Review: Embracing Shared Ministry

Hellerman, Joseph. Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why it Matters Today. Kregel Ministry, 2013.9780825442643

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.

Two Caveats

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.


Comfort in tribulation

Where do we flee to receive comfort in times of tribulation, suffering of the soul? Many times we are directed inward. But realistically that can be a dead end. If I am struggling with sin, temptation, despair, then my inner voice is often the loudest cheerleader for continuing in the pit of despair.

How then do we find comfort in tribulation? We go where Jesus, the Word incarnate, has promised to be: His Word. The Word spoken, the written Word, the visible Word (Baptism and Lord’s Supper), the forgiving Word (Absolution).

Martin Luther understood the turmoil of the Christian life. He also discovered in the written Word how God speaks to His people. Yes, the Word as Law condemns, but once the Law has worked that result, then the only Word God speaks is words of comfort, forgiveness, hope. In the book The Genius of Luther’s Theology, Robert Kolb and Charles Arand write (also quoting Luther):

Because human life in this world stumbles over temptation and tribulation of many kinds, faith also needs constant reinforcement through the Word of promise. In such times believers are called to flee to Christ’s bridal chamber. There Christ alone reigns, and he “does not terrify sinners and afflict them but comforts them, forgives their sins, saves them. Therefore let the afflicted conscience think nothing, know nothing, and put nothing against the wrath and judgment of God except the Word of Christ, which is a Word of grace, forgiveness of sins, salvation, and life everlasting.” Such reliance on grace is hard for those caught in the struggle to repent, but it is faith’s way under the power of the Word. (p. 143, Quoted part from “Lectures on Galatians 1531-1535,” Luther’s Works 26:120)

When we struggle with sin and its affects (guilt and shame), we often find it hard to turn to God. Our temptation is to continue listening to the condemning Word of Law.

But even well-intentioned Christian friends can offer words, but the effect is the opposite.

Christians distinguish the use that the speaker makes of the law from the function the law actually performs in hearers’ hearts and minds. They should not be surprised when their attempts to bring order and discipline to people’s lives gives these people new insight and instruction regarding how human life works best. And Christians should be particularly sensitive to the fact that what they intend as instruction in good living or a simple call for order and discipline can easily turn into a crushing message, perhaps even an accusation, for a tender conscience. (p. 150 The Genius of Luther’s Theology)

I need to hear that comforting Word—often. My memory, my guilt, my shame want to continue in the dung pile of sin. I don’t need the Word of condemnation. I can’t stand it! If God is speaking one more word of condemnation through friends/family, it will be too much.

But Jesus says, “No! That is not my final Word. I have fulfilled the Law (Matthew 5:17); I am the end of the Law (Romans 10:4). Come to me all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest for your souls.” Jesus says: “No more! You are mine! Nothing can separate you from My Father’s love through Me!“

Our hope and joy is a both/and (now, not yet) situation. Jesus brings forgiveness, joy, peace, etc. now, and then there is the final hope when Jesus returns. We will hear that ultimate comfort:

Come, my Father has blessed you! Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. (Matthew 25:34)

Those are words of comfort today, and every day. And we need to hear that word often.

HCSB Reading God’s Story


I have been using this resource for several months for daily devotional reading of the Bible. I like many aspects of it. The amount of reading per day is reasonable, following a chronological approach to Biblical events.

I will not comment on the HCSB translation because I have done that elsewhere on this blog.

The focus of the post today is the format, and specifically one aspect of the format.

Formatting the Bible

One of the unusual aspects of this particular Bible is that it is divided according to Acts and Scenes, like a play. Act 1 presents creation through the flood. Act 2 presents God’s call of His people (Genesis 12-Malachi 4). Act 3 presents the New Testament. I follow the logic and appreciate that kind of division. 2013-10-11 HCSB Daily03

But therein lies the problem. If you want to find a particular chapter of the Bible or keep track as you read, there is no easy way to do this. For instance, in this photo, notice that the identical Act/Scene information is on each facing page.

That duplicate information really is not helpful. A more helpful use of the headers is to have the Act/Scene information on the left facing page (even numbered pages), and then the running header on the right facing page (odd numbered pages) that would provide the book and chapter information.

This change would allow the reader to have the advantage of the Act/Scene division and at the same time have the more traditional rendering of book and chapter information.

Obviously in this photo example it is rather easy to determine the book (if you know the Bible books). There are only two books that have at least 63 chapters, Psalms and Isaiah. But if some are reading through the Bible for the first time, that knowledge may not be at hand.


Inconsistent use of Yahweh

Another Call to Review HCSB and God’s Name

As I have been reading through HCSB for daily devotions I have discovered even more instances about the inconsistent use of Yahweh rather than LORD (or vice versa). In the Introduction to HCSB we read:

However, HCSB OT uses Yahweh, the personal name of God in Hebrew, when a biblical text emphasizes Yahweh as a name: “His name is Yahweh” (Ps. 68:4). Yahweh is also used in places of His self-identification as in “I am Yahweh” (Is. 42:8). Yahweh is used more often in the HCSB than in most Bible translations because the word LORD in English is a title of God and does not accurately convey to modern readers the emphasis on God’s personal name in the original Hebrew. (“Introduction to the HCSB,” p. xii, Reading God’s Story: A Chronological Daily Bible)

That sounds good, and works in those specific instances. But I will note some inconsistencies with this in practice. I am selecting readings that I have come across in the last couple weeks of daily reading. And these are random; I have found many others in my daily readings, but these illustrate the issue.

Leviticus 22:3

Say to them: If any man from any of your descendants throughout your generations is in a state of uncleanness yet approaches the holy offerings that the Israelites consecrate to the LORD, that person will be cut off from My presence; I am Yahweh.

Notice here that within the same sentence LORD and Yahweh is used. Would the reader make the connection such that they both refer to God’s personal name?

Deuteronomy 4:1

Now, Israel, listen to the statutes and ordinances I am teaching you to follow, so that you may live, enter, and take possession of the land Yahweh, the God of your fathers, is giving you.

There is nothing distinctive about the name in the verse, yet throughout the rest of the chapter LORD is used 4:2, 3, 4, 5, etc.

Deuteronomy 6:3-5

3 Listen, Israel, and be careful to follow them, so that you may prosper and multiply greatly, because Yahweh, the God of your fathers, has promised you a land flowing with milk and honey. 4 Listen, Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is One. 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.

In this case the exact same introduction (“Listen, Israel”) to both verses is followed by Yahweh in v. 3 and LORD in vv. 4-5. This does not even seem to follow the guidelines in the “Introduction.”

Deuteronomy 7:7-9

7 The LORD was devoted to you and chose you, not because you were more numerous than all peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. 8 But because the LORD loved you and kept the oath He swore to your fathers, He brought you out with a strong hand and redeemed you from the place of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. 9 Know that Yahweh your God is God, the faithful God who keeps His gracious covenant loyalty for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commands.

Again, no distinctive reference to the name, but the inconsistency of the use of Yahweh and LORD.

Deuteronmy 14:23

You are to eat a tenth of your grain, new wine, and oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, in the presence of Yahweh your God at the place where He chooses to have His name dwell, so that you will always learn to fear the LORD your God.

Here the use of both in the same verse but both seem to refer to the name. Can the reader make the connection?



I know that I have written about this in other posts. But when reading through the daily readings (relatively quickly—four chapters a day) the inconsistency regarding Yahweh/LORD becomes even more apparent and frustrating.

I seem to remember some hint that HCSB will be edited and will use Yahweh consistently for יְהוָ֣ה. I think that is a positive move, and for readers, it can’t happen too soon.

Another positive change would be to remove the “Plan of Salvation” page in the introduction of every HCSB sold (not everyone agrees with the theology it represents). Instead include a one page summary of all names in the Bible that have Yahweh as part of the name: Isaiah, Joshua, Jeremiah, Zechariah, Jehoshaphat, etc. That would provide a connection between the use of God’s name in revealing salvation (Joshua) and spurning God’s name (Zedekiah) leading to destruction.