In the years following, some say preceding, the 1972 publication of his monumental The Politics of Jesus, the celebrated Christian ethicist John Howard Yoder emotionally manipulated and sexually violated numerous women.[1] Yoder’s conduct troubles us on multiple levels. Because these behaviors strike us as profoundly dissonant with the ways in which his thought has deeply influenced us, we spent the last year attempting to find out all we could about his actions and to reflect theologically on what we found. In this essay, we first report what we know about Yoder’s manipulations and violations and their histories at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and the University of Notre Dame. Next we consider inconsistencies and consistencies between those behaviors and his theology. Finally, we utilize one aspect of his thought—his account of the fallen powers—to reevaluate his legacy in the terms of his theology.

Saying what we know is easy enough, because what we know with certainty remains minimal. Here is what we know, and we share it because it is important that readers of Yoder’s theology are aware of his conduct so that they can judge for themselves how to take his vision of Christian discipleship.

Initial reports put the number of women involved at around ten, but subsequent estimates have gone as high as one hundred. Yoder’s actions toward these women, including students, ranged from verbal sexual innuendo to physical sexual acts, including intercourse. Some commentators are convinced that these behaviors took place over most of his decades-long teaching career, whereas others believe they occurred during a fixed and much shorter period of time. In his interactions with these women, we understand that Yoder saw himself involved in a “grand noble experiment” with them even though some women use “harassment” and “abuse” to describe what he did to them.[2]

Yoder initiated many of the relationships and behaviors unilaterally, without anything resembling invitation, and his conduct resulted in life-long consequences for the women involved. Consider Carolyn Holderread Heggen’s story. Throughout her interactions with Yoder, her interests went no further than his theology and teaching. Using that interest, Yoder instigated letters and meetings, which Heggen refused. In one letter, Yoder invited Heggen and her infant to meet him at a conference. Heggen recounts,

Then he went into this bizarre, long, detailed description of what it would be like for him to sit in a chair and watch me sit on his bed, take off my clothes and nurse my baby. He described in vivid detail my breasts and other body parts. When I read the letter, I felt I had been raped. The thought of this dirty old man sitting at his seminary desk fantasizing about my nude body was terrifying to me, and I felt extremely violated and angry. I had never done anything to communicate to him that I was interested in anything but a mentor-protégée relationship.[3]

There are other accounts of this kind, some of which include verbal intimidation, physical aggression, indecent exposure, and other types of physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual manipulation and violence. When we recently asked Heggen—who today is an author, speaker, psychotherapist, and Mennonite leader—to reflect on her ordeal with Yoder, she said,

Having never lived in a Mennonite community, I was not privy to what I later learned were longstanding warnings shared among some women in Mennonite institutions or communities—warnings to never be alone with Yoder as he was “not safe.” I only knew him as the most articulate spokesman for peace and nonviolence in our denomination. I knew his writings and his elevated reputation among Mennonites. Before our marriage, my husband had in fact become a pacifist and Mennonite in large part due to the writings of Yoder. I assumed there was something I had inadvertently said or done that made Yoder think I was sexually attracted to him or interested in a sexual relationship—which I certainly was not! Having worked with many victims of rape, I am horrified and sad that I, nonetheless, tried to figure out what I had done wrong to elicit a sexual response from Yoder.[4]

Some relationships seemed to follow initiative from both parties, and at least in one case, this happened over several years. An example of one such relationship can be observed through a series of personal letters and tape recordings Yoder shared with a woman from 1985 until approximately 1988, correspondences that necessitated elaborate strategies of secrecy to conceal matters from his family.[5] The letters convey, among other things, conversations regarding their sexual relationship and even some back and forth between the two as to why Yoder refused intercourse with her. All the while, the woman, a peer of Yoder in terms of age and maturity, though not in terms of professional influence or power, relates an obvious admiration and affection for Yoder:

It was great to find your tape in the mail box when I returned at 10:30 last night. . . . Thanks for your call—I enjoyed hearing your voice again. Hope you have some fun! . . . You have certainly been a plus for me! And I do look forward to some face to face conversations. . . . It is really fun to read your letters and answer them—I never thought writing letters would be fun. Amazing! . . . Please feel free to call anytime you want to. . . . I’ve found out about some excellent books I can read in my latest issue of The Other Side. They’re written by John Howard Yoder—Know him? . . . Take care of yourself. Have fun. Keep those letters coming my way. Getting to know you has brightened my life.[6]

One wonders what this woman, who was a professional therapist, would make of Yoder’s other relations, the preponderance of which have been understood as manipulative and violent, and whether awareness of these would change how she saw her own relationship with Yoder.

We don’t know whether this particular relationship typified those that were not obviously violent, just like we don’t know whether Heggen’s interactions typified the violations that Yoder’s victims experienced. As well, the connection between the different types of interactions is difficult to characterize in terms of a specific social pattern; some have described them in terms of predatory abusive behavior, while others have sought to contextualize them in terms of Yoder’s abysmal and even impaired interpersonal ability.[7]

After months of research, reading, and interviewing, this is what we can say we know with much confidence. What we don’t know is as important as what we do know. We don’t know the interplay between these different dynamics. For example, we don’t know the number of women for whom what might have begun as seemingly reciprocal relationships gave way to something else.[8] Although we have indications that the majority of Yoder’s interactions with these women involved manipulation and violations of various kinds, we don’t know the dynamics between the numbers of women and degrees of offense, and we are, frankly, not quite sure how to think about those dynamics. For instance, if 90 percent of the relationships involved nudity, is that somehow different than if only 10 percent did? How would one qualify the moral difference between, say, three years of “a grand noble experiment” versus thirty years of harassment? Or vice versa?

People have tried to get answers to these questions, and the history of these efforts is about as complex, and almost as longstanding, as the shadow around Yoder’s legacy. Within Yoder’s ecclesial and academic homes, three “accountability” or “discernment” processes have taken place, the first in the early 1980s, the second in the early 1990s, and the third begun in 2013 with findings due later this year. The last two processes, interestingly, follow dissatisfaction over the lack of successful resolution to the prior one(s); part of what these processes seem to be searching for, to our minds, are the very criteria for what would count, for these proceedings, as success.

Between the late 1960s and his death in 1997, Yoder was under the employment of two theological teaching institutions: what is now called Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) and the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.[9] His time at AMBS from the 1960s until the early 1980s overlapped with his work at Notre Dame, where he began teaching occasionally in 1967, increasing to two-thirds of his teaching responsibilities in 1977 and then to full time in 1984 until his death.

Mennonite institutions related to Yoder’s academic and ecclesial teaching responsibilities conducted all three of the accountability and discernment processes. The first process resulted in Yoder’s resignation from AMBS and his move to full-time teaching at Notre Dame in 1984. At the beginning of the second process in 1992, Yoder was disciplined by the Mennonites—conjointly by his local congregation and the regional conference of his denomination—which included the suspension of his ordination credentials and his denominational teaching and publication privileges. (During the suspension Yoder continued to teach at Notre Dame, where he held a full-time appointment in Christian ethics, as well as lecturing other places.) At the conclusion of this accountability process in 1996, Yoder was restored to his teaching vocation in the denomination and his church home. In one of his first public appearances following the conclusion of the accountability process, Yoder stated, “[T]here isn’t anyone I’ve hurt that I haven’t wanted to apologize to and I’m grateful for those who have forgiven me.”[10] For Heggen and others, the sincerity of that acknowledgment, however, remains questionable.[11] Thus, a third discernment process—the current one—was begun in 2013. “As the current president of AMBS,” Sara Wenger Shenk wrote in a blog post predating the formation of the current discernment process,

I’m committed to new transparency in the truth telling that must happen. We must strive to get the facts straight, to acknowledge healing work that has been done, and to shoulder the urgent healing work that must still be done. . . . The renewed outcry for truth telling about what really happened and what didn’t happen in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s has deepened my resolve and the resolve of the Mennonite Church USA leaders . . . to continue the healing journey. . . I am dumbfounded (appalled) at how long it took for anyone in authority to publicly denounce his harmful behavior. . . [I]t’s time to say frankly that we have fallen short. Even those of us now in leadership who weren’t remotely involved at the time must commit to the deep listening needed to get the facts straight. . . . Ironically, it is because of that Gospel [exposited by Yoder] that we can fearlessly call sin what it is. The far-reaching hurt of the evil that was perpetrated and allowed to fester too long must be more fully and publicly acknowledged. It is then that we can move into deeper healing and reconciliation.[12]

When a 1992 series of newspaper articles publicized Yoder’s alleged abuses, the chair of Yoder’s Notre Dame department, theology professor Lawrence Cunningham, offered the following, “I am not privy to the facts of the situation. I am distressed to hear about the action of the Mennonite Church. But [it] is my understanding that these events occurred before professor Yoder came to Notre Dame. It is not clear to me that his standing in the university is affected by the actions of his church. That is not to say that the university condones that kind of behavior.”[13]

As we have been at pains to note, it is difficult to pin down the extent of Yoder’s behaviors; but the relevant timeframe certainly covers his employment at both institutions. Although the majority of the known allegations relate to Yoder’s time and work with Mennonites, there are reported incidents outside of Yoder’s immediate ecclesial setting as well. Theologian Marva Dawn, a onetime doctoral student at Notre Dame, recently stated that Yoder “made a few of the intimate moves others have accused him of making” while he was a professor at Notre Dame.[14]

As he was officially leaving AMBS for Notre Dame in 1984, we know that Yoder demanded that AMBS maintain institutional silence about these matters, and all the evidence we’ve seen indicates that AMBS complied. It is no stretch to say that both AMBS and Notre Dame benefited from this arrangement. (Wenger Shenk’s statement quoted above can even be read as an acknowledgement and repentance of these benefits.) Problematically, these kinds of arrangements within and among institutions of higher education—often buffeted by legal and procedural considerations—continue to this day. Gerald Schlabach, professor of theology and the former chair of the Department of Justice and Peace Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, was a theology and ethics graduate student at Notre Dame during Yoder’s time; discussing how he hopes his alma mater might address Yoder’s Notre Dame tenure, Schlabach says, “[B]y way of comparison I know a few of the key players in the Catholic Church in Minnesota who have been trying to respond to the sex abuse crisis, and my sense is that they have been at their best when they have stretched the cautions of their lawyers as far as they possibly can or farther in order to put the victims first. I would hope ND could do the same.”[15] At this time, we know of no official actions addressing Yoder’s legacy on the part of the University of Notre Dame.

Throughout this approximately thirty-year span, from the first accountability process to the present, as Yoder’s theology has thrived, the wounds of many close to Yoder—the women involved, Yoder’s family, and many who tried to hold him accountable—remained and continue to remain without closure.


At this point, we shift to analyzing Yoder’s behavior from a theological point of view. To begin, we address some of the current challenges in approaching the issue. To conclude, we offer a preliminary way of thinking about Yoder’s behavior in relationship to his theology. To state it bluntly, when judged by standards internal to his own writing, what Yoder did makes a lie of what he said. Yet, rather than entirely dismissing what he said, we take certain aspects of his theology to be constructive and even hopeful in the wake of the devastation his actions have caused so many.

One familiar way of getting a handle on the error of Yoder’s ways is to cast things in the language of sexual harassment, sexual assault, abuse, and the like. We have noticed two strategies for deflecting these kinds of accusations. The first is to argue that the use of these terms proves anachronistic insofar as they were not in circulation at the time of Yoder’s actions; so to accuse Yoder with having, say, “sexually harassed” women is to employ a foreign notion in a senseless and therefore evaluatively unfair way. The second is to haul Yoder and his purported victims into the realm of law and examine whether Yoder’s actions meet legal thresholds for criminality on the score of, say, sexual assault. If Yoder’s actions do not fit those technical definitions, so this view goes, then he is not guilty of a crime, which is not to say that he is not guilty of other things.[16]

Generally, arguments of anachronism and legality are, it seems to us, right as far as they go. But that is not to say that they are particularly helpful for dealing with Yoder. In the first place, it should be noted that concepts of sexual harassment and abuse were not entirely unfamiliar in Yoder’s day.[17] But even if we grant that today’s notions of sexual harassment did not have the same traction in the 1970s, the issue before us is precisely that the language of sexual harassment does now lay claim on us, and so we are left dumbfounded as to what to do with Yoder’s theological legacy. The retort “Anachronism!” asks people to leave behind their moral commitments in the name of granting Yoder and his contemporaries theirs, and this strikes us as an unpromising approach to ethical reflection. Today we reject as morally pernicious the philosopher Martin Heidegger’s commendation of the Nazis even though we recognize that not many people in 1933 saw things the way we do now; we do so without equivocation because we cannot, and should not, help but insist on such moral rejections and endorsements.[18] We struggle with what to do with Yoder’s legacy for the same kinds of reasons, because in many ways his theology seems right to us, because it gives us purchase on how to live as Christians today. Just as well, we don’t know what to do with his behavior, which we deem by our lights to be repugnant. We render the latter judgment within the same purview that we render the former; if we abdicate the latter, we also give up the former—and because we deign to keep our rejection, we find ourselves ambivalent regarding any endorsement, which leaves us pretty much where we need to be: confronting ourselves.

The argument from legality can be dealt with by observing that no one, as far as we can tell, is charging Yoder with a crime. What people seem to be after in accusing a dead man of breaking the law is the sense that Yoder’s actions were obviously wrong and that the law, as a readily available source of moral evaluation, would affirm as much. The possibility that Yoder’s most egregious acts would not count as criminal, as some have argued, will be received as an indication of the law’s inadequacy to render moral judgment, and so the need to turn to other sources of normativity. After all, rape is both a legal word and an everyday one, and critics who reduce the everyday to the legal confuse human speech with what George Orwell called “groupthink.” Our sense is that banking on the language of sexual harassment, sexual assault, abuse, and the like to describe Yoder is at minimum a valid attempt to register his behavior as outrageous. And those outraged will likely feel themselves unacknowledged when “Anachronism!” or legal technicalities are thrown at them, as if those strategies miss something important, yet again.

In contrast, we think that the best way to begin to examine Yoder’s behavior is through the theological lenses Yoder himself gave us, and to thereby assess the continuity between what he said and what he did. This may strike some as inappropriately allowing Yoder to set terms so that he once again gets to determine the course of things. But we see it, conversely, as the opportunity to hold Yoder to his own standards and so, possibly, to show his life to be inadequate to his speech, which is more than saying he didn’t live up to his grand ideas but rather that his words end up theologically vague. His atrocious behavior leaves his readers wondering whether he meant what he said and whether or not to take his convictions seriously. Given that much of Yoder’s intellectual work was committed to careful speech, we consider testing Yoder’s words for seriousness especially apropos. In what remains, determining for ourselves what to do with his theology, we use his theology both for and against Yoder.

Those looking to salvage something of Yoder’s theology will find themselves confronted by the blatant inconsistencies between his sexual violence and his longstanding commitments to nonviolence. Christian nonviolence is what Yoder is best known for, as the twentieth-century Christian advocate for pacifism. If we accept that at least some of his behaviors violated women, then the specter of hypocrisy is raised. The disallowance in Yoder’s christological pacifism of the use of force, even to protect society’s most vulnerable, is grossly at odds with Yoder’s use of force against vulnerable people, namely women who came under his influence.

One could counter that in Yoder’s mind the violence intended in his rejection of war is of a different kind than the violence of, for instance, sexual violation, and so while such sexual violation raises other problems, it is no inconsistency to preach nonviolence while violating women.

But Yoder’s theology wouldn’t allow that sort of distinction. Shortly after the publication of The Politics of Jesus—in which Yoder, under the banner “God will fight for us,” configured Christian discipleship as nonviolence and equated the kingdom come with the church’s peaceableness[19]—he clarified what he meant by violence. In an unpublished 1973 essay, Yoder explains what he intended with the word by turning to the ordinary occasions of its use: “‘Violence’ is thus meaningless apart from the concept of that which is being violated. That which is violated is the dignity or integrity of some being.” He thus concludes, “As soon as either verbal abuse or bodily coercion moves beyond that border line of loving enhancement of the dignity of persons, we are being violent. The extremes of the two dimensions are of course killing and the radical kind of insult which Jesus in Matthew 5 indicates is just as bad. I believe it is a Christian imperative always to respect the dignity of every person: I must never willingly or knowingly violate that dignity.”[20]

This description of violence not only fits Yoder’s intrusive behaviors; it sounds ready-made for that purpose. In fact, when turning to the etymology of the word, Yoder writes, “In the Latin language the verb ‘to violate’ is the same as the verb ‘to rape’: it refers to the purity or integrity or self-determination of a woman.”[21] If one uses as a litmus test Yoder’s own theology—which, remember, configures Christian discipleship as nonviolence and links the kingdom of God with the church’s peaceableness—it is unclear how he, given his behaviors (even if occasional), could consider himself faithful as a disciple of Christ or as a witness of the church.

Yoder’s handling of the various accountability processes creates another consistency problem. According to almost every account, Yoder’s obstinacy proved a major obstacle to the work of the accountability groups. Two particular instances can be highlighted. Marlin Miller served as president of AMBS during and after Yoder’s time there, and it fell on Miller to deal with the problems Yoder created for AMBS students and staff. Women affected by Yoder’s behavior apparently felt safe reporting to Miller, so he did not lack for evidence, and various sources tell of Miller’s substantial collection of files documenting Yoder’s problematic behaviors. The women’s willingness to report Yoder’s behavior and Miller’s willingness to compile those reports would seem to make for a strong case against Yoder on the part of AMBS. Not so. One thing stood in the way: John Howard Yoder. No matter how often and how determinedly Miller dealt with him, Yoder would not relent. And this went on for years. People with knowledge of the situation almost universally recount two things: Miller’s valiant efforts and Yoder’s bullying defiance.[22]

When the ecclesial accountability groups tried to discipline Yoder in the early 1990s, they saw themselves operating along the lines Yoder himself championed as “binding and loosing,” as described in Matthew 18:15–20:

That promised guide, the Holy Spirit, will operate in the community to make present, for hitherto unforeseen times and places and questions, the meaning of the call of Jesus. It uses a fully human communication process, called by rabbis “binding and loosing.” It has about it elements of what today would be called conflict resolution. It gathers up the resources of human wisdom, the perspectives of several kinds of involvement in different ways of perceiving a question, and loving processes of negotiation, all of this guided and enabled by God’s own presence.[23]

Yoder’s teaching on communal binding and loosing—which shows up regularly in his works from the 1960s through the 90s—is not unrelated to his work on pacifism, which envisions the work of churchly binding and loosing as integral to the very form and rationale of christological pacifism. But when he came under the scope of Matthew 18 himself, Yoder made the argument that this process required his accusers to come face to face with him, a gloss on how to read Matthew 18 that he explicitly rejected in some of his writings.[24] According to this appropriation of Matthew 18, it was not enough that the women share their story with the accountability group; they had to face Yoder himself, a fearful proposition considering the profound power differential between Yoder and many of his victims.

Dealing with the practicalities of binding and loosing, Yoder had previously written,

If the standards appealed to by those who would reprove someone are inappropriate, the best way to discover this is through the procedure of person-to-person conversation with reconciling intent. Thus the group’s standards can be challenged, tested and confirmed, or changed as is found necessary, in the course of their being applied. The result of the process, whether it ends with the standards being changed or reconfirmed, is to record a new decision as part of the common background of the community, thus accumulating further moral insights by which to be guided in the future.[25]

Face-to-face encounter is allowed and even required, but not between accuser and accused, as in a court of law, but between any member(s) of the reconciling body and the one(s) being reconciled.[26] One can certainly imagine instances where a reconciliatory process requires that accuser and accused be in the same room, but one can equally imagine the accountability group judging such a confrontation unhelpful to the disciplinary process; deciding between those two possible forms of discernment is as important, according to Yoder’s writings, as the content of whatever is discerned, and the onus of its adjudication falls on the working group and the relevant parties — not on the accused victimizer and his alleged victims.

It is only by stretching some parts and ignoring others that Yoder can make his theology of binding and loosing require of victims their most dreaded scenario. And in no way does Yoder in those writings allow for one person to determine the course of the group’s work. Even if Yoder thought, which indeed he did, that the accountability group did not pass muster, that they were doing the bidding of what he once called “the Mennonite women’s posse,”[27] it would not be up to him exclusively to render that judgment, a notion that lies at the heart of the discernment process.

Through his forceful reinterpretation of this paradigmatic Anabaptist passage, Yoder created a defensive scheme that was embarrassingly transparent yet, unfortunately, effective. People did not then, as we do not now, miss the irony that the very person for whom Matthew 18 was being utilized was the same person determining its application—a rather odd arrangement if one recognizes the somewhat obvious point that the intent of Matthew 18 does not allow its interpretation to proceed as a one-person affair. The inconsistency between how Yoder was reading the passage now that he was under its directive and how he had famously read it in many of his writings forces us to rethink those writings, or at least to recognize that Yoder viewed himself as in some sense above the very fraternal admonition he demanded of others.

Given the lengths and demands of his theology and the degree of his violations, there are others hallmarks of his theology that put the lie to Yoder’s behaviors (for example, much can be said about how his secrecy and deception betray his writing on public witness and transparency), but we take these two as sufficient to demonstrate how Yoder’s theology and his behavior proved inconsistent. For most people, however, no such demonstration is needed, for the nature of that inconsistency is just straightforwardly obvious. For them, the question is, what do we do with the theology of a violent and deceptive theologian?

We can make quick work of two options that are most readily suggested. Some would say that the degree and extent of Yoder’s violations are such that we should not read his theology.[28] We certainly understand the sentiment—that some sins are so bad that they disqualify their perpetrators from playing the kind of role Yoder had in the tradition of Christian thought. While understandable, we find this option both too easy and too difficult. Positioning ourselves as the judges of who does and who does not personally deserve the church’s attention in the history of theology assumes too much about our own moral status and threatens too much that is worth preserving. It is undoubtedly difficult to know how to receive insight from the sinful, but ever since the church settled the Donatist controversy in the early fifth century, the church has committed itself to believing God’s gifts can be mediated by sinners.

It would make things easier if reading theology meant cherry-picking between heroes and villains; it is far more difficult and worthwhile we think to sit with the histories that produced those texts and to confront a God who makes use of them. Cherry-picking in this manner is at the same time too difficult in that it would be unmanageable to maintain standards and procedures for determining which sinner’s sins disqualify them and which do not.

Another option is reading Yoder’s violations as an indication that his theology is unworkable.[29] This might hold water if we took all that Yoder said to be his innovation, such that insofar as he fails, the theology fails. However, Yoder’s theology is not entirely idiosyncratic, and most people who find Yoder’s theology helpful do so because they see it as articulating what God in Christ asks of them in Scripture as clarified by the broad theological tradition, which for them includes but is not limited to Yoder. Even if these people got rid of all their Yoder books, they would still find themselves staring down those ideas to which Yoder bore witness.

For us, this raises another difficulty: what do we do with the places where Yoder’s actions were consistent with his theology? We must be willing to consider the possibility that in pursuing these relationships with other Christian women, Yoder just might have been applying his radical theology, though in ways the rest of us had, to his mind, not the courage to imagine. After all, Yoder described the “original revolution” as “the creation of a distinct community with its own deviant set of values and its coherent way of incarnating them”; he described this “alternative community” as the kingdom’s “first fruits”; and he wrote, “The church is called to be now what the world is called to be ultimately” and that “the confessing people of God is the new world on its way.”[30] Although such a vision of the church has been enthusiastically adopted by many of Yoder’s readers when it comes to low-hanging fruit, like popular versions of Yoderian conceptions of justice, peace, and democracy, this vision can be, and indeed was by Yoder, extended to include what he called “pilot programs” regarding physically intimate relationships between Christian men and women.

Since the early 1970s, Yoder had been circulating for public consideration reformulations of family, sexuality, intimacy, and the like that had to, in his mind, be part of what the Holy Spirit enabled as “church.” In these writings (sometimes sent to the women involved), often under headings such as “Criticism is solicited” or “This paper is circulated with the request for critical responses from all concerned,” Yoder can be seen as submitting his ideas to the “binding and loosing” he understood as the very form of the politics of Jesus.[31] Yoder in his theology saw himself testifying to a revolution that challenged everything from economic injustice to the idols of romantic love that denigrated singleness as a proper Christian vocation. Realization of the vocation of singleness, just like realization of economic justice, requires of the church practical considerations, especially if Christian communities are to serve whole persons, a wholeness that involves sexual needs the church can’t be so squeamish as to ignore.[32]

Hence, in pursuing what he called “non-genital affective relationships,” Yoder may very well have seen himself “incarnating” the “deviant set of values” of this “distinct community.” If so, Yoder’s self-deception allowed him to believe that his actions had been misunderstood as “abusive” when in fact they were serving.[33]

What we find haunting at the end of the day is not merely Yoder’s bizarre propositions regarding “non-genital” affection but also the regular occurrence of bizarre propositions of every kind persistently showing up at church, which makes procedures like binding and loosing, or whatever denominational label one gives them, basic to church life. While we may find Yoder’s actions demonic and his theological defenses of those actions laughable, we must acknowledge that descriptions like “demonic” and “laughable” are the very kinds of judgments that have to be discerned communally. The case of Yoder, a case in which the very criteria necessary for moral judgment themselves came under question, lays bare both the fragile conditions of the Christian moral life and the inescapable need to communally maintain criteria that enable the hard work of discernment that these cases demand.

This is how life in the Spirit is given to us, under these kinds of trying conditions. It seems to us that if we want to remain available to God, we must be open to confronting monstrosities like Yoder’s behaviors that might come our way. And that is the most haunting lesson of Yoder’s legacy, that we cannot receive the goodness of, for example, singleness as a given vocation without also contending with the sometimes bizarre claims that come our way about what that goodness may entail—even if we find such claims laughable or demonic. The openness we have to the original revolution both intimated in Yoder’s theology and obscured by his violence is the openness we have to any revolution that comes from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. To us, refusing these conditions is tantamount to refusing the conditions of our redemption.


If we are not going to abandon Yoder’s theology after all that has happened, and if we want to make use of it in light of those happenings, how can we do so? In closing, we make the modest suggestion that one still might be able to use aspects of Yoder’s theology to describe Yoder’s life both positively and negatively. And the source material for doing so is his most famous work, The Politics of Jesus, where Yoder talks about “the powers” as (1) created for good, (2) fallen and corrupted, and (3) redemptively still used by God in God’s providential restoration of creation. By powers, Yoder means those structures God set in place to order creaturely life. When in working condition, creation is ordered by these powers toward its own flourishing.

In Yoder’s life, such powers might be seen as the structures through which he practiced his teaching vocation, relational structures that meant a large family where he and his wife brought up five children and a professionalized theological world through which Yoder could disseminate his work. The Politics of Jesus states, “These structures were created by God. It is the divine purpose that within human existence there should be a network of norms and regularities to stretch out the canvas upon which the tableau of life can be painted.” But then, he continues, “The powers have rebelled and are fallen. They did not accept the modesty that would have permitted them to remain conformed to the creative purpose, but rather they claimed for themselves an absolute value.”[34] We might read Yoder’s failings as a particularly tragic manifestation of this rebellion, where he twisted his teaching vocation into an infrastructure for predatory behaviors; where he distorted mentorship and influence for untoward purposes; where he used analytic stubbornness to isolate himself from community and, as 1 John 1:6 portrays, walked in darkness; and where he perverted academic achievement in order to manipulate, distort, and bully.

Although it might be overstated to personalize what Yoder imagined as primarily suprapersonal realities, it is hard not to hear Yoder unwittingly describing himself when he portrays the powers: “[T]he structures fail to serve us as they should. They do not enable humanity to live a genuinely free, loving life. They have absolutized themselves and they demand from the individual and society an unconditional loyalty. They harm and enslave us. We cannot live with them.”[35] In these ways, the brilliance of Yoder’s theology became a foothold for the devil, and the structures put in place for Yoder’s theological success gave way to habituation to the fallen powers. Indeed, we find Yoder’s inability to imagine the powers as personalized, as the logic of his theology warrants, indicative of the measure of self-deception that came to possess him.[36]

Yoder stole away that which is meant to be shared; left to his own devices, the gifts of his theology would die with his reputation. And yet, as he says, “Despite their fallen condition, the Powers cannot fully escape the providential sovereignty of God, who is still able to use them for good.”[37] Against his best efforts, Yoder cannot escape God. The Politics of Jesus is one of the great texts of Christian discipleship, and it will remain that way, not because Yoder’s life warrants that place in history but, just the opposite, because God providentially uses the fallen for good. Some will take this as bad news. We see it as good news. We do so because we see in Yoder’s theological legacy, as we have just laid out, the Lamb of God made victorious.

We conclude with a story on how God’s triumph has—in the words of the Colossians 2:15 (NRSV)—“made a public example” of Yoder. According to Yoder, Christ’s restoration of the powers comes to full force in the establishment of the church as the structure that instantiates God’s restoration of the world. Against the old powers of sin, the church becomes a politics of witness, a politics of resistance. Using the work of Hendrik Berkhof throughout his discussion of the powers, Yoder quotes: “The very existence of the church, in which Gentiles and Jews, who heretofore walked according to the [elements] of the world, live together in Christ’s fellowship, is itself a proclamation, a sign, a token, to the Powers that their unbroken dominion has come to an end.”[38]

Stymied by hushed and impotent institutions, Yoder’s victims banded together and became the church Yoder could, apparently, only write about. When Heggen’s efforts to gather victims were blocked by the school’s prescribed silence—“I can’t do that. I promised confidentiality. I can’t do that,” she was told by the AMBS president—she mobilized against arrangements created to protect Yoder. A supportive editor at the Mennonite publication the Gospel Herald created enough pressure on the president for him to relent and to agree to send Heggen’s invitation to other victims. Her letter began, “Dear Sisters.” We see what happened next as happening against the wishes of Yoder but with the grain of his theological universe, and so we conclude with Heggen’s account of it:

We came from all over the United States and spent two days together in Elkhart, Indiana, where we shared our stories, consoled and supported each other, wrote a composite story of our personal experiences of violation from John, and outlined eight steps we wanted the church to take. . . . We took turns reading paragraphs of the story of our violation by John. Many of us experienced similar things with John, and the story felt like each of ours.

When we had finished reading this, I went around the circle and addressed each of the Mennonite officials present—“Do you believe us?” If there was any doubt about our veracity, I wanted them to express it then and there. They responded in seriousness and respect, some with tears. I believe they were shocked at the extent of John’s abuse and the pain it had caused us.

Their only questions were to clarify what we were asking them to now do. They said they needed time to process this together and asked if they could serve us dinner later that evening. Together they had made homemade soup and bread and prepared a beautiful fruit plate. They served us and it felt like a holy time of communion together.[39]


[1] An abbreviated version of this article has been published in the Christian Century. Respective permissions by The Other Journal and the Christian Century allow publication of both versions. For the version published in the Christian Century, please visit

[2] Tom Price’s five-part Elkhart Truth report from June 29 to July 6, 1992 (see’s-sexual-misconduct—part-five-2/), continues to be the starting point for anyone interested in the history of the events up to 1992. Specifically at this point we draw on Price, “Yoder’s Actions Framed in Writings,” The Elkhart Truth, July 15, 1992,’s-sexual-misconduct—part-four/. For an extensive analysis, see Ruth Elizabeth Krall, The Elephant in God’s Living Room, Volume Three: The Mennonite Church and John Howard Yoder; Collected Essays (N.p.: Enduring Space, 2013),’s-Living-Room-Vol-3-©.pdf. As we discuss below, a discernment group has been formed by the Mennonite Church USA to understand the history of this case; for their initial reports on their findings, see Discernment Group on Sexual Abuse, Mennonite Church USA, “Frequently Asked Questions,” and “An Update from the Discernment Group on Sexual Abuse,” June 19, 2014, Rachel Waltner Goossen has been commissioned by this group to provide a comprehensive historical report in the January 2015 issue of the Mennonite Quarterly Review. Along with others cited throughout this piece, the authors have taken into account analyses from the following: Andy Alexis-Baker, Ross Lynn Bender, Malinda Berry, Phyllis Bixler, Lamar Freed, Justin Heinzekehr, Tim Huber, Walter Klaassen, Gayle Gerber Koontz, Gerald Mast, Tim Nafziger, Joanna Shenk, Ervin Stutzman, and Everett J. Thomas. Mark Oppenheimer’s New York Times story, “A Theologian’s Influence and Stained Past, Live On,” March 11, 2013,, helped bring national attention (while including some factual errors). Members of Yoder’s family, as well as past and current members of Notre Dame’s Department of Theology and Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies where Yoder was employed, declined interview requests by the authors.

[3] Price, “Theologian Accused: Women Report Instances of Inappropriate Conduct,” The Elkhart Truth, July 13, 1992,’s-sexual-misconduct—part-two/. Heggen was identified as “Tina” in Price’s article.

[4] Heggen, interview with the authors, March 6, 2014. See Heggen, Sexual Abuse in Homes and Churches (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006).

[5] It should be noted that in 1988 Yoder delivered his famous Society of Christian Ethics presidential address, “To Serve Our God and to Rule the World,” which, incidentally, he discusses in these letters. This presidential address is collected in Yoder, The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical, ed. Michael C. Cartwright (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994), 127–40.

[6] The authors came into possession of this extensive correspondence through Mark Thiessen Nation and Stanley Hauerwas. At present, this is the only sampling of correspondence from these relationships that we have been able to locate.

[7] See, for example, Mark Thiessen Nation, with Marva Dawn, “On Contextualizing Two Failures of John Howard Yoder,” Anabaptist Nation Blog, September 23, 2013, While affirming descriptions of some of Yoder’s behaviors as “harassing, abusive and terrorizing,” Nation attempts “to contextualize Yoder’s sexual misconduct in a brief narrative of his life,” in which Nation describes Yoder as “awkward—not really very good at normal, interpersonal relationships.” Some have even suggested that Yoder displayed characteristics that might today be diagnosed as Asperger syndrome or a mild form of autism. See, for example, Ted Grimsrud, “Word and Deed: The Strange Case of John Howard Yoder,” Thinking Pacifism Blog, December 30, 2010,, and Glen Stassen, “Glen Stassen’s Reflections on the Yoder Scandal,” Thinking Pacifism Blog, September 24, 2013, On the other hand, Stephanie Krehbiel has suggested that the Asperger hypothesis is speculative and irrelevant; Ruth Krall provides much counterevidence to this hypothesis and offers an alternate explanation for some of Yoder’s antisocial behavior; and Anabaptist Disabilities Network director Timothy Burkholder has found, as do we, that this hypothesis is troubling in its implications regarding how to think of persons on the Autism spectrum. See Krehbiel, “The Woody Allen Problem: How Do We Read Pacifist Theologian (and Sexual Abuser) John Howard Yoder?,” Religion Dispatches, February 11, 2014, Link; Krall, The Elephant in God’s Living Room, 155–59; and Burkholder, “About John Howard Yoder,” The Mennonite, January 1, 2014,

[8] Although the authors understand the impulse to distinguish between Yoder’s more obviously unilateral advances and his relationships that were more ambiguous, we have intentionally avoided the language of “consent” and “consensual” even in the more ambiguous cases. This decision reflects our awareness that, for someone of Yoder’s prominence, stature, influence, positions of authority, and intellectual brilliance, the power dynamics in play often preclude the possibility of genuinely consensual relationships. This is not to say that we are entirely satisfied with the various other terms we chose to describe or qualify Yoder’s actions. We have found throughout the course of our writing that all language in these contexts is potentially fraught, and so, although we have employed as much care and caution as possible, we ask readers’ patience. We do feel free to use violate and its cognates because Yoder’s delineation, related later in the piece, authorizes that use. On problems with the language of “consent” in contexts such as Yoder’s, see Marie M. Fortune, “Is Nothing Sacred? The Betrayal of the Ministerial or Teaching Relationship,” in Violence against Women and Children: A Christian Theological Sourcebook, ed. Carol J. Adams and Marie M. Fortune (New York, NY: Continuum, 1995), 351–60. Interestingly, Fortune mentions Yoder’s disciplinary process specifically as “a witness to the fact that the church, synagogue, and academy are beginning to deal with this problem of professional misconduct,” although she notes that “even in these efforts to address complaints, the results are mixed” (357).

[9] On the complex history of AMBS and its predecessors, see Harold S. Bender and Richard D. Thiessen,“Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (Elkhart, Indiana, USA),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online,,_Indiana,_USA)&oldid=94055.

For the sake of simplicity we refer to these institutions collectively as AMBS, although this designation is admittedly anachronistic.

[10] Quoted in Christa Eshleman, “Seminary Features Yoder: Theologian’s Return Raises Questions,” Weather Vane 42, no. 10 (January 23, 1997), 6.

[11] In The Elephant in God’s Living Room, Krall offers evidence that Yoder wanted to make an apology to those hurt and may have done so to a select few but never did so publicly (233–34, 360–61). In a blog post that—along with Krall’s book—served as an important impetus for the present discernment process, Barbra Graber writes, “The promise of a public statement of apology to the victims whose lives he upended, and the wider ecumenical community whose trust he betrayed, somehow never materialized. And no one seems to know why.” See Graber, “What’s to Be Done about John Howard Yoder?,” Our Stories Untold Blog, July 17, 2013, The authors interviewed both Krall and Graber for this piece.

[12] Wenger Shenk, “Revisiting the Legacy of John Howard Yoder,” Practicing Reconciliation Blog, July 25, 2013, Carolyn Holderread Heggen, who was interviewed several times by the authors for this piece, is serving as an advisor to this discernment group.

[13] Tom Price, “John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Misconduct—Introductory Article,” The Elkhart Truth, June 29, 1992,’s-sexual-misconduct—introductory-article/.

[14] Nation with Dawn, “On Contextualizing Two Failures of John Howard Yoder.”

[15] Gerald Schlabach, interview with authors, April 23, 2014.

[16] While not the only one to make either of these suggestions, J. Glenn Friesen makes both of them in his essay, “The Church Discipline of John Howard Yoder: Legal and Religious Considerations,” Anabaptist Nation Blog, May 1, 2014, Specifically, Friesen states “that Yoder’s conduct was not criminal. Nor was it sexual assault. And it is anachronistic to call it sexual harassment.” See also comments posted to Friesen’s essay by Lisa Schirch, a research professor at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University.

[17] Yoder himself referenced a 1984 use of similar language in a phone conversation with James C. Juhnke on February 15, 1992, regarding protests over Bethel College’s decision to invite Yoder to give a public lecture at a conference on violence. In the written transcript, which Juhnke (a Bethel historian at the time and a planner of the conference) describes as “not an exact transcription,” Yoder is recorded as saying, “There were also charges of ‘abuse’ back in the spring of 1984 when this came to a head and an agreement was reached with the seminary. At that time the seminary formally agreed not to raise this issue or oppose my speaking at other institutions. If they are involved in this, they are violating an agreement.” This transcript, along with other materials relating to the conference, was provided to the authors by Stephanie Krehbiel who received them from Juhnke. See also, Juhnke, “News Analysis: The decision to disinvite John Howard Yoder to speak,” The Mennonite, June 1, 2014,

[18] Regarding Heidegger’s Nazi involvement, see Víctor Farías, Joseph Margolis, and Tom Rockmore, Heidegger and Nazism (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1989).

[19] Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Victor Agnus Noster, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994 [1972]).

[20] Yoder, “Fuller Definition of ‘Violence,’” collected in the London Mennonite Centre, Highgate, London, March 28, 1973, p. 3, emphasis added..

[21] Ibid. (emphasis added).

[22] Carolyn Holderread Heggen, interview with the authors, March 12, 2014; Richard A. Kauffman, interview with the authors, May 23, 2014; e-mail from Walter Sawatsky to Ross Bender, October 18, 2004; and e-mail from Loren Johns to Ross Bender, October 18, 2004 (e-mails available online at Marlin Miller died of a heart attack in 1994 and so was unable to witness any resolution to the disciplinary processes.

[23] Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World (Nashville, TN: Discipleship Resources, 1992), 8–9.

[24] In The Royal Priesthood, for example, Yoder writes,“The command of Matthew 18 assigns the initiative to anyone aware of the offense. The words ‘against thee,’ present in most older translations, are missing in the most reliable ancient manuscripts; no such limitation is present in Luke 17:3, Galatians 6:1–2, James 5:19–20” (334). In his short book, Body Politics, Yoder reiterates, “The one who is to address the offender is the person who knows about the offense” (2–3). It should be noted that Yoder seems to have held the opposite view on this point early and late in his career. So, for example, in his 1967 essay, “The Hermeneutics of the Anabaptists,” in Yoder, To Hear the Word, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2010), 217–237, Yoder writes of binding and loosing that it is “a process in which the first responsibility is borne by the individual offended (Matt. 18:15) or offending (5:23f.)” (233). In his 1995 essay, “You Have It Coming: Good Punishment,” in The End of Sacrifice: The Capital Punishment Writings of John Howard Yoder, ed. John C. Nugent (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2011), 153–238, Yoder states, “The accused should be able to confront the accuser” (204).

[25] Yoder, The Royal Priesthood, 328. This essay, “Binding and Loosing,” originated in 1967 and was reprinted in subsequent volumes like The Royal Priesthood.

[26] Ibid., 334. Yoder writes, “Those who interpret the instructions to apply only to the person sinned against would shift the attention from the offender’s need for reconciliation to the resentment of the person hurt in order to give vent to his or her feelings. If this shift is taken seriously, it could mean that for certain sins where there is no one specific person offended, or the offended person is absent, there would be nothing for anyone to do.”

[27] Letter from Yoder to Stanley Hauerwas, June 30, 1993, Box 212, John Howard Yoder Papers, HM 1–48, Mennonite Church USA Archives – Goshen, Goshen, Indiana.

Over the course of these letters, Yoder and Hauerwas discuss Yoder’s misgivings about the accountability process, including worries that the Christian Century had instituted something of a “blockage” in regards to publishing an essay on Yoder’s work. In a response on July 20, 1993, Hauerwas writes, “What I did do was immediately call the Christian Century and again I was assured that they simply have a backlog of materials, but that they would be publishing that before too long. I certainly hope so as I think it’s a pretty good piece.” Although the title of the article is not specified in this correspondence, it is likely that they are discussing an invited essay published later that year: Hauerwas, “When the Politics of Jesus Makes a Difference,” Christian Century 110, no. 28 (October 13, 1993), 982–985, 987. We interviewed the Century’s David Heim and Richard A. Kauffman, both of whom reported that neither they nor anyone they asked recalled any kind of blocking efforts. Hauerwas’s relationship with Yoder before and after Yoder’s behaviors became public is complicated, as demonstrated here. Along with theologian David Burrell, he played an important part in bringing Yoder full time to Notre Dame, though there is no evidence that either he or Burrell knew anything about Yoder’s problematic behaviors at that time. Yoder and Hauerwas had planned to publish a book on marriage together, passing back and forth drafts in the mid-1980s, which never came to fruition (parts of this uncompleted project are collected in the MCUSA archives referenced above). Hauerwas (along with Glen Stassen and Jim McClendon) is also mentioned by several sources as playing an instrumental role in getting Yoder to submit to the discipline process, though some question whether that role resulted in undue pressure on the discernment process. See Price, “Teachings Tested: Forgiveness, Reconciliation in Discipline,” The Elkhart Truth, July 16, 1992,’s-sexual-misconduct—part-five/; Stassen, “Glen Stassen’s Reflections on the Yoder Scandal”; Krall, The Elephant in God’s Living Room, 102, 133, and 355–56; and Heggen, interview with the authors, March 6, 2014. Hauerwas discusses Yoder’s actions and the disciplinary process that followed in Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 242–47. We interviewed Hauerwas on several occasions for this piece.

[28] Krehbiel addresses this sort of concern in her essay, “The Woody Allen Problem.” She writes, “Whenever these cases surface, they’re accompanied by a discussion about whether or not we can or should appreciate the work of artists and writers who are accused of doing terrible things. It’s a question without any satisfying categorical answer, which I suppose is why it generates so much copy. The nuances are endless: does it matter if the artist in question is alive or not? If he or she is dead, does it matter how long? Is there a difference between music that has words and music that doesn’t? Between loving a movie made by an alleged sex offender and loving a work of theology written by one? How on earth do we weigh all of this?” For analyses of these kinds of questions, see Alastair Minnis, Fallible Authors: Chaucer’s Pardoner and Wife of Bath (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); and Paul Johnson, Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2006).

[29] For example, see Stephen Webb, “John Howard Yoder and the Violent Power of Pacifism,”First Things, March 15, 2013,

[30] Yoder, The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2003 [1971]), 28; Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 92; and Yoder, The Royal Priesthood, 373.

[31] Yoder, “Singleness in Ethical and Pastoral Perspective,” in Being Single: Resources on Singleness,ed. David Selzer (New York, NY: Episcopal Church Center, 1986), 72–95; Yoder, “Respect for the Single Person,” (Yoder dates this memo “Soon after Valentine’s Day, 1973”), unpublished; and Yoder, “Affective Resources for Singles,” (July 1997), unpublished. Thanks to Mark Thiessen Nation for helping us gather these documents.

[32] Along these lines, Heggen reported in 1992, “One of the lines he’s used on a number of women I’ve met is ‘We are on the cutting edge. We are developing some new models for the church. We are part of this grand, noble experiment. The Christian church will be indebted to us for years to come.’ He maintains that it’s even appropriate for two people, who may be married to other people, to be in bed nude together, as long as they don’t have intercourse” (Price, “Yoder’s Actions Framed in Writings”).

[33] For further reflections on this admittedly disturbing line of reasoning, see our essay in the January 2015 issue of the Mennonite Quarterly Review, which is devoted to Yoder’s life and work.

[34] Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 142.

[35] Ibid., 143; emphasis in original.

[36] On personal as suprapersonal powers, see J. Alexander Sider, “Friendship, Alienation, Love: Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 3 (July 2010): 417–440; and Peter Dula, “Psychology, Ecclesiology and Yoder’s Violence,” Mennonite Life 68 (2014),

[37] Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 142.

[38] Ibid., 147–148. Yoder quotes from Hendrik Berkhof, Christ and the Powers, trans. John Howard Yoder (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1962), 41–42.

[39] Heggen, interview with the authors, March 6, 2014.