Joseph Hellerman’s book Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why it Matters Today is one of the most influential books that I have read this year. It pulls back the curtain on both the leadership landscape of the New Testament and of the modern church world. Hellerman illuminates the historical context of 1st century Philippi, the theological depths of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and the relevance of such discoveries for today’s churches.
The thesis for Embracing Shared Ministry is clearly and thoroughly stated as follows,
“Ideally the local church should be led by a plurality of pastor-elders who relate to one another first as siblings in Christ, and who function only secondarily – and only within the parameters of that primary relational context – as vision-casting, decision-making leaders for the broader church family. This, in a nutshell, is the central thesis of the book” (17).
While this thesis seems to disappear for much of the book and then reappear once again near the end, Hellerman slowly works out an argument for the necessity of shared ministry among a plurality of pastor-elders in each local church. He argues for this thesis by following a three-part trajectory. Beginning with Part – 1, Hellerman explores the first-century culture of Rome. He describes power and authority in the Roman world and especially in the city of Philippi. The culture of power and authority of 1st century Rome was antithetical to Jesus’ example and it was encroaching on the culture of church leadership. Part – 2 then exposits themes and passages from the book of Philippians against the historical and cultural backdrop of 1st century Philippi. Finally, part – 3 provides analysis of today’s ministerial landscape and crosses the hermeneutical bridge bringing with it relevant principals for many modern church leadership problems.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Hellerman’s work is his thorough attention to the historical details and their connection to the Biblical text. Hellerman rightly asserts, “We cannot get Paul until we get Paul’s world” (23). He draws you into the 1st-century world then he shifts your attention to the New Testament and opens your eyes to new depths of familiar passages. For example, after proving with countless historical examples that the goal in Roman society was to ascend the social ladder, the reader is prepared to see the truly jarring example of Christ Jesus. Hellerman escorts the reader through the many important nuances emphasizing,
“Jesus willingly stepped down the ladder of public esteem, in his incarnation and subsequent death on the cross. And God the Father, in turn, greatly honored Christ for his counterintuitive, culturally anomalous act of self-humiliation” (139).
This is the pattern for life and leadership that Paul holds out to his Philippian readers. This is the pattern for life and leadership that Hellerman holds out to his modern readers– a cruciform vision for authentic Christian ministry. Christ’s humility is the key to Christian leadership and Hellerman argues that it is best fostered among leaders who embrace shared ministry as a spiritual brotherhood.
Any book, article, or sermon that radically shifts the way you read or understand a portion of Scripture is a valuable resource. This book will revolutionize your reading of Philippians, as well as, any other letter addressed to cities heavily influenced by Roman culture.
Embracing Shared Ministry is a perfect book for an elder board to read together. It would also be helpful for any pastor or church member wrestling with the reasoning behind pursuing a plurality of elder leadership in their church. While it is by no means a survey of that topic, nor does it answer many of the questions surrounding elder plurality, it does provide deeply rooted practical reasons for why a plurality of elders is helpful for the protection of church leaders from pride and isolation. It would also be a great resource for anyone preparing to teach through the book of Philippians, as it will open your eyes to the historical and cultural setting. I plan to include this book as future reading for future elders at our church.
By His Grace & For His Glory,
Pastor Brandon Langley
St. Rose Community Church