Let me start by making one thing clear – this is not an attack of Yoder’s method as a prolegomena to ignoring his ethic. In my brief scanning through this book, I think that I will come to like much of what Yoder has to say. I also think I am going to have problems with his theology and/or exegesis. So my job, when trying to take onboard what Yoder has to say, is to understand where his different theology and exegesis affect his ethics, and determine whether the changes are significant or not.
In his introductory chapter, Yoder makes it clear that what he wants to do is to theologically and exegetically justify using Jesus as the source of social (and probably individual) ethics. In that introduction, he lists six reasons that people use to avoid an imitatio Christi ethic (p4-8):
1) Jesus gave his ethic as an interim measure for a period of time which he thought would be brief. He is not interested in society’s long term survival, because he expected the end of the world. Thus his ethic is inapplicable to social ethics.
2) Jesus’ ethic is only applicable in a village society. He has no concept of larger social or power structures
3) Jesus could not control the power structures of his world, so he didn’t try and didn’t encourage others to.
4) Jesus’ message was ahistorical. He dealt with spiritual not social matters and proclaimed atonement not obedience. Paul further internalises the faith and moves away from social ethics.
5) God is infinite and ethics are finite. Therefore there cannot be one single divine ethic that is the right answer to God’s infinity.
6) Jesus’ atonement is a free forensic gift. Just as guilt is not connected to a specific crime, so justification is not connected to specific obedience. Jesus death saves us but his life is ethically immaterial.
Now this is a collection of six very bad reasons to ignore an imitatio Christi ethic, but I suspect that in evangelical circles, point 6 is the most tempting. And this point seems to be behind Yoder’s thinking when he writes about justification by faith in chapter 12.