Theology of Mission: A Believer’s Church Perspective

Written by John Howard Yoder Reviewed By Nathan A. Finn

John Howard Yoder (1927–1997) was, along with Harold Bender (1897–1962), one of the two most prominent Mennonite theologians during the twentieth century. Yoder is best known for his ethical writings, particularly his defense of pacifism and his influential monograph, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), which advanced a public theology based upon the life of Christ. However, Yoder, who coordinated missionary work for the Mennonite Central Committee in the years immediately following World War II, also taught a course on Theology of Mission from 1964–1983. The content of that course was recorded on a couple of occasions in the 1970s. In this volume, Gayle Gerber Koontz and Andy Alexis-Baker have edited a published volume of Yoder’s course lectures. The book does not disappoint.

Theology of Mission begins with a summary of Yoder’s mission experience and thought written by Wilbert R. Shenk, a former student of Yoder’s and the leading missiologist among contemporary Anabaptists in North America. Yoder’s material, based upon his lectures, is divided into twenty-three chapters that examine mission through the lens of biblical theology (with emphasis on the NT), systematic theology, the believer’s church tradition (especially ecclesiology), and debates over religious pluralism and the exclusivity of Christianity. The volume concludes with two appendices: a reprint of Yoder’s booklet As You Go: The Old Mission in a New Day (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1961) and a bibliography of Yoder’s writings related to mission, evangelism, church growth, and related topics.

For readers familiar with the history of ecumenical discussions related to theology of mission, much of this material will be old hat. Yoder shows awareness of the major themes and figures in the field up to the time this material was recorded in the mid-1970s. Though the book has fewer footnotes than one might expect, readers should remember that Theology of Mission is based on transcriptions of Yoder’s lectures. Had he revised the material himself (which he had intended to do), Yoder would almost certainly have more directly engaged a wider variety of thinkers by name. Nevertheless, he interacts with several key voices in the field. The influence of Lesslie Newbigin looms particularly large, especially in how Yoder frames his overall approach to this subject. However, Yoder does not simplistically appropriate the thought of Newbigin or any other scholar. What makes Theology of Mission unique is how it puts the best of missional thought in dialogue with the believer’s church tradition as interpreted by Yoder.

Yoder positions the believer’s church model as a balanced alternative to two influential paradigms: Christendom, which identifies Christianity with society and tends to export culture as much as it does the gospel; and Pietism, which conducts mission work through voluntary societies that can be adapted to various ecclesial commitments. In Yoder’s understanding, Christendom is roughly analogous to mission work as it has historically been pursued by mainline denominations, while Pietism is more or less equivalent to the sort of evangelical mission work that commenced during the eighteenth century and has flourished ever since. In the place of these two paradigms, Yoder suggests a more churchly approach, albeit one that focuses on establishing local congregations. He asserts that these local churches should quickly mature to the point of autonomy from any sponsoring agency in the West, should emphasize the priesthood of all believers, and downplay (though not deny) the importance of clergy, seeing themselves as missionary bodies that witness to Christ’s rule through both word and deed. To use more contemporary language, Yoder critiques mainline colonialism and evangelical parachurch arrangements, arguing instead for missional free churches of baptized believers that are contextually sensitive while maintaining a uniquely Christian witness.

In many ways, Yoder’s Theology of Mission was ahead of its time. His call for the priority of planting local churches rather than establishing outposts for parachurch organizations reflects the path many denominations—and parachurch ministries—have taken in the years since the Lausanne movement began in 1974. The same is true of Yoder’s emphasis on balancing evangelism and ministries of service and mercy, also a theme highlighted at Lausanne and further developed in subsequent years. Not surprisingly, baptistic groups will especially resonate with much of Yoder’s thought, even if many demur from his pacifism and do not connect with his frequent use of the Mennonites as the ideal model of a believer’s church approach to theology of mission.

However, evangelical readers, including baptistic evangelicals, will also find material with which they disagree. First, Yoder hardly engages evangelical voices, with the notable exception of Donald McGavran. More important, though, some interpreters cast Yoder as an evangelical—most recently Molly Worthen in her book Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). Yet many of his views will not cohere with more theologically conservative evangelicals. Few of these will agree with Yoder’s contention that missionary advance was not explicitly commanded in the Gospels or Acts, but rather came about organically (and mostly unintentionally) as believer’s migrated throughout the Roman Empire. Reflecting his roots in the Mennonite tradition, Yoder’s periodic discussions of justification and atonement are quite thin. Furthermore, while rejecting universalism, Yoder seems open to an inclusivist view of the fate of the unevangelized. While making some excellent points about the sensitivity necessary in witnessing to Jewish people, Yoder falls short of actually arguing that unbelieving Jews are spiritually lost if they do not trust in Jesus Christ as Lord.

Despite these shortcomings, Theology of Mission demonstrates that Yoder was a creative missional theologian who sought to appropriate many of the keenest insights of his era and apply them to his believer’s church context. Free church evangelicals will find Yoder to be a fruitful and often forward-thinking dialog partner as they engage the broader discussions about the missio Dei, missional thought, and theology of mission. Scholars of Yoder will appreciate how this book adds to our understanding of Yoder’s thought by introducing readers to an aspect of his theology that has heretofore remained largely unknown to those beyond his former students.

Nathan A. Finn

Nathan A. Finn (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as provost and dean of the university faculty at North Greenville University. He is co-editor of the forthcoming volume Historical Theology for the Church (B&H Academic, 2021).

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