Book Review: Joseph H. Hellerman, Embracing Shared Ministry

Hellerman, Joseph H. Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why it Matters Today. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2013. 313 pp. Pb; $17.99.  Link

In 2005 Joseph Hellerman published Reconstructing Honor in Roman Philippi: Carmen Christi as cursus pudorum (SNTS 131; Cambridge University Press). There are a great deal of similarities between Reconstructing Honor in Roman Philippi and this new book published by Kregel Ministry. In fact, Embracing Shared Ministry draws on the insights of that earlier work and attempts to show that Paul’s vision of the church is counter to the Greco-Roman pursuit of honor and status.

HellermanThe first part of Embracing Shared Ministry concerns power and authority in the Roman world. Hellerman first describes social stratification in the Roman word, demonstrating that there was a rigid social order in the Roman world, from the extreme minority elites who had virtually all the power to the majority slaves who had absolutely no power. In fact, Roman life can be described as a “Quest for Honor” (cursus honorum). The second chapter of the book shows the lengths to which a Roman might go in order to gain honor. Hellerman offers by way of example a tombstone of C. Luccius (A.D. 134), on which all of the honors achieved by the man are listed. In contrast to this, Paul offers his own list of honors in Phil 3:5-6, which he considers “rubbish.”

Any status Paul has as a Roman citizen or an elite member of Jewish society is of no value to him whatsoever. As Hellerman points out, this turned the Roman world upside down (p. 77). While members of Roman culture were motivated by self-promotion, members of Paul’s churches were to seek the honor of others and to think of others more highly than themselves. This flies in the face of the Roman world, and as Hellerman points out, it flies in the face of power relations within the church (p. 99).

In the second part of his book, Hellerman applies the background he surveyed in the first part to the letter to the Philippians. He begins by point out that Paul simply identifies himself as a “slave” in Phil 1:1, despite the fact that a slave is the lowest class of person in the Roman world. In fact, Phil 2:5-6 will use that same language to describe Jesus.  In the Christ-Hymn Paul states that Jesus set aside his status as God and took on the status of a slave. Hellerman makes the point that this would be equivalent to a Roman senator setting aside his toga (his mark of status) and taking on the rags of a slave (also a mark of status). Because of that humble obedience, Jesus is exalted to the highest status imaginable, even above the emperor of Rome! That Jesus is called Lord is counter to a Roman world where Caesar is Lord and worshiped as a god (p. 167).

Is this view of Jesus “anti-imperial”? As Hellerman points out, “Paul’s agenda was not to influence the political process of Rome” (p.168). This means that “trendy academic portraits of anti-imperial Paul” are anachronistic.  Paul was not anti-Rome, although his gospel did subvert the social order by advocating Jesus as the Lord of a new social group. As I read Paul, I think that Hellerman is right that Paul is not consciously anti-Imperial, he in no way was advocating some sort of rebellion against the Empire. But the Gospel was so radical that it would erode the Empire if that Gospel practiced consistently. Perhaps the sad story of Church history is that by the time Christianity was the majority religion, it had become thoroughly Roman with respect to honor and status.

The third section of the book draws some very point application to contemporary Evangelicalism. At this point the book shifts from stories and illustrations drawn from the Greco-Roman world and focuses on real-world illustrations of the pursuit of honor and status in the church today.  These illustrations are drawn from Hellerman’s own experiences as a pastor and seminary professor. He is most interested in the problems of “corporate Christianity.” American Evangelical churches frequently turn pastors into CEOs who are expected to run their churches like they are big businesses. The problems with this church model are amply illustrated in two chapters with a number of anecdotes.

In the final chapter of the book, Hellerman makes some suggestions for returning to Paul’s vision for authentic ministry. It is no surprise at this point in the book that Hellerman argues that the church ought to have a “cruciform vision” for ministry. Rather than a CEO pastor, he advocates a “community of leaders” who together work as servant leaders who urge one another toward spiritual maturity and greater accountability. Just as Jesus set aside his honor and status as God in order to be a servant, Paul told his churches to set their own honor and status aside to serve one another. For Hellerman, that is the only effective model for the church today (p. 286).

Conclusion. What I find remarkable is that this book published by Kregel Ministry. It certainly is a book that pastors ought to read and the application of the book is important for developing vital ministry that seeks to live out the model of Jesus as the ultimate servant in modern communities. But this is not some sort of a post-emergent “let’s get back to Jesus” book. Nor is this book a popular leadership manual with plenty of pithy quotes and trendy jargon. Hellerman presents the data from the Roman world, applies it to the letter to the Philippians in order to tease out the nuances of the text modern readers simply miss. He then bridges the gap between that world and the modern world in order to challenge modern churches to follow Christ in a more authentic fashion.

I think that this book will appeal to scholars who study Greco-Roman backgrounds to the New Testament. Do not ignore this book because it was published in a ministry series since it collects most of the data from Reconstructing Honor in a handy (and less expensive) format. Pastors may find this a challenging read, but there is a treasury of background material here that will enhance teaching and preaching of the letter to the Philippians.

NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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