We, the members of the Mennonite Church USA Discernment Group convened to continue the work of healing and reconciliation in the wake of theologian John Howard Yoder’s abuse of women, are frequently asked questions about our work. In 10 questions below, we’ve captured the gist of the questions we frequently hear asked and offer responses with insight into the biblical, theological and pastoral grounding for our work. Each of the answers we provide could be expanded significantly, and no doubt there are many ways in which some readers will find them lacking. We offer them in the hope that some readers will also find them helpful—and will join us in this prayerful, discerning work so healing and hope will flow through us all to the world.
God saw everything that was made, and indeed it was very good.
…and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
The biblical narrative sets forth a vision of wholeness – Shalom – beginning with the creation narratives in Genesis, where all of creation is declared good, and culminating in the Revelation vision of recreated order with the River of Life flowing from the throne of God. When the shalom vision is disrupted, the people of God are called to be re-creators with God in acknowledging and tending to brokenness, and to do what we can to foster justice and healing.
Fear not, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine.
God cares for those who suffer, and makes a persistent call to justice for the marginalized. The prophets called upon the people of God to care for those who were particularly vulnerable – the widows, the orphan, and the stranger – those who may not have anyone to stand up for them, to stand with them. We recognize that sexualized violence and abuse can be systemically supported by the persistent marginalization of those who have been abused – they are told to keep silent, to not make waves, that they are making a big deal over nothing, are spiritually deficient for not quickly forgiving, or that they are the ones to blame. If healing is to happen the people of God must validate these stories of hurt and betrayal.
We know too that the direct and primary victims of sexual abuse are not the only ones wounded by it. Friends and families of both victims and perpetrators of abuse, those called upon to bind up the wounds, and the church itself are all victims in various ways. Abuse wounds the Body of Christ.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
The psalms give us language to bear witness, to grieve, and to vent sadness and even anger. We believe a healthy community of faith is one where the full range of human emotion is allowed to be expressed. To speak aloud of woundedness and to seek restoration are valid way stations on the path of personal and communal healing.
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.
II Corinthians 5:17-18
We cannot and will not demand forgiveness from those who have been wounded. Forgiveness can only be freely given. Yet we know that naming sin, bringing it into the light, standing with victims, crying out in pain and against the sin that caused it, do not exhaust the resources Christian faith offers for healing. Being unable to let go of the bitterness that often infects us when we have been wronged hurts us. Failing to repent when we have done wrong hurts us. So we will hope and pray, for the sake of all those who have been wounded and for the sake of those who have done the wounding, that the healing which repentance and forgiveness can bring will come. And we acknowledge that forgiveness becomes more likely when wrongs have been named and confessed—whether by the perpetrators themselves or by those who should have intervened to prevent abuse and failed to do so effectively.
By learning from the past, we also equip ourselves, as a community of faith, for the future. We seek to be better equipped at instituting practices and policies that support church leaders while calling them to the highest standard of personal integrity, and holding them accountable for their actions.
Mennonite Church USA heard the voices of those who were begging the church to speak to lingering and current concerns in a more forthright and transparent manner and decided to do the only thing it knew to do: to listen carefully, to acknowledge thoroughly, and to respond compassionately. In short, to do what it could to facilitate healing for all victims.
The Discernment Group’s work is in response to the very public ways in which current concerns are being voiced. To not respond publicly to the current global buzz would be to suggest that we have chosen to ignore the realities in which we find ourselves.
But this isn’t just about responding to social media “chatter” and social pressure. The Discernment Group is committed to encourage a new climate of sensitivity to sexual abuse victims. It is concerned to right past wrongs of the church and to learn from those experiences to better prevent abuse in the future.
This is an effort to restore confidence in the integrity of the church by living our denominational values of nonviolence, justice and community shalom more faithfully.
The current engagement with this issue is not meant to discredit the hard work that was previously done, but instead to continue that effort by doing now what is required to address what was left unfinished, and to learn from earlier failures in order to be better prepared to respond effectively in the future.
No moral distinction should be made between the offenses committed by Yoder and those committed by others, and each offense should be dealt with in the context affected by it. In Yoder’s case, the reach of his ministry and influence is global and must be dealt with broadly. In other cases, the reach might be limited to a particular extended family or congregation and dealing with it may be handled appropriately at a local level.
There is a profound need to establish new understanding and attitudes toward sexual misconduct, and to put in place new protocols about how to deal with such misconduct when it becomes known. It is anticipated that these new protocols will be denomination-wide and will be considered required rather than voluntary. Our prayer is that whatever abuse or misconduct remains unacknowledged, whether in the denomination, local congregations or families, will be named and dealt with so that those who have been wounded by it, who long for the restoration of wholeness that was taken from them, will find healing.
Many persons have wondered why there is still so much concern and even anger on the part of some regarding Yoder’s abuse of women. Why has it been so hard for some persons to forgive and find healing? While there are multiple reasons, it is important to recognize that necessary components for healing and forgiveness were not sufficiently addressed in the past. Much time and attention was given to Yoder while relatively little was given to the needs of the women who were violated.
In truth, restorative justice practices should focus first and foremost on those who were harmed and what they need for healing and restoration.
For survivors of sexual abuse, there are generally a number of crucial elements needed, including:
- Truth-telling or the chance to tell their story.
- Acknowledgement and assurance that what was done to them was wrong.
- Compassion for their experience and what they suffered.
- Protection of other vulnerable people so that no one else is harmed by the offender.Accountability for the offender.
- Restitution to the survivor when this is possible.
- Validation of the survivor, so they can be freed from the abuse and restored to the community.
Forgiveness is also part of the picture, but it is important that this not be forced and urged too quickly before the harm is fully acknowledged and the offender has the opportunity to understand how he/she has hurt others, repent, and learn what safeguards are necessary so he/she will not abuse again. Ultimately, forgiveness is a process survivors experience by the grace of God, so that the abuse no longer dominates their life. It is a process of letting go and moving on in healthy ways.
For the offender, repentance includes not only remorse and confession, but also taking full responsibility for the behavior, naming the injustice, making restitution where possible and committing to long-term changes in beliefs and behavior. Often this requires professional counseling, accountability and monitoring. As Ezekiel 18:30-32 makes clear, repentance involves getting a “new heart and a new spirit.”
For those who offend sexually, it is important to acknowledge that there is a continuum that will determine the type of treatment needed and how long it may take for rehabilitation. Some are “wanderers” who stray across boundaries, while others are “predators” who deliberately groom and prey on victims. For those at the predator end of the spectrum, the prognosis is much more difficult as there is often little recognition of the harm done, or willingness to change.
In some situations, where there has been genuine repentance and change on the part of the offender, reconciliation may be possible. In other situations, the survivor may never trust the offender enough to renew the relationship. If reconciliation is not possible, it may be necessary to mourn the loss of the relationship and what might have been.
Perhaps the best short answer to this question is that the church should carefully test the work of any Christian leader and that any such testing should include looking at the leader’s Christian walk as well as her/his written or spoken teaching. Knowing important parts of leaders’ lives will enable us to discern more carefully the truth of their words.
At the same time, we know that “all fall short.” We cannot expect complete congruence between teaching and life. We know that people who committed great sins, and justified them theologically, have also contributed to God’s reign. For example, one could ask, “Should the church continue to use the work of persons who advocated the killing of thousands in the name of Christ?” like Martin Luther (who advocated mass killing of rebellious peasants) and St. Bernard (who wrote both marvelous devotional materials and passionate calls for Christians to join the Second Crusade).
In Yoder’s case, we believe that his abusive and sexually immoral relationships with many women is a serious sin that needs to be publicly acknowledged so that his thought can be more fully tested in light of his life. It is important to acknowledge the harm that was done to some women by Yoder and to confess that church efforts designed to stop that harm focused too much on Yoder, and not enough on the pleas of victims. Nor did they manage to stop his abuse in a timely manner. It is at least equally important to repent by strengthening policies and practices designed to prevent future betrayal of trust placed in church leaders, and, if necessary, to deal more adequately with any future violations.
Did mistakes in Yoder’s theological thought lead to his abusive and immoral behavior, so that it must be rejected or amended? This kind of testing is important and can only happen if the truth about this part of his life is known. We anticipate that forthcoming historical research and analysis will shed light on how Yoder constructed his own sexual ethics to provide “theological” justification for his desire to be intimate with multiple women. At the same time, it would be too simplistic to evaluate any theologian’s entire theological work through a single lens, whether that be her/his particular moral characteristics (good or bad), or views on a specific doctrine (e.g., sexuality, Christology).
It is also important to recognize that a person’s thought cannot be tested if it is not studied and understood. We read Luther and Bernard, despite violent admonitions to kill peasants or Turks, because they articulate Christian truths in powerful ways—even while we note serious errors. We must discern in any Christian leader’s life and thought what we should embrace, what we should question, and what we should reject, because no one gets it all right. We learn both from their clear windows into the Gospel and their distortions of it.
But why read Luther or Bernard or Yoder at all, if we can find the valuable things they say in others who are less tainted? A good question. Finding other writers is one legitimate response to the offense caused by writers whose particular faults make them difficult to read. (Bernard is not the best interpreter of Christianity to Muslims, for example, or Luther to oppressed peasants, or Yoder to women who have suffered sexual abuse.)
Nevertheless God’s Spirit moves in mysterious ways, even using the work of sinful humans to draw people closer to Jesus and to a fuller understanding of the Gospel. This is certainly true of Yoder’s work, and cause for thanksgiving. Let us read and discern with care, trusting that the Spirit will teach us to separate the good grain from the weeds; trusting that what is good and right and true will prevail.
We can never fully understand anyone else’s motivation for doing what they do. Many men and women face sexual temptation and must continually guard against lust (inappropriate sexual desire) or the use of their positional or physical power to abuse others. Thankfully, many do not choose to give into temptation or to use their power to engage in immoral, abusive behavior.
Individuals have offered various suggestions in an effort to explain why John Howard Yoder engaged in sexual harassment and sexual abuse of many women over many years: 1) He was socially awkward and had few close friendships with men so sought emotional warmth and support from women. 2) Because of his powerful reputation as a teacher who frequently traveled around the world as a representative of the church, he met many women students at home and abroad and used that access to pursue his desire for intimacy. 3) He developed an elaborate ethical rationale for ways that men and women could have supposedly non-erotic sexually intimate relationships without violating a marriage covenant or crossing commonly accepted sexual boundaries. He used this logical thought construct to rationalize his “experimental” behavior. 4) He may have developed a sexual deviance disorder caused by repeated, sinful behavior, thinking he was above the rules as he pursued intimacy and meaningful relationships.
These possible explanations do not in any way excuse Yoder’s behavior, particularly when he refused to stop the abusive behavior after being confronted by people who recognized his wrongdoing. They simply reveal the complexity of trying to understand possible reasons for why someone abuses.
- Sexual abuse refers to sexualized behavior that occurs in a relationship where one party has more power than the other and meaningful consent is difficult, if not impossible. Sexual abuse takes advantage of another in order to use, control, or intimidate them for one’s own purposes. It can include actual physical contact of a sexual nature, such as hugs, kisses, touching, assault and intercourse. Sexual abuse can also involve more covert acts such as using sexual innuendo or pornography in the relationship, emotional and spiritual manipulation, or inappropriate disclosures of a personal nature regarding sexual matters.
- Sexual harassment is any unwanted and unwelcome behavior of a sexual or gender-specific nature that interferes with a person’s ability to work, get an education, or engage in ministry. It often takes two forms:
- Quid pro quo harassment occurs when someone is pressured to trade sexual favors in return for a job, promotion or grade.
- Environmental harassment refers to unwelcome sexual behavior that creates a hostile environment. It can include sexually suggestive remarks, jokes, or gestures, displaying degrading pictures or objects, unwelcome propositions and unwanted physical contact such as touching, hugging, pinching, patting, or other sexual demands.
- Sexual immorality. While all sexual abuse is immoral and sinful, not all sexual immorality is abusive. Sexually immoral behavior can occur when individuals of relatively equal power voluntarily engage in intimate, sexual acts outside of a committed, monogamous relationship, and/or violate their marriage covenant by engaging in such acts with someone other than their spouse.
What is professional power and responsibility? It is important for all professionals to recognize the power they hold by virtue of their training and position in the community. This includes pastors, teachers, counselors, administrators or anyone in a position of trust or leadership. Even when they may not feel powerful, it is important for leaders to recognize that others see them as strong and authoritative and often defer to them. Understanding this dynamic helps guard against misusing power or overstepping appropriate boundaries. Because they have greater power, leaders always bear primary responsibility to protect the boundaries of the relationship. It is also their responsibility to act in the best interests of the person with lesser power, rather than to use the person or exploit any of their vulnerabilities.
Based on what we know, Yoder’s actions included sexual abuse, sexual harassment and sexual immorality. He violated professional ethics and his marriage covenant.
As we look back, it is clear that a major failing was that we focused so intently on correcting and restoring one renowned theologian that we neglected to attend adequately to many of those wounded by him. Enormous effort was invested to get Yoder to change and very little to provide concrete support for those he victimized. Nor was there enough attention given to timely and broad exposure of Yoder’s abuse in ways that would have helped to protect additional women from victimization.
To their credit, there were church leaders who did not deny or ignore the accusations of sexual violations by Yoder as has often happened, and instead took them seriously and worked hard to stop his abuse. Much of their work, however, proved ineffective for too many years and was not known beyond small, confidential circles of accountability.
We thank God for the healing and restoration that many persons have experienced—both those who were victimized by Yoder, and many others wounded by sexual abuse. We acknowledge, on behalf of the church, our failure to give highest priority to attend to those who have been victimized and to protect others from victimization. We seek to repent of this failure. We are determined to do what we can to change a church culture that has too often disbelieved and silenced those who speak up about abuse to a culture that highlights policies and practices which make it clear that sexual abuse will not be tolerated.
Discernment Group members have learned of a couple efforts that were made toward achieving reconciliation with a group of victims, and of several gestures made toward assisting sexual abuse victims in the mid-to-late 90’s, but is waiting to verify what was done until after further historical research. Ideas for what may contribute to further healing are in the testing phase.
Mennonite Church USA adopted a statement in 2013 on “Protecting and Nurturing our Children and Youth”. Among many suggested actions, this statement recommends “…that each congregation, conference, school, and church related programs involving children and youth develop and implement a child-protection policy. This policy should include the process for reporting of suspected abuse or neglect to authorities.” The statement also encourages teaching children and youth about healthy relationships and appropriate boundaries.
Many of our conferences provide training for pastors regarding sexual abuse, and make their services available for people who experience abuse. Mennonite Church USA is also committed to providing regular training and accountability for pastors and other church leaders regarding professional ethics, power dynamics and the responsibility of leaders to maintain healthy boundaries. This training happens in our seminaries but we will be exploring ways to offer this regularly in conference and denominational gatherings.
To build on what is mentioned above and to encourage vigilance, the Discernment Group has named and is in the process of refining several outcomes that we hope to achieve across our church over the next 18 months: 1) We will cultivate a system-wide preparedness through conference leaders and links on the denominational website to provide resources for persons who come forward to seek support as they deal with sexual abuse in their own experience. 2) We will encourage denominational and conference leaders to provide educational experiences to better prepare pastors and church leaders to develop safe church policies/procedures, teach about healthy sexuality, work for prevention of sexual abuse and care for victims of abuse. 3) We will explore how we might offer a retreat or a series of conference-based retreats for sexual abuse survivors. 4) We are making plans to write a denominational statement addressing a variety of dimensions of sexual immorality and sexual abuse.
We are working to implement these commitments through various networks of people who care deeply about matters of sexual abuse. Although we will give priority to prevention of abuse by church leaders, we hope to provide resources for prevention of abuse at all levels of church and family life.
Widespread cultural and religious stereotypes about gender roles which were often used to communicate that men are intrinsically superior to women have come under increasing scrutiny and critique in recent decades. Biblical justifications that were used to silence and confine women to subservient roles within the family and church have been shown by discerning scholars and church leaders to be seriously unfaithful to the spirit and word of the Gospel. Patterns of previous generations that expected men to exclusively hold positions of leadership and decision making in political, business, educational, religious and family arenas have shifted to include growing numbers of women. Assumed male prerogatives related to positional status and sexual energy that frequently led to patterns of sexual harassment and abuse of women have been unmasked for what they are: sexual immorality, sexual exploitation, and sin.
The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective forthrightly makes these biblical and theological assertions:
- From Article 6: Because both Adam and Eve were equally and wonderfully made in the divine image, God’s will from the beginning has been for women and men to live in loving and mutually helpful relationships with each other.
- From Article 15: The church calls, trains, and appoints gifted men and women to a variety of leadership ministries on its behalf. These may include such offices as pastor, deacon, and elder as well as evangelists, missionaries, teachers, conference ministers, and overseers.
Since the 1970’s, Mennonite Church USA has invited increasing numbers of women into leadership of our congregations, church agencies, boards and schools. Recognizing that it is easy to default to cultural expectations, denominational leaders over the past two years have supported the Women in Leadership Project. This initiative grew out of a study that sought to understand why the number of women in institutional leadership was declining in the last decade and to recognize our ongoing responsibility to name and transform culturally ingrained patterns that give preferential status to men in leadership.
It is the responsibility of all baptized disciples of Jesus – both men and women – to pull back the veils of silence, secrecy and shame that hide the sin of sexual exploitation and male privilege in our communities. Denominational leaders chose to revisit one conspicuous case from an era when we tended to minimize the prevalence of sexual exploitation and tried to keep it quiet. We are also attempting to come to terms with ways we failed in that instance, and in other situations, to enact adequate intervention, healing, or restoration. In revisiting this one well-known case study, we renew our resolve to walk in the light, “until all of us come … to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).