From the Bookshelf: Embracing Shared Ministry

One of the books currently on my bookshelf is Embracing Shared Ministry by Joseph Hellerman.  Hellerman contrasts Paul's ministry of the cross to the Roman love for glory and status.  He is concerned that theology of glory was present both in Philippi and in the church today. Hellerman specifically focuses on Paul's ministry in Philippi and the book of Philippians because perhaps no other colony epitomized the Roman ideal of honor more than Philippi.

Hellerman's insights into Paul's Philippian ministry, particularly Acts 16, were fascinating!  He showed that Roman citizenship is not only an important background but a clear exegetical theme within the text.  Luke's description of Philippi as a "Roman colony" (Acts 16:12), the emphasis on all the Roman officials, even the narrative development show that Paul's ministry contrast to the Roman social status and norms is an important theme within the text.  I'm often skeptical when historians emphasize the historical background of a text to make their point.  However, I don't think Hellerman was guilty of that in this section.  He develops his thesis from the Scripture.

The most helpful insight was how Paul's message shaped his response to his arrest and beatings in Philippi.  Hellerman raises the obvious question:  "Why did the missionaries not reveal their citizen status to the magistrates at the outset, and save themselves the beatings and imprisonment?"  His answer:  "Paul's understanding of the gospel" (113).  Had Paul used his citizenship to protect himself he may have limited the gospel ministry and message.  Onlookers may have been tempted think the gospel was limited to those with privileges of Roman citizenship. He quotes Brian Rapske:  "Converts might wonder whether only those suitably protected (i.e. by Roman citizenship) should become believers in Christ and they might think it disingenuous for Paul and Silas to ask others to suffer what they themselves were able to avoid" (quoted on p. 114).

Hellerman argues that Paul's conduct was an "utter inversion of Roman social priorities."  This paragraph was especially helpful:

"The targets of the emperor's police were non-citizens who masqueraded as citizens to improve their social standing. The missionaries engaged in precisely the opposite behavior.  Paul and Silas were Roman citizens  who pretended to be non-citizens and who severely suffered as a result" (115).

In the current climate of ongoing "contextualization" conversations, I thought this was helpful.  Far too often ministry methodology conversations are lopsided toward how to adapt ministries. Rarely do pastors and leaders ask how particular practices may actually compromise the ministry or message.  

I've wondered what present-day applications there are from Paul's ministry in Acts 16.  Many abound, I'm sure.  I might suggest that many ministries utilize positions of leadership over ministries, groups, and Bible studies in such a way that they play to our love of power and recognition.  As I think of one church, whether or not they've designed it like this, one of their assimilation tools is to quickly give new attenders positions of leadership. Within weeks, even days, newcomers become leaders of small groups or ministries.  This seems first of all to be an unwise practice. More than that, though, it also contradicts the gospel whether knowingly or unknowingly making church a means for gaining recognition and authority.