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I often saw copies of Christian Scholar’s Review lying around the house when I was growing up as a faculty kid, so I feel a special sense of privilege in contributing to this issue of the journal. I also feel grateful to Gayle Beebe, Shirley Mullen, Roger Parrott, and Bill Robinson for their commendations and critiques. These trusted friends and faithful colleagues have made important contributions to Christian higher education. Their written responses reflect their unique personalities, and thus remind us of God’s blessing in designing and preparing specific presidents to serve their campuses through the art of authentic leadership.

My essay on the threefold office of Christ as a paradigm for the college presidency has already served one of its hoped-for purposes, namely, to stimulate deeper theological reflection on a calling that is important to the church and in society. It is good to overhear college presidents talk about their work in deeply biblical ways, with the practical wisdom that comes from lived experience.

In this brief reply I will pass over points of affirmation, except to say how much I benefitted from the many ways that my interlocutors press the paradigm in new and complementary directions, adding shades of nuance and levels of complexity that are appropriate and even necessary for something as messy as the typical college presidency. For example, several responses highlight the incarnation as a practical and theological principle for campus leadership. Gayle Beebe wisely connects the emotional presence of a campus’s primary leader in times of controversy with the priestly ministry of Jesus Christ. Bill Robinson stresses the role of the president in empowering other people on campus to fulfill their own prophetic, priestly, and kingly callings. If we take this idea one step further, we might consider the education of our students as a practical way of preparing prophets, priests, and kings or queens for kingdom service.

Several respondents express reticence about connecting their work too closely to the calling of Christ for fear that this might aggrandize the presidential office or usurp the authority (especially the royal authority) that is only given to Jesus himself. I agree with these cautions, to a large extent, and certainly wish to avoid taking myself too seriously or claiming any special privileges for college and university presidents. Our calling is no more sacred than any other. Indeed, if prophetic, priestly, and kingly ministry is the calling of every Christian, according to our unique station in life, then every calling is equally sacred.

But this also means that we should not be unduly hesitant to see Christ as the pattern for our daily work, or to learn as much from that pattern as we can. Part of aspiring to the highest standard of leadership is to become by the Spirit’s grace as Christ-like as possible—not only in our character, but also in our understand- ing of the work that God has called us to do. Embracing Christ in all his offices can help all of us rise to the standard our Savior sets for sacrificial leadership.

Perhaps using the threefold office of Christ as a theological paradigm can also help us integrate other sources of inspiration for Christian leadership. Shirley Mullen is drawn to metaphors of Jesus from the Gospel of John: bread of life, light of the world, sheep door, good shepherd, true vine. Our Lord knew that good leadership and discipleship come from seeing vivid pictures, not just building theological structures, and President Mullen applies the “I Am” statements of Jesus in fresh and practical ways. Roger Parrott adds a further image which also happens to be another Old Testament office: the thoughtful, insightful judge. Although the judges were superseded by Israel’s kings, the unique calling of these men and women provides additional models of faithful courage and decisive action.

Gayle Beebe presses us to learn some of our lessons on leadership from organizational psychology and other disciplines. These lessons go beyond the Bible; they are truths that come from the world as God made it, and as we experience it in our present context. A philosopher might see in Beebe’s approach the Aristotelianism that Bill Robinson hopes will counterbalance my theological framework-making, which he considers to be more Platonic. But I expect we all see these approaches as complementary. Good theologians leave room for insights that come from the realm of common grace, especially when they can be anchored in a biblical framework such as the threefold office of Christ.

The qualities that President Beebe wants to apply to presidential leadership—intelligence, creativity, empathy, and other life-giving virtues—may lead us back to Scripture. There, upon further investigation, we will see examples of these attributes in the biblical prophets, priests, and kings. We will also see them in our Lord Jesus—in the humility of his kingship, the empathy of his priesthood, and the creativity of his prophetic teaching.

In one way or another, all the respondents speak to the importance of Christ-like character. In a way, this helps to confirm the importance of developing a theology of leadership. Most evangelicals spend more time thinking about piety than theology, and one of my reasons for writing about the threefold office of Christ is to help make sure that we are thinking about both. We need more than a Spirit-filled piety for leadership; we also need a Scripture-based theology for leadership.

The threefold office of Christ helps us integrate our piety with our theology, and thus to fulfill our calling Christ-like ways. Because this theological paradigm is comprehensively Christ-centered, it can help us understand both the calling of the Christian leader and the character it takes to fulfill that calling. This is where the cautions that my colleagues give find their needed place: Shirley Mullen on being in the Father’s presence as well as doing the Father’s work; Roger Parrott on balancing law and grace; Bill Robinson on the danger of loving the kingly office not wisely but too well; Gayle Beebe on the critical role of self-awareness in presidential decision-making. It is not enough to know what prophets, priests, and kings are called to do. College presidents and other Christians are called to lead with discernment and grace, knowing which office to exercise when, and how. The wisdom to apply the paradigm without misapplying it only comes from a leader who walks closely with God.

This leads me to close my comments in much the same way that I closed my essay, but perhaps with greater clarity and stronger emphasis. I close by saying that in order to fulfill our threefold calling as college presidents—or as Christians with other callings—we must walk near to the heart of our Prophet, our Priest, our King. What he gives to us as he exercises all his offices is what we need for our spiritual redirection and renewal and for the redemption of our ministry to others. We need it every day: his prophetic word, his priestly presence, his kingly protection.

Cite this article
Philip Ryken, “Author’s Response to Comments for the CSR Issue on the Threefold Office of Christ as a Model for Presidential Leadership at a Christian College”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 47:2 , 159–162

Philip Ryken

Wheaton College
Philip Ryken is the current president of Wheaton College, in Wheaton, IL.