“Embracing Shared Ministry”– a Review of Sorts

I don’t normally write reviews, and this really isn’t one… more of an interaction perhaps. But before, I do, I will give a wee bit of background35

Two months ago, I found the book Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why It Matters Today by Joseph H. Hellerman. I found the book in one of those many bookstores here in the Philippines that gathers a large menagerie of disorganized books from the United States. Rarely I find books that interest me, but this one ALMOST convinced me to buy it. I wrote a short blogpost based on my quick glance of the book. Curiously, the author of the book commented on my post and hoped I would enjoy reading the book. As frugal as I am (of necessity) I still went back to the bookstore to find the single copy… gone. Ah well. This happens. But a month later, a seminary student of mine, from Myanmar, moved into our downstairs apartment. He welcomed me to peruse his collection of books. When I did I found the book… actually the exact copy that I had glanced through a month earlier. With that, it was settled. I was definitely meant to read it.

The book is definitely ecclesiological in aim, which is quite appropriate. It seeks to support the idea of team or plural leadership in the church. I have never had trouble with that, and in fact have always found it strange that my tradition (Baptist) has had trouble with it. Baptist theologians and pastors will  decry infant baptism, sacramental understanding of the Eucharist, purgatory, or bishops and apostles (as positions hierarchally above the local church), and many other things as inconsistent with the beliefs and practices of the primitive church. Yet when it comes to the Baptist practice of single (and, oh yes… has got to be male) leadership with respect to the primitive church, the response is suddenly very different with circuitous logic to work around the fairly obvious– that the early church does not appear to have leadership the way most Baptist churches do.

But, truthfully, I don’t really have a lot of interest in Ecclesiology.

My interests, however, are in two topics that provide pillars supporting his ecclesiological position.


Interest #1. Spiritual Abuse. Administrating a pastoral care center and acting as a pastoral care “counselor” in the Philippines means that I deal with a lot of cases that involve spiritual abuse. Some may argue that the problem comes from the Philippines being an Honor/Shame-centered culture (although not nearly to the same extent as some countries such as Indonesia are). Some may say it is due to the long reach of Confucian ideals of unilateral submission. Some may argue that it is centered on post-colonial mindset, or perhaps centuries of governmentally enforced submission to Catholic clergy. Regardless, authoritarian churches with church leaders that act abusively are common. Often the abuse is not only accepted, in many groups it is theologically/biblically justified. In some cases, it is not the pastor who is abusive, it could be some other member of the church– for example the patriarch of the church community in a culture that grants power based on age, or in a family church where power is centered in one or two blood kin, or in a traditional village wher one assumes the role of “datu.” Regardless, the external culture’s power structure is embedded in the DNA of the local church– and often given a theological stamp of approval.

To be honest, I have never really known what to do with this. As a counselor, I can help the victims… but should I challenge/attack the root cause? Or should I accept that it is a unique contextualization of the church in Philippine culture. However, much of the problems in the Philippines comes not strictly from home-grown authoritarian structures (ignoring for the moment the “Iglesia ni Cristo” religious group that is quite authoritarian and somewhat home-grown), but from a resonant response to outside influences such as the Korean, American, and South American churches that promote unilateral submission to ecclesiastical authority.

Hellerman’s book, in chapter 7 primarily gives some vignettes of those who have suffered at the hands of toxic leadership in church. These stories remind me of some of the examples in McIntosh and Rima’s book “Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership.” But this book focuses more on those on the receiving end of Paranoid, Narcissistic, and Compulsive leaders. Ron Enroth’s books, such as the classic “Churches that Abuse,” are valuable. However, here the value is somewhat in the “mundane” nature of abuse. Abuse is not always like Jim Jones or David Koresh with their respective groups… sometimes it is simply a pastor who calls the church council to have meetings for hours on end with no apparent greater purpose than to rubber stamp everything he says (been there, done that). Or a leader who will accuse and excuse staff, members, and self, based on little more than personal whims and insecurities. Normally, a person who said that he was accountable to no one but God, we would say they was lawless… and dangerous to those around him. However, all too many churches set up their church denying their clerical leadership of effective support… and accountability. And often seminaries are guilty of justifying it under the doubtful argument of tradition, or even Biblical mandate.

On this level, Hellerman makes a good argument that there is something inherently flawed with leadership without accountability. His suggestion that changing the structure to team leadership providing mutual accountability and support, is worthy of strong consideration. Of course, any organization will suffer to some extent with a toxic member.

Interest #2.  Cultural Anthropology. I teach courses, especially Missions, at a couple of seminaries. My favorite topic is Cultural Anthropology… and its first cousin, Contextual Theology. Hellerman spends a considerable part of the front end of the book explaining the culture of the Roman Empire, and more specifically the culture of the Roman colony of Philippi– especially as it pertains to honor and shame. There has been increased interest in honor-shame as it pertains to contextualization of the Gospel as well as theology. But, as noted by many, the Bible was written in a predominantly honor-shame environment. With that fact, one might think that theologians struggle more with guilt-innocence cultures than honor-shame… but church history seems to have achieved practical pre-eminance over Biblical history. The author makes a good case for the supposition that Philippi was more Roman in culture than Greek or Macedonian, and so carried with them the Roman views of virtue and honor more faithfully than any other city that Paul visited (with the possible exception of Rome itself).

If Philippi has a unique culture, a culture that Paul had personal experience with, it is reasonable that Paul’s epistle to that church was read through that cultural perspective differently than it would in other cities. It might also be reasonable to assume that Paul would write it so as to effectively and uniquely challenge those within that culture.

There is a risk here of over-simplifying in this case. Every culture has a range of beliefs that could be considered part of the norm. Additionally, individuals overflow the norms of any culture. Finally, there is the commonality of the humanity of all people. Because of these, interpreting through cultural “filters” can be problematic.Additionally, all cultures are complex, so it is risky to grab one characteristic and act as if it is the defining cultural trait in interpretation. Just because a lot of corn is grown in Nebraska doesn’t mean that “dirt farming” is a good cultural filter for interpreting a speech of the governor of Nebraska to his constituency. A better direction to go in would be to ask “Knowing the culture of Nebraska, with all of its unity, diversity, and uniqueness, how might the average citizen of Nebraska respond to the speech.”

I believe that comes closer to what the author here did. After describing the evidences in support to Philippi being a highly Roman culture with support of class, caste, and social capital, he goes to the epistle from Paul. There, he doesn’t really try to interpret directly through the lens of honor and shame. Rather, he seems more to say, “If a person in the culture comes to the 2nd chapter of Philippians and finds Jesus having the honored position as God (noting that the point here is not so much one of ontology), and how he eschews all divine and societal honor, and takes on the greatest form of humiliation in the Roman world, how would he (or she) react? And if this same person discovers in the same passage that people in his church should follow Jesus’ example (in apparent direct opposition to community norms) what does that say about how the church is supposed to operate?” Understanding the culture, and imaginatively placing oneself into the culture and interacting with the epistle, can help one to understand the true counter- (not “anti-“) cultural character of the letter.


As I said, this was not a review. If I was reviewing it, I would argue that the author does a good job of

  1.  Demonstrating the dangers of a single-leader church today, especially where there is no accountability structure in place.
  2. Supporting the idea that team leadership is ‘biblical,’ at least if one accepts that term to mean consistent with Scripture, as opposed to being “biblically mandated.”

The link between the cultural exegesis of the epistle of Philippians and the idea of team leadership is weaker, I think, although it does certainly seem to support at least a flattening of any church hierarchy.

However, while not directly tied to the theme, the book is valuable in

  • Understanding 1st century Roman culture and the importance of understanding it in interpretation of Scripture, rather than through layers of church and societal changes.
  • Identifying the link between spiritual abuse and both societal values brought into the church, and organizational structures that nurture abuse.
  • Seeing Paul as a man who challenged culture, through the very symbols of culture— genre, story, metaphor, and more.

Personally, I would like to know more about team leadership, and would love to see this structure attempted, counter-culturally, in the Philippines. It is also true, that I prefer a Congregational concept where authority is recognized as coming from God, mediated through the congregation and to a group of leaders. In effect, this creates a cycle where authority and power flow from people to leadership team, to ministry leaders, and back to the people. Of course, in saying this, I have to acknowledge that it rarely seems to work… but then again, what does?




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