Mennonite Church reaches out to sex abuse survivors

WINNIPEG, MB—Mennonite Church Canada is reaching out to people who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of renowned Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder.

Yoder was a biblical scholar and educator whose 1972 magum opus The Politics of Jesus was ranked by Christianity Today as the fifth most important Christian book of the 20th century. He taught at Goshen Biblical Seminary (now called Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary [AMBS]) and the University of Notre Dame, influencing theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas.

At the same time, Sara Wenger Shenk, president of AMBS, notes in an article for that a dark cloud looms over Yoder’s legacy: he sexually abused a number of women in the U.S.—incidents that came to light in the 1970s-80s. A task force from his local congregation concluded that Yoder had “violated sexual boundaries,” a Mennonite Church Canada (MC Canada) news release noted in October.

In 1992, Yoder submitted to a disciplinary process led by an accountability and support group, resulting in an intense four-year process. Yoder died suddenly on Dec. 30, 1997, just one week after being welcomed back to his home congregation.

Survivors of Yoder’s sexual abuse in the U.S. have renewed their call for Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) and AMBS to “revisit unfinished business with his legacy,” Shenk writes. Shenk and Erwin Stutzman, executive director of MC USA, initiated a discernment process in MC USA in September. AMBS is jointly owned by MC Canada and MC USA.

“Although a measure of healing followed the conclusion of the [1992] disciplinary process, so did profound disappointment” that there had been no public validation of abuse survivors’ testimonies, Shenk writes.

Karen Martens Zimmerly, denominational minister for MC Canada, says there were Canadians who attended AMBS during Yoder’s tenure there, and has invited any Canadian who encountered harassment from him to consider joining in “this renewed opportunity for healing.” Martens Zimmerly also sent a letter to pastors across MC Canada, which represents 31,000 baptized believers in 225 congregations.

“We felt it was important we make a statement and at least in some way invite survivors to come forward,” Martens Zimmerly told ChristianWeek.

No survivors had approached Martens Zimmerly as of early January, but whether or not any do come forward, she hopes the process starts a discussion about sexual abuse in the church.

“It is a reminder that sexual abuse does happen,” she says. “It’s not just an issue with John Howard Yoder, way back when. It continues to be an issue.”

(With files from Dan Dyck/MC Canada)

Dear Readers:

ChristianWeek relies on your generous support. please take a minute and donate to help give voice to stories that inform, encourage and inspire.

Donations of $20 or more will receive a charitable receipt.
Thank you, from Christianweek.

About the author

Special to ChristianWeek

Aaron Epp is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer, Musical Routes columnist, and former Senior Correspondent for ChristianWeek.

About the author