Timothy Gombis, Power in Weakness: Paul’s Transformed Vision for Ministry

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.

Gombis, Power in WeaknessA 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.

Book Review: Duane Liftin, Paul’s Theology of Preaching

Liftin, Duane. Paul’s Theology of Preaching: The Apostle’s Challenge to the Art of Persuasion in Ancient Corinth. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2015. 392 pp. Pb; $40.00.   Link to IVP

In recent years interest in Greco-Roman rhetoric has exploded for Pauline scholars. Liftin is somewhat responsible for this interest since he published a similarly-titled monograph in 1994 (St. Paul’s Theology of Proclamation: 1 Corinthians 1-4 and Greco-Roman Rhetoric; SNTS Monograph Series). As he states in the introduction to this new book, prior to the twentieth century, interpreters understood “words of wisdom” in 1 Cor 1:17 as a reference to Greco-Roman rhetoric and philosophy. Due in part to growing interest in Gnosticism, the first half of the twentieth century understood “words of wisdom” in the light of Gnostic mythology. Paul’s opponents were “gnostic pneumatics” who downplayed the significance of the Cross. In this book, Liftin argues the earlier view was correct. When Paul describes his own mission as preaching the Cross “not with words of the wise,” he has Greco-Roman rhetoric in mind.

Lifton, Theology of PreachingThe first part of Liftin’s book is an introduction to Greco-Roman Rhetoric. In these early chapters Liftin attempts to avoid the “wearisome minutia” typically found in introductions to rhetoric. This is not a monograph-length book on rhetoric, so he illustrates the main features with one or two key original Greco-Roman texts. He also avoids the tendency to reduce rhetoric to techniques for manipulation or simple ornamentation. Liftin argues rhetoric was so pervasive in first-century Corinth Paul could not avoid using some aspects of rhetoric even if he has a negative assessment of the impact some orators have had on his Corinthian churches.

After a short chapter tracing the history of rhetoric from Socrates to the Second Sophistic movement, he demonstrates the goal of rhetoric is persuasion. A successful orator used all possible means of persuasion to “create or produce belief in their listeners” (73). This required the orator to know a great deal about human psychology and their audiences worked. In chapters 3-5 (The Power, Reach and Genius of Rhetoric), Liftin shows how this power to sway an audience provided a foundation for power in Greco-Roman society. Virtually everyone in the Greco-Roman world understood what good rhetoric was and treated the best speakers with honor. In fact, the audience was the ultimate judge of a successful orator.

In chapter 6 (The Appraisal of Rhetoric) Liftin argues audience in the first century were experienced listeners and were capable of critiquing an orator even if they were not specifically trained in rhetoric. Just as most sports fans are able to critique the performance of their team despite not being professional athletes, most people had enough experience listening to orators they could make a judgment on the speaker’s skills. In Chapters 7-8 Liftin contrasts the hazards and rewards of rhetoric.

The second part of this book applies this history of rhetoric to 1 Corinthians 1-4. This opening section of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is the only place in Paul’s letters where he expresses anything like a “theology of preaching.” In addition, Paul makes some dismissive remarks concerning the “wisdom” of this world. Liftin points out the usual arguments about Paul’s education in rhetoric are not as important to his goals since he has argued for the pervasiveness of rhetoric in the first century. It does not matter if Paul was a professionally trained orator or not, he was being judged in ways consistent with the Greco-Roman world by the Corinthians and found wanting.

Liftin reconstructs the situation in Corinth as follows. Paul preached the Gospel in Corinth, people responded and a community was established. After Paul left and Apollos arrived the church began to have reservations about Paul with respect to his deficient public speaking. He was unskilled, something Paul admits in 2 Cor 11:6 (Liftin has an excursus defining what he means by “bad rhetoric”). Since the Gentile Corinthian believers were part of a culture which highly honored rhetorical skills, the church was embarrassed by Paul’s poor skills and began to look elsewhere for apostolic guidance. Specifically, Liftin thinks Apollos is was an eloquent speaker who “unwittingly” caused a division in the church (p. 156). 1 Corinthians 1-4 is therefore Paul’s response to criticism of his ministry style. Over several chapters Liftin supports this contention with careful observation and exegesis of the text of 1 Cor 1-4.

LiftinThe third part of this book offers some analysis of Paul’s ministry model and suggestions “appropriate strategies” for applying the “Pauline model.” While the Greco-Roman world sought to use rhetoric to persuade an audience by means of their own skills, Paul “disavowed the task of inducing belief in his listeners” (p. 263).  For Paul, it is the Holy Spirit who prompts faith in a listener, not “words of wisdom” as judged by contemporary standards. Paul is only the herald of the Gospel, someone who presents the truth of the Gospel. It is the power of God who brings a listener to belief. If this is the case, then there are two important implications. First, there is a certain ambiguity of “persuasion.” Paul certainly wanted to persuade, but he did not resort to the strategies of the Sophist to achieve this goal. Second, a good herald must adapt to the audience. This is exactly what Paul claims to do in 1 Cor 9:19-23. Paul is functioning as any herald might when he is “all things to all men.”

Liftin deals with the problem of Paul’s consistency in chapter 18. When Paul decries use of rhetoric, is he not employing a classic rhetorical style? If the goal of rhetoric was to persuade, then Paul’s letters have to be considered examples of rhetoric since they are trying to persuade an audience. Liftin thinks his “limited definition” of what Paul rejected defuses this criticism of Paul. Paul is not saying he rejects all forms of rhetoric since this would be virtually impossible if he was going to communicate the Gospel. Paul’s denial of rhetorical skills means he shifted the power of his speech away from himself to the Holy Spirit. To a large extent, Paul’s rhetorical skills gave the Holy Spirit “something to work with” for bringing people to Christ.

Paul’s missionary model is therefore humble and servant oriented. Paul was a herald announcing the Good News, leaving the power of persuasion to the message preached rather than then messenger.

Liftin includes five appendices. First, Liftin comments on the relationship between Paul, Apollos and Philo. Although he things “Philo might have written 1 Corinthians 2:13 almost as comfortably as the Apostle Paul” (p. 326), he ultimately rejects Philo as a source for the “words of wisdom” in Corinth. Appendix Two briefly discusses the Book of Acts as a source for background to 1 Cor 1-4, concluding Acts is reliably complements 1 Corinthians, but Acts is inadequate for the rhetorical skills of Apollos.  A third Appendix concerns Paul’s Epistemology.

In the fourth appendix Liftin discusses the implications of his study for contemporary preaching. This chapter is adapted from his 1977 Christianity Today article. He makes some pointed critiques of “gatherings centered on a charismatic, pseudo-celebrity communicator who revels in the spotlight” and other manipulative strategies used to wear people down and force people into an emotional response (p. 348). In contrast to this, the preacher “should do everything possible to build comprehension of the reality of Christ’s claims upon the listener” (p. 349). Amen and amen.

The final appendix suggests several “Broader Implications” of Paul’s ministry model with respect to the Church Growth movement. The appendix was originally an address to the American Society for Church Growth (ASCG) in 1995. Liftin is critical of marketing strategies used by churches in order to stimulate growth. Rather than presenting the Gospel as a product to be marketed, driven by the need for results, churches must be “obedience driven” (358).

Conclusion. Liftin admits early this book requires “tolerant readers” (p. 29). There are lengthy citations of primary sources in the first part of the book in order to illustrate some aspect of rhetoric. In order to keep the text readable, he placed technical material in a series of short excurses scattered throughout the book. These text-boxes are indexed in the table of contents and tend to be no more than a page or two.

This is a stimulating and challenging book operating at two levels. On the one hand, Liftin provides an academic introduction to Greco-Roman rhetoric as a background for reading 1 Corinthians 1-4 in a proper cultural context. But at another level, Liftin wants to challenge the churches to be faithful to God in their preaching of the Gospel. His call is to reject the sin of the Corinthians who used their culture to judge the success of the Gospel. In the end, it is this topic which needs to be addressed more directly by Liftin.

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

Paul and the Pagans

Paul’s mission to the Galatia brought him into contact with people who were not only Gentiles, but “pagans” from the perspective of the Jews of Judea.  When we read the book of Acts, all the Gentiles described prior to Lystra (with the exception of Sergius Paulus) are “God Fearing Gentiles” like Cornelius, a man who was already living a Jewish-like life both morally and religiously.  But when Paul arrives in Lystra, he encounters Gentiles who are so unlike Cornelius it is difficult to find ways to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Paul heals a man in Lystra who was crippled in the feet.  This miracle in intentionally parallel to Peter’s healing in Acts 3, although the results are much different!  In both cases, the man is crippled from birth (3:2, 14:8), in both cases the man responds to his healing by “leaping” (3:6, 14:9), and in both cases the verb “look intently” is used (13:4, 14:9).  While these seem like common enough vocabulary for such a healing, these words are only used in these two stories in Acts, indicating Luke’s intention that we read these two miracles stories together.

Paul in Lystra ash_ashmHowever, the setting of the two miracles could not be more different.  In Acts 3, the miracle takes place in the temple courts, Paul is in a Gentile town which is more likely to believe he is Hermes incarnate than a representative of the Hebrew God!  When Paul was among Jews in Iconium he did many miracles and saw great success.  The working of a miracle among the Gentiles of Lystra is counter-productive and results in Paul being stone and left for dead.

There is only the briefest hint at the sort of “sermon” Paul might have preached to this crowd.  This is unfortunate, since this is the first time in Acts that Paul addresses a pagan audience.  Often Paul’s speech in Acts 17 at Mars Hill is set up as an example of Paul’s method of reaching the Gentile world, rarely is this speech in Acts 14.

Paul states that there is a living God, as opposed to the worthless idols that never show their power. Like Acts 17, Paul does not allude to the many acts of God in the Hebrew Bible.  Rather, he uses God’s preservation of men through the giving of rain and crops as an example of his power.  This might be called “general revelation,” since the crowd would neither know about the God of the Hebrew Bible, nor would they care what he did for the Jews.

But Paul is not giving up on the biblical story at all in this sermon.  He begins with God’s creation and provision.  He says that he represents the creator, something which this group can understand within their own world view, but Paul uses the language of Genesis (the heaven, the earth, and the sea, along with everything in them).

But notice that Paul more or less attacks the gods of Lystra: they are worthless things.  This is even more powerful when you realize that the priests of Zeus have brought out bulls to sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas.  Paul could very well be pointing at these prepared sacrifices when he says, “worthless idols.”  The noun used here (μάταιος) means that these idols and their sacrifices “lack  truth” and it is pointless to worship them because they are not true at all!

This does not sound very emergent to me. . .how can this brief sermon of Paul be used as a model for contemporary evangelism?  Should we directly attack another world view as “worthless”?