Book Review: Embracing Shared Ministry
Author: Joseph H. Hellerman
Publisher: Kregel Ministry ISBN: 9780825442643
This was a very interesting book for me. I was initially captured by it because of an experience I had in shared ministry a little over three years ago. I attempted to be part of a church plant that was chartered to operate under a plurality of leadership. In theory, our faith community sounded wonderful; I was advised by people that our plans were much too idealistic and utopian sounding. I was warned that our efforts might be doomed to failure because leadership always rises to the top and it was unlikely that multiple personalities would be willing to mutually submit to one another. I still believe in the concept, but my detractors were right… at least they were right with regard to our attempt to operate shared leadership. Our attempt at shared ministry and a plurality of leadership was a “failure to launch.” It is for this reason; I was very interested in Joseph Hellerman’s instruction and example.
He begins this work and exploration of shared ministry with a very thorough analysis of the ancient world of the Philippians. This is extremely important and helpful for understanding a proper interpretation of the text (letter of Paul to the Philippians). The entirety of Part One of Hellerman’s book is about Power and Authority in the Roman World, and covers the first three chapters. This is some great contextual work here on the socio-political world of the early church. In my opinion, the discussion Hellerman engages with his reader on this cultural aspect of the Roman world might be worth the price of the book alone. This is good stuff that will certainly carry over in the reading of other Pauline Epistles.
Part Two, Power and Authority in the Early Church, deals specifically with the impact of the Gospel in the Philippian church. Hellerman stresses the importance of Paul’s message and example of pushing back against the cultural forces that shaped the society of Philippi. Power, status, legal and social privilege were the mainstay and chief commodity ruling the citizenship of Philippi. The message of “self-emptying” (kenotic living Phil. 2:5-7) as exemplified in the life of Christ was completely antithetical to the social status quo of the audience the Apostle was addressing. Chapter Five, The Humiliation of Christ, meticulously unpacks this “self-emptying” attitude of Christ his followers are called to emulate.
“The other-centered approach to power and authority illustrated in the humiliation and exaltation of Christ—and exemplified in the behavior of Paul and Silas in their ministry in Philippi—comes to life anew when viewed against the background of Roman social values and practices. There is something to be said for reading the Bible in its historical and cultural context.” (p.173)
Chapter Six, When Jesus is Not Enough, serves as the transition to Part Three, Power and Authority in the Church Today, and the practical examples for the cruciform lifestyles Christ-followers are called to lead. The examples Hellerman shares are fascinating to me, first person accounts that resonated with my personal experiences in the North American church world of the seventies, eighties, (I bailed in the 90’s), two-thousands, and two-thousand teens. The stories, examples, critiques, and proposals for ministry models captivated and held my attention throughout the remainder of the book.
“It is a long way from Roman Philippi to modern America… The cultural distance between Paul’s world and ours becomes shorter, however, when we consider the basic contours of human nature and the good news of the gospel. Some things are timeless—like the example of Jesus in Philippians 2… The perennial challenge is to figure out how to contextualize the enduring truths of the Bible in our own socio-cultural matrix.” (p.290)
This is a fascinating book, an excellent read on several levels. The historical exegesis alone is valuable for continuing Pauline studies. The application of cruciform living is the bedrock for all Christian virtues. Add these teachings to the organizational leadership principles proposed and you have a superb mix of application. Hellerman includes a comprehensive bibliography to compliment his teaching and support his proposals. Overall, a very good read.