Sexual Misconduct in the Academy

I read an article a few days ago in The Christian Century that discusses the sexual misconduct of a theologian who has had a major influence in the lives of Christians who are committed to Christian pacifism.

The article titled, “Theology and Misconduct,” details the accusations against John Howard Yoder of sexual misconduct while he was Professor of Theology at the Associate Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

As a theologian, Yoder was a prolific writer who promoted Christian pacifism and the use of non-violence. Yoder’s most influential book was The Politics of Jesus, published in 1972. In his book Yoder made a biblical case for nonviolence, using the ministry of Jesus as a model for Christian action in the world.

For years Yoder had been accused of sexual misconduct. The article in The Christian Century seeks to point out the contradictions between Yoder’s teaching on non-violence and his personal behavior in which he used power and violence against women who took his courses at the two institutions where he taught.

Below is a brief excerpt from the article published in The Christian Century:

Thirty years after John Howard Yoder was first accused of sexual misconduct and almost two decades after his death in 1997, the story of his abusive behavior remains painfully unresolved in the Mennonite communities in which he was for decades regarded as the foremost theologian and chief representative of Anabaptist thought.

During his lifetime Yoder faced two separate disciplinary proceedings. The first led to his 1984 resignation from the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries (now Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) in Elkhart, Indiana, after which he became a full-time professor at the University of Notre Dame, where he taught until his death. The second was conducted by the Mennonite Church from 1992 to 1996.

Last year a third discernment process was launched, spurred by women who believe that the church has repeatedly failed to uncover and acknowledge the truth.

In 2013, Ruth Krall, professor emeritus at Goshen College, a Mennonite school in Indiana, published The Elephants in God’s Living Room, which used the church’s response to Yoder’s actions as a case study on how sexual abuse is often mishandled in the church.

That same year, Barbra Graber, a retired professor at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia, wrote a pair of online essays about Yoder’s case. Soon after Graber’s essays appeared, AMBS president Sara Wenger Shenk announced that the seminary had committed itself to “new transparency in the truth telling that must happen.” Last summer the Mennonite Church USA formed a committee to “fairly and accurately document the scope of Yoder’s sexual abuse and the church’s response to it after a careful review of the evidence.”

While most of the allegations against Yoder involve his work in Mennonite circles, some reported incidents occurred outside that sphere. Theologian Marva Dawn, a onetime doctoral student at Notre Dame, said that Yoder “made a few of the intimate moves others have accused him of making” while he was at Notre Dame.

Reports indicate that Yoder initiated many of the relationships and behaviors unilaterally, without anything resembling an invitation, and that these actions resulted in lifelong consequences for the women involved.

One woman who made public her story is Carolyn Holderread Heggen. She reported that Yoder sent her letters and asked for meetings, which she refused. In one letter, he invited Heggen to meet him at a conference, where he could watch her undress and nurse her infant.

“When I read the letter,” Heggen said (as quoted in a 1992 article by Tom Price in the Elkhart Truth), “I felt I had been raped. The thought of this dirty old man sitting at his seminary desk fantasizing about my nude body was terrifying to me, and I felt extremely violated and angry.”

Other reports cite acts of verbal intimidation, physical aggression, indecent exposure, and other types of physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual manipulation and violence.

Many people reading this post today have heard of John Howard Yoder or have read one of his books or articles. If you are one of those persons, you may want to read the article in its entirety. You can read the article by clicking here.

Yoder rejected the use of violence in all circumstances. In the article, the writers define Yoder’s view of violence: “Though Yoder wrote about nonviolence primarily in the context of war, his own definition of violence was much broader. The term violence is meaningless, he once wrote, ‘apart from the concept of that which is being violated. That which is violated is the dignity or integrity of some being.’”

My question is: Does Yoder’s personal behavior affect his teaching or his views on Christian pacifism and the use of force? I welcome your views.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary


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5 Responses to Sexual Misconduct in the Academy

  1. Craig Benno says:

    Claude. I would go deeper and ask if his writings truly reflect the Biblical witness. I think then we weigh up his actions against the truth for our own needs for redemptive grace.


    • Craig,

      Nice hearing from you again. You have a point there. Notwithstanding the allegations against him, Yoder continued teaching and publishing. He continued to be an influential voice for many years. It is true that at times, one’s behavior may contradict what one teaches. It is possible that he never saw that his actions were a violation of his teachings. We cannot deny the many women were hurt by his actions, but the fact is that many people were influenced by his pacifism and by his teaching on non-violence.

      Thank you for your comment.

      Claude Mariottini


  2. Juliette Armer says:

    Jesus spoke about wolves in sheeps clothing. Voila!


    • Juliette,

      It amazes me that a person who is committed to be a theologian can act like that. God uses broken vessels like David who committed adultery and killed a man to cover his act, but there is no excuse for these kinds of actions by a person who calls himself a Christian. Christ has taught us to be the salt of the earth.

      Thank you for your comment.

      Claude Mariottini


      • Juliette Armer says:

        I agree. Another biblical warning is to watch for the fruit of the spirit in our living. The absence of the fruit may tell the story. I think Jesus cursed the tree which did not bear fruit.


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