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Noting Abusive Theologians

December 9, 2013

Ekklesia reports that the publishing agency of the Mennonite Church (USA and Canada) has decided, after a discernment process with denominational leaders, to include the following statement at the beginning of all books by John Howard Yoder:

John Howard Yoder (1927–1997) was perhaps the most well-known Mennonite theologian in the twentieth century. 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.

This book is published with the hope that those studying Yoder’s writings will not dismiss the complexity of these issues and will instead wrestle with, evaluate, and learn from Yoder’s work in the full context of his personal, scholarly, and churchly legacy.

I think this is an excellent approach. I commend the Mennonite church and press leaders for adopting it, and I hope it will set a precedent in the field.

In my class on the History of Systematic Theology, my classmates and I were shocked to learn from our professor (not from any of our books) that Paul Tillich had extramarital affairs, including sexual contacts with his students which certainly today would be considered sexual harassment at best, abusive at worst. It generated an important discussion about the extent to which we could rely on the intellectual work of a theologian whose life showed such serious failings in his ability to “walk the talk,” on the one hand; and the extent to which all of us are sinners, and thus all theologians are sinners, so why do we expect anything different, on the other.

(I do not recall whether the discussion broke out along gender lines; I do recall that another woman student and I were among the most vocally horrified, and that our professor, a man, was rather strongly making the case that we shouldn’t be surprised or concerned.)

In Tracy Fessenden’s 1998 paper[1], she tells of a 1993 AAR panel in which she presented a paper that included biographical sources:

against what appeared to be a quiet consensus that, as Tom Driver puts it, the “lurid details” of Paul Tillich s “secret sexual life” given in Hannah Tillich’s From Time to Time had “no place in his theology,” I argued that Tillich the connoisseur of prostitutes and pornography and Tillich the systematic theologian might be seen to converge in, for example, the musings on the erotic resonance of “woman” in The Socialist Decision, the image of the ground of being as life-giving and life-extinguishing womb in Systematic Theology, or the sexualizing of primitive ritual and art in “The Demonic.”

and was met with “a spirited and mixed response,” including

A number of comments [which] suggested that while my paper was colorful, entertaining, or “interesting,” the concerns it raised remained outside the scope of theological discussion. One listener upbraided me for taking Hannah Tillich’s account of Paul Tillich’s sexual exploits at face value. Another asked what all of this had to do, finally, with Tillich s theology. An anonymous respondent to whom the paper was later circulated questioned “the cash value of references to Tillich’s own personal interest in sexuality—is it merely to elicit our interest? What is the point?” … Or as a professional acquaintance asked me privately after the panel, “What, exactly, is bothering you?”

That was twenty years ago; I certainly hope that times have changed.

One of the differences between “theology” and “religious studies” is that theology is carried out from within the perspective of the believer, while religious studies takes a strictly historical/sociological perspective. I am enrolled in a theological program: perhaps this is why my immediate response to learning of this theologian’s persistent sinful patterns of behavior was to question whether and how it reflected on the value of his theology. It seems a screamingly obvious question to me.

Inserting statements like the one that MennoMedia will be printing in Yoder’s work would at least raise the question for discussion, which I see as valuable in and of itself.

It’s important to note, however, that the MennoMedia decision is prompted specifically by concern for the victims of Yoder’s abuse:

Amy Gingerich, editorial director, said: “John Howard Yoder’s legacy remains painful and complex. Many have found Anabaptism because of his writings. At the same time, we cannot gloss over his continued abuse of power. By including this statement in our books we are signaling that Herald Press wants to be about reconciliation and healing, not masking abuses of power.”

By acknowledging the reality that Yoder’s victims experienced, by creating the space for their experiences to be real, this Mennonite publisher is standing with the victim even though it requires acknowledging that one of the best-known Mennonite theologians committed sexual abuse. This is a courageous decision, and I hope and pray that it will set an example for others.

[1]1. Tracy Fessenden, “‘Woman’ and the ‘Primitive’ in Paul Tillich’s Life and Thought : Some Implications for the Study of Religion,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 14, no. 2 (September 1, 1998): 45–76.

One more excerpt from this paper notes an instance of Tillich’s sexual abuse of students:

According to Richard Fox’s 1985 biography of Reinhold Niebuhr, for example, Tillich was “not just unfaithful to his wife, Hannah; he was exuberantly, compulsively promiscuous. Niebuhr once sent one of his female students to see Tillich during his office hours. He welcomed her warmly, closed the door, and began fondling her. She reported the episode to Niebuhr, who never forgave Tillich.”

18 Comments leave one →
  1. December 9, 2013 11:48 pm

    Victoria. I think this is an excellent blogpost. And most important. Yoder and Tillich are just two men among many whose abuses need to be kept in the light as much as their influence on others continues. Thank you for emphasizing our need to talk, and to think critically, about hurtful behaviors and proclivities and about whether they produce or might be somehow ameliorated or maybe even potentially corrected by good ideas and useful theologies. This is very tough. I would like to believe (but am naive this way) that right thinking leads to charity and not harm and oppression.

  2. December 9, 2013 11:50 pm

    Interesting post,

    One of my friends sent me quotes and excerpts from the work of Marcellus Althaus-Reid who argues that we can’t really divorce our sexuality from our theology. She brings up Tillich and Barth.

  3. December 10, 2013 12:03 am

    @Kurk, thank you for your positive assessment of this post. Your comment about right thinking leading to charity rather than harm is exactly what worried my classmates and I: if we are to judge the thought by the fruit/action it produces, then shouldn’t we be really concerned about whether Tillich’s thinking was, indeed, “right”?

    At the same time, it is true that, in the real world, in the real church populated by real Christians, there is almost always a gap between our beliefs and our practices; you might be interested in Amy Plantinga Pauw’s work on this subject, which I blogged about earlier this year, though she doesn’t touch on such egregious failures.

  4. December 10, 2013 12:14 am

    @hoodie_R, I think it is certainly true that we cannot divorce our sexuality from our theology: we are incarnate, embodied, sexual beings, despite the weird (at least for Christianity, whose central figure is an incarnate, embodied God) mind/body dualism that has been prevalent in much of our tradition. There are a number of younger theologians doing good work in this area. You might enjoy reading Fessenden’s paper if you can get hold of it.

    But I don’t think this issue is primarily about sexuality. It is primarily about sin, about abusing power and causing harm. Sex just happens to have been the instrumentality of that abuse and that harm in these cases (despite Fox’s positive adverb in describing Tillich as “exuberantly” promiscuous). Whether a theologian commits sexual assault or physical assault or embezzlement, the same basic issue of apprising readers and considering how the sins of the theologian’s life may reflect on the quality of the theologian’s work still arises.

  5. December 10, 2013 1:15 am

    Victoria, the relationship between theology and sexuality to too deep to ignore such a problem. Thinking and writing of love in this little e-chink in the wall called a comment is troubling. Our Bridegroom is Christ and we are his body. Our body is the temple of the Spirit. It was Archbishop William Temple (I think) who said this is the first thing a child should learn about sexuality.

    Our seeking trouble for ourselves provokes jealousy from our God. What can we say of conscience if it is so seared as to ignore such correction? Not that we each do not make mistakes. That is why we have psalms like 6, 38 and 51. But how can we continue those activities that deny wholeness to another – when we are supposed to have died through that same Bridegroom’s death (see the image in Romans 7) and to be now living to God. There are a myriad of supporting words in the Scripture both Old and New that show both the reality of the bridal aspect and the fire of jealousy in the Most High that corrects self-destructive and self-contradictory behaviour.

    Set me as a seal upon your heart
    as a seal upon your arm
    for love is strong as death
    jealousy hard as Sheol
    its coals are coals of the flaming fire of יָה

    Yet perhaps there is a third hand difficulty here. Perhaps no one could write theology or even advice. Perhaps that is why the Apostle writes of the unspeakable gift.

    I was raised in an abusive school by a priest who did not know how to handle himself with young boys. But his abuse was like an illness in that time (1950s) – perhaps he had studied Tillich and learned nothing.

  6. December 10, 2013 1:28 am

    Reblogged this on Take What You Need, Leave the Rest and commented:
    I’ve had this debate with myself and others many times. How much do you take the personal life of a public figure into account when evaluating their “work”? For me, if what they produce is entertainment, then what they do in private does not affect my enjoyment of their work. However, if they are in the business of power (ego) plays such as abuse, rape, or murder, then I am against giving them any creedance whatsoever. How can someone who engages regularly in the harming of others have anything of value to say to us?

  7. December 10, 2013 8:02 am


    I’m interested in how Richard Beck essentializes the problem that a theologian like Marcellus Althaus-Reid may have been trying to solve; Beck blogs this –

    “The Kingdom is marked by its assault on Othering. Where Othering has vanished the Kingdom has come.”

    Especially sexual Othering can be a huge problem, and abuse.(I confess I’ve not yet read much of Althaus-Reed and as I do, like Michael Cardin, I most appreciate theologies that and theologians who care to drop “the biblical anchor” as much as they don’t).

    So then there’s this. The subtle power, as David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen put it, of spiritual abuse. Do we have to be so very precise in our dividing “spiritual” and “sexual” abuses? This is very tricky. Here’s how Johnson and VanVonderen describe abuse (and their focus is particularly the theologian’s the pastor’s the Sunday School teacher’s and so forth’s abuse) –

    “It’s possible to become so determined to defend a spiritual place of authority, a doctrine or a way of doing things that you wound and abuse anyone who questions, or disagrees, or doesn’t ‘behave’ spiritually the way you want them to. When your words and actions tear down another, or attack or weaken a person’s standing as a Christian- to gratify you, your position or your beliefs while at the same time weakening or harming another- that is spiritual abuse.”


    I like how you see the the Mennonite Church’s publishing move here as setting “a precedent in the field.” And I really do think, nonetheless, that your posting here, and your willingness to voice your shock as you “learn from [y]our professor (not from any of our books) that Paul Tillich had extramarital affairs, including sexual contacts with his students which certainly today would be considered sexual harassment at best, abusive at worst.” To raise the issue, to speak up, to question, to think critically, is so very very very important. Your shock is hardly condemnation or Othering of Tillich. The Mennonites’ note on the front of the Yoder books they continue to publish is not Othering anybody either. It’s letting readers know. (My own growing up in the church, as a missionary kid, as a preacher’s kid, as a church goer, as a Sunday School student, is an experience where the power of the abuser gains when there is silence and silencing and a refusal to think or to talk or to recognize the defense of the spiritual place of authority of alleged and actual abusers, sexual and spiritual and emotional and social and so forth and so on.)

  8. December 10, 2013 10:05 am


    You said, “the Scripture … corrects self-destructive and self-contradictory behaviour,” and I do appreciate theologies that are anchored in the Bible. And this seems to work the other way as well best, at least for me: readings of Scripture that would correct behavior need anchoring in good theologies. This speaks to reading, to people reading, to people who are learning and who are thinking critically reading. “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and favor” and “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.” And so forth. It’s people, with Scriptures and with theologies, who behave and misbehave and forgive and are forgiven and grow and are educated. There’s nothing inherent in either the Bible or in philosophies of God that corrects anybody without people.

    Thanks for mentioning your “abusive school,” where the priest was a man of his times, of the 1950s. I’m not sure the 2000-teens are better times. Interesting how you view Tillich’s theology as hopeful, potentially corrective, for this man.

  9. December 10, 2013 11:53 am

    Kurk, I did not intend ‘the Scripture’ to be the subject of the verb ‘corrects’. I intended the subject of the verb to be ‘the fire of jealousy in the Most High’. That is what corrects’. The Hebrew is יָכַח, a favorite in Job, and first known by me in Psalm 6:2.
    הוה 2 do not in your anger correct me
    and do not in heat chasten me

    Now why would I ‘believe’ what I read in the Song of Solomon in this particular way? I assure you it is not an intellectual exercise, but if I may say, my response to what I considered an unexpected presence. Now I consider the presence not to be unexpected. There is my double negative on ‘hope’.

    Theology may ‘be carried out from the perspective of the believer’; as Victoria says, but it may not be a theology that is responding to God but rather describing a constructed God. What is this? – a God on paper, but not ‘the king of glory’, a God incarnate in the one who writes the theology. The work of a student is to answer questions on an exam. The work of a believer is to hear the word of God and do it.

    I regret that I gave the impression that Tillich’s theology might have been hopeful for my priest and choir-master. If he had studied and learned nothing, then perhaps he had only studied God on paper and not in his real actions. If Tillich describes but does not obey – have the unplugged ear and open eyes, then there is no conscience that can receive the jealousy by shame. Shame is a major operative word in the Psalms if one needs to think even in from a human point of view. Shame is avoided in human cultures (often known as saving face), It is avoided because it is painful. ‘Saving face’, however, can sidestep confession, forgiveness, and healing.

    Thank you for your response. It shows me and I see that my words may not be effective to carry the intent that I thought was in them. Perhaps it is good that when I speak I am a man of halting and searching words rather than one who has a smooth delivery.

    The ‘jealous’ God is not a popular idea in the modern world. In fact it is not ‘idea’ but reality. Why else would John end his first letter with ‘little children, keep yourselves from idols’. Idolatry has nothing to do with stone and wood. In this case unbridled sexuality is an idolatry of the fleshly body. But don’t think I consider sex to be a bad thing. Not at all. Why would I cite the Song if I did? Why would I use the bride-bridegroom imagery for the most high? If my abuser had known that his desperate energy had been crucified and that his true fulfillment and consummation was in God, how could he have continued to satisfy lust through the abuse of others?

    My words seem fierce to me. Please know that I deeply respect your work and the play of your scholarship.

  10. December 10, 2013 12:57 pm

    Kurk, I see that I did not answer a serious proposition in your text: “There’s nothing inherent in either the Bible or in philosophies of God that corrects anybody without people.”

    It is, of course, difficult, perhaps impossible for me, to separate upbringing, culture, learning, and socialization from the action of God. But I must. Yes, God acts through humanity, his hand (e.g. Psalm 17 “Secure me from the wicked, your sword”, where sword and hand are given as God’s action through humanity). And yes, the Scriptures – holy or not, come through human hands. How though is Job corrected? How does he refuse his role as referee? To whom does he relinquish it? (If you have not read Ticciati on Job, you have a treat coming to you. Ticciati, Susannah, Job and the Disruption of Identity)

  11. December 10, 2013 1:03 pm

    You must know that I have tremendous respect for you and for your words! The kind of interactions that you and I and so many others via social media have is just wonderful, so very helpful, to me anyway. Thank you for writing. I’m sorry when I misunderstand but am happy when you can check that. I’m grateful and humbled when you write so publicly that you respect my work and “the play” of my scholarship. It’s this process.

    The work of a student is to answer questions on an exam. The work of a believer is to hear the word of God and do it.

    Ha, that reminds me of what the late Dallas Willard used to ask his philosophy 101 students as they turned in their exams. “Do you believe what you wrote?” He said they’d invariably smile, knowing that one can’t really test beliefs, not on an exam anyway.

    And a good bit of my old sociolinguistics research and some of my more recent research in pedagogy/ learning of a second language tries to get at the disjuncture between beliefs and professions / confessions of them. I’m intrigued by others’ research on implicit bias and on immunity to change in learning and at work.

    the fire of jealousy in the Most High that corrects self-destructive and self-contradictory behaviour

    my abuser

    We share more than words, I’m afraid. Our abusers have destroyed and contradicted more than just themselves. How can we move forward unless we agree to speak about these things?

    (I look forward to reading Ticciati on Job; thanks for recommending!)

  12. December 10, 2013 11:50 pm

    Kurk, Bob, thanks for your thoughtful and poignant contributions to this conversation – I hope to have time to reply soon.

    Serendipitously, I came across today a philosopher wondering how the study of ethics can fail to produce persons who are more ethical than others: not quite the same issue, but a related theme.

  13. December 11, 2013 11:04 am

    Victoria, Thanks so much for the link to the article by Benjamin Barer! It reminds me of this by Dallas Willard.


  1. Noting Abusive Theologians | Gaudete Theology
  2. Biblical Studies Carnival XCIV: December 2013 | Cataclysmic
  3. ‘Readers should know’ of theologian’s abuse
  4. Summer Slushbrain: So Much Internet | Gaudete Theology
  5. “Falling into the Holes in Their Own Thought” | BLT

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