Book Review: Embracing Shared Ministry, by Joseph Hellerman


Joseph H. Hellerman. Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why It Matters Today. Grand Rapids: Kregel Ministry, 2013. 307 pages. $17.99.


Joseph Hellerman writes Embracing Shared Ministry as a New Testament scholar and a seasoned pastor, seeking to apply the fruits of his scholarly activity to the problems of the church. In a 2005 monograph he argued that in Philippians Paul “intentionally subverts the social values of the dominant culture in the Roman colony at Philippi in order to create a radically different relational environment among the Philippian Christians” (11). This current book is an attempt to apply his thesis to modern abuses of power in the church, reminding us of Paul’s “cruciform vision for authentic spiritual leadership,” that is, “other-centered leadership—leadership in the shape of the cross” (14–15). In particular, Hellerman argues that biblical leadership lies in a community of leaders who are in relationship with one another.

The final three chapters alone are worth the price of the book. Here Hellerman gives several case studies of abuses of power in the church (pastors lying to staff members, firing them when confronted with sin, and so on), and he ties these abuses to the centralizing of power in one man. He sees such abuses in the American church rooted especially in the business model of pastoral ministry and the solo senior pastor common in Baptist churches (much of his ministry experience has been among Conservative Baptist churches in California). He explains the “aha moment” when he discovered that Scripture teaches a plurality of elders in passages like Acts 14:23, Acts 20:17, Phil 1:1, Tit 1:5, 1 Pet 5:1, and Jas 5:14 (241). And he argues that “a key answer to the problem of authority abuse that plagues numbers of our congregations is a team of pastors who share their lives with one another, and whose oversight of God’s people arises organically from the relational soil they enjoy as a leadership community of genuine brothers and sisters in Christ” (257).

The last chapter is my favorite part of the book. In it, Hellerman recounts his years of experience as one of the pastor-elders of Oceanside Christian Fellowship. His description made me want to join that church. The pastor-elders at Oceanside Christian Fellowship develop consensus through community—through the relationships they’ve developed as they meet together, share their lives, and pray for each other and the church. They emphasize character, transparency, and real community among the leaders in order to gain the trust needed to lead the church. Hellerman insightfully observes that “Scripture turns repeatedly to the quality of our relationships—particularly with our fellow Christians—as the foremost evidence of genuine love for God” (John 13:35; 282). He advises students looking for their first pastoral job to ask, “Does the senior pastor of this church have close friends in the congregation?” (297). Wow—great question. Finally, Hellerman models his advice in that he is strikingly personal and transparent throughout this book.

But even though I agree with Hellerman’s conclusions, I just don’t think the almost 200 pages of socio-historical background of Philippi and exegesis of Philippians actually lead to these conclusions.

The first three chapters outline the culture of honor and self-promotion that permeated the first-century Roman world, and especially the culture of status in the first-century Roman colony of Philippi as seen in local inscriptions. These chapters are fascinating historically, and they are written in an engaging and popular style. I would suggest that a pastor preaching through Philippians consider reading them. But, like so many of these kinds of background studies, the application to exegesis seems to move beyond hermeneutical illumination of Paul and into hermeneutical constraint of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This isn’t the place to argue the details, but it’s not clear to me that Paul is directly confronting the Roman culture of honor in either his description of Jesus’ humility in Philippians 2:5–11 or his description of his own “reason for confidence in the flesh” in Philippians 3:5–6. Maybe. But maybe not.

More importantly, I think Hellerman’s focus on the possible cultural context misses some the clearer literary context of Philippians. In other words, I think he fails to explain clearly Paul’s theology and its implications for the church.

One point that he makes throughout the book is that for Paul, the example of Jesus’ humility, his servant leadership, is not enough (e.g., 197, 290–91). Because of this, Paul offers an alternative social context by depicting the Philippians as a family in which honor is a group value (e.g., Paul uses the word “brothers” six times, refers to God as “Father,” and speaks of Epaphroditus as a “brother”). After all, families don’t complete for honor—they are on the same team. But it is nowhere clear in Philippians that Paul supplements the example of Jesus’ humility with a new social structure. Rather, I think this line of thought arises more from Hellerman’s experience. In fact, he opens up the chapter on the topic (Ch. 6: “When Jesus Is Not Enough”) by recounting how a seminary professor who knew his theology, who knew that Jesus was a servant, still abused his power. Obviously, he concludes, Jesus’ example is not enough, so he offers the solution of viewing the church as a family. But this thesis is forced upon the text of Philippians.

In doing this, Hellerman fails to explain the deeper structure of Paul’s theology of Philippians. It is true that the example of Jesus’ humility in Philippians 2:5-11 is not enough. That’s why Paul urges the Philippians to follow that example, to work out their salvation (the imperative; Phil. 2:12), on the basis of God’s work in the Philippians (the indicative; Phil. 2:13). Paul is convinced that God has begun a good work in them and will complete it (Phil. 1:6), that they have received God’s grace of faith in Christ and following Christ in his suffering (Phil. 1:29–30). Like Paul, they have believed in Christ for justification (Phil. 3:8–9), and now they must follow his sufferings in order to reach his resurrection (Phil. 3:10–11).

Jesus’ example of humility is not enough to curb abuses of power in the church. But neither are social structures like having shared leadership or viewing the church as a family. The church and its leaders need Jesus’ death to forgive us of our sin and present as righteous before God. We need to repent of our sin, believe in Jesus, and walk by his empowering Spirit in unity. Only by the power of God at work in us will we be able heed Paul’s exhortation to follow Jesus’ example of humility and pursue servant-leadership in the church.

Kevin McFadden is assistant professor in the School of Divinity at Cairn University in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. 

Kevin McFadden

Kevin McFadden is assistant professor in the School of Divinity at Cairn University in Langhorne, Pennsylvania.

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