Time to confront John Howard Yoder’s sexual assault and abuse and Mennonite Church complicity

by Barbra Graber

This is cross-posted from Our Stories Untold

I remember the Sunday morning two Mennonite Youth Fellowship friends were made to get up in front of the congregation to publicly confess their sins. They were pregnant out of wedlock. Meanwhile John Howard Yoder, the most acclaimed Mennonite theologian and symbol of male power in the church sexually assaulted and harassed untold numbers of Mennonite women and was never made to publicly confess. And AMBS, the Mennonite seminary that hired him, was somehow rendered powerless to take action, allowing years of silence and collusion to go by while a file of complaint letters accumulated in the Dean’s office. To their credit, AMBS eventually fired him, but neither AMBS nor Indiana-Michigan Conference has ever been called by the church or anyone else to publicly explain or acknowledge the years of complicity. Quite the opposite.

John Howard Yoder continues to be lauded, his books roll off the presses, and there’s pressure from all sides to go back to business as usual, though again to their credit AMBS has made some helpful changes to the way in which his writings are introduced in the classroom.

I am a survivor of sexual abuse by men of the Mennonite Church, though not JHY. And I have walked through hell and back with many of the church’s soul-scarred women (and men), including victims of JHY. Long time friend Ted Swartz, after reading my recent rant about reviews of JHY’s books in “The Mennonite” asked me, “So what needs to be done? It feels like we are stuck…is it possible to move forward?” I like a challenge from friends and thanks to Ted I sat down again to reflect. I too would like to see us move forward. But we can’t cry “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” There is no peace (and may never be) for many women who lost years if not lifetimes of normal, healthy, joyous living for having been sexually abused by male leaders of the Mennonite Church. And JHY remains a symbol of those widespread woundings like no other churchman.

In the interest of offering practical suggestions and moving toward justice, peace and healing within our Body of Believers, here are seven suggestions, offered for further discussion and discernment:

  1. Let’s all be clear and truthful about what actually happened in the case of JHY. People still ask me what he actually did that was so bad. Words like “inappropriate”, “liaisons”, “dalliances”, “alleged abuses”, “crossed boundaries”, “improprieties”, and “misconduct” to describe Yoder’s actions are highly misleading. The actions of JHY reported to me, beginning in the 70′s, were sexually abusive assaults, sudden acts of aggression. They were obscene and persistent sexual harassments. They were clear perpetrations of sexualized violence. Women don’t write letters of complaint to powerful institutions about liaisons with powerful men. They usually don’t bother to write complaint letters about improprieties. An impropriety is a sexist joke. Stop the whitewashing. The man committed crimes and was very lucky to have been spared a jail sentence.
  2. For Mennonite Church leaders: Admit without reservation that you got it wrong with JHY in the past. Pledge to make the ending of sexual abuses of power by our church leaders a clearly and broadly articulated priority. Create at least one setting for public acknowledgement and confession for the years of silent complicity and ongoing harm. This could take place through an open letter in The Mennonite, signed by any involved or their representatives; and it could happen through a public ceremony of confession at a national (and international) church conference. This festering wound cannot close and the Spirit will not breathe freely through our church until this dirty business is simply and sincerely acknowledged without excuses. If it ends in legal action, which is highly unlikely, so be it. Let the debt be paid.
  3. For journalists and book reviewers: When you discuss JHY’s work, have the courage to acknowledge the controversy, at least every once in awhile. It could be the simplest of statements: “In troubling contrast to his work, we now know that John Howard Yoder’s life was seriously flawed by acts of sexual violence against women. Though he left a legacy of harm, ironically his writings continue to inspire and attract new readers.” If this has ever happened in a JHY book review, please forward on to me. It would make my day.
  4. For scholars of JHY’s works: Welcome, encourage and make efforts to include analysis of the astoundingly ironic disconnect between Yoder’s orthodoxy and his severe lack of orthopraxy in the discourses you initiate. Stop barring, marginalizing and shunning anyone who suggests this might be a worthy and beneficial scholarly endeavor.
  5. For Mennonite men: create safe and appropriate invitations for women in your church and in your circle of friends to talk about their experiences of sexual violation by men and the impact it has had on their lives. Practice deep listening. Perhaps this kind of event has occurred in some Mennonite Church congregations. If so, I would love to hear about them. Challenge your male friends who don’t get it and go to the police or social services about the friends you know or suspect are abusing. Don’t expect them to be able to be truthful with you. If you are or have ever been caught up in perpetrating sexualized violence, likely due to an earlier unhealed victimization, make confession. Seek help and healing.
  6. For Mennonite pastors and those who educate and supervise them: Stop the secrecy. Talk about it from the lectern and the pulpit. Make it safe to name names. Believe the victims and confront those named on their behalf. Turn law breakers over to the police. Stop covering up crimes in a naive belief that the church is equipped to handle these things on its own. Vet and choose lawyers carefully. Create opportunity for, ask for, and if not forthcoming, demand confessions to the congregation. By requiring this you will help the perpetrator begin to heal. Your silence is not an act of love, but of collusion. Don’t shun perpetrators. Embrace them, but hold them accountable and create strict boundaries. And if they refuse to cooperate and attempt to return to church property, don’t hesitate to take out a restraining order.
  7. Break the silence and tell your story at www.OurStoriesUntold.com. If your perpetrator has never been reported or exposed it is very likely he will assault again and again through out his lifetime. It takes courage, but experience also shows that breaking your silence and telling what happened is the only way to find true healing. There is so much hope for new life if we can muster the courage to do the right thing and confess to our own brokenness.

Call me naive. Say these things will never happen. I’ll hold out hope for the good people of the Mennonite Church and the power of Spirit-led healing and reconciliation till the day I die.


Our Stories Untold Editor’s Note: For more information on John Howard Yoder’s sexual misconduct, please see Ted Grimsrud’s article documentations here.

Comments (12)

  1. Melanie

    Excellent post. I appreciate so much your practical, thoughtful, real suggestions, and your willingness to share your own experience.

  2. Janet

    So, I’m a survivor of sexual abuse within the church. I do not claim to know it all – at all. I have these issues with this missive:

    1)While I understand that those who have been abused often need advocates to forward their cause – I don’t see anywhere here the JHY’s victims have asked, nor endorsed this particular “advocate.”
    2)While I deal daily, for the past 50+years with anger, I also am keenly tuned in to hear it in others – this sounds personal, and angry – and, I’m not sure that it is completely appropriate.
    3)We have all “sinned” and “fallen short” of the “glory of God.” I do not think that I am judged by my sin alone. I do not know the heart of JHY – and I daresay neither does the writer. I do not know if he ever repented . . . .
    4)We can deal with this without “crucifying” perpetrators. This is essential for healing. The vindication is not ours.
    5) I think a resolution by the church – and an apology for the silence is long past due – and needs to happen asap.
    6) I don’t think we should focus on one person – JHY – as “the evil” – or we are just what we accuse the church of doing with him – making him “the hero/saint/etc.”

  3. Danny Klopovic

    Perhaps one additional way of addressing this would be to publish a proper full length book that includes for instance Ted Grimsrud’s reflections, the Elkhart articles etc.

    There is an ever-increasing body of work surrounding Yoder’s intellectual legacy (which I admire) and I’d suggest that it would be important to provide such a book as an important and essential counter-witness. This would provide the “troubling contrast” noted in point 3.

  4. TimN


    There is a book of essays on this topic: The Elephants in God’s Living Room, Volume Three: The Mennonite Church and John Howard Yoder by Ruth Elizabeth Krall. Here’s the description:

    In a series of loosely connected essays, this book examines and explores the interpretive meaning of the twentieth-century United States Mennonite Church’s encounters with women’s allegations of sexual misconduct in the life of its leading evangelical theologian-ethicist John Howard Yoder. This book builds upon previously published theoretical work about (1) clergy and religious leader sexual misconduct and (2) religious institution clericalism in Volumes One and Two of this series which can also be accessed and downloaded from http://www.ruthkrall.com.

    This current volume focuses upon multiple hermeneutical issues of interpretation and meaning. To do this it utilizes a methodology of thick description as described by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz. It also builds upon the psycho-historical biographical methodology of Euro-American depth psychologist and developmental psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. Throughout the book the author raises an underlying question for readers of these kinds of biographical case studies: once we know x or y about a socio-cultural-historical situation, so what?

    Public health issues of primary, secondary and tertiary prevention in sexual violence studies are also addressed. Suggestions are made to the present and future church about ways to proceed into a less violence-prone and more violence-resistant future.

    It can be downloaded for free on Ruth Krall’s web site.

  5. Tim B

    I don’t want to dismiss sexual abuse but I do want to offer some context. It seems that prior to the 80s, or even 90s, the way we dealt with sexual abuse was simply to not talk about it. We look at the Catholic Church and their widespread abuse of adolescent males and see the cover-up, for it’s time, this was par for the course. I suspect that the same was done for Mr. Yoder, people looked the other way and tried to ignore it. That was the unwritten rule in our society.

    Thankfully, we have moved on and sexual abuse and harassment, as a matter of policy, is swiftly dealt with. This doesn’t mean it’s always handled well, Lord knows we have a lot of work left to do.

    For example, in the last week I was at a work function and clearly saw sexual harassment. Without going into details, neither the abuser nor the abused are co-workers, nor are they employed by the same company. We are all “dotted-lined” to one another. Wanting to expose the harassment could lead to political fallout for my own company and myself and, besides, we lack any authority to reprimand the abuser. However, that rock should be turned over and the abuser’s employer should be notified; the question is “by whom?”

  6. Marlene

    We need to call a spade a spade. Yes, forgiveness is appropriate, but so is sanction. Maybe public humiliation isn’t appropriate, as was once practiced in the church, but neither is denial. As a friend of survivors, and a survivor myself, there is no place for this man’s books to be required reading in any curriculum. Don’t use him in your bibliography of any paper you want me to read. He isn’t a credible resource, or authority on peace, justice and honor, if he himself wasn’t peaceful, or just. Stand on the side of the victim, protect the sister who cries in silence.

  7. Jonny

    Last year AMBS faculty and administration released a statement on how they use JHY’s work:


    Just yesterday, Sara Wenger Shenk (current AMBS president) wrote some reflections of her own on this topic:


  8. Ruth Krall

    Since the Roman Catholic Church situation has been approached as a corollary situation – which in some ways it can be interpreted that way, here is a very important and current address by Father Thomas Doyle, the leading world expert on his church’s historical and contemporary abuse situation. Here is the URL to an address given to a bunch of secular lawyers earlier this year.


    In addition, Michael D’Antonio’s new book – Mortal Sins – is an excellent review of the past thirty years of Roman Catholic history vis-a-vis its pedophile priests and the church’s cover-ups.

    Ruth Krall, Professor Emeritus, Goshen College

  9. Pingback: What’s to be done about John Howard Yoder? (guestpost) | Thinking Pacifism

  10. Pingback: Reflections from a chagrined “Yoderian” (part one) | Thinking Pacifism

  11. Monica

    Although I did not grow up in the Mennonite church, I have been connected for about 18 years. And never, not once, not ever have I heard this about John Howard Yoder and the complicity surrounding him. But boy have I heard about his books!! I am stunned to have stumbled across this late revelation on a random facebook post a few minutes ago. Thank you so much Barbara for your impassioned, logical, powerful call to action.

  12. David L. Habegger

    From David L. Habegger, 3001 Ivy Drive, Apt. 304, North Newton, Kansas
    The accounts of John Howard Yoder’s sexual discretions bring feeling of deep sadness that a man of such intelligence should have failed so miserably in his relationships with women.
    I was never in close contact with him. I felt he was somewhat insecure among his peers. He may have been aware that if others learned of his indiscretions that he would have to face public rebuke, and condemnation. He must have lived in fear of being exposed. What bi-polarity was he feeling internally?
    Were there persons in responsible positions who knew of his failings who yet took no action to stop him or publicly criticize him? If so, are they not also culpable? What do the records show? Did the women ever write up their complaints and give them to persons in positions of authority? If they did, those in authority were complicit in John’s activities if they did nothing to correct and discipline John. They also face judgement.
    This is a sad, sad story of wrong doing, and more light needs to be shed on what all took place. How else can we keep it from happening again???

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