Free Churches

Free Churches October 9, 2012

The Reformation attempted to purify the church from corruptions. Luther’s and Calvin’s reforms were aimed at a better theology, a better worship, and a better society. The Roman Catholic Church, the then dominant form of the church, was intertwined with the state – with governing the whole of society. The Protestant Reformers experienced the authority and the power of the Catholic Church because the latter was fused with the State. (Image credit.)

How can John Howard Yoder’s view of the church and its mission help us today? 

The Reformers took one step but did not take the second step, the second step being a radical disconnection of the church from the state. Those churches that did take that second step, and they did so under the belief that they were being even more biblical than the Lutheran and Swiss reformers, were the anabaptists. They sought to free the church from the state and are often called “free” churches. It is not unreasonable to see all American churches as “free” (hence, anabaptist) churches. The churches of the USA are not officially fused to the state. There is another debate — not for today — about churches seeking to influence the state, and this last weekend we witnessed the attempt by many pastors to preach politics in order to warn the state about constraining the voice of the churches.

But today we want to look at one anabaptist vision for a free church, and we are looking at this through the presentation by Graham Hill in his excellent book, Salt, Light, and a City (Amazon link). I am glad to announce a special opportunity for purchasing Grahams’ book: If you want to purchase this book at 40% discount, go here and in the Coupon Code type in SALT.

Hill naturally focuses on John Howard Yoder. But before I proceed it needs to be said that neither Yoder nor Stanley Hauerwas are official voices of the anabaptist movement, that anabaptists vary from both of their views, that anabaptist theology and ecclesiology needs a historical survey to appreciate both its essence and its many varieties, and in particular I would emphasize that historic anabaptists — Hubmaier to Menno or so — were soteriologically Protestants and have traditionally emphasized a soteriology that must lead to discipleship. But progressive politics has not been the traditional way of the anabaptists. In fact, for many today “anabaptist” means “political activism” and this turns much of anabaptism on its head. It has traditionally not been politically active but ecclesially active. Now on to Yoder.

1. Yoder’s complaint is Constantine and Constinianism, the fusing of church and state, leading to the deconstruction of the church’s life and its voice. The church is the meaning of history. The world is “structured unbelief.” The Christ/culture polarities of Niebuhr are “unbiblical and unhelpful for ethics” and the church needs to abandon striving for power, privilege and effectiveness and follow the foolishness and weakness of the cross. The church then is an alternative, minority, missionary society.

2. The foundation of the church is christology; first christology, second ecclesiology. The church, then, is the “aftertaste of God’s loving triumph on the cross and the foretaste of his ultimate loving triumph in his kingdom” (112).

3. The church is a social ethic and its social ethic is gospel. He sees five themes in this social ethic: egalitarianism flowing from baptism into one  body, socialism at work in eucharist, forgiveness, the open meeting, and the universality of giftedness. The church is public witness in the order of providence vs. the order of redemption. The church has a modeling mission.

4. As an alternative society, the church has five practices: binding and loosing, fullness of Christ, the “rule of Paul” (decentralizing power into the gifts, open meetings), disciples breaking bread together (more than eucharist), and baptism and the new humanity. Galatians 3:28 alive and embodied.

Yoder’s focus is the sociality of the church, the church over against, the cross not so much the resurrection, and his emphasis is not so much the church’s spirituality or worship or prayer or soteriology.


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