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Does the Church Precede the World?

John Howard Yoder famously makes the claim that the “church precedes the world” in at least two key senses:

“The church precedes the world epistemologically. We know more fully from Jesus Christ and in the context of the confessed faith than we know in other ways. The meaning and validity and limits of concepts like ‘nature’ or of ‘science’ are best seen not when looked at alone, but in light of the confession of the lordship of Christ. The church precedes the world as well axiologically, in that the lordship of Christ is the center which must guide critical value choices, so hat we may be called to subordinate or even to reject those values which contradict Jesus.” (The Priestly Kingdom, p. 11)

A bold and revolutionary claim to be sure. However, what does it truly mean for the church to precede the world in this sense? Or is this even conceptually possible?


  1. Hill wrote:

    In find these sorts of statements very compelling and do want to affirm them, but I struggle as well with what they actually mean. I’m a scientist, and it’s sort of difficult for me to bring the lordship of Christ to bear on the chemical bond. I mean… I can perform sort of poetic analysis and adequations of the beauty of the natural world to the mind of God, but I think the force of these sorts of statements asks for something more.

    Tuesday, October 7, 2008 at 10:08 pm | Permalink
  2. Ben Sternke wrote:

    The first time I was introduced to this idea was in Simon Chan’s Liturgical Theology – he used it as a way of shoring up evangelical ecclesiology, and speaking of worship as the main activity of the church.

    I also have difficulty figuring out what this might mean in practice. But it seems to me that if we don’t affirm it, the church becomes purely instrumental.

    Wednesday, October 8, 2008 at 5:01 am | Permalink
  3. Evan wrote:

    “But it seems to me that if we don’t affirm it, the church becomes purely instrumental.”

    Could you explain this a bit further, Ben? I’m curious about what you mean more specifically on the conception of the Church as “purely instrumental”. An instrument of whom, and toward what end?

    I think it’s interesting that Yoder uses vocabulary that can also imply a particular spatial or temporal placement of the Church when he discusses axiology and epistemology. I think the metaphorical possibilities (and limitations) of language of “preceding” are worth thinking through.

    Wednesday, October 8, 2008 at 5:54 am | Permalink
  4. Ben Sternke wrote:

    Well I think it was Chan’s point that the church was God’s goal in creation, instead of the church being a means to an end. So in that sense he is rejecting a view that the church is merely an instrument used by God for his purposes (which lie outside the entity called the church).

    Instead, Chan sees the creation of the church as God’s purpose in creation, not a means to some other end. The worshiping people of God is the ultimate purpose of God, and in the church we see this purpose being fulfilled (partially) “ahead of time.”

    So we cannot bypass the church in order to get around to “doing God’s will” – because the existence of the church (in all its mixture in the “in between time”) is the expression of God’s will.

    Wednesday, October 8, 2008 at 7:02 am | Permalink
  5. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Conceptually, this seems to me to imply quite simply epistemological and axiological “priority,” and not necessarily chronological priority. So, I don’t really see the problem with how to think through it. In other words, I don’t think that Yoder is saying that the church “preexists” the world “in the mind of God.” I think it thus has to do with something very close to the way Bonhoeffer understands “the break with the world” to function: by giving oneself over to Christ (recall that he says Christ makes one an “individual,” makes one “lonely”), who is “in the middle,” one gives oneself over to the break that Christ has already made with the world. That sort of break reorients everything for Bonhoeffer (see for instance what Bonhoeffer says takes place with Abraham at Mt. Moriah). In my mind, this seems to be all Yoder is saying. Maybe I’m being shortsighted though.

    Wednesday, October 8, 2008 at 7:06 am | Permalink
  6. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Hill, bringing everything under the lordship of Christ for Yoder seems more directly to bear on the “powers and principalities,” and doesn’t necessarily mean “literally” everything.

    In a comment on the “church as entelechy” post, I addressed some of these concerns about instrumentalizing the church…but again, I feel it needs reiterating that we should be wary of reducing “God’s plan for creation” to “the church,” not least wise because the “New Jerusalem” is incredibly Jewish! Which is another way of saying, it would be a vast mistake to assume in an ecclesiologico-centrist/Marcionist way that we must depict the church as “the New Israel” in a way that loses God’s purposes for…well, Israel! I don’t want to just repeat what I said in that comment, so I’ll shut up, but I should also add that Nate Kerr forcefully argues in his forthcoming book that Yoder is perhaps the only theologian of the 20th century to take these ideas seriously, and that his “Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited” is for that reason one of the most neglected texts of 20th century theology. Alright, I’ll shut up. Peace.

    Wednesday, October 8, 2008 at 7:15 am | Permalink
  7. Nate Kerr wrote:

    Interestingly, what Yoder does not say here is that the church precedes the world ontologically. I think this has to do both with the transcendence of Jesus Christ as also with the fact that Yoder is here seeking to articulate a certain “ethical style.”

    Wednesday, October 8, 2008 at 1:21 pm | Permalink
  8. Austin Eisele wrote:

    It seems to me that the epistemological and axiological priority of confession is a pretty basic and profound position of Christian theologians, in the tradition of Anselm’s “faith seeking understanding” (among other thinkers).

    As to how this actually functions practically, a problem Hill brings up: of course, atomistically looking at a chemical bond seems to fall outside the realm of this priority. But in a larger view, this priority refuses to regard anything as “neutral”, as beyond our values and our epistemological assumptions. Implicit in Yoder’s argument is that one is taking a stand somewhere, no matter what the subject. To do so means that one is implicitly committed to the values that form the presuppositions of any science. This commitment, even if it seems methodologically innocent, often carries with it explicit practices at odds with a Christo-centric conception of reality.

    I think all it means we must fully consider the implicit commitments that we have, in any realm. E.g., we ought to seriously consider our use of metaphors like ‘survival of the fittest’, which methodologically seem quite fruitful, but have trickled down into ecclesiological practices in significant ways (think of big box churches, and the type of preditory evangelism that sees the survival of “mainstream” churches as one of natural selection).

    Wednesday, October 8, 2008 at 1:29 pm | Permalink
  9. Along with “instrumental,” we might also say that Yoder’s view exempts identifying the church as “incidental” (rather than “essential”). Hauerwas takes that thread and runs with it.

    Wednesday, October 8, 2008 at 6:41 pm | Permalink
  10. masonmusic wrote:

    I love this quote. My reaction to the question of applicability is more one of excitement.

    After hearing so many people call Hauerwas a “sectarian tribalist…,” and hearing his response over and over again (“i don’t want them to be separate, i want them to be Christians”), I begin to wonder if I’m crazy for not seeing the ‘sectarian’ nature of Hauerwas or of quotes like the one above. But they remain for me, good good news.

    Epistemology: I think the practical difference or applicability, is in considering your local church a political system with political power, with guiding convictions which are different from the politics of your city, town, or rural village (most notably in its imitation of a murdered person instead of a victorious warrior). This ‘knowledge’ of Jesus as Lord becomes practically the other side of the statement, “if Jesus is Lord, then others are not.”

    This knowledge should be understood not as factual statements by which to exert power over others but the transmission of a way of life, a way of belief, which does translate into actual life. Every sermon, every song, every communal action of the Church must be informed by this epistemology. We have been too long fed a privatized gospel that tells us week after week and year after year that the gospel is for your heart and is definitely not a rival system to the systems of this world

    Hill, I think an Christian epistemology gives science not necessarily new ideas on the system of science but new ways of implementing (or not) certain ideas in science. That is, the Christian community would want to tell you what to do with the things you discover, and they would tell you different things than other systems. I would also say there is kudos due to Christian history for the propagation of science as a passionate pursuit.

    Wednesday, October 8, 2008 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

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