Power Tends to Corrupt Theologians Too
Religion & Liberty Online

Power Tends to Corrupt Theologians Too

John Howard Yoder
Photo Credit: New York Times

Today at Ethika Politika, in my essay “Prefacing Yoder: On Preaching and Practice,” I look at the recent decision of MennoMedia to preface all of Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder’s works with a disclaimer about his legacy of sexually abusive behavior:

Whatever one thinks of MennoMedia’s new policy or Yoder’s theology in particular (being Orthodox and not a pacifist I am relatively uninterested myself), this nevertheless raises an interesting concern: To what extent ought the character of a theologian matter to their readers and students?

While I am unsure whether MennoMedia has handled this rightly, I appreciate the effort on their part not to turn a blind eye to the complexity of this issue. When it comes to theologians and teachers of morality, personal character does matter, though certainly poor character does not justify dismissing off-hand all a theologian says.

Yet, as I note at Ethika Politika, “while one may be able to study all the mechanics of swimming, for example, and teach them to others from a purely technical point of view, people would naturally be skeptical about the value of this teaching if they discovered their teacher could not actually swim.” Thus, I do not find it surprising or unfounded to be skeptical of Yoder. But what caused this situation? As Lord Acton wrote, “Power tends to corrupt.”

In fact, it is worth noting that Acton’s famous dictum is not limited to the power of the state. He writes to Bishop Creighton in 1887,

… I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means. You would hang a man of no position, like Ravaillac; but if what one hears is true, then Elizabeth asked the gaoler to murder Mary, and William III ordered his Scots minister to extirpate a clan. Here are the greater names coupled with the greater crimes. You would spare these criminals, for some mysterious reason.

For Acton, no one of any rank, of Church or state or otherwise, was exempt from “the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.”

Yoder, a professor of theology at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and then at Notre Dame, used his position of power for some of the most scandalous corruption.

And, unfortunately, the tendency during his life was mostly to look the other way. As Mark Oppenheimer reported for the New York Times this October,

In 1992, after eight women pressured the [Mennonite Church USA] to take action, Mr. Yoder’s ministerial credentials were suspended and he was ordered into church-supervised rehabilitation. It soon emerged that Mr. Yoder’s 1984 departure from what is now called Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, in Elkhart, Ind., had also been precipitated by allegations against him. He left for Notre Dame, where administrators were not told what had happened at his last job.

While one cannot know the verity of Yoder’s repentance, the decision to add a disclaimer at the front of his works casts doubt. In any case, his actions serve as a warning against students (or churches, for that matter) idolizing theologians and professors.

Oppenheimer continues,

In 1992, Ms. Heggen, who now lives in Oregon, published a book about sexual abuse. Traveling the world, lecturing about her book, she said she met “significantly” more than 50 women who said that Mr. Yoder had touched them or made advances.

“Women inevitably come up after these events and tell you their story,” Ms. Heggen said. “The scenario was so familiar to me, and I would interrupt them and say, ‘Are you talking about John Howard Yoder?’ They would say, ‘How did you know?’”

The classic Spiderman character uncle Ben is known for the dictum: “With great power comes great responsibility.” The corollary of that would be that with great power comes great temptation. Or, for that matter, with any power comes temptation. Sadly, Yoder’s story is far from unique. Similar stories plague positions of power in all spheres of life.

In the end, “the certainty of corruption by authority,” and the case of John Howard Yoder in particular, ought to be a reminder to Christians about the great social significance of asceticism. No matter how many policies are put in place and laws are written, good governance (ecclesiastical, educational, civil, or otherwise) begins with self-governance. And self-control, St. Paul tells us, is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). That is, self-control is a fruit of a lifestyle of self-denial, of living in the grace of Jesus Christ, and of walking according to the Holy Spirit.

Though, as I emphasize at Ethika Politika, we all have our failings, the fruit of the Spirit ought to characterize the lives of the theologians among us. For, as Abba Evagrios of the Egyptian desert puts it, “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” True theology, according to Evagrios, comes from the spiritual discipline of prayer. And one of the most important ways that we can put the corrupting tendency of power in check is for us to constantly acknowledge that God alone can incorruptibly bear absolute power, praying that “this corruptible” flesh of ours would “put on incorruption” (1 Corinthians 15:53), knowing that what is impossible for us is possible with God.

Read my full essay at Ethika Politika here.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.