[This post is intended to be a reflective interaction with the quoted material in the previous post. It is not necessary—though I recommend it—that you should read all of that material before reading this post.]
When I consider the biblical notion of cross-bearing, so vividly stirred up by Yoder, it seems that a three-fold division emerges of what different Christians take to be the essence of cross-bearing discipleship. Each is discussed in the material I quoted from Yoder. Again, these would be three ways of understanding what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus as His disciples:
1. Cross-bearing as ENDURING LIFE PAIN
This would mean that, as we encounter various difficulties in life such as illness, accidents, setbacks, relational problems, and emotional pain, we are able to see this as taking up our cross and following the Lord Jesus. Perhaps we or a loved one has cancer. Maybe we find ourselves in the dark cavern of depression. Maybe it’s divorce. For a great many of us nowadays, there is the terrible weight of ongoing joblessness. If we go through these things and heroically remain faithful, trusting the Lord, are we carrying our cross?
(See Yoder excerpt #s 8 and 10.)
2. Cross-bearing as PERSONAL SANCTIFICATION
Here we would think of the pains of mortifying our flesh, dying to self and living to God as the work of bearing our cross.
(See Yoder excerpt #s 8 and 11.)
3. Cross-bearing as ENDURING the WORLD’S HOSTILITY
This is the great emphasis found in all the quoted material from Yoder and one of the major ideas reflected throughout the whole section of The Politics of Jesus from which I have drawn those excerpts. (Note that the page numbers I have listed range from 37 to 130; this spans from chapter 2 to chapter 7.)
Where Yoder is RIGHT
As far as I’m concerned, Yoder’s affirmative point is utterly established as clear, biblical teaching. When the Scriptures call on us to carry our own cross and follow the Lord Jesus—i.e. to be His disciples—it means we are to “share in that style of life of which the cross is the culmination” (#2) and to be “willing for the sake of [our] calling to take upon [ourselves] the hostility of… society” (#1).
In Luke 14:27, our Lord says, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me, cannot be My disciple.” And Yoder is totally right in saying that the Lord intends this as a statement of political and social-ethical significance. This is the Lord’s “call to an ethic marked by the cross, a cross identified as the punishment of a man who threatens society by creating a new kind of community leading a radically new kind of life” (#6).
Where Yoder is WRONG
The problem comes when Yoder makes the claim that ONLY the third category properly qualifies as cross-bearing.
What of the first one? Does the Scripture call on us to endure the pains of life in a way that looks to our Lord in faith? Of course! But is that fact sufficient to justify calling that endurance a way of bearing our cross? In the final analysis, I believe it is. The cross (together with the empty tomb) is the center point of our faith. It is also the center point of our Lord’s earthly mission. He came to redeem what had been lost and broken in the Fall. I am convinced that Genesis 3 teaches us that the Messiah will not only defeat the serpent but also reverse the curse such that the other aspects of our sad state are also addressed by His work as Savior. Man’s toil for food, the strife between men and women—all of it is to dealt with by the One who goes to the cross for us. Insofar as we still suffer the consequences of the Fall, we are afforded the opportunity to walk the road to Calvary with our Lord.
Consider the specific example of illness (see excerpt #s 8 and 10). It is the Lord Himself who teaches us to see a connection between His cross and our infirmities, both spiritual and physical. At Capernaum, as He is healing all who are ill, we are told that this is in fulfillment of the prophecy that “He Himself took our infirmities and carried away our diseases” (Matt. 8:16-17). This comes long before His crucifixion, but is linked, by way of the context of the passage in Isaiah to the Lord’s work at the cross.
And the second category? How is the cross related to our personal sanctification?
Yoder claims that the believer’s cross is not “an inward wrestling of the sensitive soul with the self and sin” (see #8). And in a denial very closely related to this one, he says that it is not correct to use “cross” language in reference to “subjective brokenness, the renunciation of pride and self-will.” Conceding the great benefits of confession, he avers “that ‘cross’ is not the word for that in the New Testament” (see #11).
And yet, according to the apostle Paul, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified (read: cross-ified) the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). The noun translated as “cross” throughout the NT is stauros, and the verb “to crucify” is stauroō. Actually, Dr. Yoder, “cross” IS the word for that in the New Testament.
Moreover, it is not necessary that the word “cross” be explicitly mentioned for us to connect the believer’s cross to the work of sanctification. What does Paul mean when he tells us that the key to our growth in Christ is to remember that we have died with Christ (e.g. Rom. 6; Col. 3:3,5)?
To see that the Lord’s cross—and consequently ours—as a political phenomenon which sets us in such relation to the world as to draw its hostility is to see a great biblical truth. To miss the fact that the Lord’s cross—and consequently, ours—is about salvation from sin and the putting off of the old man is to miss the forest for the seeing certain trees.
It is terribly unfortunate, in my estimation that Dr. Yoder wrote about these matters as he did. What I find troubling is that I am reading his 1994 second edition in which he discusses at length the various bits of critical response he received to the original 1972 publication, and there is no mention of anyone challenging him at these points.
The Politics of Jesus is now legendary among a certain brand of theological thinker, and deservedly so. But it might have had an even wider circle of influence—to the great benefit of the church—had Yoder been able to show a balance as regards the cross. It is clear that he is responding to a number of errors in Christians thinking; in fact, he clearly explains that that is what he is doing in practically every section. But unfortunately, on this one point, he seems to have been so focused on recovering one aspect of a truth that he has sacrificed others.
How desperately we American Christians need to recover a biblical understanding of cross-bearing discipleship as being just that sort of social-political mission that Yoder pictures! We just don’t need to do so at the expense of the other facets of being in Christ.
Yoder, Still a Hero
A reader might get the impression that I am not much of a fan of Yoder. I want to be clear that that is far from true. Here and there, I find myself in disagreement with one of his points. But by and large, I can say with great delight, John Howard Yoder is one of my heroes in the faith. I only have two of his books as yet, but I already know that his thought has become for me one of the main lines of Christian engagement with life and the world. For example, when I listen to talk radio (both Christian and not), I find myself comparing what I hear to the things I have been learning from reading Yoder.
Further Significance of the Cross as Social Controversy
There is an interesting point to make regarding the teaching of Yoder and the believer’s cross as a decision to stand up with Jesus and challenge the powers of the world. Many of the emergent or quasi-emergent church leaders seem to be big fans of Yoder and The Politics of Jesus, in particular. But they too seem to have missed the point of the scandal of the cross that is shown therein. More on this later…