Body Politics: Baptist practices and ethical formation
Dr Nigel G.
Spurgeon's College, London, UK
Baptist Union of Great Britain
I hope in this paper to
combine several themes. My over-riding concern is to show how essential
practices of Christian and specifically Baptist worship shape and form the social
ethics of our communities.
It has been asserted in
recent ethical debate, not least in the works of the Methodist ethicist and
theologian Stanley Hauerwas, that ethical discourse should concern itself more
with issues of virtue and character than with so-called 'quandary situations'.
In the latter the logic is as follows: ethical practice is based upon laws and
principles governing our behaviour. Occasionally these laws or principles come
into conflict with each other, creating a quandary that must be debated and
negotiated to determine right behaviour. As an example, Christians are
commanded not to kill but at the same time to defend the defenceless. The
obligation to defend must therefore at times over-ride the obligation not to
kill. Just war theory sets out the conditions in which such a decision might be
made. Ethical discourse concerns itself therefore with boundary situations and
with exceptional cases in which an absolute command might be suspended for the
sake of an even higher imperative.
By contrast, a virtue-based
approach is concerned not with punctiliar decisions that might be made from
time to time but with what kind of people do the right kind of thing. The church, in place of the casuistic approach
which deals with exceptions and hard cases, should be more concerned with the
formation of primary virtues in its members in the assurance that virtuous
people will tend to choose right courses of action. From this is derived a
chain of thought that goes as follows: Virtues
(such as honour, compassion, honesty, peaceableness, kindness) proceed from the
character which is formed within
people. Character is formed through the communities
out of which people come. Communities are shaped and their values reaffirmed by
means of the practices in which they
typically engage. Practices are a product of the stories which provide the narrative for the community's
As applied to the Christian
church we can see how this might work. The story
of the Gospel gives rise to a community
shaped by it which has a variety of practices
in which it makes the meaning of the story concrete and these in their turn
shape the character of the church's
members leading them to virtuous
living. For the sake of moral living it can therefore be seen as essential that
the church exists as a multiplicity of congregations with distinctive practices
shaping the life of its members. This is where we make the connection with
Baptist worship. Baptists share a story with the rest of the church,
interpreting it according to their own particular inclinations and convictions.
Within the catholic church and its common affirmations they are also shaped by
insights and experiences belonging to their particular history and tradition.
These are made concrete in their distinctive approach to the church's common
practices and also in those practices that are not necessarily universally recognised in the church but
which Baptists take seriously (the church meeting might be an example of this).
We should expect then that worshipping Baptist communities might tend to
produce people of a distinct kind with certain instincts and inclinations as to
moral and ethical practice. This paper explores what these might be.
I explore these themes by
means of a 'reading of recovery'. Much has been written in the history of the
church, not least in our own tradition, and much of it has been inadequately
heard and appropriated. In 1992 the
Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder (1927-97) published a brief but suggestive
book (of 88 pages) to which he gave the title Body Politics: Five practices of the Christian community before the
watching world. Typically
for Yoder, the book is the product of a variety of conferences and lectures in
which he had tried out his main themes in debate with others. For that reason,
and also typically, it reflects contexts and controversies that may not be
immediately obvious to the reader. Yoder was very much a dialogical theologian with the consequence that reading him is
sometimes like listening to one end of a telephone conversation. Perhaps for
this reason he can also at times seem to be ignoring themes and emphases which
belong to a more complete exposition or even denying things which he actually
intends to complement with points less often made. However, his book offers
some insights relevant to the intention of this paper and although they come
from a Mennonite, this tradition, and Yoder's own commitments to the wider
believers church tradition, mean that there are fruitful insights here.
As the title suggests, Body Politics is about the nature of the
church as a political body. Yoder
resists the prevalent notion that church and civil community are two separated
spheres such that the church must negotiate some kind of transfer from one to
the other if it wishes to make an impact upon the political realm. Instead, the
church is essentially and already within itself a political
community and as such influences the wider political realm by simply being what
This idea is opposed to both
'liberal' and 'pietist' approaches to the issue. As seen by Yoder, the liberal
approach derives from the life of the worship life of the church a variety of insights concerning human nature and the
world which it then carries over into the wider community. The pietist approach
focuses on a new set of insides which
leads them to life-changing behaviour. This slightly strained use of language
enables Yoder to state his point:
community, like any community held together by commitment to important values, is a political reality. That is, the
church has the character of a polis
(the Greek word from which we get the adjective political), namely, a structured social body. It has its ways of
making decisions, defining membership and carrying out common tasks. That makes
the Christian community a political entity in the simplest meaning of the word.
Because the church is a
political entity in these terms, Yoder goes on to make a further crucial
Stated very formally,
the pattern we shall discover is that the will of God for human socialness as a
whole is prefigured by the shape to which the Body of Christ is called. Church
and world are not two compartments under separate legislation or two
institutions with contradictory assignments, but two levels of the pertinence
of the same Lordship. The people of God
is called to be today what the world is called to be ultimately.
The church, then, precedes
the world in expressing in its social and political existence the will of God
for all humanity and, indeed, the way that will ultimately prevail in God's
purposes. The church should for this reason be examined in regard to the set of
relationships which functions within it, in particular as these are expressed
in its practices. To develop his thesis Yoder selects five of these practices
and examines them for their political significance for the church on the one
hand and their political potential for the wider community on the other. The
practices he chooses are: 'binding and loosing' (by which he means the life of
dialogue and mutual correction within the church as a way of resolving
differences), the Lord's Supper, baptism, ministry and 'the rule of Christ' (by
which he means what many Baptists would call 'the church meeting').
Before examining these in
order, a word concerning Yoder's understanding of the term 'sacrament' is
appropriate. Historically, Baptists have had some caution about the use of this
word mainly because as used in the majority traditions it has been understood
to mean that the very action of a sacrament, of baptism or eucharist for
instance, has power to effect what is symbolised by it. So baptism, as an
example, has the power to effect regeneration ex opere operato, by virtue of the act itself irrespective of the
faith of the recipient. Baptists have decisively rejected such a view and have
insisted, as with the Reformed tradition in general, that without faith such
actions are rendered inoperative. The word 'ordinance' has often been preferred
as a way of recognising the 'ordaining' of certain practices in the teaching of
the Lord. In its turn this has risked suggesting that the ordinances are not
powerful moments but mere signs and testimonies of something that happens apart
from them: baptism is a sign, for instance, of grace already received in
conversion rather than itself a means of grace. This position is often
associated with the name of Zwingli and labelled as 'bare memorialism'. Now it
ought to be possible, and in my opinion is so, to chart a course between these
two positions so as to affirm the grace-filled, powerful nature of the
ordinances/sacraments when received in faith. There have been, and are, Baptist
theologians who are keen to affirm the sacraments as instruments of grace in
this sense. George Beasley-Murray affirmed baptism, as one sacrament, as an
instrument of God. It is a 'trysting-place' or place of rendezvous where God
has promised to meet those who draw near in faith.
Yoder appears to be sympathetic to this perspective although doubting whether
the word 'sacrament' can be disentangled from its 'sacramentalistic' magical
and mechanical misreadings.
Following Augustine, a sacrament is routinely defined as 'an outward and visible
sign of an inward and spiritual grace'. Yoder however bases his understanding
on the promise of Jesus that, 'What you bind on earth is bound in heaven'
(Matthew 18: 18) and defines a sacrament as a human action in which, 'God would
at the same time be acting "in, with and under" that activity'.
In that basic
'lay' sense of a human action in which God is active, all of these five
practices - fraternal admonition, the open meeting, and the diversification of
gifts, no less than the other practices of baptism and Eucharist - are worship,
are ministry, are doxology (praise), are celebratory, and are mandatory. They
are actions of God, in and with, through and under what men and women do. Where
they are happening, the people of God is real in the world.
In this Yoder is countering
a view of the sacraments that sees them as mysterious and other-worldly in
favour of one which finds them taking sociological, political form in the shape
of the Christian community and therefore of being 'publicly accessible
behaviors, which the neighbors cannot merely notice but in fact share in,
understand, and imitate'.
In so doing the neighbours presumably find themselves being drawn into the kind
of life God intends for all and which is anticipated in the church.
Enough has been said to set
the general framework and attention is now given to the five practices in
One is not surprised to find
Yoder, a Mennonite theologian, identifying the practice of 'fraternal
admonition' as a fundamental practice, indeed sacrament, of the church.
Referring to the ways in which church discipline has been used abusively in the
church, even in Mennonite churches, he is at pains to cast this practice in the
best possible light. Rooted in the teaching of Jesus about the several steps to
be taken when a brother or sister sins
Yoder sees the intention of Jesus as having to do with the moral discernment of
the Christian community and the practice of the 'dialogue of reconciliation'.
What is envisaged here is not so much church discipline as a conversational
process aimed at harmonising the Christian community. The aim is not to punish
but to serve the well-being of offenders by reconciling them to the community.
It is the responsibility of the whole church and not of ministers alone and is
not, as a reading of some corrupted versions of the Matthew text might suggest,
to be exercised only when one is personally sinned against but whenever a
sister or brother sins. As a practice it only makes sense when there is a
voluntary nature to the community, that is, when members have willingly
submitted themselves to its practice.
Without this it does become a form of imposition and coercion. The essence of
the practice is reconciling dialogue based on mutual forgiveness which creates
equality and trust. This essence has been lost in taking the practice out of
the community as a whole and vesting it in priests and clergy as a specialist
task of confession and reconciliation.
We have here a
fundamental anthropological insight into the relationship of conflict and
solidarity. To be human is to have differences; to be human wholesomely is to
process these differences, not by building up conflicting power claims but by
What counts as a human action
which is also pregnant with divine action within the church also illustrates
Yoder's primary thesis: what is true for the political and social reality of
the church has potential for wider human society as a model of living together
in social relationships.
Conflicts can be resolved by means of conversation, as is notably the case with
conflict resolution practices. Facing conflict with redemptive dialogue is what
the gospel brings to light as a genuine possibility not just for the politics
of the church but also of the earthly city. It builds community by seeking for
It is tempting at this point
to comment extensively but I shall restrict myself to a few remarks. It is a
tendency of Yoder to interpret the church and its achievements in optimum partem. It is a constant problem that the politics of the church fall
far short of what might be reasonably expected from the regenerate community.
At the same time it is beyond doubt that Jesus was giving guidance to the
community he founded about alternative ways of dealing with conflict other than
strife issuing ultimately in separation and rejection. Sceptics might feel that Yoder is
idealistic, but the thrust of Jesus' teaching as he presents it is challenging:
to seek strenuously for reconciliation with those with whom we are at
loggerheads. Few of us could claim that there is not further that we could go.
In expounding the practice
of breaking bread together Yoder dismisses with a degree of impatience the extent
to which a primal and essentially simple practice of the church has become
burdened with theological and ceremonial baggage that renders its proper
meaning hard to recover.  These push
the practice into the realm of the specially and mysteriously religious when it
should be seen clearly as primarily an economic
reality. Jesus was not instituting
a liturgical meal so much as claiming as his memorial the disciples' 'ordinary
partaking together of food for the body'. This is clear to Yoder in the early chapters
of Acts where breaking bread together goes hand in hand with generous sharing
with each other. The
eucharist is therefore a common meal partaken in a spirit of thanksgiving.
Yoder's intention here is to rescue the eucharist from the set-apart world of
religious ceremonial in order to see it in more ordinary terms as an act of
economic sharing of rich and poor in the newness of the messianic community. To
follow Yoder's sacramental line, when this happens God is working in the human acts of sharing. It represents a form
of Jubilee. It leads to
feeding the hungry and in this act the 'real presence' of Christ is also to be
At first glance it seems
that Yoder may here have been too keen to exclude a liturgical dimension to the
eucharist and therefore to be engaged in a form of reductionism, downplaying
the dimension of divine encounter. The fact that eucharist has its origin
precisely in the Passover, a liturgical meal of Israel, suggests that this is
not an either/or situation and that it ought to be possible both to hear his
corrective and affirm more traditional approaches. We are now, however,
beginning to catch the drift of his thought and the next practice he identifies
is the central symbol of baptism.
'Baptism introduces or
initiates persons into a new people'.
Functionally, therefore 'baptism is about the transcending of inherited
nationalities and conditions, as for instance in the merging of Jews and
Gentiles in the new humanity of the church.
As such, the church anticipates and stimulates the movement of history
towards the new society of the kingdom of God.
Baptism therefore implies egalitarianism and this is a dimension that more
individualistic approaches to baptism might overlook. Yoder's views here
reflect the crucial statement in Galatians 3: 28: 'There is no longer Jew or
Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus'.
This trans-ethnic unity
essential to the church once more sets the tone for the wider community. It is
not, despite the founding documents of the USA, 'self-evident' that all people
are created equally. Creation itself might be held to suggest that people are
divided into inequality by tribes, tongues and nations. By contrast, Paul's
understanding of redemption is what
leads to a message about equalisation between people.
At this point Christian egalitarianism might be distinguished from its parallel
in Enlightenment ideology. Equality is founded upon our universal indebtedness
to God's saving work in Christ. It is here that we come together and baptism is
the sign of this inclusion. Incidentally, we identify here a basis for
religious liberty since baptism 'is the person's free choice to join a movement
in response to having heard a message that invites him or her to become a
At this point, with two more
practices to examine, we pause for a moment to take stock. Yoder's point is
that the church's practices have social meaning. Those we have considered speak
of the importance of reconciling dialogue, of economic sharing and of the
formation of an inter-ethnic community. As the church embodies functionally
these realities, which Yoder does not shirk from calling political, so it
acquires transformative potential, the ability to impact the wider community in
the direction into which it is already being drawn. Worship is translated into
ethical formation and impact.
So we come to two further
practices and, some substantial points having been made, perhaps we can
summarise them more succinctly.
This section is called by
Yoder 'the fullness of Christ' but by it he means the practice of Christian
ministry. It refers to 'a new mode of group relationships, in which every
member of a body has a distinctly identifiable, divinely validated and
empowered role'. Once more
Yoder is either opposing or seeking to correct more traditional emphases, in
this case upon ministry by a clerical élite rather than the whole people of
Whereas there is a 'chronological priority' to the ministry of apostles and
prophets and a 'procedural priority' given to the roles of 'elder-moderator' or
'elder-teacher', Yoder finds Paul's metaphor of the body as a way of
understanding the giftedness of the church 'consistently anti-hierarchical'.
Indeed, Paul is both counter-intuitive and counter-traditional in the way he
develops the metaphor of the body, relativising the idea of 'the professional
purveyor of access to the divine' in the direction of common access and
ministry. Pentecost puts religious specialists out of work. Jesus was both the
last sacrifice and the last priest. 
Once more the practices of
the church, rooted in the redeeming work of Christ, have potential for
re-envisioning a wider society which breaks free of confining and disabling
understandings of group relationships. Yet this particular practice is the one
that, according to Yoder, is still to be the subject of a future reformation,
the church never having consistently sustained its insights but having
persistently lapsed back into the demand for religious specialists. There is no
denying that Yoder's burden here is one that needs careful attention. But in my
own judgement he neglects the degree to which in the gifting and enabling of
the whole people of God, there are indeed special gifts and ministries which
are given to some and not all. Moreover, the achievement of the ministry of all
is intimately related to the freedom of the some to exercise their enabling
So we come to the last
practice, which Yoder sometimes calls somewhat confusingly the 'rule of Paul'
and at others the 'rule of Christ'. He means what is often also called the
There is some overlap in
this section with what Yoder has said both about binding and loosing and about
the fullness of Christ and it relates to the freedom of all to speak. He calls
this 'the rule of Paul' because in 1 Corinthians 14 Paul sets out an order for
Christian worship that allows all to speak who believe themselves led of the
Spirit to do so. Yoder points out that there is no reference here to a
moderator or 'priest' managing the meeting. All
may speak and all must weight
what is said. The order set out by Paul has parallels with Acts 15 in which the
church deliberates and decides and is extended in the first Christian centuries
into an inter-church process of synods and councils.
The process involved in all of this is the search for consensus arising from
open conversation. This enables the will of God to be known in the meetings of
By way of secular analogy,
which we have seen is one of his persistent concerns, Yoder draws attention to
the thesis of A.D.Lindsay, that Anglo-Saxon democracy emerged out of the
Puritan conviction that the hearers of the Word of God were free under Christ
to talk back to its expositors. 
In secular terms this involves the willingness to listen to one's adversaries
since, as Gandhi saw, the adversary is part of the truth-finding process. It
can therefore be argued, with justification, that government of the church by
means of the conversational process of church meeting is not the daughter of
democracy but its mother.
Yoder's concern has been to demonstrate
that the very fabric and essence of the church's life expresses and embodies a
new social reality in which God himself is active and at work. The presence of
such a political community in the midst of the wider community has secular
implications. It works transformatively within the wider community even when,
perhaps mostly when, it does not set out to be explicitly political. According
There is .. a
kind of mediation, a 'bridging-over', which our five 'practices' illustrate,
from the faith community to the other social structures. This kind of
'mediation' is not a mental or verbal operation of translational or conceptual
bridging, but rather the concrete historical presence, among their neighbors,
of believers who for Jesus' sake do ordinary social things differently. They
fraternize trans-ethnically; they share their bread; they forgive one another.
These activities are visible; they are not opaque rituals. They lend themselves
to being observed, imitated, extrapolated.
One conclusion from this is
that the church should have the courage and integrity to be what it is. In
fulfilling its vocation to worship God and living out the reality of this
worship in its practices, it does not remove itself from the so-called 'real
world'. It embodies the 'real world' as it already experiences the renewal
which is held in store for all things. By preceding the world in this way is
discovers more power to renew its environment than it might imagine possible.
In details I would at many
points wish to qualify Yoder's claims not in order to deny them but to affirm
more constructively than he appears to do the positions from which he
distinguishes himself. He leaves much unsaid in his theology of baptism. I am
left unconvinced that the eucharist is not primarily a liturgical meal. He
overlooks the importance of some kinds of specialisation in the roles of
pastor-teacher, evangelist or apostle. But this apart, his thinking adds a
dimension to more established approaches that ought not to be missing. Many of
his points apply equally to Christian churches of whatever persuasion, but
particularly in his comments on baptism and church meeting there are points
relevant to our own tradition. By these practices a form of discipleship is
developed that shapes the church and forms its members for mission to the
world. Out of the worshipping life of the congregation there comes a shaping
power. For this reason how we worship and what we practise is a primary not a
secondary issue. This leads us to revalue our heritage and to see it is as more
than a mere tradition. Rather it has vital significance for the way we live
morally as church and the way we make our impact.
 E.g. The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (London, SCM Press, 1983).
 Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1992.
 Body Politics, viii.
 Ibid, 9 (my emphasis).
 G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1972), 305. See also Stanley K. Fowler, More Than a Symbol: The British Baptist Recovery of Baptismal Sacramentalism (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2002).
 Body Politics, 44, 72.
 Body Politics, 1, 6.
 Body Politics, 72. It is clear here that Yoder does not go along with the traditional Protestant understanding that there are only two sacraments, baptism and eucharist, in distinction from the Roman Catholic identification of seven such. Given his definition of what makes a sacrament sacramental there is clearly room for a variety of practices, certainly more than five, in which human actions may also be seen as divine actions.
 Body Politics, 73.
 Matthew 18: 15
 Body Politics, 2.
 Body Politics, 5.
 Body Politics, 8.
 Body Politics, 11.
 Body Politics, 14.
 Body Politics, 16.
 Acts 4: 32
 Body Politics, 19.
 Body Politics, 24-5 cp. Leviticus 25, Isaiah 61, Luke 4: 16 - 21.
 Body Politics, 27.
 Body Politics, 28.
 Body Politics, 32.
 Body Politics, 35.
 Body Politics, 43.
 Body Politics, 47.
 Body Politics, 51.
 Body Politics, 54.
 Body Politics, 56.
 Body Politics, 63.
 Body Politics, 67.
 Ibid cp. Lindsay, The Churches and Democracy (London: Epworth Press, 1934).
 Body Politics, 74-5.