The task of faithfully pastoring a church so that its life together would embody Christ’s life and ministry has never been easy. It is even harder today in a deadly pandemic where some church people refuse to wear masks because it violates their “rights” while other church people are prepared to defend (even violently) their unacknowledged commitment to, or benefit from, white supremacy. Adding a few “leadership principles” to one’s ministerial toolbox will not suffice. Rather, what is needed is a transformation, or conversion, of our ministry imaginations. This is what Timothy G. Gombis writes about in his new book, Power in Weakness: Paul’s Transformed Vision for Ministry (Eerdmans, 2021).
Gombis, a New Testament scholar and church leader, offers his readers a Pauline theology of ministry that may also subtly reshape how they think about other aspects of Paul’s theology (e.g., justification). But the book is first and foremost a reflection for pastors/church leaders. It focuses on the dynamics of power and weakness in contemporary ministry in light of the dramatic Damascus Road transformation of Paul’s conception of ministry. Gombis’s laser-like focus differs from Scot McKnight’s broader focus on Paul’s pastoral ministry in his recent book, Pastor Paul: Nurturing a Culture of Christoformity in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019), but they complement each other well.
Chapters 1–4 form the primary biblical scaffolding of Gombis’s argument. Drawing on the canonical portrait of Paul’s pre- and post-conversion ministry (i.e., Acts and the thirteen-letter Pauline corpus), he argues that Paul’s initial encounter with the resurrected crucified Christ resulted in “the conversion of his ministry imagination” (6). The idea that Paul was engaged in “ministry” prior to the Damascus Road experience may sound odd. But the way Gombis starts his argument by describing Paul’s activities as a Pharisee (with acknowledged reliance on N. T. Wright ) as “ministry” is compelling:
Prior to his conversion, Paul was vigorously engaged in attempting to bring about resurrection life for God’s people on earth. He was trying to move God to save Israel, ejecting the Romans from the land and initiating God’s kingdom. This is how Pharisees would have understood “resurrection”—God fulfilling his promises to Israel, liberating them from their oppressors, pouring out the fullness of his restorative work on creation and setting up his rule on earth with Israel prominently situated at the center of God’s reign. (6)
Paul’s vigorous ministry based on his understanding of God’s purposes in Scripture resulted in prestige within his Jewish sub-culture. Moreover, his accumulated credentials (cf. Phil 3:4–6) would have signaled to others his legitimate claim to share in resurrection life on the final day. Coercive power was his mode of ministry. His “good” aim was to transform “sinners” in Israel into what a Pharisee would understand as Torah-observant Jews so that all Israel could finally experience God’s promised resurrection life. Such coercive power took the form of verbal and physical violence when Paul encountered Jews who proclaimed that Jesus, a “sinner” under God’s curse because of his crucifixion (Deut 21:23), had been raised as God’s Messiah in order to set resurrection realities in motion for Israel. But Paul’s coercive ministry campaign to rid Israel of such sinners was stopped in its tracks when he encountered the risen, cruciform Christ. Paul came to see that God had fully endorsed and “vindicated the life and ministry mode of Jesus” (40)—the one who came in weakness and gave himself to shame—by raising him from the dead. Thereafter, Paul “realized that his use of force and coercive strength, his pursuit of prestige, and accumulation of credentials set him in an anti-God direction, one headed for destruction rather than resurrection” (44).
From then on Paul’s mode of ministry was driven by a transforming logic: “since God raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him based on his faithful obedience unto a shameful death, God would flood Paul’s life and ministry with resurrection power the more he lived and ministered from weakness and embraced the social shame that inevitably came his way” (56). In this mode of ministry, Paul sought to establish communities of resurrection life that, anticipating their future resurrection at the parousia, would embody the character of the risen Christ through cruciform behaviors, postures, and relational patterns. But—and this is key—“churches [and pastors!] can only enjoy God’s resurrection presence when they adopt cruciform patterns of life” (78). Not surprisingly, given Michael Gorman’s influence on Gombis (157–58) and the fact that he wrote the book’s foreword, this central claim resonates with the way Gorman describes life and ministry in Christ as “resurrection-suffused but cruciform in shape.”
Churches and pastors, writes Gombis, must adopt such cruciform patterns in the face of the cosmic powers ruling this age. These powers generate an enslaving matrix of idolatrous ideologies, mindsets, social injustices, prejudices, fears, and sinful patterns of life that keep God’s creation from flourishing. Often, for the sake of “good ends,” churches or pastors act coercively or competitively, seek social power and prestige, and demonize and dominate others. Such actions “stir up and radiate” the enslaving, oppressive dynamics of the cosmic powers rather than God’s redemptive, reconciling resurrection power.
As Gombis builds this argument in the first four chapters, he moves seamlessly between theological engagement with biblical texts and incisive cultural reflection on contemporary ministry. For example, already in chapter 4, he discusses cruciform practices of conflict resolution that “stir up and radiate” the reconciling resurrection power of God (81–84). More focused reflection on contemporary ministry issues (e.g., image cultivation/maintenance, credential accumulation, preaching and church discipline, the language of “leadership” or “responsible care”?) dominates chapters 5–8. But these chapters are still funded with rich theological interpretation of passages from the Pauline corpus and Acts.
This short book (160 pages) is both easy to read and, at times, hard to hear. It is easy to read because of Gombis’s engaging style. He peppers the book with thought-provoking, personal stories about his own failures that have stirred up and radiated destructive “this age” power dynamics. Such a vulnerable, cruciform posture may help expose our own unacknowledged pursuit of social status and coercive behaviors for what they are: the enslaving power dynamics characteristic of “this age.”
This book would work well as a supplemental text in an undergraduate or seminary class on Paul’s letters and would be a helpful addition to any pastor’s library. In fact, it might even be appropriately used for a time as the basis for one’s personal devotions/reflections. However, Gombis is careful to note that the way his arguments apply to readers in already marginalized positions (women and people of color) may differ from the way they apply to readers in positions of relative power. He is quite aware that the sort of argument he makes here, using the language of cruciformity, has sometimes been used in sinful ways to keep people of color and women in oppressive situations (149). He therefore maintains that the book will speak most directly to those who—like himself and me—inhabit social locations of privilege, i.e., white male pastors who have never had to justify our place in ministry.
I write these words one week after the insurrection at the Capitol, where many white Christians (especially evangelicals) and some of their pastors were in attendance. One wanted to “spill blood on the Senate floor in the name of Jesus” in order to support a president whose brutally coercive politics toward “outsiders” and relentless pursuit of power and prestige are legendary. This represents a diseased form of discipleship that ministry leaders like me have failed to treat. I don’t fully know what the cure is, but it must include a “conversion of the ministry imaginations” of many white church leaders and the churches they lead. A good dose of Paul’s transformed ministry imagination via a reading of Gombis might be a small first step toward treating this diseased form of discipleship.