The Church Discipline of John Howard Yoder:

& Yoder.

Legal and Religious Considerations


J. Glenn Friesen[1]

[Note from Mark Thiessen Nation: The following essay is not the way I would frame these issues. For that see my previous blog posts. But I believe Dr. Friesen has gone through the facts in a very careful way that is clarifying. I believe his essay, framed by an attorney, adds much to the current discussions that are underway.]


During my graduate studies in philosophy, I considered studying with John Howard Yoder. I tentatively booked an exploratory session at the seminary in early 1976. I cancelled it. Instead, preferring the ethics of H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture to The Politics of Jesus, I became a lawyer. Later, I completed a doctorate in religious studies. I continue to read Yoder’s works, particularly his later work on The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, which I like to read in conjunction and in contrast with Jewish authors like Alan F. Segal or Daniel Boyarin.[2] Although I have a Mennonite heritage, I am not a member of any Mennonite church.

From this perspective, I have some comments concerning the discipline of Yoder by the Prairie Street Mennonite Church (Elkhart, Indiana) and by the Indiana-Michigan Conference of the Mennonite Church. I anticipate that some readers will not appreciate my conclusion that Yoder’s conduct was not criminal. Nor was it sexual assault. And it is anachronistic to call it sexual harassment. Others will not be happy with my conclusion that the church discipline process was itself unjust. I would ask these people to read the entire article, including the parts relating to my family history, as well as my positive comments on some ideas of feminist theologians.


1. Not sexual assault or criminal behaviour

a) I agree that any sexual assault or sexual abuse in the church or university (or anywhere else) must be stopped.  I have tremendous sympathy for victims of such crimes. However, Yoder’s conduct does not fall within those categories. I agree that his conduct should have been prevented and stopped. But it is important to use the right words if we are seeking to discern truth and justice. His conduct was not nearly as serious as sexual assault or sexual abuse, and he should not be compared to such sex offenders. Yoder’s conduct was not criminal. This does not mean that I am exonerating him. I am trying to put his conduct into the proper legal perspective.

b) Goshen Biblical Seminary (now Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary), where Yoder’s conduct occurred, is located in Elkhart, Indiana. The criminal law to be applied is therefore Indiana law, and not the law of some other jurisdiction. The time period is in the 1970’s to 1984. In 1984, he left the seminary and became a full time professor at Notre Dame. There was never any criminal investigation or conviction of Yoder under Indiana law or the law of any other jurisdiction. I am not an Indiana attorney. Nor is this article intended as legal advice; for that, the reader should consult an attorney qualified in that state. But based on my reading of the relevant Indiana statutes and some case law, I believe that Yoder would not have been convicted under Indiana law. It is therefore improper to refer to Yoder’s conduct as being criminal.

c) Even today, Indiana’s statute on sex crimes provides that ‘sexual assault’ requires proof that a person “knowingly or intentionally has sexual intercourse.”[3] In Indiana the word ‘rape’ is still included in the heading (unlike other jurisdictions like Canada, where sexual assault is no longer defined in terms of rape). ‘Sexual intercourse’ is defined in Indiana as requiring penetration, and Federal reporting of rape also requires proof of penetration.[4] No one has alleged that Yoder’s conduct involved sexual intercourse. It is therefore not correct to characterize Yoder’s conduct as ‘sexual assault’ or ‘rape’ or even ‘criminal.’ The term ‘abuse’ is used in the statute to refer to sadomasochistic abuse or child molestation. Neither of those apply to Yoder; all the complainants were adults at the time of his conduct. It is therefore also inappropriate to use the term ‘sexual abuse’ to refer to his conduct.

d) Barbra Graber, former Professor of Theater at Eastern Mennonite University, has made some of the most extreme statements about Yoder’s conduct. In 1997, after the church had reinstated Yoder, Yoder was invited to give a talk on the campus of that university. Graber protested his appearance, and urged the seminary to reconsider the invitation to speak on the grounds that there had been no public acknowledgement by Yoder of wrongdoing or statement of confession. The university did not cancel its invitation to Yoder (Krall, 277). Since that time, Graber has referred to Yoder’s conduct as “attempted rape, the behavior of a criminal sex offender.”[5] She has referred to him as “a ‘murderer’–of women’s souls…Many sexual offenders are sitting in prison today for committing acts less numerous and less violating than JHY’s.”[6] She has said, “…he casts himself in the familiar psychological profile of a repeat sex offender” and has referred to his conduct as “violent, criminal, perverse, misogynist, and incredibly hurtful sexual assaults.”[7] She has said that he “sexually assaulted and harassed untold numbers of women of the church.” She refers to his “sexually deviant behavior,” “sexually abusive assaults, sudden acts of aggression,” “obscene and persistent sexual harassments,” and “clear perpetrations of sexualized violence, some of them criminal.”[8] These statements are not correct or appropriate. There was no rape and no sexual assault within the meaning of Indiana law. There could not be, since there was no sexual intercourse and no penetration.

e) The Indiana statute has a subsection on “sexual battery,” regarding unwanted touching.  However, it requires proof that the person committing the act had the intent “to arouse or satisfy the person’s own sexual desires or the sexual desires of another person.” In view of Yoder’s insistence that he did not intend anything sexual, supported by his writings on the subject, it is doubtful that intent could be proved. The victim must also be compelled to submit to the touching by force or the imminent threat of force. The situation regarded as most serious is the one involving the woman known as ‘Colleen.’ In October 1977 Yoder was a guest at her house, and sat next to her on a couch; he moved closer to her until she was pushed over and he lay on top of her. When she pushed him away, Yoder stopped, and began to shake. He immediately said that he did not intend anything sexual (Krall, 389). The journalist Price says that,

According to Colleen, Yoder specified in graphic language that he did not intend to have intercourse with her, because that would be incest with their relationship as “brothers and sisters” in the church. (Krall, Appendix K, 401).

I believe that this would be accepted as proof he did not have the intent necessary to be convicted under “sexual battery.” Nor was there any use of force or violence within the meaning of that statute.

f) Nor does “attempted rape” apply to Yoder, since that requires proof that a person, when “acting with the culpability required for commission of the crime he engages in conduct that constitutes a substantial step toward commission of the crime.”[9] This has been clarified in case law.[10] Yoder’s conduct would not be a “substantial step” within the meaning of the act; nor could it be said that he was compelling anyone by force or violence within the meaning of the law.

g) Other parts of Indiana’s sex crimes statute involve such matters like the seduction and abuse of minors. ‘Sexual abuse’ does not apply to Yoder. The eight complainants were all adults.

h) There was no rape, no attempted rape, no sexual assault, and no sexual battery. There was no criminal behavior, and so it is improper to refer to Yoder as a ‘sex offender,’ much less a ‘repeat sex offender.’ The words used by Graber have criminal connotations. In my view, her comments are also needlessly inflammatory in this very emotionally charged discussion.

i) It would be improper to use statutes from other jurisdictions, or statutes enacted after Yoder’s conduct took place. We need to look at the laws governing the jurisdiction where the seminary is located and to laws in force at the time of Yoder’s conduct. No law is ever deemed to have retroactive effect, unless it specifically provides for such retroactivity.


2. Anachronistic to speak of ‘harassment’

a) Ruth Krall is more nuanced in her collected essays regarding Yoder’s conduct. I appreciate Krall’s heartfelt writing, and some of her suggestions. The essays contain a large amount of useful information from various records, including the articles by the journalist Tom Price of The Elkhart Truth, who reported on the evidence presented to the discipline Task Force in 1992. I am very impressed that, even though Krall was asked by Marlin Miller (who was then President of the seminary) to serve on a denomination-wide Yoder discipline committee, Krall declined because of her prior professional connection with several of the women. In other words, she recognized a conflict of interest and possible bias (Krall, 371 fn58). And from a religious studies perspective, I appreciate Krall’s references to Thich Nhat Hahn, C.G. Jung, James Hillman, Erik Erikson, Adolf Guggenbühl-Craig, Sam Keen and others. But her essays are uneven in quality, and too often there is innuendo and inconsistency instead of careful comment. There is also a considerable amount of hearsay evidence regarding the experience of others, including evidence not presented in person at the church discipline hearings. Here are some specific concerns:

b) With respect to Jung, I agree that each of us, including Yoder, has a shadow side (Krall 142, 207). We need to integrate our shadow and not act it out.[11] There are other archetypes, such as the anima (inner feminine figure) and animus (inner male figure). In Jungian terms, Yoder inappropriately projected his anima on women and acted out his shadow side. But it seems to me that some critics of Yoder have projected their shadow onto Yoder, demonizing him and exaggerating his conduct. Some critics of Yoder have been honest enough to admit that they have suffered abuse by other Mennonite men. But those other experiences of abuse should not be projected on to Yoder, making him the scapegoat for those other men. Each of us needs to take back our inner figures, and cease projecting them onto others. Krall seems to recognize this to some extent, for she expresses the hope that “a less projected, less polemical, and factually more realistic or accurate view of Yoder and his life might emerge” (Krall, 171). And yet her comments seem to have more to do with what we should say about Yoder than a self-critical examination of what motivates people to make these projections. This is despite her awareness elsewhere in the book that

Condemnation of the other, by rumor and gossip, services to reinforce a self-image of self-righteousness, of being better than someone else. Thus, individuals are not confronted with their own moral failings because they are busy pointing out the moral failings, in gossip or even in administrative decisions, of the other. Some Buddhist literature and some clinical literature would point out the dangers of such self-righteousness as a form of projection. (Krall, 346).

c) Krall provides a glossary of terms (Krall, 299ff), and she correctly indicates that rape requires proof of forced sexual intercourse. But she blurs this when she adds “A few states, however, include all kinds of forced sexual activities in their legal definition of rape.” She also says that ‘sexual assault’ is defined by law codes of various states. But Krall does not examine the Indiana statute, and she would appear to be in error when she says that “Grabbing, fondling, kissing, hugging, are included.” Although it is important that we define our terms, it is also important that our definitions match up with legal statutes or sexual codes of conduct (when such codes of conduct exist).

d) If not ‘sexual assault’ or ‘rape’ or ‘criminal behaviour,’ or ‘sexual abuse,’ how should we characterize Yoder’s conduct? As ‘harassment’? Consider this statement by Krall

For more than twenty five years (1965-1992) while preaching the need for a voluntary community of Christian believers (disciples) to be accountable to each other for misbehavior and sin, a wide variety of women reported that Yoder sexually harassed and offended them. (Krall,173)

But was it even harassment? Krall says on p. 344:

I did not, at this time [1980], yet have the language of sexual harassment or hostile climate harassment to guide my thinking about Yoder and Mennonite Church institutions. The only language I (and other women like me) had to describe behavior like Yoder’s was that of marital unfaithfulness, infidelity, womanizing, or adultery. The terms sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and hostile or chilly climates had yet to be coined inside the second wave of the American’s women’s movement in the 1980s and 1990’s.

I really respect the honesty of this statement. It demonstrates the real problem. How do we describe Yoder’s conduct in terms that were current at the time? It is what I believe Mark Thiessen Nation means when says “we should not, anachronistically, expect the world of, say, 1973 to be the world of 2013.”[12]  The idea of harassment had not yet been developed when Yoder engaged in his conduct. Krall repeats this elsewhere in other comments.[13] There is no evidence that there was a sexual code of conduct at the seminary at that time that would have defined and prohibited harassment.

e) In 1977, Yoder became a full-time professor at the University of Notre Dame (also in Indiana). He continued to teach some classes at Goshen Biblical Seminary until 1984. Today, Notre Dame has a code of conduct with a definition of ‘harassment’ that might encompass conduct like Yoder’s were it to occur now. It contains a provision against “creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive University environment.”[14] Even that provision would not make the conduct criminal. Nor would it include conduct towards those who are not students at that university. And the policy requires that the conduct has a certain purpose or effect. Even with codes of conduct, it is difficult to prove harassment, as cases from Notre Dame show.[15] It should be emphasized that there was no discipline or investigation of Yoder by Notre Dame during the time that he taught there, although Krall has assembled some hearsay evidence (Krall 203-4). A conference at Notre Dame in 2002 on the theological legacy of Yoder included a discussion instigated by Gayle Gerber Koontz regarding Yoder’s sexual misconduct. This was after the 4 year process of church discipline against Yoder (1992-96) had been concluded and almost five years after Yoder’s death. Some people objected to this discussion, observing that Yoder was dead and that the matter had been dealt with (Krall, 81-82). But there was never any discipline or investigation of Yoder by Notre Dame.

f) Outside of specially demarcated areas of responsibility like university codes of conduct, ‘harassment’ needs to be a repeated action towards the same individual in order to be considered harassment to be stopped by a court. A letter mailed from France or Jerusalem is not necessarily harassment, even if the recipient considers it to be obscene or offensive. It becomes harassment only after there is repeated contact after being told to stay away or to cease communicating. Repeated or continuing harassment of another person could constitute “stalking” under Indiana law, but note that it has to be repeated or continuing. It also needs to actually cause the victim to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, or threatened.[16] In any event, Krall says that the women she talked to “were unwilling to label his behavior as stalking” (Krall, 157). The same statute defines ‘harassment’ for criminal purposes. It “includes but is not limited to repeated or continuing impermissible contact that would cause a reasonable person emotional distress and that actually causes the victim to suffer emotional distress.” Note the reference to “repeated or continuing impermissible contact.” Even though it is not limited to this, the reference to “repeated or continuing” is significant. The statute also provides that “Harassment does not include statutorily or constitutionally protected activity.” The contact by Yoder was permitted by statute: A letter or telephone call is not harassment under Indiana statute if there is an intent of legitimate communication.[17] In view of Yoder’s writings on sexuality, I believe he had an intent of legitimate communication in relation to his views on non-sexual affection.

g) In the absence of a code of conduct at the time of Yoder’s behaviour, there would have had to be repeated instances of unwanted attention to the same person for this conduct to constitute harassment towards that person. Similar behavior in relation to different persons does not constitute repeated behaviour as harassment. The evidence is that when Yoder was told to stop, he did stop. The eight women who spoke to the Prairie Street Task Force presented a written document that stated:

In all cases following confrontation and our refusal to respond to additional letters or contacts, John ceased the behaviors. However, John has continued the behaviors to the present with other women. (Krall, 214 fn54).

The fact that the behaviour stopped shows that it was not continuing and therefore not harassment by law. If it continued with other women, that does not make it harassment. We cannot apply to his situation later codes of conduct that may cover a single instance of conduct. Note that the reference to “other women” is also hearsay evidence.

h) The fact that someone is offended subjectively does not mean that there is an act that that needs to be disciplined. The person doing the offending must have intended the offense, and the offense must transgress some accepted standard of care or some code in existence at that time. We cannot be retroactively liable for our actions, unless a law specifically provides for retroactive effect. I am aware that some contemporary codes of conduct attempt to require only a subjective perception of offense, making the infraction one of absolute liability, regardless of intent. In my view, such codes of conduct go too far. In Yoder’s case, the issue of intent is compounded by the fact that Yoder believed he was advancing a new way of non-sexual relating between men and women (see below, section 10). Just because someone is offended by explicit sexual language does not mean that there is an objective offense. For example, I am aware of a professor who was suspended at a Christian university because of a complaint about sexually explicit language (in a class discussing sexuality!). I was not at all convinced that this fell within the compass of that university’s code of conduct or that he had been given a fair hearing. He successfully sued for compensation and an apology.


3. Not sexual abuse

I find it unfortunate that Krall associates Yoder’s conduct with those of child molestation and abuse, such as the kind of abuse currently being investigated by the Catholic Church. These events also occur in Mennonite circles, but they are not what happened in Yoder’s case. They create a false impression and guilt by association. Yoder’s conduct had nothing to do with child molestation or sexual abuse.


4. Not clergy abuse

a) Krall also improperly associates Yoder’s conduct with clergy abuse, which she discusses in detail. But she acknowledges that although Yoder was ordained as a minister, he never practiced as an ordained minister, either full time or part time (Krall, 225, 336). In fact, Yoder’s ordination had nothing to do with the Prairie Street Church that started the Task Force investigation. He was ordained at a congregation in Ohio (his parental home) in 1973:

Yoder’s ordination was not as a pastor of a congregation. At the urging of GBS [Goshen Biblical Seminary] professor J. C. Wenger, he was ordained in 1973 at Oak Grove Congregation in Ohio (his parental home congregation) in light of his employment by the seminary as its resident theologian. He never served a congregation (Krall, 225).

b) Since he never served a congregation, it is unclear to me why he was ordained at all. Ordination is not required in order to preach sermons in the Mennonite church (which Yoder did from time to time). Nor would he have had to be ordained to teach at a seminary. Yoder was himself “highly ambivalent” about being ordained. Krall suggests it may have been for tax purposes. She refers to it as an “aberrant ordination in Mennonite polity” since Yoder was ordained no to a congregation but “to a non-specific teaching and preaching role in the Elkhart seminaries” (Krall, 336). But teaching is different from being a pastor.

c) The Mennonite Church is not hierarchical like the Catholic Church, where priests are appointed and approved by higher bodies than a local congregation. There is no national body that appoints Mennonite ministers. The local congregation hires and supervises the minister, but the credentials are then to be lodged with the conference (Krall, 225). A “conference” is a group or “fellowship” of individual congregations, and conferences in turn join together with other conferences at a national level, and they also have associations with other Mennonite denominations. There is even an international fellowship known as “Mennonite World Conference.”[18]There are several different Mennonite denominations, each with its own conferences: The Mennonite Church (MC), the General Conference (GC) and the Mennonite Brethren Conference (MB). In 2002, there was a merger in the US of the MC and GC conferences to form Mennonite Church USA.

Yoder’s church was the Mennonite Church (MC). Responsibility to select a minister in the Mennonite Church is by the local congregation, but the district conference does have the power to discipline the minister.[19]

So it is a little confusing when Krall says

From 1984 until 1991, as far as I know, no denominational officer at any level (congregational, conference, or national) raised the issue of his ongoing- status as ordained clergy as a factor to consider in the church’s management of sexual misconduct allegations and rumors. (Krall, 226).

National officers would not have supervisory power. Even the Indiana-Michigan Conference did not have that power during the relevant time period. As will be discussed below (Sections 7 and 8), the Oak Grove Congregation in Ohio that ordained Yoder is not a member of the Indiana-Michigan Conference that disciplined Yoder.

d) The complaints of the eight women were directed to the Prairie Street Church, where Yoder was a member. Prairie Street Church set up a Task Force to investigate the allegations. We will look at this investigation in more detail below (Section 7). What is important to stress here is Yoder was never a minister at Prairie Street Church. Prairie Street Church could not discipline Yoder as minister or clergy (he was not their minister), but only as a member of that congregation. And yet Krall says that the complaint by the eight women was lodged with Prairie Street Church and the Indian-Michigan conference “in light of Yoder’s ordination credentials” (Krall, 230). But those ordination credentials had nothing to do with that church. There is something wrong here procedurally. Yoder was right to object. Mark Thiessen Nation comments:

Also, some have made much of Yoder’s ordination credentials. They were suspended at the beginning of the process and were never reinstated. To understand this we need to realize that Yoder never wanted to be ordained. In line with his ecclesiology he had very mixed feelings about the way in which ordination was normally done. He was only ordained because a colleague at AMBS pressed him to be. Thus, when he was told his ordination credentials would be suspended he had two responses. First, he thought this was not the way to discipline a Christian. Rather, he should be disciplined simply as a member of the church. Besides, second, in his case he saw his ordination credentials as a fiction. He never had wanted to be ordained.  He didn’t need to be ordained, so keep the credentials. He wanted to be dealt with as a Christian who teaches theology for the sake of the Church.[20]

e) Would it have made a difference if Yoder had been disciplined as a member of the church, and not in terms of his ordination? Quite possibly, because Yoder’s argument could have been, “I am a member who taught theology at Goshen Biblical Seminary until 1984. The seminary did not take action against me, and they are the only body that should be involved. I am now at Notre Dame and they have no complaints against me.” Krall certainly thinks that Yoder would not have been disciplined without the “key” issue of ordination. Krall says that these credentials were “the key to unlock the institutional secrecy about his behavior” and that without them, Yoder’s behavior would not have come to public light, since his ordination was his only link to the Mennonite church “as an employee” (Krall, 236). But Yoder was not acting as an employee of any part of the Mennonite church. He was employed by Notre Dame University. He was involved in public speaking engagements. And prior to the discipline process, Mennonite institutions had informally banned him from speaking. So where was he representing the church in a way that would allow his ordination credentials to be used in this way?

f) Nevertheless, evidence that Krall may be right, and that ordination was a “key” is that an earlier task force to investigate Yoder was started by Prairie Street Church in 1985-86. It was abandoned because no witnesses would come forward to meet with Yoder, in accordance with the requirements of Matthew 18. Matthew 18:15-18 is the foundation text for Mennonite views on church discipline:

If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.

But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.
If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. [NIV]

Since Matthew 18 does not deal solely with pastors, but with any member of a congregation having a dispute with another, I believe that this earlier hearing might have had more to do with disciplining members than with disciplining clergy. It could not discipline Yoder as clergy because Yoder had no pastoral connection with the Prairie Street Church. If that is so, then it adds support to Krall’s theory that the ordination issue was the key to getting discipline. It might have been a new argument that was used in 1991-92 against Yoder.

g) I think is important to see documentation related to the 1985-86 inquiry, to determine its basis. And then with respect to the 1991-92 inquiry, records of the Prairie Street Church and of the Conference need to be examined. What discussion was there about the Conference taking over the supervision of the ordination credentials from Ohio in order to discipline Yoder as “clergy?” Having been stymied in its 1985-86 attempted investigation, was a new strategy developed regarding ordination? Is that why Yoder argued in 1991-92 that he should be disciplined only as a member of the Prairie Street Church? When did he make that objection? What correspondence is there between the Prairie Street Church and the Conference? Between either or both or those parties and the Ohio church that ordained Yoder? When was the Ohio Church contacted by either Prairie Street or the Conference? I do not know what took place, but it is the type of question that should be asked. This is especially so in view of the fact that the Task Force was begun in July, 1991 by Prairie Street Church to investigate rumours about Yoder. This was 7 months prior to the eight women giving their evidence to that Task Force. It is most unusual to set up a Task Force before a complaint has been made. Yoder was in Europe, and not informed until August 1991 of the formation of the Task Force, and he did not appear before them until March 14, 1992, when he was presented with the allegations. It was only one day after meeting with Yoder that the Task Force released a preliminary report of its findings to the Prairie Street congregation! (Krall, 353). Now that is highly unusual. It also seems prejudicial, since the final report was not made until a few months later. With whom did the Task Force meet prior to the evidence of the eight women in February, 1992? Were any of the eight complainants members of that congregation? What documents are there? What was said? To avoid the appearance of bias, should not a new Task Force have been appointed after the testimony of the eight women? How can the Task Force rid itself of the rumours that it was set up to investigate? In asking these questions, I do not mean to impugn the good intentions of the Task Force. I believe that their intentions were good. But procedurally there appears to be a lot that is wrong.

h) Why did the Indiana-Michigan Conference “assume” responsibility for Yoder’s ordination credentials? The Ohio church that granted the ordination is not even part of that Conference. The Prairie Street Church is a member of that Conference, but as already noted, Yoder’s ordination was not connected with Prairie Street. There is something procedurally wrong here, especially when we consider the timing. We do know that the Conference Commission contacted the Ohio Conference prior to suspending the ordination. Again, I think it is important to see documentation between and among the Task Force, the Conference and the Ohio Conference. Was there contact made with the Oak Grove Congregation in Ohio?

i) In all of this, it is important to remember that Yoder was not acting as pastor of any congregation, and that the body that should have investigated the complaints is the institution where he was teaching: Goshen Biblical Seminary.


5. Socially awkward, strange, creepy, immoral

a) If we cannot use the term ‘harassment’ except in an anachronistic way, then how should we describe Yoder’s conduct? Tom Price reports that the woman known as ‘Clara’ gave evidence:

“There were a few of us (female students) at the seminary who were at that point experiencing what we called strange behavior,” said “Clara,” who first met Yoder in the early 1970s. “We talked about it with each other. That was the extent of it. We chalked it up (as), ‘This man is strange. He is awkward. He doesn’t know how to relate.’ The best thing is to stay away from him.” (Krall, Appendix I, 391).

“Strange,” “awkward.” ‘Clara’s’ evidence from the time in question when she was a student (early 1970’s) is only that there were inappropriate hugs. She says that it was only later (in the mid-70’s), when she saw his writings on singleness, that she became suspicious (Krall, 392). But that is reading back into the past. Evidence of Yoder’s conduct must be based on her experience while she was a student. Her later reading cannot change what her reaction to the conduct was at that time. At the time she merely thought him strange and awkward. ‘Clara’ says that she later received a letter from him from Jerusalem, asking explicit sexual questions. She found the letter to be offensive, but that does not necessarily mean it was actionable or that he should be disciplined for it. Still later, in 1976, Yoder returned to the seminary and came uninvited to her apartment. When she asked him not to touch her, he stopped. It is unclear whether she was still a student at that time. But there was no repeated conduct in relation to her. As for Yoder’s writings on singleness, we will discuss them in more detail below (Section 10). In themselves, these writings do not raise any cause for discipline.

b) In my view, on the evidence presented at the hearing we are left with descriptions of conduct like “inappropriate hugging and kissing.” Price reported on the evidence:

The women, who are on positions of national church leadership, said the allegations included improper hugging, use of sexual innuendo or overt sexual language, sexual harassment, kissing or attempts to kiss women, nudity and violent sexual behavior. Sexual intercourse was not among the allegations. (Krall, Appendix G, p. 379).

There is no evidence of a code of conduct prohibiting sexual innuendo. Overt sexual language may offend, but it is not in itself actionable unless contrary to obscenity laws. I have seen no evidence of nudity, except for fantasies of nudity. And the incident with ‘Colleen,’ although socially and morally wrong, should not be described as “violent sexual behavior.”

c) Graber objects to terms like ‘inappropriate,’ ‘improprieties,’ ‘crossed boundaries,’ ‘misconduct,’ and even ‘sexual advances’ to describe Yoder’s actions. She says they are “far too mild, lack specificity.” And she says, “It baffles me that scholars and writers who dicker over the accuracy of words, cannot seem to get them right in this case.” (Graber, 2013). Yet the words that she has used are clearly not right.

d) Krall also says that code words like ‘misconduct’ are often used to cover up serious cases of abuse (Krall, 181). I agree that code words are a concern where what really occurred was a more serious offence like rape. But in Yoder’s case there was no rape, no sexual intercourse. Even the term ‘harassment’ is anachronistic. In searching for a description of Yoder’s conduct, we are not using code words, but rather attempting to state what really happened in terms that were current at the time. And what really happened is much less serious than what has been stated by so many parties to the discussion. Yoder’s actions were socially inappropriate, awkward, strange, creepy; they were also morally wrong in the absence of consent by the other party. As such, these actions should have been stopped.

e) It has been suggested that Yoder suffered from Asperger’s,[21] which made him socially inept and unable to read body language and other signals. It might also have made him unable to empathize with those whom he offended. As I understand it, some people afflicted with this kind of autism resist being touched; others want many close, tight hugs, provided that they are the ones who initiate these actions. Autism is a spectrum of symptoms, and it includes some very high functioning individuals. But their high level of functioning is restricted to certain areas. I think that Krall too easily dismisses this possibility (Krall, 156). Instead she suggests that he was a “brilliant individual with anti-social tendencies.” She does acknowledge that others regarded him as socially awkward. She concludes he was testing others by inept social responses as a way to rescue himself from boredom (Krall, 158). But that is really only her speculation.


6. Professor/Student relationship

a) The real issue is not abuse of clergy power, but of Yoder’s conduct while he was a professor at Goshen Biblical Seminary, which was then located in Elkhart, Indiana.

b) If the issue is of Yoder’s conduct at the seminary, then it is not one of clergy abuse but of improper relationships between a professor and his students. The issue of ordination is not relevant. But in that respect, it is unclear how many of the eight complainants were students. The woman known as “Colleen” was not a student at the time of the conduct she complained of. The complainant ‘Tina’ met Yoder at a conference.  She does not appear to have been a student, but rather a woman that Yoder began writing to, suggesting meetings at conferences. ‘Tina’ was offended by some suggestions in the letters, including some detailed imaginings of her breasts and other body parts (Krall, 392). Is that obscene communication? Probably not by Indiana law, given the context of Yoder’s studies. And fantasized nudity is not the same as actual nudity. But Yoder did make a serious error in social judgment in assuming that his correspondent would be interested in such a discussion or fantasy. In law, these distinctions student/non-student are important, since the duties of a professor to his student are different from the duties owed outside the classroom or even to a former student. Two of his female doctoral students have said that Yoder was socially awkward, but that he supported and empowered them.[22]

c) Krall says that that the seminary “coerced” Yoder’s resignation in 1984 by not renewing his contract (Krall, 347). Could more have been done earlier? I would be interested in knowing what legal opinions the seminary was given. Although this advice was privileged, the seminary can waive the privilege. In the absence of a written code of conduct, it would have been difficult to dismiss Yoder without risking a lawsuit by him for wrongful dismissal. But some of the faculty were aware that Yoder was seeking inappropriate hugs and kisses from students. And some students and staff warned new female students and staff not to be alone with Yoder or in closed-door classrooms (Krall, 341). It seems to me that, even characterizing his behaviour as merely socially inappropriate, the seminary could have issued a general warning to its students not to have contact with any of the faculty behind closed doors and to avoid being alone with them. (Today, it is faculty and clergy who are concerned not to close the door on their students or parishioners, for fear of false accusations of sexual impropriety, as dramatized in David Mamet’s play “Oleanna,” which deals with false accusations of abuse.[23] A pastor I know has a glass window installed in his study door so that people outside may look in on his consultations). But even this idea of a general warning may be anachronistic in that we know so much more today about the possibility of abuse. I do not mean that the seminary would necessarily have been legally liable for not stopping Yoder’s conduct. But they did have concerns that could and should have been made public, even if those concerns were only that Yoder was breaching social standards of propriety, or as students said, acting in a “creepy” way with “inappropriate hugs and kisses.”


7. Discipline by the Prairie Street Task Force

a) This Task Force met with Yoder 5 times. Their report of June 26, 1992 concluded that the reports of the eight women complainants were true and that “Yoder has violated sexual boundaries.” (Krall, Appendix O, 525). This conclusion of violation of sexual boundaries is a social and moral judgment. It is also what Yoder was prepared to apologize for in his prepared apology (see below Section 9(g)(i) and Krall, 229).

The Task Force report says,

…the task force has sensed in John a high degree of rationalization and a denial of the problems associated with his sexual misconduct. We have strongly recommended that John participate in therapy to work thoroughly with the issues involved and that he meet periodically with an accountability group to be assisted and monitored as he works at change. He has agreed to these two recommendations.

b) But there was an earlier report issued to the congregation dated March 15, 1992. It was released because of news coverage that Yoder’s invitation to speak at Bethel College had been cancelled. The report to the congregation was about the Task Force’s “work and findings to date” (Krall, 353). But that is only one day after they met with Yoder! And it seems improper to give preliminary findings before the investigation is completed. Where is the report? What does it say?

c) In 1996, four years later, Yoder was restored to membership in the Prairie Street Church. That implies that not only were his ordination credentials suspended, but that his membership in Prairie Street Church had been suspended. Yoder and his wife attended a different church throughout that discipline period. (Krall, 358).



8. Discipline by the Indiana-Michigan Conference

a) On May 18, 1992, the Church Life Commission of the conference suspended Yoder’s ordination credentials, based on the work of the Task Force (See Krall, 356; Appendix M, 407). How can this be, if the final report by the Task Force was dated later, June 26, 1992? (Krall Appendix 9, 425). Was there a recommendation in the interim report of the Task Force dated March 15, 1992? As already noted, that report was issued one day after meeting with Yoder. There is something wrong here, either in the reporting of the dates, or else the Commission is affirming a decision already made. Assuming that ordination is in issue, a suspension might make sense pending a review of the evidence.  What does not seem just is that the Commission has already concluded at this time that “restitution and therapy” will be required before the credentials will be restored. That indicates that the issue had already been judged before the completion of the investigation by the Task Force. That is not a just result.

b) Krall says that the Conference was “the holder of Yoder’s ordination credentials” (Krall, 173, 224). But in fact, it was unclear who held the ordination credentials. The Ohio church that ordained Yoder was not a part of the Indiana-Michigan Conference. Krall says,

Because the location of Yoder’s ordination credentials was unclear, Indiana-Michigan Conference officers consulted with Ohio Conference officers. In light of Yoder’s membership at Prairie Street Mennonite Church (Elkhart, IN), conference officials agreed that Indiana-Michigan Conference would assume responsibility for Yoder’s ordination credentials. Consequently, Indiana-Michigan’s Church Life Commission in consultation with Indiana-Michigan’s Conference Minister assumed full responsibility for the church’s discipline process with Yoder. (Krall, 225)

c) This shows the confusion that can result from a church polity that is based on the primacy of local congregations. How could the Indiana-Michigan Conference revoke an ordination by a congregation that was not a member of that conference? It is true that they consulted with the Ohio Conference. But is this power to supervise clergy one that can be delegated? Why is the original Ohio congregation not the one to revoke the ordination? Is it true that the reason for assuming responsibility for the ordination was that Yoder was attending the Prairie Street Church? Does this make sense? Cannot a pastor ordained by one congregation attend another congregation where he has no pastoral duties? The Indiana-Michigan Conference had not been supervising Yoder as a minister. It seems that the Conference assumed and then suspended the credentials in the same year (1992), and very quickly. There is something wrong here from a procedural standpoint. The Conference was quick to assume supervision only to turn around and suspend the ordination. The Conference Commission met with the eight women in February 1992. The conference assumed supervision after that date, and by May had suspended the credentials. In any event, it is not a Conference that has primary supervisory duties; it is the local congregation. But there was never any local congregation that supervised Yoder within the Indiana-Michigan Conference. There seems to be a lot of confusion here, and Yoder was correct to object.

d) And, as we have seen, Yoder did object to the revocation of his credentials as a way of disciplining him. He said that if were was to be disciplined, it should be as a member of the church. Whether or not he needed these credentials while he was a professor at Goshen Biblical Seminary, he certainly did not need these credentials at Notre Dame University.

e) The Commission met with Yoder and his wife more than 30 times. At the end of a four year period, it concluded that Yoder had “made significant changes in attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to bring closure to the process.” They recommended that the church use his gifts of writing and teaching (Krall, Appendix M, p. 408). After the discipline was completed, the Conference offered to restore Yoder’s ordination credentials, but he declined. He did not need them (Krall, 236).


9. Unjust Procedures in the Church Discipline Process

a) In my view, Yoder should not have submitted to the church discipline. Apart from the issues already stated, both the Commission’s investigation and that of Prairie Street Church Task Force were flawed and unjust. This is despite the fact (and I have no doubt) that the people involved were sincere and well-intentioned.

b) Not allowed to meet with, examine, and learn the identities of witnesses

i) Yoder was never given the names or identities of the eight complainants. Price says,

That group, however, has not told Yoder the identities of the eight women, leaving him uncertain about who has made the allegations. (Krall, Appendix I, 390).

Nor was he given the opportunity to meet with them. This failure to identify the complainants is in law a breach of natural justice, which would entitle Yoder to overturn or quash the decision. It has taken the common law many centuries to provide protection for accused people. The church’s justice should be no less just. Would someone sue over a church discipline decision? It has happened before, especially where economic interests are affected, as in the case of shunning of a member. In Yoder’s case, he had concerns that the publishing of his books was being hurt pending the disciplinary hearing (Krall, 231). And certainly his reputation was sullied by the disciplinary actions.

ii) This failure to give the names of the complainants is also a breach of Matthew 18, the foundation text for Mennonite views on church discipline. It applies to a dispute of any member with another member. As discussed, the issue of ordination did not apply to the Prairie Street Church. The Conference attempted to make it apply to them by assuming supervision from Ohio. Even if that made it an issue of ordination, should not Matthew 18 still apply?

iii) Yoder thought that Matthew 18 should apply to the 1992 disciplinary hearing. Stanley Hauerwas says, “He did not think the process was following the rule that he should be allowed to confront his accusers.” (Hauerwas 2010, 244). As we have seen, an earlier inquiry was attempted by Prairie Street Church in 1985-86; it did not proceed because individuals did not come forward. The church felt that the requirements of Matthew 18 had not been met in that there was at that time no one who would meet with Yoder (Krall, 349).

iv) In 1992, two women theologians presented papers at the Believers Church Conference on Church Discipline at Goshen College. They argued that Matthew 18’s requirements should not apply to sexual abuse cases (Krall, 354). One of these theologians noted that Yoder, who was also at the conference, was “provocative, disruptive and offensive.” But why would he not be provocative when this argument was being made at that very time to deny his basic rights? Why should there be no confrontation and cross-examination of evidence in sexual abuse cases? In law, there is a right to examine complainants. There are limits on the type of questions that can be asked (for example, one cannot question about past sexual history). But the right to examine allegations is a primary right of an accused person. The days of Star Chamber trials and secret proceedings by anonymous witnesses and the requirement for self-incrimination should be over.

v) Krall’s view is that Matthew 18 need not have been followed because Yoder’s

…insistence on a literal enforcement of the Matthew Rule of Christ text was another public rationalization which allowed him to continue doing what he was already doing–harassing a wide variety of women all around the world. Such an obsessive or literalist approach to this text was yet another way to bully other churchmen–his institutional supervisors and conference ministers–into a refusal to act. (Krall, 373 fn74).

In my view, Krall fails to consider the need to protect the accused. Her argument works only if one has already concluded guilt. Meeting with witnesses and examining their evidence is not bullying. It is a fundamental right. Furthermore, since the very basis of church discipline is based on this text from Matthew, it is inconsistent to be literal in reading part of the text and not literal for other parts. I also find it inconsistent for Krall to refer to ‘harassment’ when she acknowledges that that term was not in use at the time of the conduct complained of. And her reference to “women all around the world” is an example of hearsay and innuendo. Evidence needs to be given by people who come forward publicly, and not repeated in this indirect way.

vi) Why did the complainants not come forward in 1985-86? Price reports that ‘Tina’ indicated that none of the eight women who later complained were willing to sit down publicly with Yoder, fearing that this would affect the climate of their being ordained (Krall, Appendix I, 396). But why would it would hurt their chances of being ordained? Is it because their act of publicly coming forward might have been criticized as contrary to the principles of non-resistance in the church in which they sought to be ordained? Even if their possible ordination was a valid objection in 1985-86, it does not seem to be a valid objection in 1992, when they gave evidence by writing, but anonymously and without meeting with Yoder. By that time, as Price says, they were all in positions of national responsibility in the church.

vii) Stan Hauerwas, Glen Stassen and James W. McClendon thought it would be inconsistent for Yoder to refuse to submit to the church discipline given his views on ethics and a free church (Krall, 355-56). They said that not to submit would bring his ethics into question. I am not sure that that is correct. The procedure adopted was not what Yoder believed should take place.

c) The Lapse of Time and its Effect

i) Limitation Periods. In criminal cases, even for serious cases of rape, Indiana has statutes of limitations. The limitation period is 5 years, unless minors are involved, or there is recently discovered DNA.[24]  For other offences, the period is two years. Should not the church have the same forgiveness over time? Memories fade, records are lost, facts are unconsciously and unintentionally embellished or revised. Discussions with others can change initial perceptions.

ii) Changing perceptions over time

I am very troubled by what Krall says

Inside the Mennonite academic women’s community of Elkhart County the nascent awareness that Yoder’s behavior was not only inappropriate or immoral but also interpersonally violent took some time to mature. (Krall, 344).

This is in the context of Krall’s recognition “The terms sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and hostile or chilly climates had yet to be coined inside the second wave of the American women’s movement in the 1980’s and 1990’s.” But if Yoder’s actions were not perceived as violent at the time they took place, then he should not be accused of having committed violent acts. Whether or not they were violent is not something that can ‘mature’ over time. I believe that the complainants’ emotional pain at the time of their evidence in 1992 was real. What needs to be understood is to what extent that pain was different from what they experienced at the time of the incidents. If it was increased by consciousness-raising events that they attended years later, where they were urged to view these actions as violent, then that is a serious problem that should not be ignored. It is somewhat analogous to the “false memory” issues that arise from time to time in sexual abuse cases. I am not saying that this is what happened. But it should be tested, especially in view of Krall’s comment that the awareness that Yoder’s behavior was “not only inappropriate or immoral but also interpersonally violent took some time to mature.”

iii) This ‘maturing’ process seems to be indicated by the chronology of events. Some of the women affected by Yoder’s conduct (in the 1970’s) met for the first time at a conference on “Violence Against Women” held at the seminary in 1991. They discussed the needs to “heal their wounds.” They asked Marlin Miller, President of the Seminary to write a letter to all the women of whom he had a record of filing complaints regarding Yoder at the Seminary. “The purpose of the letter was to invite Yoder’s victims to form a support group oriented around healing their own wounds and protecting other women” (Krall, 223). Some of these women met in February 1992 to talk about what they had experienced and what they had heard about other women [note the hearsay element]. It was from this group that the eight complainants were selected to talk with the Prairie Street Church task force and the Conference Commission. Among the things they requested was a suspension of Yoder’s ordination (Krall 224).

iv) If Yoder’s conduct in the 1970’s was not experienced as violent at that time, and if it is only in retrospect, using ideas formulated by the women’s movement in later decades that this perception changed, then this is a strong argument for imposing limitation periods as a matter of fundamental justice for Yoder. If the women’s consciousness was raised by attending a conference on violence against women, and if this caused them to re-evaluate their experience with Yoder, then that is not a just way of proceeding. We need to understand and judge his conduct in terms of the standards and perceptions at the time. In 1982, Marlin Miller refused to act on old complaints, but said that he would re-open disciplinary conversations with Yoder if anything new had happened since December 1980 (Krall, 342). It is unclear why this date was chosen, but Miller’s sensitivity to time as a factor in seeking justice does appear to be correct. Why was Miller later  prepared to write to the women regarding the old complaints?


d) Inquisitorial versus adversarial procedure

i) Both the Task Force and the Commission used the inquisitorial method of interviewing witnesses, instead of the adversarial method customary in common law countries like the United States, Canada and Great Britain. In an inquisitorial system, the investigating body is itself actively involved in investigating the facts, as opposed to being a neutral or impartial referee between a prosecution and a defense.[25] But even in an inquisitorial proceeding, the identity of the witnesses should not be kept secret. In an adversarial system, there is more opportunity for cross-examination of witnesses. Now the very term ‘adversarial’ may signal to some that it should not be used in a peace church. But that is insufficiently self-critical of how adversarial a complaint process already is. I agree that mediation should first be attempted, but if it fails, then there should be recognition of how an inquisitorial process, especially in the hands of lay persons, can sometimes itself lead to injustice, especially where names of witnesses are kept secret, and hearsay evidence from people not present is considered.  Vigorous cross-examination is sometimes the only way to discover the truth (See below, section 13b on H.P. Friesen case). This is not necessarily because people are deliberately lying. Our perceptions and memories are fallible. Furthermore, important distinctions need to be brought out. What happened at the time of Yoder’s conduct, as opposed to later reconstructions of what happened (like ‘Clara’s’ later suspicions based on her readings of Yoder’s works)? Who was and who was not a student? At what time? To whom were complaints made?  When? What was said? When, if ever, did the complainants begin to regard the actions of Yoder in terms of violence? Was it after consciousness raising sessions or women’s conferences on violence? What conferences on women’s issues did the women complainants attend between the 1970’s and 1992? Did any of the complainants receive the letter from Marlin Miller which he sent to all women who had complained to him at the seminary? What was in the letter? Did any of the eight women meet with Prairie Street Church prior to February, 1992 regarding Yoder? What was said? What discussions were there about strategy for discipline? Was there any suggestion of what evidence should be given by complainants? Where is the written document that was presented by the eight women in February, 1992? Who prepared it? What discussions were there with others in preparing it? Are there drafts of that document? If so, to whom were the drafts circulated? Are there any documents or notes from the 1970’s that relate to these issues? Were any documents destroyed? When? Why?

ii) Yes, cross-examination like this is uncomfortable for the complainants. But it is also uncomfortable to be an accused. It is important to try to uncover errors of fact and perception, whether there has been any bias, and whether there was coaching by other women as to what to say. I am not saying that this is what happened. Even with cross-examination, the same result might have been reached. But we would have more clarity about the facts. We would not be hearing calls for new hearings even today on the subject. I repeat that these are just questions I think should have been posed. Being able to examine witness evidence is part of procedural justice. And procedural justice is important–even if the same result would have been achieved with better procedure. In law, there is a maxim that “Justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done.”

iii) Too often, disciplinary committees neglect the rights of the accused. Again, this need not be deliberate. It may be very well-intentioned, as was the case in “Bishop” David Toews’s judgment of H.P. Friesen (see below, section 13b). But serious mistakes that affect people’s reputations and livelihoods can and have been made by church disciplinary committees.

iv) Why were the eight complainants unwilling to provide their identity? They were already in established positions of national church leadership, so they cannot have been afraid of problems of career advancement. Even if that was the reason, is it a valid reason? If they were in positions of national church leadership, was it not all the more important that they come forward publicly, so that there be no appearance of this being a matter of a power struggle? Why would they need protection? For their physical safety? There is no evidence that Yoder ever physically harmed anyone. The proceedings could be kept secret from the public, although I don’t see the point of that, since public protests were already occurring regarding Yoder’s speaking engagement. Proceedings can be secret, but the ability of an accused to meet with the witnesses who are subject to cross-examination cannot be avoided if justice is to be done. I would make exceptions in the case of child abuse, but even there, there are horrendous stories where the children’s evidence was false.[26]

e) Hearsay Evidence

It is clear that the Church Task Force accepted hearsay evidence about women who were not interviewed. Krall reports that “As part of their Statement to Prairie Street, the eight women reported that they knew first-hand and by name, an additional 30 women” (Krall, 355). ‘Clara’ said that the issue had international dimensions (Krall, 390). It is improper and prejudicial to hear evidence of what people said who are not present at the hearing. Nor should Krall be repeating such hearsay evidence, or hearsay evidence reported to her by Marlin Miller of 38 women or even more (Krall, 355).

It seems that the Task Force was even set up with hearsay in mind–“to investigate rumors and complaints regarding Yoder’s abusive and sexual misconduct behaviors.” Even to frame the Task Force in terms of abusive and sexual misconduct is to prejudge the issue, using loaded words. The Task Force was formed in July, 1991; Yoder was not even informed of it until August, and he didn’t meet with the Task Force until March 14, 1992 when he was presented with the allegations (Krall, 353).  In other words, not only did the Task Force interview witnesses who were not identified, the Task Force commenced the process and formed its allegations before meeting with Yoder. In law, this would form a reasonable apprehension of bias on the part of this Task Force before it met with Yoder.



f) Admissions by Yoder

The fact that Yoder acknowledged the truth of some of the allegations does not correct the procedural unfairness of the discipline process. What pressure was brought to bear for this “confession?” It is also clear he was only partially satisfied with what was alleged. This causes difficulty now because we do not know what he was unwilling to admit. We do know that he was less satisfied with the task force of the Prairie Street Church than the Commission of the Conference. Price reports that Yoder said:

“They speak for me—not with perfect accuracy, but accurately enough that I don’t want to debate what they say,” Yoder said this morning, terming the task force’s statement as “less accurate” than that of the commission. “Both of them have the right to attribute things to me that they have attributed to me.” (Krall  Appendix G, 380).

But where he disagreed is not clear. What did he believe was inaccurate? We don’t know.

g) Apologies

i) The fact that Yoder did not know his accusers also meant that he could not give a personal apology to them. It is inconsistent for these people to now complain that they have not received an apology (Krall, 233, 359-60). Krall does suggest that some of them may have agreed to the forgiveness offered by the church (Krall, 233).  In 1997, Yoder did say in response to a question “There isn’t anyone I’ve hurt that I haven’t wanted to apologize to and I am grateful for those who have forgiven me” (Krall, 228). He also insisted that “the Mennonite Church had formally instructed him not to apologize to any of his victims” (Krall, 363). He had a prepared the following written apology, which he was not allowed to read at EMU.

I am grateful for the resources of forgiveness in the Christian Gospel and in the Christian community. I have thanked the individuals to whom I did wrong in the past, whether by failing to respect borders or otherwise, who have been willing to respond with pardon to my testimony of repentance, and I have addressed the same request to others.

I am grateful as well to the Prairie Street congregation and other agencies which have affirmed their acceptance. I regret the institutional decisions which have permitted the persistence of the misperception that I had not repented and apologized. Over the past four years an intensive process of fraternal group study and two series of professional analysis have reinforced the credibility of my resolve that this kind of offense will not recur (Krall, 229).

Even that prepared apology does not satisfy some people (Krall, 229). Is that because his apology gives no specifics of wrongs except that he failed to “respect borders?” But that is the heart of his conduct: socially inappropriate conduct. And the Task Force itself had come to the conclusion that he had violated “boundaries” (Krall, 230). Has he not responded to the finding? What about his actions being immoral? He does say he has repented, and that it is a misperception to think otherwise.

ii) Of course there can be no apology for that which Yoder did not do. If there was not criminal act, no sexual assault, and if it is anachronistic to speak of ‘harassment,’ Yoder could not be expected to apologize for such acts. And nor should anyone in the Mennonite Church today issue an apology for what did not happen.

iii) To expect some national pronouncement by the Mennonite Church for Yoder is similarly misguided. He was not acting in a pastoral or clergy capacity.  Any apology must come from the seminary, and I understand that an apology has already been given by some institutions to some people (Krall, 234). Second, the Mennonite Church is not a hierarchy. Its responsibilities are not top-down, but rather bottom-up. So even if ordination is an issue (I don’t think it should be), supervision of clergy is at the district conference level and not a national level. At most, the national level can offer some apology for not giving better advice to the conferences, better support for women who believe that they have been offended or abused, and better guidelines to conferences and congregations. And they may have the resources to determine historically what occurred in the church discipline of Yoder, and where it went wrong.

h) No posthumous hearing

The deficiencies in the church discipline process cannot be corrected now by interviewing more people and getting more facts from those who were offended by Yoder’s conduct. That would be trying him again posthumously, and he would not have a chance to defend his reputation. It is far better to just say that the disciplinary process that did take place was procedurally flawed and unjust.


10. Yoder’s writings on singleness and on non-sexual relations between the sexes

a)  Yoder’s conduct relates to his teachings on being single, and to his belief that we may touch or show bodily affection in a non-sexual way. I myself think that this belief is unworkable in today’s society. I side with the view expressed in the movie “When Harry Met Sally”–that men and women have difficulty in just being friends in a non-sexual way. But that does not mean that Yoder’s attempt (or “experiment” as Hauerwas describes it in Hannah’s Child) was itself wrong, provided that the women whom he approached consented.  One of Yoder’s articles: “What is Adultery of the Heart?” is discussed by Tom Price (Krall, Appendix K, 400). Krall discusses a memorandum entitled “A call for Aid” (Krall 200-1). See also his article “Singleness in Ethical and Pastoral Perspective,” (Yoder 1974), where he says that singlehood is not abnormal, and that support should be given to singles and childless couples. Indeed, echoing Paul, he says, “marriage is fine and singleness is better.” He speaks of some couples making a permanent commitment to childlessness, which would be analogous to the commitment of celibacy (p. 11).  Another option would be a household of mixed singles. And he says,

If we were able to free ourselves from the tyranny of assuming that relations between two persons must always be seen as potential courtship, we would discover a new liberty for the expression of affection and moral support between persons, whether of the same sex or of both sexes, without being frightened by the fear of misinterpretation or unwholesome developments. In some places we may have been taught by “the youth culture” to rediscover the possibility that spiritual intimacy and physical touching need not lead to sexual expression, so that the married person may be free to express visible affection or affirmation to others than his or her spouse, and the single person may receive physical and spiritual affirmation from others of the opposite or the same sex without fear of scandal. The same would apply to other kinds of closeness; –counselling, traveling, working together—which in our environment are easily rendered suspect (p. 7).

b) Can we not interpret at least some of his conduct as attempting to fulfill this ideal? The catch is that the other party must also consent to the experiment. And that was Yoder’s mistake—failing to perceive or being unwilling to perceive this lack of consent in the women to whom he gave his inappropriate hugs, kisses and embraces, or to whom he wrote in relation to his experiments.

c) In his article “Single Dignity” (Yoder 1976), he says,

Still deeper than the issues we have been looking at is the possibility that the reason our mostly-married society has difficulty in handling the threat which the single person represents is that in relation to this person there comes to the surface a deep moral-cultural problem, a fundamentally inadequate grasp of the entire realm of the bodily, the sexual, the animal in human nature. The understanding of the bodily nature of the human being which lies beneath the surface in our western culture has numerous non-biblical sources, in addition to whatever has survived from the biblical view of human nature.

The neo-Platonic view depreciated the body. The effect “is to be ashamed of the body and to try to flee it into asceticism, or to compartmentalize one’s life between a spiritual and an animal sector, each following its own inherent dynamic, in either case the body is looked at as something other than the real person.” Or the other response is to regard the body and sexuality

as dramatic, irrational, drives, comparable to fire or to a wild animal, which may with difficulty be tamed but are always in danger of breaking loose in a wild way….Christianity tries to tame them, to keep them in legitimate channels, but always with an abiding fear of their wild power which is the reminiscence of the pagan rootage.

Monasticism tried to avoid bodily satisfaction, comfort and pleasure, as well as sexual expression. Protestantism over-corrected by making marriage normative, a positive duty.

Yoder regards both the monastic and the Protestant understanding of sexuality as “mono-dimensional”:

At one end of the line is total distance from another person and at the other end is marital intercourse. People can differ as to “how far” it is morally appropriate to go along this line, with whom, with how many people, and whether it is ever proper without the benefit of clergy. But all would seem to agree there is but one continuum, so that the person who wishes to be faithfully monogamous will need to retain a great, in fact a somewhat fearful distance from all other persons of the other sex except for his/her spouse. (p. 2)

But the other dimension is the care for those within the incest taboo—mothers, sisters, who are not feared as sexual threats. As a society evolves, “this family safety” is expanded:

The nurse with her male patient, the male gynecologist, the school teacher or the counselor when his or her sex is the opposite of his/her pupils, are not normally feared in our society as sexual threats. That is to say: there exists a fundamentally non-erotic category of relationships between the sexes. (p. 3)

In these familial relationships, we are aware of sexuality, but not in an erotic way. Lust is not the only way to think of a woman. Jesus changed the rules. “What if he is really saying that his intent is to see all women as sisters or daughters?” Yoder says it is striking that early Christian usage speaks of believing women as sisters.

If it be the case that the liberation which Jesus brings in the realm of sexuality is to enable us to perceive of persons of the other sex no longer in an erotic context but in a “familiar” context, then what is at stake in the way we treat single persons is far more than the comfort, dignity, and mental health of those single persons themselves. It is a question of whether all of the rest of us perceive our bodyliness and our marriedness in a biblical context, or whether we are the prisoners of other understandings of lust and animality which owe more to the mystery of fertility religions or to Gnosticism.

To look in a more positive direction; if we could discover the real dynamic of the freedom with which Jesus could deal with any kind of woman, even the one publicly marked by her being a sexual object, as a sister without erotic dimensions, then we might be far more able to give to our single sisters and brothers moral and social support including the residential closeness, the affirmations of touch and time together, the respect of togetherness without fear, which would not simply be compensations for their special suffering status but affirmations of their dignity in the family of Christ.

Again, this is not objectionable as ideas for discussion. It becomes objectionable only when imposed on someone who is not ready for it, and who has not consented to it. (And, as I mentioned, I think that it will also prove to be unworkable in today’s society, even for those who consent).

d) Now some people believe that Yoder used these ideas not because he believed them but in order to seduce women. I think that is a rather uncharitable view. It is also not believable. If Yoder had wanted to seduce through his writing, he could have used much simpler language than that. Did any of the women complainants read these works at the time of the conduct complained of?  ‘Clara’ says she read some of them later. Why did they offend her so much? Why did it not rather show her what Yoder was attempting to do in his social awkwardness? I cannot see how the reading of this text would make one “suspicious” of Yoder. Rather, it would clarify his actions.


11. Spiritual Marriage

a) What has really surprised me is that I have seen no discussion at all of Yoder’s theories of being single in relation to what happened in the early church in the practice of taking spiritual brides, and of virgins sleeping with men in a “chaste” way (the agapetae or  syneisaktoi).  Greg Peters describes the practice:

The idea of “spiritual marriage” (syneisaktism) as found in 1 Corinthians 7:25-38 becomes in later exegesis a reference to the practice of “female Christian ascetics who lived together with men, although both parties had taken the vow of continency, and were animated with the earnest desire to keep it.” In the Greek-speaking church, the participants of this practice were termed “beloved” (agapetai or agapetoi), and in the Latin-speaking church, the participants were known as agapetae or “virgins secretly introduced” (virgines subintroductae).  The earliest non-biblical reference to the practice is from the first century CE, and there are numerous references to the practice from the second century onwards. Both orthodox and heterodox ecclesiastical authors as well as secular emperors were familiar with the practice, which had spread to most church provinces in ancient Christianity by the fourth century. Although references to the practice are scarce in comparison to other ancient ascetic phenomena, it is certain that celibate men and women lived together in a chaste relationship for mutual support and encouragement.[27]

b) According to Carl von Weizsacker, 1 Corinthians 7 is the first reference to this. Hans Achelis concluded that the apostle Paul was the one who developed the practice of syneisaktism.(Peters, 57).

c) Yoder makes no direct reference to his practice. But he does refer to monastic ideals, and to couples who agree not to have children as engaging in a kind of celibacy. And the way that he refers to single women as “sisters” is reminiscent of how these agapetai were referred to. Morton Hunt says,

Paul of Samosata, Bishop of Antioch at the end of the third century, was sharply scolded by a group of fellow bishops for having two “blooming and beautiful spiritual sisters who traveled everywhere with him.[28]

d) Non-canonical works speak of Paul in relation to a woman named Thecla.[29] Even if that was not true of Paul, it does indicate a practice when that text was written. A most interesting paper on the topic of the agapatae has been published on the blog “Finding Tangle” says

Thecla was highly revered by early female ascetics as a model for pious living, and some scholars, including Clark and Cloke, have asserted that the example of Thecla influenced the persistence of syneisaktism, even after it had been formally banned by church leadership throughout the empire. Condemnation of the practice can be traced throughout the early councils and decrees, beginning with the council of Antioch in 268 A.D. and a ban on the practice was even included at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D…. The Subintroductae through syneisaktism sought a way to merge two developing realities of Christian life – celibacy and inter-gender friendship – in a practice that offered the possibility of a “spiritual marriage but without sexual sharing.”[30]

e) The practice of spiritual brides seems to have been widespread in the early church. Irenaeus, Jerome, Chrysostom, Epiphanius and Eusebius all complained about them. Tertullian and Hermas praised them.[31] Scholars also point to passages in The Shepherd of Hermas.[32]

f) I certainly don’t think that this is a helpful practice for today (any more than was Gandhi’s practice of chaste sleeping with nude women), but it shows that Yoder’s ideas were not unique in the history of the church. If we are offended by these ideas of Yoder, that is not sufficient to discipline him even if we disagree with Yoder. What is needed is a critical assessment of Yoder’s writings on sexuality, relating them to their historical sources as well as the tensions within the Mennonite faith regarding sexuality that prompted Yoder to repeat some of the experiments of the early church.

g) However, the early church’s idea of non-sexual relationships with women may also reflect a very strong misogyny. The monasticism of the time sought to relate to women not as sexual beings. April D. DeConick is very helpful in showing how early Christian monastic practices were misogynistic and demeaning to women’s sexuality. Non-sexual affection may have links to the early church’s attempt to live even now like angels, interpreting in an encratic way Jesus’s saying that “When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25). The angels were frequently regarded in male terms, and so for a woman to live like an angel, she had to take on male characteristics. Her sexuality was denied.[33] Can the same critique be made of Yoder’s ideas on non-sexual intimacy? But if one takes this approach in critiquing his ideas, one must also affirm the goodness of sexuality and the body. Yoder was correct to point out that we have depreciated the body and sexuality based on neo-Platonic ideas. There has been a long history of repression of sexuality in Mennonite thought and practice, going back to Menno Simons, who adopted the idea that Christ had only “celestial flesh” and not physical flesh. This is related to his views on conception, and that the origin of the child is from the father, not the mother, who is just the “field.”[34] Menno Simons obtained this idea from Melchior Hoffman; it has distinct Neo-Platonic underpinnings. This idea of the incarnation seems to have led to Menno’s ideas of the purity of the church and self-discipline:

In this context Menno embraced Hoffman’s much criticized doctrine of the incarnation, which taught that the Son of God had not taken any human, or sinful, qualities from Mary.…

By the end of the 1540s, the “church without spot and wrinkle,” based on the Melchiorite doctrine of the incarnation, increasingly became a higher priority. In order to maintain the purity of the bride of Christ, disciplinary regulations like the ban, shunning, and avoidance in marriage were necessary.[35]

This raises a very interesting question. If we reject a Neo-Platonic anthropology, what consequence will this have on the very idea of church purity and church discipline ? Some of the comments by non-Anabaptist theologians, mentioned in Tom Price’s first article about the conduct of Yoder, deserve closer examination. Price refers to Gabriel Fackre’s comment on “the ongoing debate between views of the church as the community of saints or haven of sinners” and that the “perfectionist ethics” represented by Yoder are not sufficiently self-critical about moral or spiritual life.” (Krall, Appendix H, 384).

I view Melchior Hoffman’s influence on Menno Simons as regrettable. In my view, Mennonites would be better off today had Menno followed the ideas of Hans Denck and the earlier German mysticism of the Theologia Deutsch, Tauler, and Eckhart.[36] But that is another story.


12. Effect on Yoder’s theological reputation and writings

a)  What effect does Yoder’s conduct have on the evaluation of his writings? It may affect the importance we give to his writings on being single and on non-sexual showing of affection. But as already stated, I think it really works the other way around—these works cast light on his conduct.

b) Nor should Yoder’s conduct affect our evaluation of his other works. That would be an argument ad hominem, which is invalid in logic, and unfair in practice. Whatever we think of Gandhi’s practice, we still consult him with respect to what he says on non-resistance. And whatever Tillich’s moral failings may have been, we still regard him as a great theologian (Krall thinks that this does impact our assessment of Tillich’s work; Krall 135 fn42). Similarly, Thomas Merton’s love affair should not detract from contributions he made (See Krall, 209 fn13).

c) Even Graber says that her goal is not to stop the study of Yoder’s works.[37] And yet in a recent posting, she gives a very uncharitable reading of Yoder’s last work, The End of Sacrifice, which he wrote after the conclusion of the disciplinary process. Graber’s view is based on her belief that he is a “repeat sex offender,” a view that is not accurate since it carries with it criminal associations, whereas Yoder’s conduct was not criminal. The book contains an important article on Yoder’s understanding of the atonement in relation to theories of people like René Girard, comparisons to Socrates, and to myths. The introduction says that this book “puts an end to the notion that Yoder had no theology of atonement.” Yoder argues that “the death of Christ brought a decisive end to sin” (p. 15). And he offers a significant view of the atonement that avoids the implications of the need for violence that is associated with satisfaction theories of the atonement. In his theology of the atonement “there is no appeal to a divine command, as in the “satisfaction” theories of the atonement, where it is God who wants the suffering” (p. 188). I find this most interesting and informative. It helps us to counter the idea that Christ’s atonement was a form of “cosmic child abuse” by the Father. Nor are Christians to see themselves as agents of the wrath of God. It is helpful to read these ideas in conjunction with The New Yoder, which also discusses Yoder’s thought in relation to Girard. These ideas are also relevant to victims of trauma and abuse. For if we have a violent idea of the atonement, as satisfaction of wrath, how does this affect those who have suffered violence? Cynthia Hess says,

…Christian communities enact the identity of one whose life culminates in an event of traumatic violence. What might it mean for traumatized persons to perform this story of one who was tortured on a cross before being raised from the dead? Would this performance be one that heals, or would it be on that induces yet another mimetic replay of the victims’ traumas. Many feminist and womanist theologians point out ways in which the symbol of the cross has functioned to generate mimetic reproductions of violence.[38]


d) And yet Graber can only see Yoder’s book The End of Sacrifice in these terms:

…these writings seem to paint the picture of a man who, far from realizing the seriousness of his actions, saw himself as some sort of sacrificial Christ figure crucified by an angry feminist lynch mob for the sake of the community. He seems to define the women who dared to stand up against his assaults and sexual harassments as mere players in a larger drama of vengeance against men for their having been cast as the “weaker sex.” But most importantly, he casts himself in the familiar psychological profile of a repeat sex offender: the only person he is capable of feeling sorry for is himself.”[39]

That is in my view an example of how not to read Yoder in the light of his discipline by the church. It does not take his ideas seriously as a theological response to issues concerning violence and the atonement.

e) If in fact Yoder did follow Christ’s idea of  making a sacrifice to end violence, and if that included the way that he submitted to the church discipline, just as Socrates submitted to his trial without running away, that would be in continuity with Yoder’s ideas of voluntarily accepting suffering and subordination. It is also in continuity with his belief that we trust God to work out justice for us. Such views are not to be mocked or discounted because of the church discipline of Yoder. I note that Hauerwas sees Yoder’s submission to church discipline in terms of Yoder’s humbling himself:

The fact that he has submitted to his church’s discipline process regarding sexual misconduct is but a testimony to his commitment to nonviolence as the community’s form of behavior.[40]

f) I do not believe that Yoder’s conduct has implications for his theology, except in the way that he submitted to the church discipline. But the women’s complaints about Yoder may have implications for his theology. Yoder believed his conduct was an attempt to put in practice his ideas of relating to single women on a non-sexual basis. But if the women he approached were not ready for this kind of experiment, or if they did not consent, then I agree that they had the right to complain and resist, and I agree that Yoder’s actions should have been stopped. How does that square with Yoder’s teaching that we should freely accept subordination? I think it is a direct challenge to it, and a direct challenge to the idea of non-resistance in general.[41] The women should have (and did) resist. ‘Colleen’ would have been justified in throwing Yoder out of the house, instead of meekly allowing him to remain as a guest for another night. In saying this, I am not blaming her. I am asking to what extent the Mennonite doctrine of non-resistance prevented a more aggressive response. I do not believe that there was any conduct that could have been reported to the police, but Krall points out that theological concerns might have prevented such reporting in any event.[42] The book Beyond the Pale contains an article by Rosetta E. Ross that questions Yoder’s interpretation of the Haustafeln [household codes of conduct adopted in later parts of the New Testament] as recommending the free acceptance of subordination. She cites theologians who call for “a moratorium on use of servant language for already-subordinated persons.” Other articles are equally emphatic in rejecting some virtues-based ethics, since their effect is also to disempower those who are already subordinated.[43]

g) A rights-based approach to ethics, and one that advocates resistance and not subordination, is a direct challenge not only to Yoder but also to the Mennonite peace position. Naturally, pacifism will be reinterpreted, but it will not be in terms of Yoder’s theology. There are gains here, but there is also the loss of a heritage. We experience disappointment when there are moral failings in our religious leaders. But perhaps more than that, we experience fear and anger when our very challenge and resistance to what we perceive to be wrong in turn challenges the foundations of our beliefs. It appears to me that perhaps one reason that Yoder’s misconduct causes so much anger and controversy is that it has caused Mennonites to doubt, or at least to become more critically self-aware of some of the theology that has formed their past identity.

h) The right of the women to resist, and to seek changes in men’s attitudes also challenges another key idea of Yoder’s—that we are to let God take care of historical developments, and that we should not attempt to decide the course of history. Yoder says,

We assume that we both can and should ‘take responsibility’ for the macro course of events, and then from that objective we derive the justification for the practical measures it takes to get there, such as getting elected to office, organizing and deploying military might, and whatever else it takes….

Yet if in order to ‘be involved’ you commit yourself to values less clear or less imperative than your own, which are more acceptable because the ‘public’ out there already holds them, then your involvement adds nothing to the mix but numbers. Joining the majority on grounds that others are already committed to, in favour of policies which others already support, winds up paradoxically having the same effect as abstention; it lets the values of the others be decisive.[44]

Yoder’s warning is that we should not try to take charge of history.

But from the women’s standpoint, we should seek change in history, and to take charge. Those who are concerned about sexual abuse will attempt to change the law and to change attitudes regarding it. But in doing so, are they not using a “common denominator moral language of rights-based ethics?

i) Even if some forms of resistance were justified, some other forms of resistance were improper—for example contacting Yoder’s publisher to attempt to get them to cease publishing Yoder’s books. That was a tort—interference with contractual relations, and the publisher, Herald Press, was right to reject that attempt.[45]


13. The Mennonite Church is insufficiently self-critical about its church discipline

a) Historically, the Mennonite Church has shown itself to be insufficiently self-critical in its discipline process, and insufficiently self-critical of its own possibility of being wrong. The following instances from my own family history show to what extent well-intentioned people can make serious mistakes in disciplining members of the church.

b) This was demonstrated in my own family history in the very long Saskatchewan trial of my great uncle H.P. Friesen, in the Friesen/Braun trials. The Mennonite Church (including “Bishop” David Toews) made unconscionable factual errors in judging H.P. Friesen. Friesen was ultimately vindicated and Braun was deported to Siberia. But one of the trial judges said that he had never seen a trial with more perjury (even though most witnesses were Mennonites who believed in speaking the truth without an oath). People make honest mistakes, but they are mistakes, and they affect others. A further tragic effect is that this dispute between Mennonites may have prevented the further immigration to Canada of thousands of Mennonite refugees in Russia. Our actions have consequences that we often do not anticipate. My concern is that in Mennonite Church discipline, the rights of the accused are not sufficiently protected. See my summary of the Friesen/Braun cases. [46]

c) My maternal grandfather I.P. Friesen, the brother of H.P. Friesen, was also shunned by the Mennonite Church, for sending his children to public school. He appealed to the Lieutenant-Governor of Saskatchewan for “British justice and fair play.” A provincial commission of enquiry took place. Soon after, public schooling was made mandatory, and 8,000 Canadian Mennonites emigrated to Mexico and Paraguay.[47] Again, the consequences of church discipline went beyond what was anticipated.

d) My great-grandfather Johann Driedger, a merchant, was not allowed to recover on fire insurance from Mennonite Mutual Insurance because he had been doing business with outsiders.[48]

e) Should the church even continue to have these discipline hearings? Are there enough safeguards? Is it reasonable to suppose that lay persons not trained in legal procedures can judge their fellow church members?  The common law has evolved over many centuries in order to put such protections in place. Safeguards such as the right to cross-examination, documentary evidence, and the rule against hearsay are also there to protect and accused. They also help to keep personal motivations, even unconscious, from influencing the decision. Does the inquisitorial approach of taking witness statements in the absence of the accused give enough protection? Is it even in accordance with the Biblical text from which the Mennonite church derives its mandate of discipline? How can the best-intentioned people on a discipline committee still make horrendous mistakes? Is that just a risk that the believer’s church must run? Or does it say something about the very ethics of the Mennonite church—its “totalitarian” encompassing of ethics–in the sense of asserting control over the total life of its members, as opposed to a more differentiated ethic advocated by people like Niebuhr, where there are different mechanisms for determining ethics in schools, business, professional associations, criminal law. The distinction between a differentiated culture and an undifferentiated counterculture of pure saints is of course a dividing line in the Niebuhr/Yoder debate.  It is my belief that, in failing to honour such cultural differentiation, the Mennonite church has also failed to be sufficiently protective of the accused person’s rights, and has been insufficiently critical of how power is often used inappropriately and even abusively by the church disciplining body.

f) We should even ask whether some of the church discipline processes may reflect a way of engaging in conflict and violence that (in Jungian terms) are a result of the repression by Mennonites of violence in other areas of their lives due to the doctrine of non-resistance.[49]



14. Other theological issues

In some ways, Yoder’s theology appears to be the best expression of the ethics of the historical Jesus, and an explanation of his voluntary subordination and emptying of himself, even to his death on the cross. And Yoder has provided a way of understanding that death without the violence associated with theological ideas of the atonement as satisfaction. But these ideas of voluntary subordination, servanthood and non-resistance are now being challenged on the basis of new rights-based ethics that demand resistance and change of societal structures.  What does this do to our view of the atonement? What does this do to our evaluation of the ethics of Jesus? Are we back to Albert Schweitzer’s idea that they were really only an interim ethic in anticipation of an imminent second coming? Do we have to replace them with more realistic ethics, just as the early church replaced them with the Haustafeln or virtue-based ethics? Is the Mennonite Church undergoing a similar process of integrating with outside culture and its rights-based theories of ethics? For example, the Mennonite Church seems to be recognizing that law is not the taboo profession it once was, but that it should be used to protect the rights of its members. What does this say for the “totalitarian” view of church discipline by the church? Is that still a sustainable idea in a differentiated society? To what extent will the theology and even the founding ideas of Mennonite and Anabaptist thought be changed as the Mennonite Church integrates with the rest of society, and chooses rights-based ethics?


15. Conclusion

In the discussion about Yoder we can be respectful of each other and still disagree. I have tried to be respectful of both the women who complained of Yoder’s conduct and of Yoder who was the subject of church discipline. Both deserve justice. I do not doubt that these women have experienced and may still be experiencing emotional pain. Their stories are important. But we just do not know enough of the facts, since their evidence has been anonymous and not subject to examination in the way I have suggested. Even their joint statement to the Task Force and Commission has not been made public. Their stories have also become confused with stories of others who did not give evidence. And the issue has been compounded by others who were not involved at all in Yoder’s conduct, but who have used his situation as a way to discuss their own emotional distress caused by abuse by other men.

The issue is one of justice and truth. We need to describe what really happened, using accurate language. Yoder’s conduct was not criminal. It was not sexual assault or even sexual abuse. Although in terms of some present-day sexual codes of conduct, it was harassment, it is anachronistic and unjust to apply that term to conduct in the 1970’s. It was not clergy abuse, since he was not acting as a pastor, but as a professor in a seminary. The issue of his ordination credentials is not relevant. It is the seminary that should have taken action to stop this behaviour.

Yoder’s conduct was socially inappropriate. He was strange, awkward, creepy. To the extent that he did not obtain consent from the women he offended, his actions were also in some cases immoral. That is a sufficient description of his conduct in order to have had it stopped. And measures should be put in place to prevent this from happening again.

As important as these issues are, it seems to me that there are even larger issues at stake than uncovering facts about what Yoder did or did not do. What needs to be investigated is the nature of the discipline process within the Mennonite Church, how such a process is often itself an abuse of power, and whether that power should be exercised at all in reference to conduct occurring outside of the church and for which there already exist other disciplinary proceedings.

And finally, the rise of rights-based ethics, and the justified resistance to the violation of such rights will have profound implications for Mennonites’ self-understanding of their heritage of non-resistance and the way that they understand the ethics of the historical Jesus. It will challenge some of Yoder’s ideas of voluntary subordination. It may have implications for their understanding of servanthood, and perhaps even the theological meaning of Christ’s atonement. It will encourage Mennonites to get involved in the legal and political process. To what extent will the theology and even the founding ideas of Mennonite and Anabaptist thought be changed as the Mennonite Church integrates with the rest of society, and chooses rights-based ethics? The anguish caused by Yoder’s conduct will go beyond the emotional hurt caused by his actions. There will also be the anguish of coming to terms with a loss of tradition and heritage.


Select Bibliography

Boyarin, Daniel (2010): “Judaism as a Free Church: Footnotes to John Howard Yoder’s The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited,” in The New Yoder, ed. Peter Dula and Chris K. Huebner (Wipf & Stock).

Burr, Catherine (2011): “False Allegations of Sexual Harassment: Misunderstandings and Realities,” Academic Matters: The Journal of Higher Education (Oct-Nov 2011). [].

Day, Wylark (2003): The Conclusion of the Sexual Revolution: Volume III of Sex and the Bible: Restoring the Foundations of Human Sexuality (Wylark Day), 273.

DeConick, April D. (2011): Holy Misogyny: Why the Sex and Gender Conflicts in the Early Church Still Matter (Continuum).

Friesen, J. Glenn: “The Friesen-Braun Trials: from the book The Fangs of Bolshevism []

Friesen, J. Glenn: “Unto the Third and Fourth Generation: The long shadow of my grandfather I.P. Friesen [].

Graber, Barbra (2013): “What’s to be done about John Howard Yoder?” [] (Jul 17, 2013).

Grislis, Egil (1990): “The Doctrine of Incarnation according to Menno Simons,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 8 (1990), 17ff.

Grimsrud, Ted: Thinking Pacifism at []

Hauerwas, Stanley (1993): “When the Politics of Jesus Makes a Difference,” The Christian Century Oct 13, 1993.

Hauerwas, Stanley (2010): Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (Eerdmans).

Heinzecker, Hannah (2013): “Can Subordination ever be revolutionary? Reflections on John Howard Yoder,” Aug 9, 2013 [].

Hess, Cynthia (2010): “Traumatic Violence and Christian Peacemaking,” The New Yoder, (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books).

Krall, Ruth Elizabeth: “The Elephants in God’s Living Room: Clergy Sexual Abuse and Institutional Clericalism. Vol 3: The Mennonite Church and John Howard Yoder: Collected Essays, 227. [ Living-Room-Vol-3-%C2%A9.pdf].

Nation, Mark Thiessen with Dawn, Mirva (2013): “On Contextualizing Two Failures of John Howard Yoder, Anabaptist Nation” [], dated Sep 23. 2013.

Packull, Werner O. (1977): Mysticism and the Early South German-Austrian Anabaptist Movement 1525-1531 (Herald Press, reprinted by Wipf & Stock).

Peters, Greg (2014): “Monasticism: Instrument of the Holy Spirit in the Renewal of Today’s Church,” The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life: Historical, Interdisciplinary and Renewal Perspectives, ed. Wolfgang Vondey (Palgrave Macmillan).

Ross, Rosetta E. (2011): “John Howard Yoder on Pacifism,” Beyond the Pale: Reading Ethics from the Margins, ed Migel A. De La Torre, Stracey M. Floyd-Thomas (Westminster John Knox Press).

Visser, Piet (2001): “Mennonites and Doopsgezinden,” A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700, ed. John D. Roth and James M. Stayer (Brill, 2001),

Yoder, John Howard (1974): “Singleness in Ethical and Pastoral Perspective (1974) []. This website provides digital resources for many of Yoder’s works.

Yoder, John Howard (1976): “Single Dignity,” (Regent College). []

Yoder, John Howard (2003): The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited (ed. Michael G. Cartwright and Peter Ochs (Eerdmans).









[1] Dr. J. Glenn Friesen lives in Calgary, Alberta. Glenn has a law degree from McGill, and practiced for many years as a litigation lawyer in Calgary.  He studied philosophy at the Free University of Amsterdam; his articles in Philosophia Reformata have shown how the neo-Calvinist philosophy of Kuyper and Dooyeweerd derives not from Calvin but from Baader’s Christian theosophy. Glenn’s doctorate in religious studies is on the topic of Hindu-Christian dialogue and experience. Glenn has lectured on psychology at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich, and has taught comparative mysticism. Glenn appreciates Anglican choral music, Quaker silence, United Church tolerance, as well as the emphasis on simplicity, community, and voluntary service/international aid from his Mennonite heritage.

[2] Boyarin engaged with Yoder’s ideas (Boyarin 2010). Yoder frequently refers to Segal (Yoder 2003).

[3] Indiana Code 35-42-4. Chapter 4. Sex Crimes [

[4] INCASA: “Definition of Forcible Rape Change [
definition-of-forcible-rape-change/]. Krall acknowledges this (Krall, 305 fn9;  326 fn2).

[5] Posting by Barbra Graber Sep 14, 2013 in response to Mark Thiessen Nation’s  blog “What to say about John Howard Yoder’s sexual misconduct,” on Anabaptist Nation at [].

[6] Graber’s posting Mar 2, 2011 in response to “Word and Deed: The Strange Case of John Howard Yoder,” on Ted Grimsrud’s blog Thinking Pacifism at [].

[7] Ibid., postings by Graber on Jul 24, 2011 and Feb 13. 2014.

[8] Barbra Graber: “What’s to be done about John Howard Yoder?” [] (Jul 17, 2013).

[9] Indiana Code IC 35-41-5. Chapter 5. “Offenses of general Applicability” at []

[10] See for example the decision of the Court of Appeals of Indiana in Ott v. State of Indiana 648 N.E. 2d 671 (1995) or the Indiana Supreme Court in Seeley v. State of Indiana 547 N.E. 2d 1089 (1989).

[11] Apart from the dark shadow that we repress, there is also a “golden shadow” that should be acted out, since it represents those good parts of ourselves that we have repressed, believing we could never be like the person we admire when in fact these are the very qualities that we need in order to fulfill our own lives.

[12] Mark Thiessen Nation with Marva Dawn: “On Contextualizing two Failures of John Howard Yoder” [], dated Sep 23. 2013.

[13] Krall confirms this in a posting Jul 18, 2013: “Sexual harassment began to be investigated in the late 1980s and the law codes followed suit but many states did not have laws in place until the 1990s.” [].

[14] Notre Dame’s policy provides:

Sexual harassment of any kind is inconsistent with the University’s values and incompatible with the safe, healthy environment that the Notre Dame community expects. The determination of what constitutes sexual harassment will vary with the particular circumstances, but may be described generally as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, non-verbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature when such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s performance, creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive University environment, or limiting participation in University activities.


[15] “U. of Notre Dame to Clarify Sexual-Harassment Policies in Settlement with education department,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, []. See also “Reported sexual assault at Notre Dame campus leaves more questions than answers,” National Catholic Reporter [].

[16] Indiana Statute IC 35-10. Chapter 10. Stalking. [

[17] Indiana Statute IC 35-45-2-2, Section 2(a) Harassment; “obscene message” defined [].

[18] For a listing of all the different conferences, see Mennolink at [].

[19] “Mennonite Church (MC)” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, at [].

[20] Mark Thiessen Nation, with Marva Dawn: “Contextualizing two failures of John Howard Yoder,” (Sep 23, 2013) [].

[21] DSM-V now includes Asperger’s under autism disorders.

[22] Mark Thiessen Nation, with Marva Dawn: “Contextualizing two Failures of John Howard Yoder,” (Sep 23, 2013) []

[23]Catherine Burr: “False Allegations of Sexual Harassment: Misunderstandings and Realities,” Academic Matters: The Journal of Higher Education (Oct-Nov 2011). [].

[24] “Statute of Limitations: Indiana. Rape, Abuse,”  Incest National Network. []

[25] “Inquisitorial system,” Wikipedia [].

[26] One example is The Martensville Sex Scandal, where emotional hysteria produced ‘evidence’ of ritualized sexual abuse of children at a ‘Devil Church.’ i[].

[27] Greg Peters, “Monasticism: Instrument of the Holy Spirit in the Renewal of Today’s Church,” The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life: Historical, Interdisciplinary and Renewal Perspectives, ed. Wolfgang Vondey (2014, Palgrave Macmillan), 49-50 citing Hans Achelis, Antoine Guillaumont, Rosemary Rader, V. Emmoni,  and others.

[28] Cited by Wylark Day in The Conclusion of the Sexual Revolution: Volume III of Sex and the Bible: Restoring the Foundations of Human Sexuality (2003, Wylark Day), 273.

[29] See the apocryphal book “The History of Thecla, the disciple of Paul the apostle.”

[30] “Yearning for Complementary Companionship: Virgins Subintroductae and Male =-Female Relations in the Church,” “Finding Tangle,” Jul 24, 2012 []

[31] Ibid.

[32] The Shepherd of Hermas. Estimated date of book is CE 100 to 160 “[]

[33] See April D. DeConick: Holy Misogyny: Why the Sex and Gender Conflicts in the Early Church Still Matter (Continuum, 2011).

[34] Egil Grislis: “The Doctrine of Incarnation according to Menno Simons,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 8 (1990), 17ff.

[35] Piet Visser, “Mennonites and Doopsgezinden,” A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700, ed. John D. Roth and James M. Stayer (Brill, 2001), 305-306.

[36] See Werner O. Packull: Mysticism and the Early South German-Austrian Anabaptist Movement 1525-1531 (Herald Press, 1977, reprinted by Wipf & Stock).

[37] On Nov 17/13 Graber posted:

My hope has never been that JHY be written off as a creepy pervert and his writings forever banned. My hope is for scholars and theologians to stop their attempts to cover up and minimize the facts of this complex, brilliant and troubled man’s life. My plea is that the lauding of his writings be tempered by the realities of his life.

[38] Cynthia Hess, “Traumatic Violence and Christian Peacemaking,” The New Yoder, (Wipf & Stock, 2010), 210.

[39] Feb 13, 2014 posting by Graber []. See also Krall 102-3 regarding a rough draft of this book.

[40] Hauerwas: “When the Politics of Jesus Makes a Difference,” The Christian Century Oct 13, 1993, pp. 982-987 [].

[41] After writing this, I learned of the posting by Hannah Heinzecker on Femonite entitled “Can Subordination ever be revolutionary? Reflections on John Howard Yoder,” Aug 9, 2013 []. She makes the same link to Yoder’s idea of “revolutionary subordination” (Chapter 9 of Politics of Jesus). She criticizes it as “happy subordination to unjust structures.”  She asks how this relates to Yoder’s conduct and whether the women should have been subordinate. Of course she rejects that idea. Or at least, she says that it can never be revolutionary.

[42] Cf. Ruth Krall’s comment of Jul 18, 2013:

In addition, most Mennonites of the generations we are talking about were taught it was a sin to go to the civil authorities so there were strong cultural prohibitions against any civil or legal procedures inside the body of Christ against a brother or a sister in the church. [].

Krall makes a similar point at p. 371 fn 63:

I also think (from the vantage point of 2012) that even if Mennonite women had this information, they would have been reluctant, on religious and theological grounds, to report Yoder’s behavior to local law enforcement agencies.

[43] Rosetta E. Ross: “John Howard Yoder on Pacifism,” Beyond the Pale: Reading Ethics from the Margins (ed Miguel A. De La Torre, Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas)

[44] Chapter 9, “On not being in charge” in Yoder’s The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, 168ff.

[45] Loren Johns’ memorandum of Oct 18, 2004  indicates that in 1985 or 1986, Herald Press received a request from someone, probably a leader in the church, asking that Herald Press no longer publish Yoder’s writings. Herald Press refused to do so, since these accusations had not been found to be true by any church disciplinary process.  [].  

[46] J. Glenn Friesen: “The Friesen-Braun Trials: from the book The Fangs of Bolshevism []

[47] J. Glenn Friesen: “Unto the Third and Fourth Generation: The long shadow of my grandfather I.P. Friesen []. The article also contains an account of abuse by him of my mother.

[48] Ibid.

[49] See the posting by Scott Holland of Sept 24/2013:

Because Mennonites refuse to go to war they must nevertheless shed blood in church because they too are marked by the anatomy of human aggression.


The opinions expressed by the the author of this blog and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Eastern Mennonite University or any employee thereof. Eastern Mennonite University is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied within this blog.

30 Responses to “The Church Discipline of John Howard Yoder:”

  1. Lisa Schirch

    This article is not factually correct in a number of ways.

    The MCUSA 2014 Discernment Process will release a report in the coming year that will address the accusations here. See this link for more information:

    Historian Rachel Waltner Goossen is currently doing research on some of the archives that Dr. Friesen is speculating about here. She will likely be publishing the results of this research in multiple forums.

    In the meantime, articles like this only serve to mobilize the legions of women who stand behind Barbara Graber and Ruth Krall. To move peace theology forward, men and women together need to address the unresolved issues of how we understand what happened and how we move forward.

  2. Dr. J. Glenn Friesen

    I am well aware that MCUSA has set up the John Howard Yoder Discernment Group, and that the historian Dr. Goossen has been appointed to re-assess certain facts. I have corresponded with the Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA, who has thanked me for sharing my legal perspective on Yoder’s behavior, and who has forwarded my research to the members of the Discernment Group. He also forwarded a copy to Dr. Goossen. From correspondence with her, I am confident that my research will be taken into account in her work.
    Any facts must be evaluated in relation to the applicable legal framework.

  3. Dr. J. Glenn Friesen

    If Yoder were alive today, it would be slander and libel to falsely attribute criminal conduct to him. Ten states have statutes that even prohibit defamation of dead people. For example, Kansas Statute 21-4004 considers it criminal defamation to falsely communicate information “tending to degrade and vilify the memory of one who is dead and to scandalize and provoke surviving relatives and friends.” Even if untrue statements about Yoder are not criminal or actionable at law, are they not nevertheless immoral? Are they not slander within the meaning of the Bible? The Old Testament speaks of talebearing and false witness or testimony. The New Testament considers slander to be on the same level as sexual immorality (e.g. Matthew 15:16-20 and 1 Cor. 5:11 NIV; re slander see also Mark 7:22, 2 Cor. 12:20, Eph. 4:31, Col. 3:8, 1 Tim. 6:4, 2 Tim. 3:3, Titus 3:2, James 4:11, 1 Peter 2:1 NIV). The Greek words blasphemia, diaballo, dusphemia, katalalia, psithurismos are variously translated as slander, malicious talk, gossip, railing, evil speaking, calumny, false accusers, false witness, backbiters, defamation, evil speaking, hurtful injurious speech, to be a traducer, to speak against one, to criminate, whispering (secret slandering), clandestine calumny. In my view, to make false statements about Yoder’s behavior harms not only Yoder’s reputation, but also the reputation of the Mennonite Church, at least to the extent that it encourages this kind of talk. If we are sincerely seeking discernment, it is important to speak the truth.

  4. Lisa Schirch

    It is not wrong to speak the truth. The Discernment Group will document that which many of us already know.

    The words of Ruth Krall and Barbra Graber are not slanderous. They ask the Mennonite community to hold people to account for their actions that hurt others. I see this article as defamation against these women, who speak the truth and who represent the views of many other women and men.

    The relentless mission to make Yoder’s actions seem less terrible than they were is an act of idolatry. The church should be Jesus-centric, not Yoder-centric. This mission to defend Yoder does nothing to bring about transformation or restoration to pacifist theology. Rather, it undermines it by denying the voices of women impacted. Instead of doing justice, it perpetrates further injustice.

    Furthermore, this “legal” opinion does not take into account all of the facts, which is why it is important to wait now for the Discernment report. We call slavery a crime. This doesn’t mean slavery was defined as a crime when it happened. It also does not mean that we wish legal charges to be brought about on descendants of slave owners. The church can move on – but only be reckoning with the past, lamenting what has happened and moving forward together.

    The issue here should be how to save the soul of the pacifist church. This type of attack on women’s voices and concerns does not achieve that goal.

  5. Dr. J. Glenn Friesen

    1. May I refer to the following summary of Indiana law regarding defamation (defamation includes both oral slander and written libel). It is defamation per se to allege sexual misconduct. There is no evidence supporting the allegations of criminal misconduct by Yoder, such as rape and sexual assault.

    2. It is inconsistent to use legal terms to describe Yoder’s conduct and then to object to a legal analysis of whether those terms are being used properly. Either stop using the terms, or prove that they are being used correctly. In legal terms, one cannot continue acting with reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of the statements.

    3. Jesus-centric? Jesus’s response when confronted with sexual misconduct was to ask who would throw the first stone. The suggestion that we can continue to use criminal terminology to describe Yoder’s conduct because something may perhaps be discovered in future that will confirm these statements would seem to be arguing for casting stones even before any relevant facts are known. Is this really how the Mennonite Church should act? Does that really serve the cause of pacifist theology? In any event, it is not within the scope of the historian’s assignment to adjudicate on any facts. Her assignment is to report on the response of Mennonite institutions to allegations of misconduct (and not to try to dig up new information against Yoder).
    4. This is not a matter of men versus women, or an attack on women’s voices. The issue is justice and fairness in characterizing Yoder’s conduct. The analogy with laws against slavery does not hold. In terms of the law in force in Indiana both at the time of his conduct and today, there is no evidence that Yoder sexually assaulted anyone.

  6. Lisa Schirch

    Here are responses to each of your points:

    1. We are using the legal definition of sexual harassment. If you look state by state, the definition varies only slightly. JHY’s actions are exactly, legally defined as unlawful. There is overwhelming evidence of this already and there will be more evidence provided in the discernment process.

    The US government defines this as “It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

    Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.”

    2. I in no way object to a legal analysis. In fact, when Yoder threatened to bring a libel suit against the women, they welcomed the opportunity to present their case in front of the court. But as Mennonites, the women preferred not to use that route if a church process could protect further abuse from happening. Again, even though the actions today would be defined as illegal, I have not heard anyone suggesting that a legal process is appropriate. The church needs to acknowledge, lament and heal. The justice system will not bring this. But your article suggesting that Yoders behavior was not sexual assault is legally wrong – as it is almost universally defined as sexual assault in today’s world. The fact that the legal system did not protect women in the past does not mean that these actions were not crimes. We frequently refer to the “crime” of slavery even though it was legal at the time to whip, beat, and kill enslaved people.

    3. No one is throwing stones at Yoder. Naming an injustice is not the same as throwing stones or seeking to harm someone. No one is suggesting that Yoder’s work not be studied or continue to inform peace theology. No one wants to do harm to Yoder. Yoder did harm people. Jesus did not suggest that people should be afraid of naming wrong-doing. Your effort to silence the witness to injustice and abuse is another injustice. You are throwing stones at these women – accusing them of wrong doing when many of us see them as the truth-tellers, the ones working for a pacifist theology with real credibility lived out by real people of integrity who do not impose themselves sexually onto others.

    I find it concerning that the very same mennonite men who protect and defend Yoder’s abusive sexual behaviors against dozens of women are now the same mennonite men who want to exclude LGBTQ people from the church, even when they are living in loving, committed relationship. It seems there is one set of standards for powerful white male church leaders and another set of standards for the marginal men and women who attempt to follow Jesus from within a homophobic church.

    4. Indiana is a conservative state. The laws are made by white men to protect white men. By the grace of some progressive white men in the state working with the few women in the legal system, we are lucky to have even these protections to prevent violence against women. Slavery was not illegal because white men didn’t view it as a crime. This doesn’t mean that it was never a crime.

    Here is a link to Indiana’s sexual assault laws.

    Under section IC 35-42-4-8
    Sexual Battery, Class D felony: touching another person with intent to arouse or satisfy the sexual desires of oneself or someone else, when the person being touched is:

    (1) Compelled to submit to the touching by force or the imminent threat of force

    Sexual Battery
    In Indiana, a person commits sexual battery by touching the victim in order to arouse or satisfy the defendant (or some other person’s) sexual desires:
    by force or threat of force, or
    when the victim is unable to consent due to a mental disability.
    A person can also commit sexual battery by touching the victim sexually when the victim is unaware that the touching is occurring.
    (Ind. Code Ann. § 35-42-4-8.)
    For example, forcibly fondling a person’s breasts would be considered sexual battery, as long as the fondling was sexually motivated

    If you want to assume that Yoder’s actions were not wrong because they were not illegal at the time, then I think we disagree on the basic premise of Christianity as a whole – that God makes human beings to live in dignity. Unfortunately, Yoder violated women. This is not our fault as women. When a man jumps on a woman or gropes her body, this is a sexual assault – the first time. Even though Yoder stopped assaulting some women after one incident, with other women there were repeated cases of sexual harassment.

    The relentless blaming of victims will do nothing to wipe the slate clean for Yoder or restore the integrity of peace theology. This article is not factually correct in terms of legally describing Yoder’s actions. By framing the issue in legal terms, the article seems to suggest that someone wants to press criminal charges. But this is not the case.

    Women in the church need to be able to protect themselves from predatory men – particularly male leaders in the church. I would be grateful if you would direct your legal analysis to analyzing why the church does not address sexual assault via victim-centered restorative justice processes. If the church had protected women earlier, these women would be safe. The church itself let Yoder and his family down by not stopping his behavior. I ask that you address the source of the crime and not those who name it.

  7. Dr. J. Glenn Friesen

    Dr. Schirch, I was unaware that Yoder threatened to bring a libel suit. That is very interesting. When was this, and what are your sources? What were the statements that he considered libellous?

    I would ask that you re-read my paper, since you have misunderstood my position. I agree that something can be wrong even if it is not illegal. Morality is different from the law, and I have said that some of Yoder’s actions may have been immoral even if they were not illegal. We can disagree on what is or is not immoral. What I object to is the use of criminal terminology to describe his conduct.

    In my paper, I also say that Yoder’s actions should have been prevented and stopped by the seminary. I discuss the Indiana statute on battery that you mention as well as others, and show why they would not have applied to Yoder’s conduct. For better or worse, Yoder’s actions from a criminal law perspective were governed by Indiana law, and its definitions of rape and sexual assault, which require proof of penetration. The evidence is that that did not occur. There was no sexual assault, rape or attempted rape, sexual abuse, or even harassment within the meaning of Indiana statutes. Federal reporting of rape also requires proof of penetration.

    With respect to harassment, I have said that to apply this term to Yoder in the 1970’s is anachronistic, since no code of conduct was in place and even the term was not that familiar. You now refer to EEOC federal guidelines. The EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) only added the provision on sexual harassment provision in 1980, and it was not judicially considered by the Supreme Court until 1986 in “Meritor Savings Bank vs. Vinson.” That case concerned an employee of the bank who alleged harassment. I doubt that this case or this statute would be applicable to Yoder’s conduct even after 1980. It is unclear whether the eight complainants were all at the seminary, and if so whether they continued as Yoder’s students after 1980. Even if they were, the act would not apply unless they were in an employment relationship with the seminary. If they were, was Yoder in a supervisory position with respect to them? Was a complaint made under that act? It is my understanding that those students whom Yoder supervised were not unhappy with how he treated them.

    If you read my paper, you will also see that I support mediation for disputes. While practicing law, I completed the Harvard Mediation Program. But in my view, the eight complainants had no legal action to take against Yoder. I believe that any complaint to the police would have been dismissed. Yoder may have had an action against them—for libel—depending on what they were saying about him. With respect to their complaints to the church, I have discussed the many procedural problems with the way that the church disciplined Yoder, and the injustice that this caused him. Even so, the church’s conclusion that Yoder had violated boundaries is far different than labelling his conduct as criminal.

    I object to your comments about “white men.” Are such statements not contrary to EMU’s code of conduct? Page 71 of the student handbook: “Communications, actions or threats that intentionally denigrate another due to race, gender, religion, age, handicap or national origin will not be tolerated.” Or does that apply only to students?

    Your comment with respect to the LGBTQ community is not relevant to Yoder’s conduct. But I support the work of those who are seeking to welcome them to the church.

  8. Lisa Schirch

    Thanks for your response Dr. Friesen.

    I respectfully disagree that calling Yoder’s action’s “criminal” is an act of slander or libel. I did read your entire article and the points you affirm here in identifying immoral behavior. In my opinion, having consulted several lawyers in responding to your article, it is important to look at both the immoral sexual behavior and the criminal behavior.

    The larger message of the article is to diminish the actions that occurred, to make it seem as though there were not acts of domination and forceful coercion involved. I wish it were true that this did not happen.

    But unfortunately, it is true. Women did suffer sexual assault that would be criminal in any US state if it would happen today. The effort to diminish what happened – and to attack the women who are seeking to ensure that the church does not ever let this happen again – is hurtful. There is much information to come out yet and I will let the discernment process provide that information to the public. My point was that you have made conclusions here based on what is public, but there are many more details that have not yet been documented. I don’t think it is slanderous to call the actions criminal given what is public – and I think that will become more evident in the course of the next year.

  9. Lisa Schirch

    Also – I wanted to address your concern that I am discriminating by suggesting that the justice system is made up mostly of white men. I’m not clear how this is perceived as discrimination by me, a woman, against men. It is simply fact to state that the justice system is male dominated. There has been reams of analysis on the lack of gender and ethnic diversity in the justice system. See this link for state by state demographics:

    As for the assertion that some white men in the justice system make laws and prosecute laws favorable to other white men – there is just too much evidence to choose from to link to here. There have been national discussions on the issues of race and gender in our justice system. There is nothing discriminatory in suggesting that the racial and gender make up of the court is unfair to women. JHY himself actually noted this type of systemic injustice in South Africa during apartheid where there was one justice for whites and another for black South Africans.

    I did note that progressive white men were able to work with the minority women’s voices in the judicial system to pass laws that protected against sexual harassment. This should make it obvious that there is no unfair blaming of “all white men.” White men do lots of good things – particularly when they are aware that the system works in their favor and they can use that power to bring about greater justice for those that have less systemic power.

  10. Dr. J. Glenn Friesen

    Dr. Schirch, there are some issues that need to be distinguished if there is to be real discernment:

    1. You imply that you have inside information of facts that have not been made public. This argument from innuendo and undisclosed hearsay is a very troubling basis for allegations of serious criminal conduct. But in any event, during the church discipline process, the complainants told the journalist Tom Price that there had been no allegations of sexual intercourse. If there was no intercourse, there can have been no sexual assault or rape under Indiana law. Whatever secret information you have cannot change that. It is this church discipline process, and how Yoder’s actions should be characterized as a result of that process, that is the basis of my paper and of our discussion.

    2. If your inside knowledge is from women who were not complainants at the church discipline hearings, then we are no longer talking about the same thing. Indeed, I have no idea what you are talking about. You seem to be seeking a new inquisitorial hearing against a dead man who can of course no longer respond and where the result is therefore already pre-judged. That is contrary to any principles of natural justice, which requires lack of bias, disclosure of all facts and a hearing from both sides. Will these new complainants also be anonymous? Did they also receive the letter from Marlin Miller? Why did they not appear at the church discipline hearing? Limitation periods were a concern in 1992; they are of far more concern 30 years after Yoder ceased teaching at the seminary and almost 40 years after the mid-70’s when his conduct began. If it proceeds in this way, the Mennonite Church risks creating an even greater injustice than the original church discipline process. My understanding is that this is not the historian’s role and I sincerely hope that the church will not do what you are proposing.

    3. You say that you are merely pointing out wrongdoing. But this is circular reasoning. There has been no proof of any wrongdoing, at least in a criminal sense. There has not even been any disclosure of facts that would support such a conclusion. You have pre-judged the issue. This is not in any way a model of justice for the church to follow.

    4. You clearly do not like Indiana law. If you believe that the law of another jurisdiction should apply to Yoder’s conduct, you need to say which law, and why. You cannot just keep repeating that Yoder’s conduct was criminal without addressing this important issue. If I may use a trivial example, you would be outraged if someone complained that you as a woman should not drive a car because under Saudi Arabian law, women are not granted drivers’ licenses. You would rightly object that you are governed by Virginia law. In this case, the stakes are much higher, and Yoder is being accused of felonies like sexual assault based on (unspecified) law to which he was not subject. Even today, Yoder’s conduct would not be criminal under Indiana law. Your statement “Women did suffer sexual assault that would be criminal in any US state if it would happen today” is therefore not correct, at least based on the evidence given at the church discipline hearing.

    5. Misconduct spans a spectrum, from less serious to more serious. An inappropriate kiss or hug is social misconduct, which is less serious than moral misconduct and much less serious than a criminal felony like sexual assault or rape. Some immoral conduct—that which society deems most serious– is also criminal (e.g. murder, rape, sexual assault, slander, perjury). Some immoral conduct, like gluttony or adultery, is not criminal (adultery laws were removed in Indiana in 1976). The Mennonite Church has disciplined its members for what it believes to be moral faults that are in no way criminal—like sending their children to public school, or for consensual sex outside of marriage. It is evident that the church also believes that Yoder’s conduct was immoral. Criminal acts range from felonies (the most serious) to misdemeanors or summary conviction offences to fines for parking and speeding. Yoder’s conduct did not fall within any of those categories, even the least serious. It was not criminal. There is a vast difference between an inappropriate kiss or hug (even if it is deemed immoral and not merely socially inappropriate) and the criminal act of sexual assault or rape. I agree that Yoder’s conduct should have been stopped. But we should not exaggerate or mis-state the nature of his conduct.

    6. I would appreciate receiving the details I requested about Yoder’s threat to bring a libel action. This is significant information. For Yoder to consider taking court action, contrary to what he believed, the statements against him must have been very serious. And if you say that the women would have welcomed giving their story in court, does that imply that they recognized there was no other way of doing so?

    7. Yoder’s conduct should not be described in terms of sexual abuse or sexual assault. But these issues are not only of concern to women. A recent study of 40,000 households has shown that men are sexually abused almost as frequently, especially by women in power such as prison guards. Sexual abuse of men is under-reported.
    It is therefore not helpful to discuss these issues in terms of men (or white men) against women. These culture wars are particularly inappropriate in a pacifist context. We should be seeking justice for all, regardless of gender. Both men and women should speak out against sexual abuse when there is real evidence to support the allegations. But both should also seek justice and fairness for those who have been accused, like Yoder. The recent Danish movie “The Hunt” shows the tragic consequences of unfair allegations of sexual abuse of children.

  11. Lisa Schirch

    Dr. Friesen, I did put in the links to the definitions of sexual assault. The legal definitions are different from how you are defining it. Today’s Indiana law’s definition of sexual harassment is only slightly different from the US government definition I also linked to above. Again, please read the links that I sent that provide a clear definition that is quite different from your definition of rape.

    I see that our scholarly reading takes us in different directions. To suggest that women commit as much sexual violence as men is just untrue. Pacifists like JHY understood the importance of doing a power analysis, to look at the structures of society and analyze who holds power over others and how power is used. There can be no real pacifism without understanding the different experiences women have in a world where white men hold most positions of power. To disregard this as part of “the culture wars” is a sign that it shouldn’t matter that white men hold most positions of power.

    But as women, African Americans and others know from experience, some white men are inclusive and humble – ready to share their power. Others feel an entitlement to power that is unearned. Some white men use power to protect the interests of other white men. If we can’t understand these basic facts of how society works, then I don’t think we have enough common analytical agreement about what pacifism means and how we should go about building it for a productive dialogue in this blog format.

    My first post suggested that it is important to wait for the evidence to come out. I do not have permission to say more than this. Again, this is not an inquisition. Women were hurt. The church process hurt the women a second time. And now people like you come along and tell those same women and their supporters that they are the ones at fault for trying to build a church where sexual assault doesn’t happen.

    The church needs to acknowledge what happened. I’m sorry that your family member was unjustly accused. It seems this experience was traumatic for you. I don’t know the details, but I can only imagine that any family member is hurt when charges – either true or false – are brought forward.

    The truth of what happened is important to understand so that the church can lament what happened and we can move on. JHY will continue to inform peace theology. I know and admire many of Yoder’s family for their contributions. Together we can lament what happened and build a church that is safe for women and men to work together for a pacifist vision.

    Articles like this that launch new attacks on women concerned about what happened don’t help us acknowledge, lament, and move on. Even the leaders of the discernment process use terms like sexual abuse to describe Yoder’s actions. So why this very targeted attack on two women who have devoted their lives to preventing sexual abuse and service to the church?

    So let me return to my original post and end my contributions here with a plea to wait until documented evidence is released in the discernment process.

  12. Dr. J. Glenn Friesen

    Dr. Schirch, it is apparent that you have made a serious mistake in determining the law that was applicable to Yoder’s conduct. You cannot just define terms like ‘sexual assault’ and ‘rape’ in the way that you want. Even if your definitions come from other jurisdictions in the U.S., you have to show that they applied to Yoder in Indiana during the time period in question. Based on the only evidence given–in the church discipline process–there was no sexual assault or rape or attempted rape by the law applicable to Yoder (Indiana law). You cannot change this by inventing your own definitions. You would spot this kind of error immediately if I tried to define your right to drive in terms of Saudi Arabian law. It is far more serious to allege sexual assault and rape based on your own definitions.

    With respect to the leaders of the discernment group, they are also in error in speaking of ‘sexual abuse’ since the term has criminal connotations. See the discussion in my paper regarding Indiana law, which uses ‘abuse’ in relation to sadomasochistic abuse or child molestation. Neither apply to Yoder. I have advised the executive director of MCUSA of this error; it indicates a bias in the discernment process that is not justified by the evidence given. To correct these legal errors is not a personal attack.

  13. Lisa Schirch

    I have provided many links to definitions of sexual assault. Anyone can look them up on-line.
    I provided a link to Indiana’s legal definition.

    ALL OF THE DEFINITIONS define sexual assault as groping, unwanted kissing, and the exact type of actions that are documented.

  14. Dr. J. Glenn Friesen

    Look again, Dr. Schirch. The statute you referred to was with respect to sexual battery, not sexual assault. The link you provided (May 28, re by criminaldefencelawyer) is a summary of law, and not the statutes themselves, but it refers to battery and rape. It confirms that ‘rape’ requires sexual intercourse. In my paper, I discuss these Indiana statutes in detail, and why ‘battery’ does not apply to Yoder’s conduct. ‘Sexual assault’ in Indiana requires proof of penetration, as does ‘rape.’ Contrary to what you say, sexual assault is not defined in terms of ‘groping.’ There was no sexual intercourse, no penetration, and therefore no sexual assault or rape.

  15. Dr. J. Glenn Friesen

    Dr. Schirch, I need to correct my previous post. It has come to my attention that, for certain purposes, Indiana statute IC5-26.5-1-8 defines ‘sexual assault’ as including any conduct under IC 35-42-4 (sex crimes). That would indicate that it includes battery. So it would include unwanted touching, provided that the other elements of the crime (force and intent) are established. For reasons stated in my paper, I do not believe that those elements can be established with respect to Yoder’s conduct. With respect to rape, my previous post was correct. Proof of sexual intercourse is required. We cannot invent a different definition and apply it to Yoder.
    I know that you are passionate about this topic. It is important to use our terminology correctly. I have had my paper reviewed by an Indiana lawyer, who agreed with what I stated. I will continue to try to be as accurate as possible in stating what I believe to be Indiana law. My view remains unchanged: Yoder’s conduct was not criminal in any way.

  16. Lisa Schirch

    I have never used the word rape in this context. I don’t recall ever seeing anyone make this accusation. I’m not sure what you are referring to. My entire set of comments here has been about sexual assault and I have repeatedly used the official, legal definitions and from the very beginning was trying to explain to you that the women you denounce were using these terms in a legally correct way. The term used by the MC USA are sexual abuse. That is an appropriate term also.

  17. Dr. J. Glenn Friesen

    Well, it is not so simple. There has been reference to rape. Barbra Graber referred to Yoder’s conduct as “ “attempted rape, the behavior of a criminal sex offender.” There was no rape nor any attempted rape. Nor was he a criminal sex offender.

    However, legal terminology can be confusing, and I now understand that when you speak of ‘sexual assault’ you intend to refer to unwanted touching as set out in the section on sexual battery in Indiana’s sex crimes statute.

    The provision I mentioned that defines ‘sexual assault’ as including all sex crimes (rape and sexual battery, among others) was only enacted in 2002, and defines it this way only for specific record-keeping purposes. More importantly, the sexual battery section of Indiana’s sex crimes statute on which you are relying—the one relating to unwanted touching (IC 35-42-4-8)– was only enacted in 1987 by P.L. 322 1987. This came about as a result of reform of rape law. The new section of sexual battery was considered a few years later by the Indiana Court of Appeal in “Scrougham versus State of Indiana” 564 N.E. 2nd (1990), in a case that decided whether sexual battery was an included offence under rape or whether an accused could be convicted of both offences (yes, but overruled by the same court in a subsequent decision in 1992, “Griffin versus State of Indiana”).

    For the history of the introduction of the offence of sexual battery, see Alberto Cadopi: “A Kiss is just a Kiss, or is it? A comparative look at Italian and American Sex Crimes.” Seton Hall Law Review: Vol. 40: Iss. 1, Article 3. Cadopi refers to the time when “sexual touching that did not involve penetration was not criminalized.” By the end of the last century, this had changed in many jurisdictions as a result of the Model Penal Code in 1980, and the actions of the women’s movement. He says that even after the introduction of Indiana’s law, it is questionable whether an unwanted kiss would qualify under sexual battery (p. 207).

    But if Indiana’s statute on sexual battery was only enacted in 1987, it was not in force at all during the period of time that Yoder was teaching at the seminary. He ceased teaching there in 1984, before this section on sexual battery was enacted. It is not retroactive, and so cannot apply to Yoder with respect to any claims of unwanted touching while he was at the seminary. Therefore, we do not need to determine whether or not all the elements of this crime (intent, force) could have been proved, or whether his unwanted kissing qualifies as unwanted touching. The act simply does not apply to him.

    The bottom line is that you cannot allege sexual assault based on unwanted touching with respect to Yoder’s conduct. The crime of rape did exist at the time but that would require proof of sexual intercourse. Other sex crimes, like child molesting, obviously do not apply either.

    I am sorry this is complicated. You are a good advocate, and I appreciate your challenge of what I have written, and the respectful tone of our discussion. It has forced me to go back to look at the history of Indiana’s sex crime statute. In so doing, I have found that there is even less of a criminal case to be made against Yoder than I thought when I wrote my paper. I should re-write it now to take into account this history of the legislation regarding sexual battery. But the bottom line is that we are back to where we started. Based on the evidence given at the church discipline process, and based on the time period of the conduct in question, allegations of sexual assault, rape or attempted rape are not possible with respect to Yoder’s conduct. And for other reasons I have given, the terms ‘harassment’ and ‘sexual abuse’ are not appropriate either.

  18. Lisa Schirch

    We disagree. As I’ve noted here, we refer to many things as crimes today that were formally not defined as crimes. Just because Indiana law has changed to become more sensitive to the rights of women not to be assaulted does not mean that the action itself can not be defined as criminal in today’s world.

    For now, I will end this dialogue with how I started – a plea for readers to wait for the evidence to be presented so that we can put an end to blaming women and the victims and instead understand that the integrity of the pacifist theology Yoder preached requires justice – even in situations of sexual assault.

  19. Dr. J. Glenn Friesen

    While Indiana’s subsequent legislation will assist in future cases, it does not permit us to label Yoder’s conduct up to 1984 as sexual assault. There are many cases on why laws cannot be interpreted retroactively. It is also just not fair or just to impute to Yoder the knowledge of future legislation. The fact that Indiana had no sexual battery legislation before 1987 is also relevant to the seminary’s lack of action against Yoder while he was teaching there. It makes it much more difficult to argue that the seminary should have done something about Yoder’s conduct. The only basis for the seminary to act (and I still think it is sufficient) is that Yoder’s actions were socially inappropriate, and possibly immoral. But that would not make the seminary liable for failing to act against him. These issues were evolving and not at all clear at that time.

    Even today, Yoder’s conduct would not be included under Indiana’s sexual battery legislation. The article by Cadoppi and Vitiello that I referred to (“A Kiss is Just a Kiss…”) is very instructive. It reviews Indiana case law on the Indiana sexual battery legislation introduced in 1987. Unlike California law, which requires only proof that the touching was against the will of the person touched, Indiana requires that an intent of sexual gratification be present, and that there be force or a threat of force. These are the two elements that I discuss in my paper, focusing particularly on the key case of Yoder’s conduct with the anonymous complainant known as “Colleen.” With respect to intent, I believe that Yoder’s published writings on non-sexual affection between the sexes, as well as his immediate statement after his conduct (and confirmed by Colleen) that he did not intend anything sexual, would be sufficient to prove no intent. More importantly, there was no force, as shown by the Indiana case law. The most important case is Scott-Gordon v. State, 579 N.E.2d 602, 604 (Ind. 1991). In that case, the defendant grabbed his co-worker’s buttocks and announced that he had received a “free feel.” The Indiana Supreme Court held that “not all touchings intended to arouse or satisfy sexual desires constitute sexual battery; only those in which the person touched is compelled to submit by force or the imminent threat of force violate Ind. Code § 35-42-4-8.” The court held that there was no evidence here of being compelled to submit to touching by force. The case was considered again by an Indiana appellate court in Bailey v. State, 764 N.E.2d 728, 730–31 (Ind. Ct. App. 2002), where force was found to be implied because the defendant’s prior conduct had given the victim a reason to feel threatened. Furthermore, the victim had made it clear prior to the incident that his advances were unwelcome. A strong dissent in the case held that even these were insufficient to show force. But in any event, neither of these reasons applies to Yoder’s situation. There was no prior conduct that made “Colleen” feel threatened, and once she made it clear that his advances were unwelcome, Yoder stopped.

    With respect to unwanted kissing, the authors conclude that a kiss is just a kiss, and should not be criminalized, unless (based on the Scott-Gordon case) there is evidence that these attentions are unwelcome and the conduct continues. Even then, there is an issue as to whether the kiss itself would be sufficient force.

    This does not mean that I approve of Yoder’s actions. It does mean that there is no evidence that allows us to call his actions criminal, since (1) the sexual battery legislation was not in force until after his conduct at the seminary and (2) even if this legislation had been in force, Yoder’s conduct would not come within the meaning of that statute.

    Regardless of one’s personal opinion of Yoder, we cannot refer to his actions as rape, attempted rape, sexual assault, or sexual abuse. We cannot refer to him as a sex offender. And it is anachronistic to refer to his actions as ‘harassment’ since codes of conduct developed only later, and there is no evidence that Yoder’s actions were repeated against the same person.

    I will be revising my paper to reflect this information.

  20. Dr. J. Glenn Friesen

    My revised paper has been placed on my own website:
    The Church Discipline of John Howard Yoder: Legal and Religious Considerations”

    My conclusions are the same; the supporting reasons are even stronger. I have now included some of the history of sex crimes legislation in Indiana. At the time of Yoder’s conduct (up to 1984 when he stopped teaching at the seminary), sex crimes required proof of sexual intercourse, which did not occur. Subsequent legislation in Indiana is not retroactive; even if it were, it would not apply to Yoder, as shown by the case law. Yoder’s conduct was not criminal in any way. He was not a sex offender.

    I have also added a section dealing with the new Discernment Group. If we ask why the seminary or the church did not do more to prevent his sexual assaults, we are asking the wrong question. There were no sexual assaults or sexual abuse. It is improper to use those terms. And no apology should be demanded today for that which did not occur. It is of historical interest to ask what the seminary was doing with respect to formulating a (non-criminal) code of conduct. But can we expect more than what was being done in other universities and colleges?

    I really do not understand the effort to characterize Yoder’s behaviour as criminal. It is not fair to him, it does not assist in understanding what happened 40 years ago, and it should not be a model of justice and truth for the church. To argue that his conduct was criminal when it was not is to scapegoat him for the crimes of others. Whose interests does that serve? From a moral standpoint, Yoder did publicly apologize to his anonymous complainants. We do not need to mischaracterize Yoder’s conduct or rewrite history in order to protect women today. If we wish to protect against acts that are really criminal, such protection is given by the subsequent legislation. If it is merely moral and social misconduct (like Yoder’s), protection is given by new codes of conduct in seminaries and colleges, and these are already in place.

  21. Victor Ermita

    While appreciative of the vigorous conversation I’d tentatively hope to advance some common ground:

    Parenthetically – I reject the autism theory and believe advancing it is harmful to people dealing with autism and to their families. To my knowledge a person dealing with autism does not set up mailboxes to hide correspondence from their wife. I find such knowledge of culpability not apparent in the DSM-V.

    – I find it credible that, strictly through the lens of the legal code of the time, JHY’s actions were not likely to be found criminal in that era. As such Dr. Friesen’s encouragement to caution is well-advised. However, I’m not aware of anyone has made the claim that JHY’s actions were criminal at the time or that a criminal case should move forward today. As such Dr. Friesen’s seems to be the only one asking the question he is answering.

    – Outside of a legal context we regularly discuss the “criminal” nature of slaveholders actions despite the legality of those actions at the time. While victims and their advocates may choose not to use precise legal language outside of a legal forum (generally no one does) insisting that all contemporary speech occur only in the legalese of two decades ago certainly can feel like a tactic for silencing those we all agree are victims. Words of caution are merited. A lack of empathy for the rage of victims is not.

    – Given the power dynamics of JHY, not only formally as a professor but also his profound influence in broader Mennonite circles, we are pretty safe in assuming that JHY sometimes abused his power in relationships with his victims. Despite having achieved some status within the Mennonite church these women still felt that JHY having knowledge of their names could harm their careers. I don’t think we have information to reject this widespread fear as unfounded.

    – We all agree that, given modern legal frameworks and power dynamics, we have good reason to believe that JHY would be recognized as a serial harasser. As we do not refrain from calling slavery a criminal institution in retrospect the phrase, “sexual harasser” seems to be one we can agree can be appropriately applied to JHY (as long as we are not stating that the law would have found this at the time).

    – Given his mental capacity, the repeated rejection of his advances, the power dynamics, his efforts to hide this behavior from his wife, and the apparent extent of the immoral conduct, I believe we can safely call JHY a sexual predator. And, if we must quibble, I’d be fine with just leaving it as “predator”.

    – I will add that anyone who can read this predator’s characterizations of himself and his victims in Chapter Five of The End of Sacrifice, and not be appalled by the utter lack of repentance shown, is, I think, not doing justice to the author’s intentions.

    – Finally, I think we can all agree that, based on the extensive questions Dr. Friesen desires to have answered, the refusal by Mennonite institutions to permit reasonable access to the Yoder papers on this topic needs to end. Dr. Friesen, I hope you are now as aggressively seeking appropriate public access to these documents as the victims have been for decades.

  22. Dan Umbel

    I find this discussion clarifying within limits. On the one hand Dr. Friesen brings a much needed corrective to the irresponsible language some of some of the most vocal complaints about Yoder. Although the anger motivating much of the outcry against Yoder is no doubt long overdue and much healthier than silence, it does eventually need to give way to more sober analysis. It seems to me that Dr. Friesen provides this by working to ensure the accuracy of the accusations against Yoder, which accusations were inaccurate from a legal perspective. On the other hand, there are certainly limits to the legal perspective he provides. It seems to me that from the perspective of Christian morality Yoder was clearly acting outside the bounds of legitimate sexual desire. Not only was he guilty of lusting after women other than his wife. He actually acted upon those feelings. Thus, if we’re basing our morality upon the Sermon on the Mount, at least, then Yoder was guilty of adulterous feelings and actions. That judgment, at least, seems incontrovertible.

  23. Lisa Schirch

    A pacifism that denounces victims and advocates of sexual abuse victims in not pacifism at all. The lack of understanding of sexual abuse, its legal definitions, its impact on victims and the truth about what happened is disturbing on this EMU website. What type of message does this give to prospective EMU students? If I were a young Mennonite woman wanting to study peace theology, I certainly would not want to attend an institution with this type of victim-blaming blogging by theologians who purport to support peace and justice. MCUSA has posted an article on their research. It counters many of the wrong assumptions found on this blog cite.

    • Dan Umbel

      Lisa, I find it odd that you think this blog is incompatible with the link that you have provided. I see these two separate discussions as complimentary and as serving the same basic goals. More specifically, I’m not sure how anyone has “denounced victims” in the above discussions. Dr. Friesen seems merely to be providing helpful legal clarification. But that clarification does not seem to me to elide concern for victims or for the much needed church-wide processes that are already underway. On the other hand, the legal perspective, clarifying as it may be in some ways, does not address the deep pain of the victims, the sin of the perpetrator, or the process of confession, reparation, forgiveness, and reconciliation that needs to take place between all those concerned.

  24. Lisa Schirch

    Dan, Thanks for your note. Here are the specific parts of this blog that I find offensive.

    1. Dr. Friesen asserts that Yoder’s behavior cannot be categorized as sexual assault nor sexual abuse. This is in contrast with MCUSA, which does categorize Yoder’s behavior as sexual abuse. Yoder’s actions also conform with legal definitions of sexual assault, past and present. It is outrageous to say that advocates of victims cannot use these words to describe what happened to Yoder’s victims. Dr. Friesen is disagreeing with church leaders, who have read Yoder’s own memos and confessions about what happened. As the detailed in this announcement yesterday ( – the abuse was much wider than most people recognize. Dr. Friesen asserts here that it did not include pressuring women or sexual intercourse. But MCUSA confirms that Dr. Friesen is incorrect in making these assertions.

    Dr. Friesen is thus calling into question the very nature of what Yoder did. What purpose does achieve? I believe it seeks to diminish the harm to victims. There are many people in the Mennonite church looking to blame women for seducing Yoder. The Catholic Church has seen this same type of vile victim blaming of the men and women who have come forward with complaints about Catholic priests. The Mennonite Church should learn from the Catholic experience and resist those who would blame victims.

    2. Dr. Friesen denounces two advocates of victims of sexual abuse in the church by name. Having read these women’s writings, I know that they are experts on sexual abuse. They both are widely read in justice issues related to victims of sexual abuse. They are both pacifists, and they practice their pacifism by naming injustice but also expressing compassion. Dr. Friesen is not an expert, nor has he read in this field of study. As such, this article denounces an entered field, but then singles out two Mennonite women in specific. What does this accomplish? What is the intent?

    Women in the Mennonite church who speak out on these subjects have been punished and sanctioned for challenging the narrative that Mennonites are pacifists. The painful truth is that there is domestic violence and sexual violence in too many Mennonite churches and homes. If our pacifism is to have any credibility, male pacifist theologians will need to read about sexual abuse, understand the magnitude of the problem and devote their attention to preventing and stopping this violence in the church.

    I did read Dr. Friesen’s entire article. I do hear his own personal pain over church discipline of one of his own family members. I do share his critique that the church process for Yoder was neither beneficial to the victims nor to Yoder himself.

    But the article’s main message is directed at silencing women such as myself who would like to stop violence in the church. I will continue to call Yoder’s actions sexual abuse and sexual assaults. For this is what happened. Calling it something else is not truthful nor fair. So this article does not stop those of us working on sexual violence to change the way we will write and speak about the tsunami of trauma left behind from Yoder’s legacy.

    • Dan Umbel

      Thank you, Professor Schirch, for your reply and your clarifications. In terms of my own personal views of the matter, Yoder was clearly in the wrong. It is impossible for me to understand why he did the things he did to all these women. It was morally reprehensible and completely inexcusable. I didn’t intend my comments to suggest otherwise. My sincere hope is that all those who have suffered sexual violence of any sort in the church can find justice and healing.

  25. Kathryn Fairfield


    I have followed the conversation from Friesen’s article. Nowhere have I seen anyone “denouncing victims and advocates of sexual abuse victims.” It is not denouncing to contest another’s use of terms.

    Friesen’s careful and correct legal analysis, and his correct definition of terms does not mean he thinks Yoder did no wrong or harm.  

    I believe that this will be manifest to any one reading this sequence and I am gratified by the integrity of this conversation on an EMU blog. 

    John Howard Yoder’s sexual behaviors toward women were immoral, harmful and a betrayal of trust, given that he was married and given his position in the church and in the seminary. Women subjected to these behaviors and who had to fend him off, bore a terrible burden. Actions do not have to be crimes to be reprehensible and actionable. His actions should have been exposed and ended immediately. Instead they were allowed to continue for years.

    We are all hoping that there will be mechanisms put in place across the church that will deal promptly with these kinds of reprehensible actions, and that they will be eliminated.

  26. Lisa Schirch


    The blog says that it is inappropriate to use the terms “sexual abuse” or “sexual harassment” to characterize Yoder’s behavior. These are the legal terms used by the US government and the State of Indiana to define the type of behavior that are reported by MCUSA in their recent statement. And again, why is it okay to call slavery a crime if it is not okay to call Yoder’s abuse a crime. It would be criminal today. It helps people understand the magnitude of what happened. Too many Yoderians would like to diminish what happened. They come up with elaborate excuses for Yoder’s behavior. Or they denounce the women- as this blog does in asserting that they did not properly document their accusations with their names. This is harmful to women who have been victimized. The women that did come forward faced accusations by theologians wives of somehow “seducing” Yoder – as if it was their fault they were victimized. Why should any women speak up about injustice if they will be belittled on public forums like this?

    I have asked EMU to hold a dialogue in person on this topic. I don’t find this blog format appropriate for this conversation. I would welcome a face to face discussion.


  27. Lisa Schirch

    One final public comment. There is a suggestion here in this article and the comments that only “emotional” women who are victims themselves speak out on these issues. This is false. I am not a victim of sexual violence.

    I approach these issues as a faculty member who has taught courses at EMU on violence against women and women’s roles in peacebuilding since 1998.

    There has been a global movement to work to stop violence against women. I have been part of these UN efforts to secure the end of discrimination against women () in the 1990s.

    From 2001-2002, I worked in East and West Africa with women’s groups in their efforts to stop domestic violence and sexual violence against women in their countries.

    And I have worked for and written about for the last decade, publishing several chapters and manuals on implementing it.

    Today, part of my work is to train the military in women’s rights and violence against women.

    I have only recently realized the irony that I cannot speak with integrity in other countries, at the UN, or to the US government or military about sexual violence when there are pacifist theologians literally next door to me, speaking on an EMU website, about diminishing the severity of sexual violence in the mennonite church.

    It seems to me the point of this article, as well as much of this blog, is to diminish the severity of what happened. While not a victim myself, I have seen the tsunami of destruction to three generations of women leaders in the church: to Yoder’s peers, to his students, and to my generation of women – many of whom have left the church. And before and after Yoder, there were other Mennonite leaders who also committed similar sexual violence. Yoder’s writing does set up a theology where male church leaders “help” single females with their sexuality -a code for sexual assaulting women against their will. And in his posthumous publications, Yoder does himself denounce women’s anger at sexual violence as misplaced. Yoder says that women are angry simply because they are weaker, through no fault of men.

    There is a spectrum of mennonite misogyny – our own sort of mennonite taliban.

    On one end are the male pacifists in the church who have sexually assaulted women. Unfortunately Yoder is only the most widely known.

    In the middle there are the abuse-deniers, like this article, that argue what Yoder did was not that bad (despite the growing amount of evidence, including Yoder’s own memos). The wives of some theologians, protecting their husband’s reputations, unfortunately have often been some of the loudest voices publicly denouncing the victims and putting the blame on them. No doubt with the recent MCUSA statement, we will face another round of victim blaming and anger from Yoder defenders.

    At the other end of the spectrum of misogyny are all the pacifist theologians who either denounce or ignore Mennonite women writers, who exclude female pacifists from conferences, books or citations in their articles.

    It almost seems as if there is a war between the male pacifists and the female pacifists. As a female pacifist, I have no wish to fight. I long for more male pacifists to read about feminism and sexual violence, to include women and women’s writings in their courses, and to acknowledge and lament that we cannot read Yoder’s theology the same way now that we now the truth. Thankfully, there are several male pacifist mennonite theologians who already say this.

    But as with this article, many male mennonite pacifists blame women for speaking out on sexual and domestic violence in the church. The women are seen as distracting the men from the important pacifist work of speaking out against war, from their safe armchairs with secure positions of leadership in mennonite institutions.

    We know from much research that there is an epidemic of sexual abuse in the protestant church – perhaps even greater than in the Catholic church. But most male pacifists have been silent in responding to this violence all around us.

    Women like Ruth Krall and Barbra Graber have been ostracized, dismissed, and condemned in articles like this. Male pacifists have been vengeful, setting out to silence these women. But they are the true pacifists.

    Too few other women have stood up to support them, knowing that we too will become punching bags for other pacifists who want to keep the secret of sexual violence buried beneath our veneer of perfection. So I am throwing in my lot with these women. They speak the truth. They work for justice. They are loving, compassionate and respectful of Yoder and of the very men who diminish their work. The best way to honor the pacifist church that Yoder cared about is to make sure that we never fail from holding Mennonite leaders to account and that we work to stop sexual violence.

    Our pacifism has no credibility without putting it into practice in our own communities.

  28. Barbra Graber

    Freisen is like a man standing in the middle of a football field strewn with wounded bodies and rather than asking them what has happened to them, he sits down with his lap-top and attempts to define in precise and careful legal terms the scene he is witnessing. When someone hollers from the sidelines,“Some sort of gross wrong has been committed here, can we get your help?!”, he turns his back, gets on his computer and with great conviction and long-winded verbosity picks apart the language the person on the sidelines has just used to describe the terrible scene in front of them.

    Theissen-Nation (and a boat load of other Yoderians) is like a man who has heard the story of his neighbor’s misfortune as the victim of theft. And to make matters worse, the thief is a neighbor they both respected and trusted. Many more neighbors have come forward with the same accounts against him. The truth of his crimes has been repeatedly verified. But alas, instead of working with the victims of the theft to bring the crime to light, hold the thief accountable, and prevent this from happening again in their neighborhood, the man’s response is to describe to the neighbor (whose home has been violated and property stolen) all the instances he knows of the good deeds the thief has performed in the community.
    “Please understand”, he tells him, “that I feel very badly for what happened to you. But you need to know there are many of us who have not had the same experience with the neighbor you are accusing. Please keep this in mind when you throw stones at him for stealing from you. We have to have a balanced approach. And be very careful with the language you use. This matter must be examined from all sides to hold any veracity whatsoever.”

    I and others have been standing in that football field of bodies for two decades hollering from the sidelines. And not only about John Howard Yoder. He is the least of my worries because he is no longer living. But he remains a symbol for the way in which the church has historically dealt with the sexual abuses of power by its leaders. Until we settle that account, so deep and wide and complex in its offensiveness, we will not settle any accounts that arise in the future.

    Those who want to split hairs with me over “inaccuracies” in my language to describe the crimes committed by John Howard Yoder against untold numbers of women in our church body should also split hairs with the Yoderian theologians and Mennonite Church leaders who for two decades used diluted and inaccurate language like “picadillos” and “liasons” and “misconduct” to gloss over deeply harmful actions and mislead the public. We now know beyond any doubt that Yoder committed clear sexual offenses against untold numbers of women, for whom the encounter was devastating and life changing. The details of how and why and what are irrelevant. The Mennonite Church has substantiated and now documented the truth of his offenses, so any further reference to “allegations” must now end. Many women bravely came forward, showed their faces, signed their names to letters of complaint and told the truth of their experience to those in power. For this they were for many years and in many cases ignored, ridiculed, threatened with law suits, blamed for ruining a brilliant man’s career, and ultimately silenced.

    The attempts by intelligent and perhaps well-intentioned people to continue to belittle, criticize, detract from and split hairs with sexual abuse survivors and their advocates who are attempting against great odds to end the sexual abuses of power by leaders in the Mennonite church will not in the end win out. You would all do well to educate yourselves. May I suggest you start with Peter Rutter’s “Sex in the Forbidden Zone.”

    “We shall not give up the fight, we have only started.”