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The Voluntary Church

John Howard Yoder often gets critiqued (the work of Oliver O’Donovan is a good example) for his alleged “voluntarism.” Yoder, being an Anabaptist is, of course, opposed to infant baptism and insists that membership in the church must always be a voluntary, free, and uncoerced reality. Thus, the baptism of children is suspect for Yoder as it is an act totally void of active participation on the part of the baptized.

Now, whatever we might think of this I just want to make one point. Yoder is not guilty of voluntarism in any sort of modern sense. Yoder and Anabaptism as a whole does not emphasize the voluntary nature of the church for the sake of enshrining the freedom of the individual to be self-determining. Indeed, this is impossible on the basis of the Anabaptist vision of ecclesial discipleship which always involves strong communal commitments and mutual submission.

The only point Yoder makes in emphasizing the voluntary nature of the church is that membership in the body of Christ cannot be coercively imposed. That is all. The church is voluntary in Anabaptist theology, not because the modern self requires it, but because unilateral coercion cannot be used to make disciples. The one and only point of speaking of the church as a voluntary community is to say that no one is either forced into it or born into it. Rather persons are drawn into it through Christ’s to discipleship.


  1. Hill wrote:

    If infant baptism constitutes unilateral coercion, then it seems like the raising of children in a faith generally is unilaterally coercive.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 9:35 am | Permalink
  2. Hill wrote:

    Just saying that this isn’t voluntaristic doesn’t make it not voluntaristic.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 9:37 am | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    I don’t see how this is true. It’s not coercive to be born into a certain social-familial network, that’s just a fact of life. But there’s a difference between say, being born black and being registered, by your parents to be a card-carrying member of the Black Panthers when you’re an infant and then being compelled to assume that role for the entirety of your life prior to adulthood.

    And just saying it is voluntaristic doesn’t make it voluntaristic.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 9:46 am | Permalink
  4. Hill wrote:

    No one is “compelled to assume” the role of being a Christian, in any practical sense, in virtue of being baptized. Baptism is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition of being a disciple of Christ.

    The charge of voluntarism comes from the sense that making an “informed decision” as an adult is somehow “more authentic” or “more genuine” than being baptized as an infant, which again, is very simply a voluntaristic conception of human formation. I don’t know how I can put it more simply. The “problem” of “coercion vs. adult baptism” is a false one that is created by a voluntarist conception of the human person that I don’t think you have escaped. I don’t think that a justification of adult baptism, as a contingent historical practice, requires voluntarism, but the anti-paedobaptist strain of it typically does.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 10:20 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    It seems to me that the notion that baptism is somehow not synonymous with commitment to the life of discipleship is not something we can get from the New Testament or the early Fathers. Especially the Apostle Paul’s logic of baptism militates against this:

    “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Cor 12:13);

    “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” (Gal 3:27)

    I don’t see the notion that baptism plus X makes a Christian. That seems like an arbitrary construct.

    Also I didn’t say anything about some sort of proportional level of “authenticity.” That is not the issue. Also, I never mentioned, not do I use the term “adult baptism.” Believers versus unbelievers baptism is what’s operative here. The Anabaptist position is simply that we shouldn’t baptize those who do not believe in Christ, regardless of their age.

    This has nothing to do with some sort of fully-informed, mature, adult decision making process. Someone could easily come to believe in Christ through any number of processes, informed, adult, or otherwise.

    Ultimately voluntarism is just a scare word in these sorts of debates that shuts down the discussion. At some level every form of sacramental practice could be charged with it. If we are to avoid all active and intentional participation of people in the reception of sacraments, why do the Catholics require a long period of catechesis and personal decision-making prior to first communion?

    It is finally a question of what baptism really means theologically. From what I see in the New Testament and (at least much of) the early church baptism means being united with Christ in and through the Church, becoming part of Christ’s body. I don’t see how this happens apart from a commitment to discipleship. To call this voluntarism is simply incorrect unless we are willing to call all forms of intentional decision and commitment to Christ voluntaristic.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 10:48 am | Permalink
  6. james wrote:

    I think what needs the most direct challenge here is that “unilateral coercion cannot be used to make disciples”. I think even every baptist with children knows discipleship can be coerced.

    The question is, is any of this coercion (or more kindly, formation) an instrument of the Spirit or must initial discipleship be uncoerced, unformed by social structures, to be “spiritual”. If so then I think we are back to the charge of voluntarism.

    Another issue would be how religious affiliation and its likelihood is influenced by biology inherited from parents. Should these “animal spirits” be embraced as pointers of prevenient grace?

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  7. Theophilus wrote:

    I am unconvinced that equating “coercion” with “formation by social structures” allows any space whatsoever for “uncoerced” activity. Such a social vacuum simply does not exist, or is at least not inhabitable. That position amounts to determinism, and leads rather naturally to Calvinist double predestination. If you’re willing to go there, that’s one thing, but if you have issues with that, then it is necessary to accept that genuine choice is possible even in a social context, full of all manner of outside influences and pressures.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  8. james wrote:

    But you speak of the influences and pressures as thought they were neutral. Why can’t they be instruments of God to generate conversion? The whole living “with the grain of the universe” thing. Parental influence on religious affiliation certainly seems to with the grain.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 12:07 pm | Permalink
  9. Theophilus wrote:

    I’m not sure how exactly you’re disagreeing with me here. All of what you’re saying is compatible with double predestination. I read you explaining how external factors may be mechanisms by which the will of God is accomplished (and I certainly do not disagree with you in this), but that wasn’t my question. I was questioning the degree to which those “influences and pressures” dictate human action. If their dictation is absolute, then there is no uncoerced action, and the sovereignty of God therefore results in double predestination. If you reject double predestination, you acknowledge that not all human choices are coerced, in spite of whatever positive or negative “influences and pressures” may be present. And by this, the spectre of childrearing as coercion ceases to negate the possibility of baptism involving the human will.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 2:01 pm | Permalink
  10. james wrote:

    well done, but i’m not sure what I believe finally

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 2:12 pm | Permalink
  11. Christian wrote:

    Not being an expert on the arguments concerning volunteerism, I wonder if understanding the Christian’s “decision” to be baptized into discipleship to Christ might be better understood as a “response” than a “choosing.” It seems that it is clear from Scripture that Christ calls us first, and that our decision to follow him is a response to that calling. Rather than, say, a surveying of options and a “choosing” that this is what I want to do with “my” life, it seems that a response to the call of Christ places the primacy or significance on the action on the call or grace of God rather on the human agent. This is not to discount the need for a human to make a decision, but this decision is secondary to the initiating action of God. Perhaps this is merely a matter of semantics, but it seems like there is something here that may transcend the confines imposed on decision making by the concept of volunteerism.

    Thursday, November 26, 2009 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

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