Christians and non-Christians together?

David Fitch posted this quote on Facebook:

The Christian, knowing discipleship is a matter of Christian calling, does not expect Christian ethics of non-Christians.  – John Howard Yoder

A good (by Facebook standards) discussion ensued as a number of folks pushed back, forward and sideways.   What is the relationship between Christians, non-Christians and the standards by which we live?   What are “Christian” ethics and what makes them “Christian”?  What contribution does John Howard Yoder’s work make in the discussion?  These are fair questions.  I find that the works Body Politics and Discipleship as Political Responsibility both by John Howard Yoder, make a compelling case.  This is how I outlined that case – in outline form – on the Facebook thread.

With Yoder, I have to start with the big picture. God has a plan for God’s world, not just the church and not just believers. That plan was disrupted, but God’s kingdom is being restored. Within the world, there are some with ears to hear and eyes to see that respond to the good news of the kingdom of God. At the same time, there are others that do not see it and, yet, others that outright reject it. Here’s the key from our historical location: God has already overcome the world in and through Jesus. Like the smallest seed, God’s kingdom, which was inaugurated by Jesus, is growing mysteriously under God’s power and will eventually take over completely (consummation). The church is a community made up of those who respond to the kingdom of God and live under Jesus’ lordship here and now. Their common life together is a foretaste and a sign of God’s kingdom that is both here now AND to come. God is acting on those outside of the church, inviting them into God’s kingdom reality. One of the ways God acts in the world is through his people that live out God’s intention for the entire world within their growing community. They don’t do this by making a list of ethical rules, but by living out God’s values in their common life and in their engagement with the world. Those common values are seen most clearly in the life and teaching of Jesus – but they cannot be reduced to a “Christian” ethic. To me, Body Politics by Yoder is the clearest articulation of what living out God’s values means. He points to 5 practices that are transformative. As the church practices these things the kingdom is manifest in their presence and they bear witness to the larger world that another world is possible (and, actually, because of Jesus, that other world is more than possible it’s already here.). Do we expect those outside the church to have the same kind of accountability to God and the church as those inside? No. Does that mean that those outside the church don’t ever act in ways that are consistent with the kingdom of God? No. Does that mean that we don’t bear witness to God’s shalom when we see people abusing/oppressing/violating others? No. We are constantly calling people to see and hear the good news of the kingdom of God and to live into that for the benefit of all. That’s another key to Yoder – if we live out the 5 practices, we become good news -not just for the church or for other Christians – but for God’s world.

I didn’t list them in the original thread, but the 5 practices that Yoder identifies in Body Politics are:

  • Binding and loosing – communal moral discernment and face-to-face reconciliation
  • Breaking bread together – the practice of table fellowship where all people shared equally in the life-giving resources of the community.
  • Baptism – the practice of initiating people into a new community that transcends earthly, or worldly, identity markers (Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female BUT one in Christ).  Baptism is about inclusion on the basis of Christ which breaks down all other man-made barriers.
  • The Fullness of Christ – the practice of utilizing the gifts of each member of the faith community, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, for building up the church.  It’s not just that everyone has gifts and can make a contribution.  It is that every person is necessary for the health and wholeness of the body.
  • The Rule of Paul – the practice of empowering the voices of every member within the body in a truly multi-vocal community.

There is much more to be said about each of these practices.  I recommend reading Body Politics by Yoder.  What you can hopefully see is that these practices have a different quality then things like the golden rule.  While the golden rule is a good rule of thumb, and Jesus articulates it as such, it is hardly unique to Christianity.  What’s unique about Yoder’s 5 practices is that they are rooted in the teaching of Jesus and early Christian practice.  Also, when put into practice they create a kind of community that is qualitatively different than the way the world works.  They lead, quite literally, to a new community based upon a new humanity that recaptures the imago dei and God’s original intent for creation.

When looking through Yoder’s frame, it’s easy to see how some “Christian” ethical systems don’t come close to addressing the fundamental issues that distinguish the kingdom of God from the kingdoms of this world.  This is evident in pockets of the American church where women are still subjugated to men, greed is a sanctified blessing from God, leaders “Lord it over” congregations, violence is accepted over and against the call to reconcile with all and love even our enemies, AND the people still think they keep a “Christian” moral ethic.

A church that lives out the 5 practices is a church that serves as a sign and foretaste of the kingdom come.  Is should be in the church the way it will be for all when all things are fully and finally gathered under the Lordship of Jesus.   The way such a church impacts the world is by invitation and inclusion – not hurling guilt/shame and exclusion.

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