With keen insight and practical application to contemporary issues, John Howard Yoder examined the potential secular impact of five biblical practices of the early Christian community in his book, Body Politics (Herald Press).
Yoder, professor of ethics and theology at Notre Dame University and Associate Mennonite Biblical Seminary before his death in 1977, believed the 21st-century church could offer a powerful witness to the world by returning to the root meaning of these practices.
The practices are “binding and loosing,” “breaking bread,” baptism, “fullness of Christ” and “the rule of Paul.
Citing Matthew 18:18 and John 20:23, Yoder termed the first practice “binding and loosing,” a rabbinic term which implies forgiveness, moral discernment and reconciliation. The world again needs a model of ordinary people (not just clergy) who resolve disagreement and conflict through reconciling dialogue.
Instead of holding “abstract debates” about the meaning of the bread and the wine, the practices of “breaking bread” and baptism can offer hope for a world fractured by economic disparity and racial divisions.
According to Yoder, “breaking bread” in the early church depicted the remarkable way in which Jews and Gentiles can share social fellowship, and where rich and poor possessed a common economic life. By “breaking bread” together, “the early Christians testified that the messianic age, often pictured as a banquet, had begun,” he wrote.
The early church’s practice of baptism also was much more than an individual’s personal celebration of redemption, he explained. Baptism signaled God’s creation of a new people and “a new phase of world history” without the “inherited social definitions of who each of us is by class and category.”
The baptized believers were then liberated to practice of “fullness of Christ,” a term Paul used to describe the new way believers related to each other. The early church recognized that God had given each person a distinct, identifiable and divinely validated role “for building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12). The practice affirmed equal dignity for each individual while preventing the concentration of power in the hands of the few.
Yoder added that the contemporary church would do well to avoid arguing over who should be “ordained” and instead “reorient the notion of ministry so that there would be no one ungifted, no one not called, no one not empowered, and no one dominated.”
Citing the model of conflict resolution used in Acts 15 and Paul’s instructions about church meetings in 1 Corinthians 14, Yoder identified the fifth practice as “the rule of Paul.” He explained that Paul taught that “uncoerced” consensus and conversation “is the setting for truth-finding.” Wise decisions stemmed from “listening to the Spirit speaking through each other.”
Yoder challenged 21st-century believers to understand these practices in more than personal, sacramental terms. When believers do ordinary social things differently, “they lend themselves to being observed, imitated, and extrapolated.”
“The people of God,” Yoder noted, are “called to be today what the world is called to be ultimately.” In returning to a social understanding of these practices, the Christian message would once again be heard—and seen—as good news.
Michael Tutterow is senior pastor of Winter Park Baptist Church in Wilmington, N.C.