The failure to bind and loose: Responses to Yoder’s sexual abuse

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Note from the Editor: This piece is cross-posted from The Mennonite, which excerpted it from a longer article, “’Defanging the Beast’: Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 89 (January), based on newly available documents and interviews with 29 individuals. Readers interested in Goossen’s work in its entirety, including documentation for women’s accounts of their experiences as well as Mennonite institutional responses, may order a hard copy of the issue from The Mennonite Quarterly Review. The MQR issue is also available as an e-book through, Amazon, iBooks and Barnes & Noble.

During the mid-1970s, the renowned Christian ethicist and theologian John Howard Yoder embarked on an experiment in sexuality, devising his own guidelines and selecting his own subjects, whom he called “sisters.”

Following a three-year term as president of Goshen (Ind.) Biblical Seminary, he developed “the notion of a distinction between two dimensions of sexuality, the familiar and the genital.”

Yoder speculated that people plagued either by inhibitions about sexual intercourse or by promiscuity would have difficulty attaining what he termed “the freedom of the gospel,” which he linked to Jesus’ encounters with women.

In a series of essays that he circulated on the seminary campus and beyond, Yoder speculated about Jesus’ sexuality as a model for his disciples, for the men who followed in his path.

Nearly two decades later, in 1992, a denominational task force established by leaders in Yoder’s congregation, Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Ind., confronted him with 13 charges of sexual abuse.

“These charges indicate a long pattern of inappropriate sexual behavior between you and a number of women,” the task force told Yoder, who had been ordained while serving as the seminary’s president. “The settings for this conduct were in many places: conferences, classrooms, retreats, homes, apartments, offices, parking lots. We believe the stories we have heard, and recognize that they represent deep pain for the women. … The stories represent … a violation of the trust placed in you as a church leader.”

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