Doing Church (Leadership) as a Team: a book review

Joseph Hellerman is a professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Talbot. He also serves as a copastor at Oceanside Christian Fellowship in El Sungundo, California. The dual vocation of Bible scholar and pastor has allowed him to delve deeply into the Bible and ancient literature and discover implications for ministry. In Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why it Matters Today, Hellerman takes a look at the dynamics of power in the Roman culture of Philippi and Paul’s counter-cultural message in Philippians. He then discusses the implications of Paul’s words for our contemporary ministry context.

The three parts of Hellerman’s book delve into the reality of power relationships. In part one, Hellerman examines the reality of power, privilege and class in Roman culture.  There were the cultural elites, but a hunger for glory and status from non-elites meant that non-elites also patterned their life after elite culture. This is evident in Philippi. the only place in Paul’s missionary journey that Luke identifies as a Roman Colony (Acts 16).

In part two, Hellerman unfolds Paul’s counter-cultural message from his letter to the Philippians.  While there does not appear to be a crisis in the church of Philippi which Paul is addressing, he does go to great pains to give an alternative view of leadership, power and status.  Unlike other Epistles, Paul does not stress his apostleship, but uses the sole designation of slave, a status which had a fair degree of shame attached to it in the first century (123-6). He also urges the Philippians toward greater unity, humility and service.  The Christological hymn of Phil. 2 demonstrates how antithetical to Roman-business-as-usual, the gospel was. Jesus had status, came in the form of ‘a slave,’ and suffered death by crucifixion on our behalf (141, ff).  To a culture organized around gaining glory, status and power, this was a radical departure. And yet Paul called the Philippians (and us) to follow Christ’s self-emptying example.

Part three draws out  the implications with an eye toward current church leadership structures. While Hellerman does not mandate a particular approach to church governance, he does question models of church leadership where a sole, senior pastor has absolute and unchecked authority.  He includes a number of stories from students which illustrate where church power structures go awry (especially chapter 7) and illustrates the importance of examining the social context of ministry and argues that the ‘team leadership model’ is more consistent with the New Testament.  This allows for greater accountability, shared wisdom, and less division between clergy and laity. Hellerman shares what this looks like in his own context, part of a team of pastor-elders at Oceanside.

Hellerman builds his case well, and I loved how he combined a close reading of First Century Philippi and Paul’s epistle with its implications for church ministry today.  By beginning with ‘ancient history,’ Hellerman is able to illustrate how Philippians speaks both to its context and our own. This focus on history will be daunting for some readers, but the payoff is worth it.  I absolutely loved part two (his reading of Philippians) and copiously underlined several sections.

I am lucky enough to be a part of a church with healthy leadership, but I have lots of friends who I have seen chewed up and hurt by their churches. I think that this is a valuable resource for recovering a more communal and humble approach to leadership. Especially for those who are starting out on their journey in ministry and developing convictions about leadership.  I highly recommend it. 5 stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to Kregel Ministry for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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