Body Politics: What the Church is Called to Be

“…let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Matthew 5:16


We have considered Yoder’s definition of the politics of Jesus and his argument that these politics should be normative for Christian social ethics. We have seen, through Yoder’s analysis of the Constantinian shift, how mainstream Christianity has generally rejected the way of Jesus since the fourth century in favour of some other standard or guide. We now turn to Yoder’s view of the church as a living embodiment of the politics of Jesus in terms of its role, its characteristics and its practices.


Yoder asserts that the faithful church becomes part of God’s work of salvation within human history. He believes that this work is realised in the way the church as a gathered community lives its life together as a reflection of Jesus, as a visible and distinct entity and as an agent of social change.

Reflecting Jesus

The Body of Christ – the church continues to live the life that Jesus lived (a life of service, loving enemies, concern for the poor/outcast and refusal to compromise with evil). It represents the body of Christ to the extent that it allows Jesus to live on in the world.

A sign of Christ’s lordship – the fact that the church can live like Jesus demonstrates Christ’s victory over the powers and confirms his lordship.

Reflects God’s patience – Like Jesus, the church does not seek to control events. In its rejection of coercion it reflects the patience of God by accepting that humans are free to ignore or deny what it offers.

Worship as living in the Kingdom – like Jesus, the church equates worship with living in the kingdom of God as a distinct way of being human. This is a vision of worship as social process rather than ritual and liturgy

Visible and Distinct

A ‘called-out’ people – the church has been called-out of the world to become a visible and distinct people of God with a God-given role in history.

A foretaste of what is to come – in its life together the church represents a visible foretaste here and now of what will become true for the whole of creation in the end.

A model of a new humanity – empowered by the Holy Spirit, the church visibly demonstrates a new way of being human; confounding the assertion that in this life human nature is fixed and irredeemably sinful.

A visible witness to the world – The most important way in which the church communicates its message is by its visible life together as a witness to the world.

An Agent of Change

The centre of God’s work – God’s work in history is pursued through the church as a powerless and non-conforming fellowship rather than through powerful rulers, nations and empires.

Piloting new ways of living – the church is called to try out new ways of living reflecting the nature of the Kingdom of God and to offer these to the world as a gift (piloting new ideas that the world will adopt in time).

Demonstrating the possibility of Jesus’ way – Through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and the support and mutual admonishment of the gathered community, the church proves that it is possible to live like Jesus in this life. This proclaims the victory of Jesus over the powers.

Independent of the Powers – the capacity of the church to be an agent of social change is dependent upon its ability to remain independent of the powers of this world (e.g. the church must resist the temptation to use the ways of the word to achieve its ends).


Yoder identifies five main characteristics of the church:

A Voluntary Society – membership of the church is entered into by individual choice without coercion. One cannot be born into the church or be forced to join it.

A Socially Mixed Body – the church is an international and supranational fellowship. It is called to be a radically inclusive community with a membership that transcends the world’s divisions (e.g. of gender, ethnicity and class).
A New Way of Life – the church is united in a new way of life that reflects the way of Jesus in terms of forgiveness, suffering, economic sharing and servant leadership.

A Community of Discernment – the ‘ekklesia’ (meaning a public gathering to deal with community business) comes together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to make decisions and interpret the scriptures.

A Hebrew Experience – although the church is socially and ethnically mixed, the Jewish experience of exile and diaspora acts as a model for the social existence of the church as God’s people in the world


In his book Body Politics Yoder looks in detail at five practices of the early church drawn from the writings of the New Testament. These practices visibly demonstrate the way of the Kingdom of God to the world. They are all sacraments in the sense that, when humans do these things, God is acting through them.

1. The Rule of Christ (Binding & Loosing)

In Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 18, verses 15-20) Jesus sets out the way the church should deal with conflict and discipline within the community. This approach is significantly different from the focus on coercion, violence and punishment dominant in the world. What are its key characteristics?

• The aim is to achieve reconciliation rather than to inflict punishment.

• It is assumed that since God has forgiven us we should forgive each other.

• It only really works within a non-hierarchical voluntary community. The responsibility rest with everyone, individually and collectively.

• It is based on the community’s discernment of acceptable standards under the guidance of the Holy Spirit rather than on the laws established and enforced by those in positions of power.

• The ultimate sanction is loss of fellowship rather than more punitive forms of punishment such as prison or execution.

• In the context of loss of fellowship, reconciliation should always remain a possible option in future.

Jesus makes it clear that when humans act in this way they receive the authority of God (“whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”). He also promises to be a guiding presence whenever people come together to discern what to do (“For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.").

The principles of binding and loosing specified here by Jesus as the way appropriate to the church can be seen to be the basis of modern forms of conflict resolution and restorative justice.

2. Breaking Bread Together

Throughout the history of Christendom the Eucharist has been regarded by the mainstream churches as a spiritual and supernatural ritual associated with a sacrificial understanding of the death of Jesus. For Yoder, a mark of the Messianic age is that all basic needs will be met, so the Eucharist is an economic act. The ritualisation of breaking bread enabled Christians to avoid the economic implications of the politics of Jesus. This can be related to Jesus and the early church in the following ways:

• The importance of table fellowship within the ministry of Jesus.

• The strong influence of jubilee principles in Jesus’ teaching (see Luke 4:18-19).

• The example of the early church sharing basic necessities together (e.g. Acts 2:42-46).

• Paul’s teachings about the importance of sharing together in the Eucharistic meal (see 1 Corinthians 11:17-34).

Again, we have an understanding of sacrament as social process. When Christians practice economic sharing God is acting through them.

The principles of Eucharist as an economic act can be seen to have become incorporated into the world through such things as soup kitchens and social security systems.

3. Baptism into a New Humanity

Following the Constantinian shift baptism became a celebration of birth into Christendom (i.e. into a particular national/territorial entity). However, for Yoder baptism in the New Testament signifies entry into a new people and the creation of a new society that transcends all pre-existing identities and loyalties. The Apostle Paul represents this most strongly in his epistles.

• In Galatians 3: 27-28, Paul defends the new inclusivity of the church that has been made possible by the work of Christ:

“For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

• In Ephesians 2:14-15, Paul states that the work of Christ has ended the division between Jew and Gentile and has made possible a new unity for all humanity:

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace.”

The proclamation of baptism is that people can change. Although the powers of the fallen world have a vested interest in keeping people separated, alienated and in conflict, baptism shows that a people can be formed who exemplify the ‘new creation’ or new humanity’. Those who have chosen to join must give their loyalty to the Lordship of Christ. All other identities are transcended (whether these are of nation, tribe, class or gender).

4. The Fullness of Christ

In the Constantinian conditions of Christendom the role of priest or minister became limited to a small number of men, but to quote Yoder:

“The specialist purveyor of access to the divine is out of work since Pentecost.” (Body Politics p.56)

Yoder sees within the New Testament narrative the description of a new form of community relationships in which every member of the body of Christ has a distinct, divinely validated and empowered role. What has been called the ‘fullness of Christ’ is outline most clearly by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 4, and Ephesians 4. Such a vision has significant implications for the social structure of the church:

• Hierarchy is undermined if Christ is the head of the body.

• Dignity is assigned to every part of the community.

• There is no longer any need for the religious specialist (because the Spirit has been poured out on all).

• The community is characterised by a complementary mix of roles and skills.

• There are as many ministerial roles as there are members (so more than half of them belong to women).

This vision contrasts starkly with the forms of social structure that are generally dominant in the world; those of hierarchy and inequality. Again, this can be regarded as a sacrament. For when the members of the gathered community recognise and celebrate the dignity of diverse gifts, God is seen to be working through them.

This biblical vision can be seen as the basis for flat models of business management in the world.

5. The Rule of Paul

Within the liturgy and practice of the Constantinian church the freedom to speak has largely been confined to the priest or minister. Church architecture reflects this with its rows of seating for the masses facing the priest’s alter or the minister’s pulpit. However, Yoder points out that in the New Testament there is evidence that the early church practiced a much more open and dialogical approach to worship which further exemplifies the principles of the ‘fullness of Christ’.
This can be seen in particular in the Apostle Paul’s instructions about the correct way to arrange worship in 1 Corinthians 14 and in the Apostle’s discernment processes evident in Acts 15. Such an approach has the following characteristics:

• The church (Ekklesia) comes together to make decisions and discern the will of God under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit.

• Consensus or unity arises uncoerced out of open conversation.

• Everyone in the community has the right to take the floor and speak.

• Everyone in the community has an obligation to listen critically to what is said.

Yoder notes that it has been the Quakers who have applied these principles most thoroughly and self-consciously. Writing about of 1 Corinthians 14, the Pauline scholar Morna Hooker has said “The principle on which worship was conducted seems to resemble the one followed by the Society of Friends.” (Hooker 2003, p.150)

It can be argued that this form of worship as a Sacramental practice forms the basis of the modern notion of democracy.


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