By Paul Black
The year 2016 has certainly been busy for New Testament scholar and IGRC Elder Craig Hill.
In July, Hill was named Dean of Perkins School of Theology, succeeding the retiring William Lawrence. It was during this time that Hill was completing the manuscript for Servant of All: Status, Ambition and the Way of Jesus (2016, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 203 pages, available through Cokesbury). And Hill said that much of the material for the book came from hard-won lessons in his own life.
The irony wasn’t lost on the author.
“They say that God has a sense of humor. That might well be true,” Hill writes in the preface to his latest book. Hill was professor of Duke Divinity School with more than a 30-year career in the pulpit and the classroom. It was from this position that Hill and his wife would retire. Or so they thought.
In fact, it was through contact with exceptional pastors and church professionals, many in mid-life, that gave birth to the writing of Servant of All. “Like the rest of us, they struggled with the desire for appreciation and acceptance,” Hill said.
It was only a few weeks after completing the final chapter that Hill was contacted by an executive search firm, asking him to consider applying for the deanship of Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.
Through prayer and reflection, Hill concluded that the firm’s invitation was a potential call from God which was confirmed when Perkins announced that he would succeed Lawrence.
“As you might imagine, that put me in an awkward and rather humorous position, having just writing a book on status and ambition,” Hill said. “And along the way, I made a few explicit references to seminary deans, which I left in the book.”
“The one concern I have is that readers do not come away from reading this book with the notion that Christian faithfulness and worldly advancement walk hand in hand. To the contrary, I believe they are at least as often at odds and each advancement carries with it new temptations to unfaithfulness,” Hill said. “I have come to see this book as written especially for me – and only then, by extension, for other fallible human beings who seek to please God without deceiving themselves.”
The need for recognition, affirmationHill begins his journey with the reader by noting, “Status is not a gift of the Spirit. Ambition is absent from lists of spiritual fruit. Authority, honor and rank are at best ambiguous scriptural categories.” And yet, all those qualities are present among Christians.
Hill notes that for many clergy, this need was a motivating factor for entering the ministry, even though it is rarely discussed, unless someone else asks about it. And then the conversation flows.
Utilizing the early chapters of Philippians as a starting point, Hill examines the writings of the early church where one can arrive at divergent conclusions.
He also invites a discussion of sociological and anthropological studies on the human condition with similar results in light of the scripture.
“There is one element common to nearly every answer (resulting from Scripture) and that is an appeal to the example of Jesus,” Hill writes.
Examining the love, mind and example of Jesus, the reader is left with asking, “How did Jesus do it?” Hill believes the remarkable consistency that runs through Christ’s character, teachings and life was due to his complete belief that the Kingdom of God and God’s reign was the ultimate reality and the enduring source of meaning.
However, like the first-century church, the 21st century church fell short in that belief, with Hill noting, “(the New Testament) authors confronted the all-too-natural problems arising from human status seeking, such as jealousy, gossip, one-upmanship, slander and division.”
Hill provides examples among the disciples, the Church of Corinth and saints elsewhere to deepen the study.
Dealing with ambition and statusHill notes the value of ambition in and of itself is ambiguous. “A gifted person who lacks ambition will achieve little and the worst people in history have been spectacularly ambitious,” Hill writes. “We must ask toward what are we ambitious and why?”
Perhaps the answer is best left to the discernment of others whom one has allowed to speak truthfully and through open prayer and searching.
And Hill concludes that the answer to a proper balance is found in Christian community.
“As I read the New Testament, I am struck by the effort its authors expended to create communities within which social barriers could be overcome, social hierarchies transcended, and the social marginalized accepted. They attempted to manage spaces in which existing social distinctions would not only be overcome; they would become irrelevant, made obsolete by the knowledge of God’s perfect love,” he writes. “It takes effort today, as well. ‘Being Christian' is a corporate exercise. We experience God’s love – and with it our own salvation, our own justification – together. Where that happens, there is the church as the apostles intended it."