There are plenty of books out there that offer to teach pastors “how to do things right.” There are also a plethora of titles, which promise to explain to readers what the early church was “really like.” In the course of my own studies, I’ve read a range of authors, from Stark’s Rise of Christianity to Chester’s Total Church. Add to that the likes of Watchman Nee, Steve Echols, John Maxwell, and Aubrey Malphurs, and you begin to get the idea. Each of these works offers to guide people through the murky waters of modern Western church by positing ministry against timeless principles or the historical evidence. The last thing I particularly care to read these days is one more book claiming to have the answers. And then along came Joseph Hellerman and his wonderful book from Kregel Ministry, Embracing Shared Ministry. I was initially interested in this book because I am curious about the early church, particularly during the Patristic period. Little did I know that Hellerman was not writing about Augustine or Athengoras.
Embracing Shared Ministry is a practical, concise effort to explain the team-leadership approach to ministry, that according to Hellerman, is found outlined in Philippians 2:6-11. There are three parts to the book: “Power and Authority in the Roman World,” which describes the Roman honor system, with particular emphasis on Roman Philippi; “Power and Authority in the Early Church,” a hermeneutical exploration of Philippians 2:6-11 in light of the Roman social context; and “Power and Authority in the Church Today,” an experience laden prescription for restoring the plurality of elders to the Church system of leadership. Each of them, in their own right, has much to say towards the overall discussion of structuring church leadership in a way that is Biblical and effective in the modern world. It is the third section, on “the Church Today,” that had the biggest impact on me though. Hellerman deals candidly with real situations, and his practical advice (particularly in the “Conclusion”), is indispensable. When I consider applying to a church in the future, I will take his advice seriously, and implement it in the steps I take towards working in the pastorate.
Considering the whole book, it would seem like Hellerman is trying to put together something that is academic and practical. He is not the first to make such an attempt, and fares only slightly better than most. Many of the chapters sound like classroom lectures, and the historical sections can sound particularly droll. While I commend Hellerman’s work (it is without a doubt the best book on church leadership I have read in some years), I worry that the stylistic effort may sometimes overshadow the meat of the book. That is by no means a reason not to read the book. I asked myself, “if my wife read this, would she get it?” While I think my wife quite intelligent, I know that when it comes to reading, this style of writing would seem to drag on for her (my own writing seems that way to her at times as well). So while I think this message it pertinent to all Christians, I think some would be bored by the academics of it, while others will be turned off by Hellerman’s occasional digressions into a more informal “Story-telling” prose. Of course, the nature of writing a book is that it will not appeal to everyone.
I am grateful that Hellerman put this book together, and I am thankful that Kregel packaged it in such a quality format. This is a book that is well worth your time if you’re a Christian, and especially if God has called you into leadership.