The Yoder file
It is not often that the Century publishes a feature article about the sexual behavior of a theologian, but the case of John Howard Yoder ("Theology and misconduct") raises questions for all Christians, not just for the Mennonite community to which he belonged. What is the relationship between what a theologian writes and how he lives his life? Does the life make a difference in how we read the theology?
Yoder’s behavior is particularly challenging for Mennonites to deal with, not only because he was a prominent Mennonite leader but because Mennonite theology has traditionally focused on ethics more than doctrine, on the life lived more than the beliefs espoused. When teachers of the Word don’t practice what they preach, their teachings are looked at with suspicion. How could the most articulate spokesperson for Christian nonviolence in the 20th century engage in sexual behavior that was abusive and coercive and itself a form of violence?
Part of the Yoder story is about how the people to whom he was accountable and who struggled to discipline him did not respond adequately to the experiences of the women who suffered. Many people were left in the dark about the disciplinary process and about the facts of the case, and the women and their stories were marginalized. That helps explain why this part of Yoder’s life has continued to be discussed and why the issues continue to resurface. The pain of the victims does not go away.