Hellerman, Joseph. Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why it Matters Today. Kregel Ministry, 2013.
This book should be read by every Christian leader: pastor, elder, deacon, etc. It will challenge each of us as we sit under the searching light of his study. Power and status matter today, not because they are critical, but how they are defined, used, and abused. Instead, Hellerman offers us an alternative approach to leadership that is based on Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
A title can reveal much. I was intrigued by the title/subtitle. The title Embracing Shared Ministry caught my attention because that is an area of ministry that is seldom explored. But then the subtitle raised a little concern, thinking that this might be some 21st century sociological reading back into history.
I was pleasantly surprised as I read the book. Joseph Hellerman focuses on Paul’s letter to the Philippians and therefore the social, political, and religious environment of Philippi. His major point is that by looking at the first century contemporary scene, we gain a better understanding of Paul’s specific language in Philippians. At the same time, he applies that new understanding to the contemporary church scene and relationships.
Specifically he examines how authority and power were exercised by Paul and how he desires that to be followed by the Philippians. Hellerman contrasts that with the contemporary Evangelical churches in which authority and power have often been misused and hence church leaders have abused the authority entrusted to them. He notes:
The perennial challenge is to figure out how to contextualize the enduring truths of the Bible in our own socio-cultural matrix. The regrettable phenomenon of authority abuse in our churches suggests that we are doing a less-than-adequate job along these lines, where pastoral leadership is concerned. (p. 290)
The Roman colony of Philippi offers a unique combination of Roman society, culture, and military that other Roman cities do not. Hellerman provides extensive documentation of Roman cultural practices within society. He details the order within society, how rigid the lines could be drawn and maintained. The public marks of social status, specifically clothing, were not only a way of life, but a structuring of life. Other marks included seating order in public events and Roman legal ordering and punishment.
Particularly helpful was the background that Hellerman provides concerning honor and the critical role it played in the Roman world. In addition to literary evidence of importance of honor, he reviews the more than 700 inscriptions found in the area of Philippi. Philippi was encased in a society based on power and status in all realms of life. And that was the challenge that Paul addressed in his letter.
Paul addresses both social consciousness of society and honor in two places in Philippians. When Paul encourages a different attitude among the Philippians he provides the example of Jesus himself in 2:5-11. Hellerman notes that this is not so much a Christological passage as it is an ecclesiological one (and I think he is correct in this assessment, but this is not to deny the Christological/ontological application). Jesus’ honor of being equal with God is then muddied by becoming human. Even worse, he suffers the death that no Roman citizen was allowed to experience: crucifixion. Even more astounding is that in 2:9-11 Jesus is exalted again.
He did this in service to humans, and Paul says, “Have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had” (2:5). Paul’s description of himself in 3:5-6 follows the Roman honor system, but then he also puts it upside down in 3:7-9. He considers it all loss for the sake of Christ. In other words, Paul is following his own advice in 2:5, as he demonstrates that in his own ministry.
Hellerman moves to the early church and how that societal structure could interfere with and even contradict the Christian Church. That is challenge that faces the Church today as well. How do leaders lead? Is position, authority, power the most important thing for a pastor/leader? Sadly that is often the situation. And of course, that can lead to abuse of the very same.
I think this book is critical for the church today and I recommend for all leaders. At the same time I add two caveats about the book.
1. The issue of abusive leadership is across the spectrum of Christianity, but his application seems very narrowly focused. The attention is in the Evangelical world, but even more narrowly, to large Evangelical churches with multi-staff pastors. Perhaps it is related to his ministry positions only in Southern California and the unique world that offers. Therefore, all his experience is in large multi-staff churches. All of his helpful examples reflect that same narrow segment.
This is not so much a criticismof the book’s information, but if the abuse of power in the Church is as extensive as he suggests, then the application should be more broadly addressed. Most congregations have less than 75 people in worship, with one pastor, perhaps even part time (far different from the Southern California experience). The lessons from Hellerman’s study would be welcomed into this “other world” of the Church. (I have served congregations in very rural areas as well as suburban congregations, so have some understanding of the differences and similarities of each as well as needs for pastors/leaders).
2. Several places in the book the author mentions the plurality of pastor/elder as the ideal structure for congregations. Yet he never develops that thought, but rather assumes it in his working out the implications of Philippians for congregational leaders. In the context of those congregations that have such a polity, his advice seems appropriate.
But he offers only two options: the corporate CEO/pastor model, which has caused much trouble in many congregations, or the plurality of pastor-elders as the ideal. There is, in fact, another option that is never addressed: the call of the congregation of the pastor(s) and other church workers. This model helps avoid some of the problems troubling both other options, especially the hire-fire mentality for those in service to God and God’s people. I think that the third (Lutheran) option is Biblical.
Recommended for Church Leaders
Many of his insights and recommendations can be useful in this third option. And I will recommend to Lutheran pastors (as well as others) this insightful study. This book will help me and others become better servant leaders. For that I thank Joseph Hellerman for this timely and insightful book.
Note: Thanks to Kregel Academic & Professional for the review copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.