A Review of
Power in Weakness: Paul’s Transformed
Vision for Ministry
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
Paul’s theological and intellectual legacy has loomed large, particularly in evangelical and reformed church cultures that love to dissect and systematize the theological content of his letters (Growing up in conservative evangelical culture myself, I cannot count how many sermons on Romans I’ve sat through). Curiously, at least in that context, much less attention has been given to his life, personality, emotions and actual experience as a pastor, shepherd and minister of the gospel in the ancient world. Recent evangelical publishing trends seem to be redressing this imbalance, with NT Wright’s Paul: A Biography, Scot McKnight’s Pastor Paul, and T&T Clark’s essay collection Paul as Pastor as a few examples. Timothy Gombis’s new monograph fits directly in this vein, as he frontloads Paul’s experience, in particular the implications of his conversion experience on the way to Damascus, as a lens through which to carefully consider what it means to be a healthy, cruciform, gospel minister in our modern context.
In some ways, Power in Weakness defies easy categorization. It is certainly not a rigorous systematic Pauline theology, though it is seasoned throughout with Gombis’s deep theological reflection and a comprehensive grasp of Paul’s writings. It is also not strictly a commentary on Paul’s letters, though frequent commentary on specific passages does show up. It is perhaps closest to a so-called “ministry book,” as it is supremely approachable, full of gripping anecdotes and practical suggestions. But Power in Weakness also stands in stark contrast with most ministry books because of Gombis’s careful refusal to provide platitudes, easy answers, or promises of ways to grow your church or increase your influence or platform. In fact, this refusal drives right to the heart of Gombis’s thesis: that Paul saw himself as a minister throughout his entire life, but only operated as a coercive, visionary leader in his “pre-conversion ministry imagination.” This articulation of Paul’s conversion is key to understanding Gombis’s project here, and also sets it apart from many similar books that center the famous apostle. That is, Paul himself underwent a decisive shift after his mysterious encounter with Christ, not from seeing himself as a “lay person” to now being a “minister,” but the way in which he imagined ministry going forward needed to utterly change. Before Damascus, Paul believed in ministry, but it was a ministry of force and violent zeal, in which people were “in the way” of God’s plan (in this case, to restore Israel). After Damascus, his ministry was one of self-emptying, abandonment of accolades, and close identification with the outcasts and sinners. This is what Gombis repeatedly refers to as “the conversion of Paul’s ministry imagination,” and he points to its implications for pastors today, in a culture that props up popular leaders and encourages the accumulation of notoriety, platform, credentials, curated image and accruing cultural power.
“This endless quest is a fruitless one. If pastors are constantly on the lookout for some further basis on which they might establish their value, they will radiate that insignificance to others, and will minister from a vision of the Christian faith that encourages others to establish their claims for significance based on some elusive pursuit. They will end up betraying the gospel in so doing” (118).
Framed in this way, and as a pastor myself, reading Gombis’s insightful book haunted me with one overriding question, “How might I be conducting my ministry in the name of Jesus, but in the method of Saul of Tarsus?” It’s a convicting question, and one that I’m grateful Gombis has raised in such an accessible, theologically and exegetically seasoned book.
Another aspect of Power in Weakness that deserves attention is Gombis’s careful effort to point to the cosmic realities that influenced the New Testament world of Paul’s writing. Those who are familiar with Gombis’s previous work (I’m thinking particularly of The Drama of Ephesians) will not be surprised by this, and as in that work, it adds a layer of interpretive complexity that is extremely helpful. The church exists in a “cosmically contested situation,” but is the place in which God’s Spirit has lavished “resurrection life and power” in the very midst of the battle (77). The pastor, then, stands at a place in which he or she can either stir up the dynamics of these cosmic enemies (Sin, Death, Flesh) by coercion, competition and manipulation; or the dynamics of God’s grace, rest and peace through cruciformity and self-giving, what looks like “weakness” in the eyes of the world.
“This reality that takes into account cosmic dynamics is why the passionate efforts of so many pastors fail to produce the new creation fruit they envision. It is why pastors who see themselves motivated by commitment to God often apply pressure to people, rather than offering them relief and rest, driving people away or provoking resistance from their churches. They may tell themselves that there is something wrong with their congregants, but it is worth considering whether their ministry efforts are stirring up and radiating dynamics of the present evil age”(81, emphasis added).
One mild criticism, of a book that resonated deeply with me, is worth considering. As I worked through Gombis’s practical applications and anecdotes, I repeatedly wondered if there might be cultural limitations to some of his considerations. For example, in a discussion of credentials, he encourages pastors to avoid using titles like “pastor” or “doctor,” which is fine as far as it goes, but may not be as easily applicable to church cultures with a higher power distance, in which there are legitimate reasons pastors are afforded these titles of dignity and respect. Thankfully, in a thoughtful and nuanced epilogue, Gombis directly addresses these concerns and notes his own perspective and the possibility of limited application. I merely wish this section had been near the beginning of the work, though I’m grateful for its inclusion at all.
That being said, the overarching theological truth of cruciformity, how the encounter with the crucified and risen Christ deeply shifted Paul’s own ministry imagination, and the ways in which this all necessarily pushes against the cultural temptations pastors face in our image-and-power-obsessed culture stands strong in Gombis’s important exhortation to the shepherds of the church in America. I pray that those who have ears to hear would listen.