The Myth Of The Self-Made Man

Posted October 20, 2010 by hellerman
Categories: Uncategorized

Have you ever put together a relational biography? A relational biography describes the special people that God has used in your life over the years to get you where you are today. Try it. You’ll be amazed to discover just how much you owe to the influence of others over the years. As it turns out, I owe them just about everything! What follows is a list of but a few of my creditors, past and present.


For better or worse, our parents, more than anyone else, set the trajectory for our lives. In my case, it was for better. I was an only child of two older parents (my Jewish father had been married and divorced three times to the same Jewish woman before he married my Gentile mother at 50 years of age!). Mom and Dad filled our little home with love and security. My father died when I was 16 years old, but he had stopped working eight years earlier, and I had more one-on-one time with my dad during those eight years than most children have in a lifetime. My parents left me a priceless legacy of goal-orientation, personal responsibility, and overall optimism about life. I never once saw my parents wallow in self-pity or play the blame-game, in spite of periods of deep suffering over years.

At the practical level my folks left me another legacy: a little beach cottage in Hermosa Beach, California. Joann and I have lived there since 1984, raising both daughters in a 750 square-foot house with one bathroom. The economics of inheriting a house made so many things possible: (a) Joann remained a stay-at-home mom on a pastor’s salary, (b) we had money for date-nights and romantic getaways which have, in turn, made our marriage better, and (c) I was able to pursue a terminal degree in Christian Origins at UCLA that ultimately set me on a life-long vocational trajectory.

And then there are Joann and the girls. I would truly be a gutter rat without their influence in my life. God really does use the women in our lives to socialize us guys to become productive human beings! My daughters increasingly speak into my life as young adults, but, of course, most in the influence has (hopefully!) gone in the other direction—from me to them—over the years. Not so with Joann, my wife of thirty years. Joann is the person who has made me what I am today in so very many ways. I’ll try to limit myself to two examples here. The first is practical in nature.

Joann simply has no desire for ‘things’—a fancy house, clothes, cars, jewelry—that other Christian women seem to think are so indispensable to their comfort and to their social identity. Joann buys her clothes at Ross and the like, and she is completely content to drive around town in our old 1998 Explorer. This has been utterly liberating for me economically, since I have never felt any pressure from Joann to sell my soul (and our marriage!) into bondage to the banal trivialities of our consumer culture (fishing tackle excepted, of course!).

Secondly, and most importantly, Joann believes in me and my gifts, and she has supported me in my educational and vocational adventures more than anyone else on the planet. Her encouragement along the way has turned moments of self-doubt into hope and times of victory into family celebrations. Her love has carried me through the years like a steady, warm breeze in the sails of a ship moving through waters both calm and turbulent. Joann is simply my best friend in the world. And what a great pastor’s wife she is! Those who know me well will tell you that I am not a people-person. [Pretty ironic for a guy whose academic specialty is early Christian community!] Joann, on the other hand, touches people one-on-one in ways that are simply amazing. Her relational gifts have freed me up, in turn, to use my teaching gifts as God intended them to be used among His people.


Church folks have also been a determining factor in my life and ministry. A music minister named Paul Isensee challenged me to get involved in ministry (1978). A whole church (Community Baptist) affirmed my gifts along the way and helped to put me through seminary and a doctoral program (1980-96). John Hutchison provided a model of what pastoral ministry is all about (1986-90). Duke Winser invited me to join him as a co-pastor at Oceanside Christian Fellowship (1996). Margy Emmons has opened my heart to worship over the years in ways it had never been opened before. OCF’s elders (Brandon, Carlos, Dan, Denny, Ed, & Stan) continue to provide the most relationally healthy leadership environment imaginable for a minister of the Gospel. And my fellow-elders at OCF are some of my best Christian buddies, as well.


I also remain deeply in debt to mentors and colleagues in academia. A piano teacher (Michael Sellers) told me to get back and finish what I’d started, after I dropped out of college for a season. A Greek teacher (Bill Welty) chased me out of an unaccredited seminary (Grace Graduate School, Long Beach) to an accredited one (Talbot), because he saw in me an aptitude for biblical languages. Don McDougall, a Greek professor at Talbot, modeled what was to be my own bivocational calling to both the church and the academy. Scott Bartchy, my Doctorvater at UCLA, opened my mind to a whole new approach to the Scriptures, and he has become a dear friend over the years, as well.


More recent ‘creditors,’ filling the pages of my relational biography on the vocational side, include the likes of Drs. Dennis Dirks, Mike Wilkins, and Clint Arnold, my supervisors at Talbot. These guys have conspired to create what is truly a near-ideal work environment. Dennis does all the dirty work (administration), leaving faculty primarily to focus on the fun stuff (research & teaching). Clint kindly schedules all my courses on two days each week, so that I can commute less and have more time for writing and for church ministry.

And Mike? Well, Mike and I are on different schedules at Talbot, and we live 50+ miles apart, so we aren’t real close friends. But the debt I owe to Mike Wilkins for my quality of life and the joy I get from teaching at Talbot is a profound one. Mike is Talbot’s ‘gate-keeper’ where faculty hiring is concerned. That means that the relational atmosphere that faculty experience among their peers at the school of theology is, in many ways, ultimately Mike’s doing. Those in the know will tell you that Mike has a nose for arrogance. Mike flat out will not hire an applicant who is ‘full of himself,’ no matter what the guy’s CV looks like. The result? Talbot professors enjoy an amazingly supportive collegial atmosphere that is a genuine anomaly in higher education. Paul says ‘knowledge puffs up, but love builds up’ (1 Cor 8:1). Because of Mike’s careful gate-keeping, we have a whole lot of the latter—and almost none of the former—at Talbot School of Theology.

CONCLUSION: There, in a nutshell, is a brief overview of my relational biography. And, once again, I am brought to my knees in gratitude for the people that God has brought my way over the years. Hey, maybe I’m a ‘people-person,’ after all!

The moral of the story is that we are all people-persons when it comes to the debt of gratitude we owe to others for who we are today. None of us can say, ‘I am a self-made man.’ God has not set up His universe to run like that. ‘Where is boasting? It is excluded!’ All is of grace, even (especially!) the people God has placed in our lives.

Write your own relational biography. You’ll find it to be a humbling and joyous experience. Finally: May God help us to influence others in the ways others have influenced us!


Don’t Gimme No Theology!

Posted October 18, 2010 by hellerman
Categories: Uncategorized

Don’t gimme no theology. Just gimme the Bible! Ever heard someone say that? Well, at times theology comes in handy.

That might sound like a no-brainer coming from a pastor/seminary professor, but as a historian I much prefer interpreting a biblical passage in its historical and literary context (my task as a New Testament scholar) to systematizing various portions of Scripture around a single theological truth (the task of a theologian).

I am not, by training, a theologian. But sometimes theology comes in handy. In fact, sometimes theology comes in REALLY handy—like when Paul (a) lays out an expansive picture of judgment by works (!) in Romans 2:6-11, (b) insists that ‘the doers of the law…will be justified’ two verses later (2:13), and then maintains what appears to be precisely the opposite in the very next chapter of the letter: ‘no human being will be justified in his sight by deeds prescribed by the law’ (3:20). Yikes!

I preached on Romans 2:1-12 last Sunday. As a New Testament guy, I just wanted to explain what Paul said in this particular passage—pretty clear: ‘the doers of the law…will be justified’—and be done with it. Then I’d just turn my people loose in their small groups to sort it all out.

Ah, if only a pastor’s job was that easy!  Well, for better or for worse, it’s not. The dear folks at Oceanside Christian Fellowship expect their pastor-elders to teach the whole counsel of God’s Word. Rightly so! And this is where theology—the systematization of biblical truth—comes directly into play.

I suppose we could just say (with Ed Sanders, Heikki Räisänen, et al) that Paul is hopelessly confused between Romans 2 and 3. But for those of us who read Scripture (let alone Paul!) as a coherent whole, this, of course, is not an option.

Those of you who are familiar with the debates surrounding Paul’s portrayal of eschatological judgment in Romans 2 know that evangelicals tend to take one of two positions on the passage:

VIEW ONE: Paul is speaking hypothetically. The offer of ‘eternal life’ for ‘everyone who does good’ (vv. 7, 10) is real. Due to our fallen nature, however, no one actually satisfies God’s requirements. So no one, in the final analysis, ever gains eternal life by ‘doing good’ (v. 7). Paul is setting up a contrary-to-fact scenario that he will categorically refute in the following chapter of the letter. This, of course, harmonizes nicely with what Paul says elsewhere about justification and works (Gal 2:16; Eph 2:8-9), and it eliminates the potential contradiction between 2:6-11 and Paul’s clear statement to the contrary in the following chapter of Romans.

VIEW TWO: Paul actually means what he says in Romans 2:6-11, and we ought to take the text at face value. After all, there is no indication in the immediate context that Paul is speaking in hypothetical terms. We certainly wouldn’t argue, for example, that the condemnation in vv. 8-9 is not going to be a future reality. In fact, if we (like the early Christians in Rome who first read the letter) didn’t already know what was coming in Romans 3, we would have no idea whatsoever that Paul was speaking hypothetically. And then there are all those other Bible passages that also seem to give a central place to behavior/works in determining our eternal state (Matthew 12:36; John 5:28; and, of course, James 2:14-26, just to name a few).

So what do we do with all this? We do theology! Whichever view we take!

When faced with a dilemma like the one above, theologians will generally (a) assume as biblical the view that accounts for the most passages of Scripture, and (b) interpret unclear (or less clear) texts in light of those that are more straightforward.

For example, those holding VIEW ONE argue that Paul must be speaking hypothetically primarily because of what Paul writes elsewhere about justification and the works of the law (Romans 3; Galatians 2; Ephesians 2).

Proponents of VIEW TWO must also engage in theological synthesis, since they have to make room at the table for what they assume to be clear statements in the Bible describing both justification by works and justification by faith. How do they do so? Well, these scholars generally distinguish between initial justification (when we receive Christ by faith alone) and final justification (when we are justified by ‘doing good’ at the threshold of eternity). These justifying works are typically understood to be obedience to God’s standards produced by the Holy Spirit in the lives of a genuine believer (see Romans 8:4; Philippians 2:12-13; Ephesians 2:10).

So which view does Joe take? Ah! You missed church on Sunday? Guess you’ll have to read between the lines here. The point of the post, however, is not to try to sell you on my position on Romans 2. I’m trying to help you to appreciate the centrality of theology—the systematization of biblical truth—in understanding our relationship with God and the Christian life.

In the final analysis, theology is not only necessary. It is unavoidable. Even the person who says Don’t gimme me no theology. Just gimme the Bible! does theology. [Either that, or he’s gonna be workin’ his way to heaven one day (Romans 2) and trustin’ in Jesus the next (Romans 3)!] Theological synthesis is inevitable. Indeed, theology used to be called the queen of the sciences. Either we do it well, or we do it poorly. But we all do theology. So let’s treat the lady well. She is a queen, after all!

Wallace Categories

Posted October 7, 2010 by hellerman
Categories: Uncategorized

Third semester Greek is a challenging place to be for our seminary students. Many of these folks are doing well just to hang on to what they learned back in Greek 1-2. Learning intermediate grammar finds our students negotiating a sharp turn deep in the tunnel of language acquisition. The proverbial light at the end of this tunnel—where knowledge of Greek pays significant exegetical dividends—gets almost snuffed out for a season by Wallace’s thirty-some categories of the genitive case.

So I regularly remind my students that it is all worthwhile, that after another semester or two they’ll possess the kind of top-rate exegetical skills that will bear great fruit in the study and in the pulpit. They occasionally even get a taste of that fruit along the way!

Consider the NIV translation of Romans 8:16: The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children (NIV). The NIV translation (the NRSV is virtually the same) raises several questions:

(1) Just how are God’s Spirit and the human spirit related here? More specifically, in what way does my spirit testify that I am a child of God?

(2) To whom do God’s Spirit and my spirit testify? To me? I’m telling myself? To others? The person/entity that receives the testimony is strangely unspecified.

The alternative interpretation that Wallace proposes during his discussion of the ‘dative of association’ clears all this up in an instant: The Spirit himself testifies to our spirit that we are God’s children. You Greek geeks can read the pros and cons. In short, Wallace interprets spirit as a dative of indirect object, rather than as a dative of association (Wallace, 160-61). I find the arguments quite convincing. The implications? Wallace puts it like this:

In sum, Rom 8:16 seems to be secure as a text in which the believer’s assurance of salvation is based on the inner witness of the Spirit. The implications for one’s soteriology are profound: The objective data, as helpful as they are, cannot by themselves provide assurance of salvation; the believer also needs (and receives) an existential, ongoing encounter with God’s Spirit in order to gain that familial comfort (161).

Whoa! ‘existential…encounter’? A Dallas guy said that?!

Just what are those ‘objective data’ to which Wallace refers? He doesn’t say. But I suspect he has in mind something like this:

1.  It says in John 1:12, ‘As many as received him, to them he gave authority to become children of God.’

2. Joe Hellerman prayed to receive Christ on December 8, 1975, on the beach in Hermosa Beach, CA.

3. Therefore, Joe can be assured that he is a child of God!

When I became a Christian this ‘objective data’ was all the rage. We were actually cautioned against relying on subjective data of any kind for assurance of salvation. [I can’t quite recall why, but I suspect it had something to do with the resurgence of Pentecostalism in the form of the Charismatic movement during this period. Debates between Charismatics and non-Charismatics were raging throughout evangelicalism, and this, in turn, generated a suspicion of any kind of subjective experience of the Spirit in cessationist circles like mine.]

So just how does the Spirit bear witness to my spirit that I am one of God’s kids? Well, Paul talks in the immediate context about being ‘led by the Spirit’ (v. 14). I think it is probably as simple as this: If I’m truly a child of God, the Holy Spirit says to my spirit, ‘That’s good!’ when I obey, and ‘That’s bad!’ when I sin. Surely you’ve sensed the affirmation of the Holy Spirit when you’ve done something pleasing to God. Conversely, we all experience the conviction of the Spirit when we sin.

The implications of all of this for pastoral ministry are profound. Just one example: here is the first thing I say to a person who comes to me struggling with some area of ongoing disobedience, and who is deeply remorseful about it: That’s proof you’re a child of God. The Spirit would not be bearing (that painful!) witness to your spirit, if you were not.

It’s important to start here, I think, because the Spirit who bears witness to our spirit against our disobedience is the very same Spirit who longs to liberate us and give us victory over sin in our lives. When I’m in the trenches and have just lost several battles, it’s good to know that I have at my disposal the artillery necessary to win the war. The convicting witness of the Spirit during those times of sin and defeat should give us the confidence that God is also present in our lives ultimately to lead us to victory.

Moral of this post? Learn those Wallace categories, Greek student! They really do make a difference. 🙂

Living Lake or Stagnant Pond?

Posted October 4, 2010 by hellerman
Categories: Uncategorized

I spent an hour or so last Wednesday with a Talbot guy who is really ‘getting it.’ Not only is Peter a bright, disciplined student of the New Testament. He is also up-to-his-ears in local church ministry.

And here’s the best part. Peter is funneling what he is learning in seminary directly into the life of his youth group. Peter could hardly contain his excitement, for example, as he shared with me how his high school students are responding to what he is teaching them about the nature of the church. ‘They are really becoming a family!’ Peter exclaimed.

Peter is approaching his studies at Talbot like a living lake. A living lake is a body of water with an inlet (snow melt coming in) and an outlet (lake water going out). This ongoing exchange of water—flowing in and out—nurtures a healthy lake environment that supports all kinds of life. Below is picture of a living lake that my daughter Rachel and I came across, just after we hiked across a 11,000-foot pass in the Eastern Sierras last summer. Look carefully and you’ll see that the water is crystal clear. This lake is just full of life.

Now compare the above photo with another picture, this time of a stagnant pond:

The only creatures that can breed and survive in a place like this are mosquitoes and other undesirables. And not only do stagnant ponds look repulsive. They tend to stink, as well.

Ponds become stagnant for one simple reason. They lack that constant exchange of living water that keeps a pond environment alive and healthy. Water comes in and fills a stagnant pond during a rain or a snow melt. But there is no outlet to keep the pond water fresh. The only way a stagnant pond loses water is through evaporation. And evaporation only concentrates the pond’s ‘bio-filth.’

The parallel to our spiritual lives should be transparent. If you are fortunate enough to have a healthy influx of spiritual water (maybe you are in seminary or enjoy good weekly teaching at your church), but have no outlet in church ministry to pass on what you are learning to others, you will inevitably stagnate. And eventually, you’ll probably even start to stink up those around you. No one wants to sit around a stagnant pond!

Stagnant ponds lurk in the halls of every theological institution. You’ll find ‘em in our churches, as well. Lacking a real-life ministry with real live people, these folks often (a) form small groups of people just like themselves, (b) major on theological minutiae or a favorite biblical hobby horse, (c) delight in debating issues that are irrelevant to the average Christian, (d) tend to be critical of the ideas and ministries of others, and (e) have little appreciation for what they might learn from people in their churches who know next-to-nothing about the latest philosophical or theological trends that they themselves deem so very important.

Living lakes are another story entirely. Peter (above) is a living lake. He is intentionally channeling what he is learning about God and His Word to other people who lack the theological resources he is acquiring, and he is experiencing in return the vital spiritual life and relational health that God intends for him to enjoy during his theological training. Peter simply doesn’t have time to nitpick and be overly critical of the ministries and ideas of others. He is too busy pouring his Talbot training into the lives of the young people in his church. And I would be willing to bet that Peter is learning as much about God and the Christian life from those teenagers in his church as he is from his professors at Talbot School of Theology. Peter is a living lake.

Some professors counsel students to avoid extensive ministry involvement during seminary, in order to devote the bulk of their time to their studies. I must confess that I am somewhat sympathetic to such advice, since I do want our students to leave Talbot well-trained for a lifetime of future ministry. In the final analysis, however, I simply cannot sign on to such a program. Theological training apart from real-life ministry is the classic recipe for a stagnant pond.

We are meant to be channels of blessing for everything God gives us, including our knowledge of the Scriptures. Become a living lake! Today—not tomorrow! Become like Peter and a host of other Talbot students who are passionate about their studies and their church ministries!

Another Fish Pic: Indulge Me

Posted September 30, 2010 by hellerman
Categories: Uncategorized

I’m wistfully recalling the fish-days of summer:

122 lb Yellowfin Tuna from Alijos Rocks. Cool place. Google map it!

[Only thing that makes me smile like this is a student who can sight-parse a second aorist passive subjunctive.]

Meet My Buddy Dave

Posted September 30, 2010 by hellerman
Categories: Uncategorized

Just returned for lunch with Dave White. Dave is a special guy. He and I were friends in seminary back in the 1980s. We commuted to Talbot together from the beach area. Dave went to the Philippines as a missionary. I stayed in the States as a pastor. Dave has had an incredible ministry in a very fruitful field. He began by planting churches. Then he trained pastors. Now he trains and oversees a team of men who train the pastors. The way in which God has used Dave and Sandy White to expand His Kingdom in the Philippines is amazing and incredibly inspiring.

But the fruit of Dave’s ministry hasn’t come without a price. Back in the late 1980s, during the White’s first term in the Philippines, Dave used to tell me that the pollution in Manila was so bad that he had black soot in his nostrils after he returned home from jogging. Recently, Dave’s health has deteriorated to the point where he can find almost nothing to eat that does not ‘go right through him’ (paint your own picture here). It has gotten so bad that Dave must bring his own food with him when he takes his wife out for dinner.

The reason? Dave found out that his body has literally been poisoned by various metals and other pollutants that he has inhaled in the air, or otherwise ingested in Manila.

Things are looking better now, however, since Dave and his family came home on furlough. The doctors have finally figured out what’s wrong. Dave is on the mend. And the variety of things he can eat is increasing week by week. Dave will be here until June. Then he and Sandy and Kevin (their teenage son…daughter Julie is at Biola) will return to Manila. I hope we’ll get to hear a report from him some Sunday at OCF in the near future!

I can’t help but to reflect long and hard about Dave and Sandy White and the sacrifices this family has made for the Gospel. And then I think about my own pilgrimage and how easy it has been in comparison. God has been much too gentle with the Hellermans. He probably figured that I didn’t have what it takes to face the challenges that my buddy Dave has faced.

I came away from my lunch with Dave all the more grateful for Christians in third-world settings around the globe who sacrifice so much to share the love of Jesus with those who haven’t heard. Spend some time with someone like Dave White. I guarantee it will expand your horizons and give you a God’s-eye perspective on your own life and ministry!

Birds of a Feather

Posted September 26, 2010 by hellerman
Categories: Uncategorized

If we’ve learned anything about Romans in recent years from the New Perspective folks, it is that Romans is not just about me and God. It’s also about me and you. Paul, in fact, leverages many of the familiar soteriological truths that we typically associate with the book of Romans in the service of what I take to be an overarching ecclesiological agenda. The church at Rome was apparently divided along ethnic lines. Paul’s letter to the Romans represents (among other things) the apostle’s concerted effort to address the issue, in order to restore some inter-racial harmony in the congregation.

You cannot read very far in Paul’s letters without coming to grips with the fact that the trans-ethnic nature of the people of God under the New Covenant is very near and dear to the great apostle’s heart. As Paul expressed it in Galatians, ‘in Christ’ (and by that Paul surely also meant in Christ’s church) ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek.’

Just last week I was struck, once again, by just how unnatural—or, perhaps better, supernatural—Paul’s vision for the church as a trans-ethnic, surrogate family really is. I was jogging on the sand near the ocean, and I came across a flock of birds sitting on the beach. This is a common sight in Hermosa Beach, but these ‘bird parties,’ as my kids used to call them, usually consist of a single type of bird, the familiar seagulls we see throughout our beach communities here in Southern California.

This time, instead of a single flock of gulls, however, four kinds of birds had invited themselves to the party. Along with two distinct kinds of seagulls, there was also a group of gorgeous terns sitting just a few feet away from a collection of cool-looking sandpipers. But the different species didn’t mix with one another. Nope. They sat on the beach, in close proximity to one another, closely bunched together into their respective ‘ethnic groups,’ aggressively defending their borders whenever a member of one species dared to encroach upon the territory of another.

How natural! We even have a saying for it. Birds of a feather flock together. The sad thing is that we humans, like those birds, tend strongly to gravitate toward ‘people like us.’ And (also like those birds) we snip and snap at people who are not like us, when we think they are encroaching upon our territory. Indeed, history, past and present, is littered with the tragic fallout of what seems to be a natural tendency on the part of fallen human beings to fight to the death, in order to preserve blood and race, nation and homeland, that is, to protect ‘people like us’ from ‘people like them.’

This is what makes Paul’s vision for the church such a radical, world-changing project. As Paul saw it, in the death of Jesus, God had utterly defeated the demonic powers and principalities that divide us one against another. At the cross Jesus had once and for all destroyed the dividing wall of enmity between Jew and Gentile. God did this, Paul tells us, in order to make the two ethnic groups into ‘one new man’ (Ephesians 2), a ‘new humanity,’ as recent writers have expressed it.

Now here is what I find astounding. Paul claims that God wants to make this miracle—the miracle that everyone is now welcome at God’s banquet table—known to ‘the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.’ And God wants to do so ‘through the church’ (Ephesians 3)!

Wow! It’s like Paul is saying to us, Proclaim to the demonic powers that they have been defeated! Live together in community as a multi-ethnic family of brothers and sisters in Christ! Show the whole universe—yes, even Satan and his demons—that our God reigns!

Now that, I submit to you, is something to live for. But let’s not be naïve about the challenges facing such a project. No one says it’s gonna be easy. In our flesh we much too naturally continue to gravitate toward people like us. But real Christian community—world-changing community—demands that we draw upon the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit to share life together in our local churches with people who are not like us.

But wait. Maybe we’re missing Paul’s point here. As it turns out, those people in our churches who are not like us are actually more like us than anyone else in the world. For they—like us—name the name of Jesus. And because of that, they are our brothers and sisters in this supernatural entity we call the family of God.

C’mon! Get with The Program! Let’s let those powers and principalities know that they’re done, they’re over, they’re history, they’re kaput. Let’s let ’em know that Jesus has won. Let’s be the church that God intends us to be.

Reading Romans Wrightly

Posted September 21, 2010 by hellerman
Categories: Uncategorized

We’re beginning a year-long series in Romans at Oceanside Christian Fellowship, and I’m finding it challenging, to say the least. Romans has been quite the lightening rod of late for debates between scholars in Reformed circles (represented by John Piper), on the one hand, and New Perspective folks (preeminently N. T. Wright), on the other, over justification, Romans, and Paul in general. What follows are some ramblings from what is a work in progress (my thinking about the issues!), as I try to sort all of this out to my satisfaction.

Where Romans is concerned, the debate seems to center around whether we should read the text (a) as a somewhat abstract, a-historical treatise addressed to the human condition or (b) as an occasional letter in which Paul underscores the centrality of the Christ event in God’s unfolding drama of salvation-history, in order to address perceived needs (primarily a lack of harmony between Jews & Gentiles) in the church at Rome.

I think both perspectives have much to offer. The historian in me, however, views ‘b,’ above, as the self-evident place to begin. I think Wright’s reading of Romans, for example, makes a whole lot of historical sense, particularly his understanding of ‘the righteousness of God’ as God’s covenant faithfulness.

My impression, moreover, is that Wright makes more room for traditional insights in his reading of Paul than he is often credited with—certainly more room than numbers of Reformed theologians make in their reconstructions for recent findings related to ancient Judaism. For example, you will not find a more robust (read ‘orthodox’) expression of atonement theology than Wright’s treatment of Romans 3:25. He argues persuasively for both expiation (removal of sin) and propitiation (satisfaction of God’s wrath) in his commentary on the passage in the New Interpreter’s Bible.

Now I don’t buy what Wright does with imputation (I find his interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21 fascinating but forced), but given his understanding of union with Christ (‘in Christ’), I don’t find Wright doing anything remotely close to propagating ‘another gospel’ with his take on imputation. Frankly, some of the rhetoric on both sides of the debate could be toned down a bit.

With regard to ‘a,’ above (reading Romans as addressed in general terms to the human condition), I am quite convinced that Paul does, indeed, get there in his argument in Romans. This (in part) is what makes Romans such a spiritually powerful and timelessly relevant exposition of the Gospel. And this is where our Reformed brothers have much of value to contribute to the ongoing conversation. But if we begin here and stay here in our reading of Romans, we set ourselves up for the kind of problems that surface in Piper’s recent critique of Wright’s understanding of Paul:

Problem #1 — Piper offers a rather idiosyncratic understanding of ‘righteousness of God’ as God’s ‘unwavering commitment to act for the sake of his glory.’ God certainly does exhibit an unwavering commitment to act for his own glory, but is that actually what Paul means with the phrase ‘righteousness of God’? I think not. Nor do others, since one has to look far and wide for any NT scholar who interprets the phrase this way. Reading ‘the righteousness of God’ as God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises situates the phrase, in contrast, squarely in the ongoing story of God’s relationship with his people, and it makes much better sense (IMO!) of the argument of Romans. In the former case we have theology sans history. In the latter we have salvation history generating a robust picture of God (theology!) acting in history to redeem a people for his own possession.

Problem #2 — Piper collapses ethnic pride under the all-encompassing rubric of human sinfulness and rebellion. Fine, in the abstract, at any rate. Ethnic pride certainly is one very ugly expression of human sin. But to make this move at the gate is potentially to miss completely Paul’s passion to see Jewish and Gentile Christians rise above their ethnic differences and genuinely exhibit in their local church communities their oneness in Christ. Toss into the mix Western individualism (and our emphasis upon Jesus as ‘personal savior’), and many of us will (mis)read Romans as a treatise primarily about ‘me and God,’ rather than as a missiological challenge to pursue peace between ‘us and them.’

Problem #3 — Piper virtually dismisses Second Temple Jewish background as the proper context in which to situate Paul’s writings, suggesting, instead, that the context of Romans itself should be given priority. I find this utterly counterintuitive, and I suspect that few will follow Piper here. Of course the context of Romans should be given priority. But to assume we can read Romans 3:1-8, for example, in the context of the letter, without imposing upon the text our own broader, unarticulated matrices of understanding (e.g., controlling narratives from our theological training, church background, or whatever) is methodologically naive, to say the least. Like it or not, we will inevitably read Romans 3:1-8 in the context of Romans in the context of something else—whether that something else be 21st century neo-Calvinism or 1st century Judaism. I’ll opt for the latter, while remaining appreciative of the often timeless insights and truths of the former.

Last Sunday was our first Sunday in Romans. I challenged our people to read the text primarily asking, What does this passage say about God’s plan for his people? How do I fit into that big picture? and only secondarily asking, What does this passage say about me and my personal relationship with God?

Both kinds of questions are legitimate and, of course, hardly unrelated. And both are absolutely indispensable. But we need to begin our pilgrimage in Romans by asking the questions of the text that Paul is most immediately answering. Then, I think, we’ll begin to find ourselves on the Wright track. 🙂

The Allure of Toxic Leaders

Posted April 3, 2010 by hellerman
Categories: Uncategorized

I am presently at work on a book about the use of power and authority in Christian leadership. The provisional title is When Pastors Were Servants: Recapturing Paul’s Cruciform Vision for Authentic Christian Leadership. The primary biblical materials in play are Paul’s letter to the Philippians and the apostle’s ministry in Philippi, as related by Luke in Acts 16.

The motivation to take on the project came from numbers of students at Talbot, and colleagues in pastoral ministry, who have found themselves on the receiving end of abusive, hurtful leaders. The book will contain, among other things, a series of narratives (well disguised, of course) detailing the various experiences that these men and women have had at the hands of narcissistic, dysfunctional leaders in their churches.

Here is perhaps the most counterintuitive reality I have encountered in the whole process of researching the topic: every single one of the half-dozen or so abusive local church leaders described in the book is still in his church, fully in control of the church’s vision, ministry, and staffing. Jean Lipman-Blumen’s insightful book, The Allure of Toxic Leaders (Oxford University Press, 2005), helps explain why.

We are apparently attracted to toxic leaders. Psychological dynamics that lead us to rally around such leaders include a subconscious longing for a parental figure later in adult life, the need for security and certainty in an unpredictable world, and a desire to feel chosen or special, as we join together in community with others to support the noble vision of a bigger-than-life leader. We tend to look the other way, where integrity is concerned, if we can find an inspiring, confident leader to satisfy these pressing psychological needs.

At a deeper level, people respond to powerful, charismatic leadership out of a profound longing for a god-like figure in their lives. In religious contexts this person can be a gifted, celebrity pastor who simultaneously serves as both God’s representative and spiritual father to a willing, compliant congregation. Jesus was apparently well aware of this dynamic: ‘Do not call anyone on earth your father, because you have one Father, who is in heaven’ (Matt 23:9).

The public reaction, in this regard, even to a person who is good leader, tells us a lot about our longing for a savior figure, especially in the face of crisis. Consider the following excerpts from an op-ed article about Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the New York Times. The piece appeared on September 20, 2001, a little more than a week after the tragedy of 9/11:

[Giuliani] moves about the stricken city like a god. People want to be in his presence. They want to touch him. They want to praise him….On Central Park West, a woman searching for just the right superlative for the man who is guiding New York through the greatest disaster ever to hit an American city finally said, ‘He’s not like a god; he is God.’ (New York Times, September 20, 2001, A31).

Wow! Fortunately, Giuliani proved to be a relatively selfless, compassionate leader throughout the 9/11 crisis.

This has not been the case in numbers of such incidents. Some of our gods turn out to be devils in disguise. This is true of public officials, and it is true of certain pastors in our churches. Yet we continue to tolerate and even encourage strong leaders who clearly misuse their power and authority.

Human leaders have clay feet. That’s why we need more than one of them at a time leading a local church. It is no accident that virtually every church in the New Testament was led by a plurality of elders-pastors. Maybe that’s how Jesus’ earliest followers interpreted his command ‘Do not call anyone on earth your father.’

Short of isolating ourselves completely from the family of God, there is no 100% safeguard that will protect us from abusive church leadership. But the right kind of church government can take us a long way in that direction. What we need, in each of our churches, is a team of pastors who share their lives with one another, and whose oversight of God’s people arises organically from the relational soil they cultivate together as a leadership community of peer brothers in Christ.

By some remarkable expression of the goodness and grace of God, I have had the privilege, for some thirteen years now, of ministering in just such a relational, team-oriented setting. I am better for it. My family is better for it. And my church is better for it. I can only pray the same for you.

Jesus The Shame-Bearer

Posted March 25, 2010 by hellerman
Categories: Uncategorized

As we approach the Passion Week, it might help to think about Jesus’ crucifixion in a threefold way:

1. Cross-Bearing: The physical pain of Jesus’ death

2. Sin-Bearing: The spiritual anguish of Jesus’ death

3. Shame-Bearing: The public humiliation of Jesus’ death

We do a pretty good job in our churches of emphasizing (1) the physical suffering of crucifixion and (2) the spiritual anguish Jesus experienced bearing God’s wrath for our sins at Calvary. And so we should. Because most of us do not live in the honor culture like the New Testament world, however, we tend to miss (3) the shame-bearing that public crucifixion entailed. Perhaps a story will help.

My vocational pilgrimage has been delightfully schizophrenic. I still can’t decide whether I want to be a seminary professor or a pastor when I grow up. I have oscillated between the two jobs now from nearly two decades.

After some fifteen years of church ministry and a bit of adjunct teaching, I made the transition to academia in an official capacity in the Fall of 1994. I took a part-time but permanent position with the New Testament faculty at Talbot School of Theology. The plan was to bring me up to full-time when I finished my doctoral program a couple years later.

The two years came and went, and I was itching to get back into full-time church ministry. I told my dean at Talbot to give the job to someone else, and I jumped on board as a team pastor at Oceanside Christian Fellowship, in February, 1996. I will never forget the reaction of one particular group of students at the seminary.

For a variety of reasons, related to the expansion of Christianity in the Pacific Rim and to our own history as a school of theology, Talbot has had the privilege over the years of training large numbers of pastors for the church in Korea.

These young men and their families make tremendous sacrifices to come to the States, learn a new language and culture, and get a top-rate theological education to take back to their homeland. They are some of our hardest working students. They have to be.

One day in early 1996 I announced to my classes that this was my last semester as a professor at Talbot. I was going back into full-time church ministry [Little did I know that I’d be back in the classroom full-time in 2001, but that’s a story for another time.]

The reaction of my Korean students took me completely by surprise. They suddenly began to act quite uncomfortable around me. As I probed a bit, it became clear that these international students felt deeply sorry for me. They were somehow ashamed for me, as well.

Traditional Asian culture, you see, is wedded to honor and shame in much the same way as people in Jesus’ world were. Instead of military victory and public office holding, however, today’s Koreans regard educational achievements and vocational status as the key criteria for honor in the public sphere.

Additionally, and also characteristic of an honor culture, my Korean students view Christian education and ministry in markedly hierarchical terms. At the top of the pecking order is the seminary professor, with his august educational degrees and pedagogical authority. A local church pastor, although still a big fish in a small pond, doesn’t even come close.

The Korean brothers who heard my announcement in class that day couldn’t imagine that a seminary professor would willingly trade a position at the top of the spiritual pecking order for the lesser job of a pastor. They could only assume that someone else made that decision for me, against my will.

So these dear Korean students, sympathetically sharing in the shame they assumed I was experiencing, did not know quite how to respond to their now former, demoted professor.

The point of the above story should be quite obvious: in an honor culture, whether Korean or Roman, to willingly step down the ladder of public esteem is simply unthinkable. A Roman senator named Pliny put it like this, ‘It is more uglifying to lose, than never to get, praise’ (Ep. 8.24.9).

Willingly stepping down the ladder of public esteem, however, is precisely what Jesus did for you and for me in his incarnation and subsequent death on the cross: ‘He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross’ (Phil 2:8). The early Christians were highly sensitive to the utter shame that crucifixion entailed in their social world—thus Paul’s emphatic phrase ‘even death on a cross.’

One of our earliest recorded Easter sermons describes the great paradox of a humiliated God like this:

He who hung the earth [in its place] is fixed there, he who made all things fast is made fast upon the tree, the Master has been insulted, God has been murdered, the King of Israel has been slain by an Israelitish hand. O strange murder, strange crime! The Master has been treated in unseemly fashion, his body naked, and not even deemed worthy of a covering, that [his nakedness] might not be seen. Therefore the lights [of heaven] turned away, and the day darkened, that it might hide him who was stripped upon the cross. (Melito or Sardis, Homily on the Passion, 96)

Another ancient Christian preacher similarly reflected,

Where can anything be found more paradoxical than this? This death was the most shameful of all, the most accursed. . . .This was no ordinary death (John Chrysostom, Homily on Philippians, 8.2.5–11).

No comments in either of these sermon excerpts about Jesus’ physical suffering. No comments about the atonement. For these early Christian preachers, it was the horror of God the Son’s public humiliation that they wanted to impress upon their congregations.

Jesus, we are told by the author of Hebrews, ‘endured the cross, scorning its shame’ (Heb 12:2).

Much to think about here as we approach Good Friday and Easter.