Today’s reading comes from John Howard Yoder, an American Mennonite theologian and professor who passed away almost 15 years ago. If that doesn’t keep you reading, perhaps this cheeky demonstration of chutzpah will. On the eve of defending his doctoral dissertation before a panel that included Karl Barth, the most influential Christian theologian of the 20th century, Yoder showed up in Barth’s office to personally deliver another paper he had written just for Barth, a paper that openly critiqued Barth’s views on war. That’s called audacity, folks; and it’s only one reason why Yoder is well worth your time.
“One is functionally evangelical if one confesses oneself to have been commissioned by the grace of God with a message, which others who have not heard it, should hear. It is angellion (“news”) because they will not know it unless they are told it by a message-bearer. It is “good” news because hearing it will be for them not alienation or compulsion, oppression or brainwashing, but liberation. Because this news is only such when received as “good,” it can never be communicated coercively; nor can the message-bearer ever positively be assured that it will be received.”
Quite often, when we read a block quote like this, we tend to nod our heads, either in agreement or disagreement, with little thought being given to the particularities of the assertions that make up the argument. So I want to take a few moments to break the quote down into bite-size pieces.
“One is functionally evangelical if one confesses oneself to have been commissioned by the grace of God with a message, which others who have not heard it, should hear. It is angellion (“news”) because they will not know it unless they are told it by a message-bearer.”
Notice how Yoder asserts that an Evangelical is defined not primarily by doctrine or by practice or by ethics, but rather by having received a God-given message. So Evangelicals are, first and foremost, recipients of the very news that they are charged to carry forward. They have been rescued, and are now charged with joining the rescue mission.
Now observe how the Evangelical also feels as if this message is something that others “should” hear, which, in turn, implies an urgent necessity surrounding the content of the message. This is not news on the level of announcing to someone that their dinner is burning. This is news on the level of proclaiming to someone that their house is one fire, and their child is still trapped inside. So the first question that must be asked of the self-professing Evangelical is this: do most of us live with this sense of urgency, or do we live with a sense of contentment so long as we and our loved ones are safe?
“It is “good” news because hearing it will be for them not alienation or compulsion, oppression or brainwashing,but liberation. Because this news is only such when received as “good,” it can never be communicated coercively”
Poor grammatical construction aside, this is the very heart of Yoder’s definition; and it is definition that we, as Evangelicals, ought to strongly consider. As the culture that surrounds us continues to move in a post-Christian direction, the church no longer has the power of the state behind it. Moreover, it could be argued that the church was never meant to possess this power in the first place.
“The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
So at this point, the question that must be asked is this: can those that find themselves on the receiving end of the “good” news, experience it as truly “good,” when it is brought to them by Christians who regularly seek to advance the Kingdom of God by legislating morality in a post-Christian culture? Or, to put it another way, can someone reasonably be expected to hear that YHWH loved them enough to send His Son to die for them when the cultural discourse rarely rises above the level of “God loves the sinner, but hates the sin?”
This, of course, brings us to Yoder’s concluding thought:
“Nor can the message-bearer ever positively be assured that [the message] will be received.”
Now ask yourself: why does Yoder feel the need to remind his reader of this simple fact? Is it not painfully obvious to the reader that not everyone will choose to listen? Perhaps one reason that Yoder includes this point in his definition is that he is aware of how many Evangelicals have walked away from the mission as a direct result of the rejection that they have personally experienced. Think about it. How many Christians, including you and I, have prioritized our own “relational security” over the well-being of our “friend” because we have lost friends in the past who rejected us over our eager, well-meaing, but often ill-timed, presentations of the Gospel? And how many of us have since opted to avoid the potential for an emotionally charged confrontation in the interest of long-term “relational evangelism” that never seems to get around to the “evangelism” part?
These are just a few of my thoughts on this highly respected theologian and his definition of Evangelical. Care to share some of yours?