I must confess, that when I began reading Joseph Hellerman’s new book, “Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why It Matters Today” I was not impressed. However, this faulty first impression was in fact a wrong I committed on my end. After setting the book aside for a couple of weeks, I decided to pick it back up and read it from the beginning, as opposed to jumping to the chapter I thought would be most interesting from the table of contents, and working backwards from there, like I did in my first attempt.
Somewhat to my surprise, this method of linear reading actually proved beneficial in both my comprehension of the content, enjoyment of the material presented, and learning practical and healthy ways to deal with my own convictions with the contemporary and counter-Scriptural models of pastoral leadership.
The positive endorsements by two well respected professors and men who have mentored me in ministry from afar, namely Eddie Gibbs from the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary and Gary McIntosh of the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, helped give me the encouragement to jump back into “Embracing Shared Ministry” with a new perspective in both eyes and heart.
Hellerman is a professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Talbot and is also a co-pastor at Oceanside Christian Fellowship in El Segundo, California. In his latest work, Hellerman synthesizes insights from his teaching experience with an ecclesiology elective called “The Church is Family”, along with a book by the same name, a previously published academic monograph titled “Reconstructing Honor in Roman Philippi: Carmen Christi as Cursus Pudorum, SNTSMS 132 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) and decades of ministry and co-pastoral experience in the local church.
“Embracing Shared Ministry” is broken down into three sections: Part 1 “Power and Authority in the Roman World”; Part 2 “Power and Authority in the Early Church”; and Part 3 “Power and Authority in the Church Today”. Complete with practical case studies, historical contextualization, and implications for our current Western ministry setting, Hellerman provides a tome that begs the reader to look backward in order to gain a clearer picture for the future of moving the church forward.
By exegeting the biblical text of Acts 16 as well as Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and providing cultural background on ancient Rome, Hellerman shows that the life the Apostle was calling the new believers to in this Roman colony was very countercultural to the emphasis on honor that the empire was accustomed to. Philippi, essentially a military retirement center, conducted its society on the basis of Roman hierarchy, where those who had continued to gain more and more, and those who had, not decrease to nothing. Instead, Paul instructs the church to “consider others more valuable than themselves” (Phil. 2:3). Though “honor” may have been the ultimate goal typically strived for among the Roman providences, Paul exhorts the Christians in Philippi to seek the virtue of “humility”.
In chapter 2 of Philippians, Paul eloquently explains how Christ Jesus did not consider his equality with God something to be grasped or used to his own advantage, but rather emptied himself as a servant, thinking of others more highly than himself and acting with obedience, even to the point of death on the cross (my paraphrase). In a divine and dramatic change of events, God decided to honor Jesus and “exalted him to the highest place and gave him a name that is above every name” (2:9 NIV 2011). Therefore, Paul compares the attitude believers should have more accurately with that of a slave than the arrogance of Caesar.
In the ministry context of the first century, public honor was more important than public service. And instead of seeking spiritual encounters with God, the majority of people sought an upward change in class status through socio-economic gains. Paul’s vision for leadership then, values service over status, talent over titles, and permission through relationship over positional rule. In this “cruciform leadership” as Hellerman describes it, there is a focus on others so that the church is centered around the community. This spiritual surrogate family is led by a plurality of pastoral-elders, who operate through true servant leadership. Charting vision, providing spiritual care for the Body, and even public teaching are all activities shared by this pastoral-elder team. In order to end the separation between pulpit to pew, this form of plurality leadership is comprised of both seminary trained “professionals” and the recognized spiritually mature “laity” that functions in a co-equal and cohesive manner.
The requirements for these roles our outlined in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Hellerman explains how at Oceanside Christian Fellowship, or OCF, three other factors are mandatory to be considered for this role: credibility or spiritual maturity, transparency, and authentic community among the pastoral-elders. Decision making in the church is done through consensus among the leaders, and because of the tight community formed between them, there is an attitude of mutual submission and communal discernment.
Hellerman does an excellent job at defining the three marks of Roman status and social class, as well as the structural and relational dynamics of Paul’s ministry context, and he illuminates the striking parallels between Acts 16 and Philippians 2. The author also comments on some of the well-intended yet biblically inaccurate views of the emerging church, and provides contemporary leadership examples from politics. Hellerman shows that neither the pastor as CEO model nor the “Lone Ranger” ministry leader has any evidence in Scripture. Instead of business literature, the church’s instruction for leadership or more appropriately stewardship, should come from the biblical text.
“Embracing Shared Ministry” is not only an excellent commentary on Paul’s epistle to the Philippians, but is also a practical manual for leadership in the local church. If you’re frustrated with the American institutionalization of Christianity and want to get back to the basics of the Bible, then this is the book to read!
Note: Thanks to my friends at Kregel Ministry, I received a complimentary copy of “Embracing Shared Ministry” in exchange for an unbiased and honest review.