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Hauerwas on bishops

I’m increasingly suspicious that Hauerwas’s “ambiguous ecclesial position,” which he obviously knows is a problem for him, means more theological trouble for him than he realizes. Take this quote, from his response to Stout’s Democracy & Tradition in Performing the Faith:

We betray the very gospel we are to serve if we have “positions” that become substitutes for what the church is about. Put in Catholic terms that Yoder would not have liked (though John often said his only problem with bishops is that they did and do not act like bishops), the bishop remains the theological heart of the church. That is why theologians are subordinate to the bishop and should be disciplined by the bishop if our work threatens the unity and holiness of the church. (233)

This amounts to a total reversal of what it means for a theologian to be accountable to the church—a matter of subordination to the community’s most powerful member, and not, as for Yoder, “subordination” to the weakest. Does he think it’s possible to make this kind of claim while leaving the bulk of his dependence on Yoder intact? Does he think that Yoder’s refusal of a clergy/laity distinction, or of any fixed hierarchy in the community, is finally unrelated to Yoder’s pacifism, his ecclesiology, his Christology?

  1. March 19, 2010 at 9:00 am

    At least beginning in Peaceable Kingdom, Hauerwas’ pacifism is epistemological, such that pacifism becomes a way of naming the world as peaceable, commensurate with his emphasis on learning the church: both pacifism and liturgy train one in seeing rightly. So, the church-as-Christ-temporally necessitates the kinds of practices by which one is formed in the vision of Scripture; thus, those who lead out in this practice (bishops) and the practice of peaceability (pacifism) aren’t incommensurate.

    For Yoder, yes, ecclesiology and pacifism are related, but differently. The church, as that place which Christ has conquered the powers, lives out of that eschatological reality, in participation of Christ’s victory, i.e. peaceably in anticipation of the eschaton. “Institutionalism” for Yoder is part of that, in both church and state, which is symptomatic of ‘the powers’ continuing influence, and thus, is to be rejected if and when it threatens the communal nature of the church’s eschatological anticipation.

    Thus, Hauerwas can appreciate aspects of Yoder which speak of the corporate nature of faith, but they diverge here, as for Yoder pacifism comes out of an ecclesiology which means that all persons are equally disciples before Jesus apart from ‘institutionalism’, while for Hauerwas, pacifism is one means of learning to see the world rightly, with bishops also contributing to that goal of seeing-the-world-right.

  2. March 19, 2010 at 10:11 am

    That’s really helpful, Myles, to see differentiated the way these two parse the relation between their pacifism and their ecclesiology.

    The thing is, I still have enormous difficulty understanding, on Hauerwas’s own terms, why “those who lead out” in the practice of peace ought to be identified with the bishops. It seems to me that he’s only taken to making this identification pretty recently. Before that, authority by example is important, but church authority is neither fixed nor organized in a simple hierarchy (i.e., there’s no single authority in the community). I’d need to go back to and some close reading I haven’t done—so correct me if I’m wrong on this—but I would be surprised of that model of authority (which is Yoderian in form) wasn’t somehow part of the church’s peaceable witness in the earlier texts.

    Or maybe he just never wrapped it in, and this marks an important difference between Hauerwas and Yoder. One interesting way to get a handle on this might be to look through Hauerwas’s corpus for the idea of binding and loosing, diversity of gifts, or “the rule of Paul,” and see how these concepts get differently interpreted.

  3. Nate Kerr
    March 22, 2010 at 4:59 am


    One essay that you may want to look at on the question of binding and loosing is Hauerwas’ essay on Matthew 18:15-22 called “Peacemaking: The Virue of the Church.” It can be found in Christian Existence Today: The Virtue of the Church, pp. 89-97.

    • March 22, 2010 at 8:06 am

      Thanks for the recommendation, Nate. Didn’t know that was there.

  4. Katie Grimes
    March 22, 2010 at 6:55 pm

    Brian, do you think Hauerwas’ claim that theologians ought to be subordinate to the bishop, the community’s most powerful member, has anything to do with his suspicion/critique of the Enlightenment/liberalism? Considered in conjunction with Hauerwas’ affinity for being an iconoclast/saying unexpected things (aka “justice is a bad idea for Christians) which he doesn’t necessarily really mean, do you think he is saying this to counter or expose (what he would call) our idolatry of reason and the individual?

    I am wondering if he even really means this? Also, I am a bit suspicious if it is even fair for him to say this since (and correct me if I am wrong here) unlike Catholic theologians and especially unlike Jesuit theologians, I don’t think Methodist theologians have to worry about being silenced or corrected by their bishops. It’s really easy for someone like Hauerwas (in my understanding, Methodist bishops aren’t in the habit of laying the smack down) to make a claim like this when he will never ever have to subordinate himself to anyone.

  5. Noel Terranova
    March 22, 2010 at 11:07 pm

    Hamilton, I like the question.

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