captivated, my student’s commitment to nonviolence was solidified by this challenging book—knowing this called for costly discipleship in the world to which he would shortly return.

These two anecdotes could be multiplied many times over. Over the last thirty years I have heard thousands of stories of how Christians have had their minds—and even their lives—changed by the writings of John Howard Yoder. Typically this transformation has included a conversion to the nonviolent implications of the gospel of Jesus Christ or a deepening of such convictions.

I came to care about the man, John Yoder. I care about his widow, Annie. But the central passion that animates my writings about Yoder is not really about Yoder, it is about the gospel of Jesus Christ. And in relation to Yoder’s writings it is mostly about his way of articulating Anabaptist convictions—including a call for Christians to be nonviolent—in such a powerful way.

I am writing about John Howard Yoder and his moral failings in relation to sexual behaviors  because I hear questions being posed about whether or not we should continue reading him. I am sure we should. (I am also firmly committed to honesty. Therefore, we also have to try to deal honestly with his behaviors and the effects they have had on others.) I have written about this very briefly in my immediately previous blog post. I will soon be posting a much longer essay.

[1] See: “Learning from Kuyper, Following Jesus: A Conversation with Richard Mouw,” Comment Magazine, September 13, 2013, accessed online, September 19, 2013.

What to say about John Howard Yoder’s sexual misconduct?

& Yoder.

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. (more…)

Do You Know Who You Are? (a sermon)

& The Politics of Jesus.

Do You Know Who You Are?


“It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me”

1 Kings 21.1-10, 15-21a; Psalm 5.1-8; Luke 7.36-50; Galatians 2.15-21 (6/16/’13)

 The following is a sermon I preached at the Early Church, a Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, VA, where I am one of the elders and on the preaching rotation. The sermon is one of my many attempts to connect Jesus and Paul, grace and discipleship–so that we don’t imagine that either is to be disconnected from the other.

I. The story of the centurion’s brother and his wife (backstory of Lk.7.36-50)

Those of you who know the Gospel of Luke may remember the story that opens chapter 7.  It is a remarkable story about Jesus healing the slave of a Roman centurion, a slave, who, the text tells us, “was near death.” We are told that this Roman officer loved the Jewish people, that he had built the local synagogue. Jesus was so impressed with this man’s trust in him that he said: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” (7.9)

What if we knew the backstory of the woman anointing Jesus’ feet at the end of chapter 7?

Let’s suppose:

The story is told that this centurion had a brother who was much less admirable.  He too was a Roman centurion. He was stationed only a short journey to the south, in the territory of Northern Samaria. Unlike his brother, however, he used his power for his own gain. Because of his lust for wealth and unquenchable thirst for power, he had often stolen people’s property or killed those who stood in the way of his apparently limitless ambitions. His wife—who reveled in the pleasures of their luxurious lifestyle—passively and sometimes actively colluded in her husband’s abuse of his role as a Roman officer. Many Jews saw this couple as latter-day incarnations of Ahab and Jezebel. That is to say, the abuses of this wife and her husband did not go unnoticed by the surrounding communities.  They came to be hated.  In fact, one of the violent Zealots of lower Galilee assassinated this man, making his wife a widow. Because she and her husband were so despised, she was quickly reduced to poverty. And before long, in desperation, she became a prostitute. [PAUSE]  Someone has suggested that it may have been this woman who appears in the story at the end of the chapter, the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, a woman whose sins “were many,” so Jesus informs us. (7.47) (more…)

The Heterodox Yoder?

& Uncategorized.

The Heterodox Yoder.  By Paul Martens.  Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012. Pp. 166. $20.

Let me say at the outset that I think this book is wrong in its central argument, profoundly wrong.  However, I also think it is instructive, perhaps importantly instructive in a couple of ways.  So, what is its central argument?

As indicated by the title, Martens’ central claim is not subtle.  It is intended to provoke. However, it is also intended to be precise. “To be as clear as possible at this point,” says Martens early in the book, “I argue that Yoder’s distillation amounts to a complex narration of the early Christian church in primarily ethical terms.  Thus, his narration provides an account of the early church’s particularity (a particularity that eventually earns the title of the politics of Jesus), but, as Yoder’s corpus progresses, his narration of the early church’s particularity eventually—and perhaps unwittingly—advocates an ethical or political particularity that becomes so ‘distilled’ that the defining activities of the early church become abstracted into a general and universalizable, not-particularly-Christian ethic: Jesus becomes merely an ethico-political example or paradigm within a form of ethical monotheism (at best) or a for a form of secular sociology (at worst). This, in my judgment, is a heterodox account of the particularity and uniqueness of Jesus Christ.” (pp. 3-4)

Thus what Martens is arguing is that Yoder’s “theology” is finally reducible to ethics or politics.  Martens unfolds his argument in five chapters, roughly in chronological order.  The first chapter sets up Martens’ interpretive schema.  Engaging various texts in chapters two and three, Martens explores the way Yoder discusses discipleship and church in a way that culminates in “the prioritization of politics,” as announced in the title of chapter three.  The following two chapters attempt to establish—through a discussion of Yoder’s work on Jewish-Christian engagement and ecumenism—that in fact his work following The Politics of Jesus most clearly displays the way in which “the prioritization of politics” or social ethics has become centrally defining for Yoder.  Though Martens believes he has shown that this was always Yoder’s tendency, it has become particularly obvious by the late 1970s to the end of Yoder’s life in 1997 that his ethic is not a “particularly-Christian ethic,” but rather a universalizable ethic for everyone.

Martens’ claim about Yoder reducing theology to ethics is not unique.  What is unique is the scope of the argument and the specific way he makes it.

I’ve come to believe that one of Martens’central methodological moves is misleading.  In his opening chapter he implies that it is only because of privileging a certain inner canon of Yoder writings that some of us can claim Yoder is deeply theological.  We have excluded other writings that would challenge our claims.  This is deceptive in at least two ways.  First, serious Yoder scholars do not exclude any of Yoder’s writings.  However, we do respect the fact that Yoder himself intended some of his writings to be more centrally defining than others. But second, and more significantly, Martens is in fact implying through his use of the image of “the prioritization of politics” that Yoder’s best-known work, The Politics of Jesus is quite properly seen as central.  Because really, according to Martens, this book has announced Yoder’s agenda.  However, having suggested that some of us ignore certain important writings by Yoder, Martens can then claim to have given a more honest portrayal of Yoder’s true theological colors.  And then one of his tasks must be to engage in misdirection so that we forget, e.g., that Yoder said in The Politics of Jesus that his convictions stated there were “more radically Nicene and Chalcedonian than other views.”  That he in fact was affirming “what the church has always said about Jesus as Word of the Father, as true God and true Man” and that Yoder’s effort is simply to show that such claims should “be taken more seriously” when it comes to embodying social ethics.

Only those with extensive knowledge of Yoder’s overall corpus can engage Martens’ detailed argument.  Truly to refute his central claims requires a contextualizing of the many quotations from Yoder’s writings over his career that Martens provides, as well as alternative contextualized quotes that would challenge his claims.  I cannot offer such detailed rebuttal here. But, let me provide a small sample. Martens claims that one can see the “primacy of the ethical . . . especially as we turn to Yoder’s articulation of community.”  However, I would suggest that it is particularly Yoder’s view of the Christian community that shows Yoder’s consistency in not reducing theology to ethics over his whole career, which is in fact precisely why many non-Mennonite critics have seen him as sectarian.

In his 1954 essay, “The Anabaptist Dissent” Yoder was arguing against the dominant view regarding “responsibility” joined to an understanding of justification by grace through faith as merely forensic.  In that context Yoder suggested that we ought not to be “optimistic about either the world’s or the Christian’s goodness.”  However, in Christ Christians know “empowering grace,” so that “we may walk in newness of life.”  This is what sets the church apart, claimed Yoder.  He affirmed this again in his provocative 1960 essay, “The Otherness of the Church,” which he reaffirmed in 1994 by including it in the collection, The Royal Priesthood.  Among other things, here Yoder says, “the church’s responsibility to and for the world is first and always to be the church.  The short-circuited means used to ‘Christianize’ ‘responsibly’ the world in some easier way than by the gospel have had the effect of dechristianizing the Occident and demonizing paganism.”  In his book Nevertheless, in both the 1970s and the revision in the 1990s, Yoder distinguished his own understanding of pacifism from the many others described in the book. There he says: “To say that this is the pacifism of the messianic community is to affirm its dependence upon the confession that Jesus is Christ and that Jesus Christ is Lord.”  “Therefore,” says Yoder, “in the person and work of Jesus, in his teachings and his passion, this kind of pacifism finds its rootage, and in his resurrection it finds its enablement.”  In critiques of Reinhold Niebuhr, Constantinianism and H. Richard Niebuhr from the 1950s to the 1990s Yoder would argue that each of these problematic approaches had a distorted view of the church community that denied empowering grace, the power of the Holy Spirit and the regeneration made possible in Christ.

Though I believe Martens is wrong in his central claim, nonetheless there are two reasons why I see the book as helpfully instructive.  First, it helped me to see more clearly the strands within Yoder’s writings that have led some mistakenly to claim that Yoder didn’t believe that true theological convictions mattered that much.  That is to say, he believed that strictly theological matters regarding God, church, Jesus Christ, salvation, etc. are really not that important, except as means to an end; thus they are dispensable means to an end.  Because the true end, really, of Yoder’s central project is a full embracing of progressive politics and peacemaking—in an effort to transform the world over into a religious image of “Democracy Now” (the most progressive political program on NPR).

Second, I have come to agree with Martens that his book is a cautionary tale.  Even more than Martens, James Davison Hunter, in his book To Change the World, in the midst of a caricaturing portrayal of Yoder and Hauerwas, has nonetheless helped me to see how the “politicization” language of neo-Anabaptism can easily become theologically reductionistic.  I have come to believe—especially with influential writers like Yoder—it is not enough merely to signal reminders of what we should believe (e.g. orthodox beliefs about Jesus and the trinity).  We must continually offer theologically rich accounts of discipleship, social ethics and “politics.”  Similarly, Yoder should have listened more carefully to the cautions of his teacher, Karl Barth, about apologetics.  Yoder knew—especially after the popularity of The Politics of Jesus—that many dismissed him for being sectarian.  Perhaps he worked too hard, or without enough theological carefulness, to demonstrate he was not sectarian.  And thus some of his very language for doing apologetics to convince the cultured despisers could be turned against him.

Sometimes it is helpfully clarifying to have a faulty argument that names important issues, such that it elicits careful, thoughtful critiques.  For this book clarifies the elements of Yoder that have been distortingly drawn upon to make arguments that don’t truly fit Yoder’s central project.  Thus I am hopeful that the more thoughtful critiques of Martens’ book will bring some clarity to some false ways of appropriating Yoder.  (In relation to Martens’ basic argument as presented in earlier essays, I attempted to do this in an essay published last fall: “The ‘Ecumenical’ and ‘Cosmopolitan’ Yoder,” The Conrad Grebel Review (Fall 2011): 73-87.  Already, a quite helpful, 38-page review of Martens’ book has been written by Branson Parlor as an e-booklet, The Forest and the Trees [PDF], followed by an exchange between Martens and Parler in the online book review, The Englewood Review of Books.  Branson Parler’s new book, Things Hold Together: John Howard Yoder’s Trinitarian Theology of Culture will also indirectly challenge Martens’ argument.)

A closing thought.  Karl Barth says: “Our contention is, however, that the dogmatics of the Christian Church, and basically the Christian doctrine of God, is ethics.” (CD II/2, 515) Perhaps if we can simply convince those deceptive Barth scholars to quit privileging the Church Dogmatics we could establish that Barth really reduced theology to ethics. It’s just a thought.

(I wrote this a couple of months ago. It will be published in The Mennonite Quarterly Review. When it is published–or when I know it is close to publication–I will remove most of it from here.)


Elections & Idolatry

& Uncategorized.

John Nugent, a young Yoder scholar mentioned here before, has recently written an entry on “nation/nationalism” for the Oxford Encyclopedia of Bible and Ethics.  Out of that research he is writing three blog posts.  The first one has just been posted on his blog, Walk and Word.  The other two will be up within the next few days.  I am sure these will be well worth reading as we head into the national election.


Election Day Communion–Indeed!

& Uncategorized.

I had been meaning for weeks now to add my affirmation to the effort by Mark Schloneger, Kevin Gasser and Ben Irwin to call for Election Day Communion. (The first two, I am happy to say, are former students; Mark gave me the name for my blog.)  I think this is a wonderful statement—and a good statement to post as we head toward the presidential election.

I am in total agreement with what is stated in their brief set of commitments. And then I hope that churches who use this for framing an election day communion will also keep the following cautions in mind:

Will we, in affirming what this effort calls for, imply that issues at stake in this election are really not that important (because the real issues are spiritual)?

Will we imply that the Christian faith is only about something spiritual and personal/private and politics (education, etc.) is really about something else—those matters that are discussed and decided in the public realm? (“It doesn’t matter who you vote for, as long as you vote,” is one of the many ways this sentiment can be expressed.)

Or do we really believe, as John Howard Yoder put it, that “the church’s responsibility to and for the world is first and always to be the church”?

Do we truly believe, to put it differently, that the church is a theo-political polis?

Will we refuse to employ superficial slogans, such as God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat (while continuing to sound very much like we are committed to one of these secular ideologies)?

And will we truly continue to wrestle with the ways in which our souls and lives are corrupted by accepting these worldly divisions—and thus attempt to allow the gospel of Jesus Christ to shape the whole of our existence, as we seek wisdom and discernment to know what it means to embody this gospel faithfully, yearning to live lives of justice, righteousness, compassion, humility and kindness in the midst of our present culture in the U.S.?

The Naked Anabaptist or Particular Anabaptists?

& Uncategorized.

This post is offering reflections on the book, The Naked Anabaptist by Stuart Murray.  For a book published by Herald Press, a Mennonite publisher, it has been a fairly popular book, studied within many Mennonite churches in North America.

I love clever, evocative book titles.  What Would Jesus Deconstruct? is one of my favorites.   A well-chosen title concentrates the mind, it acts like intellectual Velcro—attracting pieces of the book that adhere to the images evoked by the title (while mostly leaving behind those that don’t).   I think the word “Naked” linked with the word “Anabaptist” in this title functions this way for many North American Mennonites.  Animated by the cool breezes flowing from the British Isles, The Naked Anabaptist suggests a breath of fresh air.  No stuffy cape-dress, plain-coat traditionalism here.  No unimaginative Bishops destroying people’s lives through repressive restrictions—all in the name of the Mennonite tradition.  No, this is the good stuff: stripped-down Anabaptism, the essence, “the bare essentials of a radical faith,” as the subtitle has it.  Isn’t that what we want?  More importantly, isn’t that what we need for the 21st Century?  Here we have Anabaptist values that are universalizable, exportable to other countries, like post-Christendom England, where Murray resides.  This message can travel the globe. (more…)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging a Myth, Recovering Costly Grace

& Uncategorized.

Some of the readers of this blog will be aware that I have been working on a book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  I have been working on this subject off and on for over thirty years.  But I have been working on this project directly, off and on, since my last sabbatical, 2009-2010.  I am as excited about this project as any I have worked on.  As of this morning, August 13, 2012, I submitted the 400-page manuscript to Baker Academic.  Hopefully we will have a book within a year.  I say “we” because I have written this book with two former students, Anthony Siegrist and Daniel Umbel.  The title of the book, named in the caption here, signals the thrust of the book.

I am not going to say more about the book now.  I probably will later.  But for those who want a slight taste of the argument, I will give you a link to an oral lecture I gave in the spring of 2011.  (Feel free to leave comments about the oral lecture here.)

Purposeful Plan: Mennonite or Mennolite?

& Mennonite, Uncategorized.

Note: This essay offers reflections on “The Purposeful Plan,” a document written to guide the Mennonite Church USA some years into the future.  It was discussed at the last national convention in Pittsburgh in 2011It has been or will be discussed by individual Mennonite congregations, by delegates within regional conferences this summer and as I understand it will be discussed by delegates at the national convention next summer in Phoenix.  Below are some of my reflections on the document.  I hope they will generate helpful conversations



“We believe that God is calling Mennonite Church USA

to develop a culture of high expectation for people who call themselves members of the church.

Each church will provide a welcome

to seekers, skeptics, doubters, or explorers

and invite them to become fully committed disciples of Jesus Christ,

meaningfully engaged in God’s mission in the world.”[1]



I love this quote from the “Purposeful Plan” of the Mennonite Church USA.  It names very well why I became an Anabaptist over thirty years ago, got my first Master’s degree at AMBS, became Mennonite and now happily teach at a Mennonite seminary myself.  It also names what I have seen as descriptive of a number of the churches I have been a part of throughout my Christian life, beginning at age 17.  I am always delighted to be a member of a Christian community that holds a vision before us that entails high expectations (while, in the midst of this, offering a broad welcome to potential disciples).  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it, “[The gospel] is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live.” Knowing what this means, in its fullness, requires a lifetime.  But that journey is a part of what constitutes the Christian life.

I know that some regional Mennonite conferences will be discussing “the Purposeful Plan” this summer.[2]  And in fact it is specifically designed to shape our conversations about our identity as a Church over the coming years.  I wanted to offer some reflections on the document for two interconnected reasons.  First, I am called to be a theological teacher within our Church.  And second I have some questions about the document.  In a sentence, my concern is that I don’t think the Purposeful Plan, as a whole, articulates the “high expectations” named in the two wonderful sentences I quoted at the top of this page. (more…)