Yoder has some pretty harsh (and quite Anabaptist) comments about the notion of churches attempting to deploy “education of the young people” as a sociological tool to preserve the church from the acids of the world. He attacks pretty furiously the notion that we have to work to “keep the young people.” He couches this in a critique of his own Anabaptist tradition, but partly does so by claiming that this youth-protectionist sort of mentality is really the product of the (Constantinian) state-church traditions:
“If we turn from this general introduction to the question of church-guided education of young people, we observe first of all that the movement toward church primary and secondary schools in the United States has been led by those churches that belong to the medieval state-church tradition. The Roman Catholics, the conservative Calvinists, and the conservative Lutherans lead the movement. These are precisely those churches that are by nature committed to a non-missionary view of the church. They baptize their babies, and seek by rigid catechization and strict moral teaching to maintain proper standards of behavior and doctrine. The parochial school is for them an effort to retain, in free America, the cultural monopoly that they had each in its own corner of Europe, in order to survive by use of deterministic forces. There is no reason to hold this against them, for it corresponds to their definition of faith as being primarily doctrinal. For them it is consistent, for they never did accept the biblical and Anabaptist claim that the visible church lives only by evangelization.”
A bit harsh perhaps, but coming from a background of being highly socialized into Christianity, and knowing full well the kind of irrational protectionist mentality that persists in the church about the young people “falling away” if they are allowed to actually experience the world, I think there’s a good point in here somewhere.
If we think the church can only be sustained through concerted social and psychological manipulation of our children, then the church isn’t worth preserving. After all, if we don’t really believe that the church lives by the power of the gospel to call people out of the world, we’ve lost the gospel altogether. Yoder delivers another zinger on this point:
“[Much of the church] fears that if the young person, especially in adolescence, is permitted to become acquainted with the world and its lures, he is sure to be lost. This prediction is, in all its intended realism, a lack of faith and a surrender to determinism. If the Gospel cannot call people out of the world, it is no Gospel. If what we preach to our young people cannot call them out of the world, then we must ask ourselves if what we are preaching is the Gospel. If placing people in a context of choice where it is possible to choose the wrong is unwise, then God himself made the first mistake when he created Adam and the worst mistake when he let people kill his Son. At the bottom of it all, this pessimism means placing oneself fully on the level of the world. It means agreeing with the world that all human development is determined by physical and psychological necessities; agreeing with the world that Christian faith is a matter of behavior patterns and of truths to be passed on; agreeing with the world that there is no miracle of resurrection, no miracle of faith, no Holy Spirit.”
Regardless of if one is persuaded by Yoder’s skewering of paedo-baptism, his blow against the protectionist mentality in the church is a solid one that needs to be heeded.
(Quotes are from John Howard Yoder, “Christian Education: Doctrinal Orientation,” in Concern for Education, Forthcoming from Cascade Books.)