Content Trumps Character? The Real Message Of Disclaimer Labels On Theological Books

Content Trumps Character? The Real Message Of Disclaimer Labels On Theological Books December 26, 2013

The recent uproar surrounding charges of plagiarism swirling around some of Mark Driscoll (click here and here) has nearly obscured another story that may have even greater implications for the church – and, ironically, maybe even for Driscoll’s future publishing endeavors. While the late John Howard Yoder’s name is less familiar to mainstream Evangelicals than Driscoll’s, this recent story about how Yoder’s publisher will include a disclaimer on all of his books may reverberate long after Driscoll fades from memory.

Other than excerpts of his work in the books and blogs of a few academics I follow, I haven’t read Yoder’s work for myself. His work has helped those academics grapple with the Anabaptist understanding about what the Bible has to say about power and nonviolence. I have appreciated the way in which Yoder’s perspective has broadened the thinking of these individuals.

For all of his intellectual brilliance, he was a man of deeply flawed character who abused a number of women from his position of power. His brilliance rationalized those actions by relying on the notion that a spiritually-mature man could engage in intimate, “healing” physical touch just this side of intercourse with a woman, insisting that this contact wasn’t sinful if he didn’t feel lust prior to or during the contact. He managed to repackage his own needs and appetites by deconstructing Scripture with his well-trained mind while insisting that his more evolved spirituality was the reason he could give his non-sexual luvin’ to his cross-gendered friends. He was a peacemaker, after all.

Well, except for the sexual assaults.

As these things usually do, it took years for the rumors of his abuse to come to light, and for the victims to discover that they had plenty of company. Shortly before he died in 1997, Yoder affirmed that he’d uh, probably crossed a few non-blurred lines and went through some sort of formal restoration process with his home church. None of the women he’d assaulted received an apology, nor was there any sort of counseling or financial renumeration follow-up offered them as far as I could discern. (If you know otherwise, please email me, as I’d be happy to correct this statement if I missed something.)

Now, after years of discernment meetings and discussion, Yoder’s publisher, Herald Press, will be publishing a disclaimer, acknowledging his history of sexual sin while continuing to commend his writing to readers.

While his work on Christian ethics helped define Anabaptism to an audience far outside the Mennonite Church, he is also remembered for his long-term sexual harassment and abuse of women.

At Herald Press we recognize the complex tensions involved in presenting work by someone who called Christians to reconciliation and yet used his position of power to abuse others. We believe that Yoder and those who write about his work deserve to be heard; we also believe readers should know that Yoder engaged in abusive behavior.

                                              (From the Herald Press disclaimer statement)

At this point in the story, since the perp has been dead for 16 years, I think this is probably a good start. It underscores that there is a difference between baby and bathwater. While there is now no way for those who were abused by Yoder with their allegations, it would be a nice gesture if either his publisher or his denomination offered to pay for counseling for anyone with a credible abuse account. Perhaps I’m being a bit idealistic with this suggestion; I am assuming that few would go to the trouble of coming forward at this point with a false account in order to score some counseling. At this point, those most in need of help may have already sought it. In Yoder’s Mennonite tradition, turning the other cheek is core to following Jesus, so it is possible that many of his survivors have processed what he did to them. Maybe a half of handful of the dozens of victims would ask for help. Maybe only one. But that one deserves the dignity of compassionate care. Her life has been altered by the selfish actions of this man.

Which brings me to what the Herald Press statement says to me. If Yoder was still alive and had been found guilty, a responsible publisher would pull the books no matter how good his ideas are. But the decision for Herald Press to continue to publish Yoder’s books with a disclaimer communicates to me that in this life, he got away with his sin – and gets to have the final, published word. Character is disconnected from message, which is a textbook description of hypocrisy.

What do you think? Should publishers continue to print the books of those who’ve confessed to sin (as Yoder did at the end of his life) or been caught red-handed in the act? Does a disclaimer make a difference?



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  • kreyne

    If there is an easy case for deciding that an author’s character disqualifies his or her books from Christian publication, the sin of sexual abuse is probably it. Of course, any lesser (or less repugnant) sins become more difficult to discern. Does marital unfaithfulness or divorce disqualify one? How about financial transgressions? Or, most sticky for our context, does slave ownership disqualify an author for Christian publication?

    As a Christian thinker I can’t imagine the world without the writings of John Howard Yoder; knowing his work is essential for understanding 20th- and 21st-century Western Christian theology. It seems somehow a small crime of a different sort to keep the public from reading his books. Likewise, slave-owning Jonathan Edwards or head-chopping John Calvin?

    You raised a good, thorny issue and I think I’ll be mulling it over for a while, but at this point I can’t conclude that pulling the books from the shelf is the best decision.

    • I agree. I think to me what this says is that all are sinners, regardless of their spiritual writings or leadership. Almost any historic writer has some reason to object to.

      I think the difference in alive writers caught in sin is an attempt at resturation. I think it is appropriate for someone to have their books pulled and/or step away from publishing. In order to be healed and restored (and make appropriate amends to those sinned against.) For Yoder there is not resturation

  • Michelle Van Loon

    I agree that pulling a living author’s books is supposed to have something to do with restoration, at least in theory. And yes, almost every great author has been subject to character flaws, as kreyne noted. I’ll admit that I can’t handle reading much Luther because his anti-Semitic words echo in my head.

    The point at which an author’s character and message diverge is the point where readers need to “stick” for a while and do some critical thinking. This, perhaps, is the lesson we need to bring to the recent furor about Driscoll’s alleged plagiarism, as well as to the work of men like Yoder.

  • Tim

    For both Yoder and Driscoll, the problem I see is that pastors who attain some sort of celebrity status start acting less pastoral and more like celebrities Rules end up being for the little people. It’s sad. As for the publisher, I think the disclaimer is the right way to go. That way those of us who want to avoid the books are fully informed and can drop them like hot potatoes.

  • Scott Irenaeus Watson

    So, are we going to excise the Davidic Psalms from the Psalter because King David was an adulterer and muderer? I’ve never seen a disclaimer in any Bible about David in an introduction to the Psalms. Yoder’s thought will stand or fall on its own. He, like all of us, will stand before the judgment seat of Christ for an accounting of his life. Nuff said.

    • The Bible does include a detailed account of David’s adultery and murder in 2 Samuel, though, noting “The thing David had done displeased the Lord,” in case that wasn’t obvious.

      Come to think of it, Psalm 51 does begin with the heading “A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.” Although it’s a generalized psalm of repentance, apparently he (or his editor?) thought it was worthwhile to spell out clearly what he was repenting for.

  • Should Yoder’s book remain in print? Yes, for the ideas and the fact that he has pushed Christian thinking forward on the subject of non-violence. And the disclaimer is appropriate. Other things in his life have not received an imprimatur. He is not being held up as a model Christian, just as someone who had engaged in some useful and original scholarship and thinking.

    I have no objection to enjoying the art of morally flawed secular artists, but Christians who are not battling against their moral flaws–No, I would rather choose to spend my time on books or preachers who struggle to ensure their words and their life join up seamlessly.

    A really gifted Christian writer I know just had an affair and left their spouse. Should their books remain on my shelf? Probably, because we are all sinners, and in God’s sight there is no difference between public and secret sin. But were the books written in integrity? Is reading them the best use of my time? Tricky questions. I find i cannot read the Christian writings of those I know are not really trying to follow Christ in their own lives…

    I guess I have to be really careful about what I say on this subject, because I am a writer, and would hate to have everything I have written to date discounted because of any serious moral failing I may fall into in the future.

    I guess life is short, and if I know someone is or was abusive, a bully, a philanderer, a compulsive liar, deeply manipulative, I am afraid I would not read their books or blogs or listen to their sermons, if I had the choice.

    Of course, one cannot keep moving churches or small groups, when one loses respect for the preacher or small group leader. I have stayed in churches and small groups where I have been unimpressed by the leader, and have mentally separated the thoughts from the person. I.e. sometimes literally not looked at the person, but listened and mentally engaged with the words.

    It’s not to be judgemental or sniff out sin. In the case I alluded to earlier, I heard a fantastic sermon at a Charismatic festival a couple of years ago. TEN days later, the person resigned from all ministry, left their spouse, and moved in with their child’s partner. I LOVED their books. Were the books written with the same lack of integrity with which the person preached to thousands while betraying their marriage vows, & conducting a clandestine affair? The books were tarnished for me, and I can hardly bear to open them any more.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      “Let not many of you become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” (James 3:1). The judgment to which this passage refers includes God’s assessment of our words, but I think it may also point at the way in which we judge our teachers.

      As others have pointed out, many great teachers have had moral failings. Herald Press is acknowledging Yoder’s sin, which is more than many publishers have chosen to do in the wake of a public fall by a leader who happens to be a best-seller. I do have a difficult time separating messenger from message, particularly in cases of abuse or adultery. There are no easy answers, but I’m grateful to raise the questions.

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