Gombis, Timothy G. Power in Weakness: Paul’s Transformed Vision for Ministry. Foreword by Michael J. Gorman. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2021. 168 pp. Pb; $25. Link to Eerdmans
Although Tim Gombis is professor of New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and has published several academic monographs on Paul, including Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark, 2010) and The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God (IVP Academic, 2010). But Gombis has been involved in ministry in local churches for many years. As Gombis says in his preface, the book is “an extended meditation on the dynamics of power and weakness in pastoral ministry.” The goal of the book is to present a clear biblical description of the role of the pastor as found in the Pauline letters. He frequently illustrates this Pauline pastoral leadership model through his own experience in local churches, both positive and negative.
A driving force for this book is Gombis’s concern that “contemporary leadership language fosters a distinction, or separation, between pastors who lead and ordinary people in the church 1 Corinthians 3:5-9 should be the antidote two leadership problems!” Pastors now pursue D.Min degrees in leadership rather than ministry. The role of a pastor is increasingly less a humble shepherd caring for the flock than a corporate CEO and “vision-caster.” What used to be called a “senior pastor” is now a “lead pastor.” Pastors measure success by the size of one’s church. Unfortunately, pastors of large churches encourage this trend toward corporate leadership in the local church by publishing books on what “worked” in their own successful ministries (usually branding and image is a prominent theme in these books). The agenda is more important than the people because the church is no longer a family but a corporation (32).
The first three chapters of Power in Weakness surveys Paul’s “unconverted ministry” and track how his ministry imagination changed because of his encounter with the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Gombis argues Paul’s pre-Christian ministry was characterized by coercive power and a relentless pursuit of personal identity of power (which he later recognizes as worthless and an obstacle to genuine identity in Christ). Paul was seeking to bring about God’s purposes, but he did so through verbal and physical violence, and by transforming sinners into true Torah observant Jews. Focusing attention on Philippians 2:5-11, he observes Jesus acted in a radically counter-intuitive manner. Jesus did not exploit privilege or seek to gain any advantage of his rank or privilege. The resurrection completely transformed Paul’s way of thinking. The resurrection radically reorients Paul’s imagination towards living a life shaped by the cross (following Michael Gorman, Gombis calls this a “cruciform life”). After encountering Jesus, Paul no longer tries to impress people. He is a sinner (not a former sinner) who displays the victory of God in Christ through his weakness and shame (2 Cor 4:7-12).
Chapter 4 describes ministry from a cosmic perspective. Building on his Drama of Ephesians, Gombis argues cosmic enslavement to sin manifests itself as destructive patterns in Christian communities. For example, some churches struggle with divisive community dynamics and divisions along racial, ethnic, and social economic lines. Pastors are given to outbursts of anger, denunciation, and condemnation. Some community members are made to feel like second-class citizens within the church. The Corinthian church illustrates many of these destructive patterns, but it is easy enough to see the application to real church situations where pastors become the CEO of the church and the people are “giving units.”
The next four chapters apply the idea of cruciformity to aspects of ministry. In chapter 5 Gombis describes the church’s fixation on the pastor as an impressive public figure (and the pastor’s own pursuit of their own public image). Yet in 2 Corinthians 11:31-33, Paul says he could boast about his accomplishments and impress the Corinthian church. Rather than boast in his accomplishments, Paul shares his experiences which align him with the cross: his weakness and suffering. Instead of an impressive public figure, Gombis says, “ministers who have a legitimate claim to be faithful servants of Christ are those who most closely resemble a corpse on the cross” (91).
Chapter six contrasts cruciformity with the accumulation of credentials. Before encountering Christ, Paul built up an impressive ministry resume, but after Christ, none of that mattered. The only thing that mattered to Paul was his status as “in Christ.” He was a slave, even though he was an apostle. Christ appointed Paul as an apostle, but Paul is clear he did nothing to deserve his appointment. This leads Gombis to question the value of a seminary education. Does a seminary education really foster a faithful cruciform ministry vision characterized by joyful service and the cultivation of the dynamics of service and hospitality towards the hurting and the marginalized? If so, then the education is a positive experience. Don’t seek a degree just because it is an impressive credential, warns Gombis.
Chapter 7 discusses taking an initiative in a cruciform ministry. Gombis certainly has a number of negative things to say about leaders who lead aggressively, but he does not want to imply that a cruciform ministering means the pastor is a doormat. How does the pastor take initiative and lead his congregation? The primary way is through the sermon, but the pastor also must deal with church discipline and dealing with sin. This leads to cruciformity and ministry postures (Chapter 8). In one of the more shocking lines in the book: Gombis suggests Paul did not seek to impact his churches, because Paul knew he was not the active agent. God alone it determines what Paul is going to do in any congregation. This seems to be the opposite of most leadership talk in the contemporary evangelical church. Leaders intentionally (aggressively?) seek to impact their congregations and to guide them towards the goals set by the corporate mission statement.
Conclusion. Power in Weakness is a challenge to anyone doing ministry in the twenty-first century. Drawing on Paul’s ministry as described in his letters, Gombis sounds a clear warning against a secular view of leadership as not only antithetical to the New Testament vision of pastoral ministry, but also a dangerous view of leadership. Leading churches like a corporate CEO may poison one’s ministry and make it ineffective.
My copy of this book is well-marked and underlined, and I look forward to returning to it in the future as I reflect upon my ministry in academia and the local church.
Extras: Eerdworld sat down with Tim Gombis and asked him nine questions about Power in Weakness. Here is a summary of David Turner’s Conversation with Tim Gombis about Paul’s Vision for Ministry, watch the full 35 minute interview on YouTube.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.