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Colleges and universities look for great leadership from their presidents—now more than ever. Economic turmoil, technological innovation, rapid globalization, increased government regulation, media scrutiny, public skepticism about the mission of higher education, student unrest, the volatile climate of social media, and the sheer complexity of campus life in the twenty-first century all require exceptional management, expansive vision, and enormous stamina.

More than a decade ago, University of Virginia’s Brian Pusser claimed that today’s college presidents have been put in the “untenable position” of being asked to fulfill an office that is “mutating beyond the ability of anyone to do the job.”1 This claim can be amply documented from the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education, which seems to come with news every week of an administration under duress or a president who is moving on due to a forced resignation or abrupt termination. The authors of the book Presidencies Derailed offer the following cautionary advice:

Leading an organization that is both cultural curator and cultural critic in our society—an organization of multiple missions and goals, complex governance processes, multiple outcomes (not all yielding to easy measurement), and many stakeholders each with different expectations of purpose and performance—might commend equipping presidents with asbestos suits and body armor to handle fire and arrows launched by friends within and without.2

If anything, the task of transformational leadership is even more challenging at Christian colleges, which also prize spiritual vitality and seek to maintain a morally and theologically consistent mission.

The complexity of the presidency may help to explain why there seems to be a lack of consensus about the skills and virtues that a college president ought to possess. One sympathizes with the distinguished scholar who analyzed more than a hundred approaches to leadership and concluded that “attempts to define leadership have been confusing, varied, disorganized, idiosyncratic, muddled, and according to conventional wisdom, quite unrewarding.”3 Different schools require different kinds of leaders, of course, so a lack of consensus is expected and perhaps healthy. But presidents who are new to the position or seek to understand their vocation more deeply may find it difficult to determine what kind of leadership to provide—especially when students, parents, faculty, staff, alumni, and trustees have competing expectations. People tasked with the selection of a new president face similar challenges when they try to reach consensus as to what kind of leader their school most needs at the present moment.

Recent secular literature tends to emphasize the managerial dimension of the presidency, with at least some recognition that college presidents need to provide moral leadership for their schools and for society in general. “The challenges facing college and university presidents are not materially different from those in charge of any other large organization,” writes Albert Yates, president emeritus of Colorado State University, “but the responsibility for leading with virtue is greater because of the role that our institutions play in society.”4 Christians who write about leadership promote virtue by focusing explicitly on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.5 The advertising copy for one popular book boldly promises “Lessons for Everyone from the Greatest Leadership Role Model of All Time.”6 Typically, writers give special attention to the way Jesus humbled himself by selflessly taking the place of a servant and sacrificially giving his life for others. Servant leadership is the standard.

While there is something to learn from everyone who writes thoughtfully about the calling of the college president, most models seem incomplete. Secular sources lack a coherent and consistent basis for moral transformation, with the sad result on many campuses that substance abuse and sexual misconduct contaminate the academic environment and corrupt student morals. Christian sources also seem to be missing something, however. What is said about leadership is true as far as it goes, but tends to be somewhat reductionist. Does not the life of Christ have more to teach us than servant leadership?7 Is not academic administration one of the places where we want to integrate our learning with our faith? Do we not we have a theology to guide our daily practice, and not merely a theory of management?

This essay sketches the contours of a multi-dimensional theological paradigm for presidential leadership of a Christ-centered college or university—a Christology for the presidency. This paradigm runs all the way through the story line of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. It has a long and noble history in Christian theology, even if it has not been cultivated much for the last century or so.8 This theological paradigm has wide-ranging implications for presidential leadership and thus repays ongoing reflection and conversation. It applies equally to life in the home, service in the church, and business in the marketplace—any place where people are called to lead. Best of all, it centers on Jesus Christ, who in fulfilling his offices as prophet, priest, and king empowers transformational leadership for a Christian college, or any other community that honors Christ as Lord.

Prophets, Priests, and Kings in Holy Scripture

Prophecy, priesthood, and kingship are such pervasive features of the biblical landscape that this essay can provide only a cursory survey of their terrain. To begin in the Old Testament, God led his people Israel through the prophets, priests, and kings that he anointed to serve as their leaders. From Moses to Malachi, the prophets performed miraculous signs and gave God’s Word to God’s people, boldly speaking truth to power in the current situation and perceptively foretell- ing the future.9 From Aaron to Ezra, the priests entered God’s holy presence to offer sacrifice and to make intercession before re-emerging to bless the people of God. From David to Jehoiakim, the kings were called to shepherd God’s people and rule his earthly kingdom by providing, protecting, and rendering righteous judgment.10

All three offices were the focus of Messianic expectation.11 Careful students of the ancient promises looked in hope for God to raise up a king to reign over the house of David (2 Sam. 7:12-16); a prophet like Moses who would have God’s words in his mouth (Deut. 18:15); and “a faithful priest” (1 Sam. 2:35), who would not only intercede for transgressors, but actually bear their transgressions (Isa. 53:1-12). As the story unfolds, however, one senses a fair amount of ambivalence about the prophets, the priests, and the kings of Israel. At their best, these spiritual leaders spoke true words, made holy atonement, and afforded royal protection for the people of God. But the people often suffered from false prophets, unholy priests, and tyrannical kings. While the best exemplars of each office adumbrated the promise of more perfect leadership, there were more than enough failures to show the absolute need for a Savior.

Enter Jesus, the Christ. In his singular person, all three offices found the fulfillment of their promise. “We might put the case this way,” writes Richard Mouw:

In ancient Israel’s social economy, God saw fit to develop three separate offices—prophet, priest, and king—along distinct and distinguishable lines. The roles and functions were separated for developmental preparatory purposes. But with the coming of Christ the offices are now gathered into an integral unity within one person.12

Jesus was the man born to be king, as his birthplace testified (Luke 2:4, 11) and his genealogies confirmed (Matt. 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38). At the outset of his public ministry, he was also set apart as a prophet—not by a mere anointing with oil, but with a baptism of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:16). On the basis of this divine chrism, Jesus read Isaiah’s promise of the Messiah-prophet (“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor”), sat down with prophetic authority, and announced, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21; see also Ps. 105:15; Isa. 61:1). Like the Old Testament prophets, Jesus stood outside the power structures of society to proclaim the coming of God’s Kingdom. As he performed miraculous signs, clarified the true meaning of the law and made many prophecies about his death and resurrection (for example, Luke 9:22) and the end of the world (such as Matt. 24), the crowds responded by saying, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” (John 6:14; see also Luke 7:16; 24:19).

The priestly ministry of Jesus Christ came into sharpest focus with his Passion. In the prayer that Jesus offered on the eve of his crucifixion (John 17), the greatest of all priests made intercession for his people. Then he offered priestly atonement—not by bringing a sacrifice, but by becoming one. According to the appointment and designation of his Father (Heb. 5:5, 10), Jesus became “a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of 111 the people” (Heb. 2:17). Then he concluded his earthly ministry to his disciples by performing the priestly act of benediction: “lifting up his hands he blessed them” (Luke 24:50). By virtue of his “indestructible life” (Heb. 7:16), his priestly ministry continues right up to the present moment as Jesus “always lives to make intercession” for those who draw near to God through him (Heb. 7:25).

To summarize, the promised Christ fulfills all the powers and functions of ministry.13 When his person and work are considered from the vantage point of his threefold office, nearly everything he says or does demonstrates some aspect of prophetic, priestly, or kingly ministry.

The rest of the New Testament opens up wider vistas when it takes the threefold office of Christ and applies it to the present ministry of the church. By virtue of the Day of Pentecost—when the Father and the Son anointed the church with the Spirit (Acts 2:33)—all God’s children (his daughters as well as his sons) have been given the prophetic ministry of proclaiming God’s Word (Acts 2:16-18; see also Num. 11:29; Joel 2:28-29). We speak God’s Word to one another, “teaching and admonishing” one another “with all wisdom” (Col. 3:16). We also speak God’s Word to the world, fulfilling our Great Commission to go to every nation and make disciples by teaching them the commands of Christ (Matt. 28:18-20; see also Acts 8:4; 1 Pet. 3:15). We are not just prophets, however, but also kings and priests. Indeed, as we proclaim God’s grace we are “a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9), a veritable “kingdom of priests” (Rev. 1:6; Exod. 19:6). In our “priestly service,” we offer God our very bodies as “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1; Heb. 13:15-16). Furthermore, the New Testament promises believers the royal prerogatives of sitting with Christ on his heavenly throne (Eph. 2:6-7; Rev. 3:21), judging the world (1 Cor. 6:2), inheriting the kingdom (Matt. 25:34), and reigning with Christ forever and ever (Rev. 22:5; see also 2 Tim. 2:10-12).

The threefold calling of the church is not to do what only Jesus could do, and has done, but it is to carry forward his work until the day of his Second Coming. Thus the threefold office that was promised in the Old Testament and fulfilled in Jesus Christ is exercised now through the people of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, for the sake of the world. By Christ’s own commission, we are all prophets, priests, and kings.

The Munus Triplex in Christian Doctrine

The biblical trajectory that we have just sketched—three anointed offices in the Old Testament, coming together in the figure of a single Messiah, who then commissions his church to fulfill three functions in the world—can be retraced in the development of Christian doctrine.14

The first theologian to describe the work of Christ in terms of his prophetic, priestly, and kingly ministry was Eusebius, the early fourth-century bishop of Caesarea. Eusebius began his famous Ecclesiastical History with an account of both the nature and the work of Christ. To do this properly he needed to define the term “Christ,” which, he noted, went all the way back to Moses and the anoint- ing of the high priest in Israel. But Eusebius also found the term in Psalm 2—a Messianic song for the Son of David. Thus he concluded that the work of Christ, “the anointed one,” pertains to more than one Old Testament calling:

It was not only those honoured with the high priesthood, anointed with prepared oil for the symbol’s sake, who were distinguished among the Hebrews with the name of Christ, but the kings too; for they, at the bidding of God, received the chrism from prophets and were thus made Christs in image, in that they, too, bore in themselves the patterns of the kingly, sovereign authority of the one true Christ, the divine Word who reigns over all. Again, some of the prophets themselves by chrism became Christs in pattern, as the records show, so that they all stand in relation to the true Christ, the divine and heavenly Word who is the sole High Priest of the universe, the sole King of all creation, and of the prophets the sole Archprophet of the Father.15

The seed that Eusebius planted did not sprout and flourish until the Protestant Reformation. By all accounts, when medieval theologians spoke of Christ’s offices, typically they spoke of him only as king and priest, like Melchizedek (Heb. 7:1-3). Examples of this may be found in Alcuin, Peter Lombard, and Albertus Magnus, among others.16 Aquinas mentions three offices (“Other men possess particular graces, being legislators or priests or kings; but Christ is all of these and the fount of all graces”), yet he does not amplify the thought or employ it as an organizing principle for his theology.17

By holding a two-office view (Christ as Priest and King), Martin Luther followed the medieval mainstream. In time, Luther’s dynamic doctrine of the priesthood of all believers (“Let everyone, therefore …. who knows himself to be a Christian, be assured of this, that we are all equally priests”)18 gave fresh impetus to seeing the offices of Christ as a pattern for Christian life and ministry. Yet the threefold office of Christ is more commonly associated with John Calvin, the Reformation theologian who first recognized the doctrine’s full soteriological and ecclesiastical potential and gave it a prominent place in his theological system. Calvin first presented the threefold office in his Geneva Catechism of 1542, where, like Eusebius before him, he took the title “Christ” as his point of departure. By the time he published his famous Institutes in 1559, Calvin had settled on the order: prophet, king, priest. As prophet, the Son serves as “herald and witness of the Father’s grace.”19 As the king of a spiritual kingdom, he preserves his church to the very end. Thus “we may patiently pass through this life with its misery, hunger, cold, contempt, reproaches, and other troubles—content with this one thing: that our King will never leave us destitute, but will provide for our needs until, our warfare ended, we are called to triumph.”20 As holy priest—the “pure and stainless Mediator”—Jesus reconciles us to God, making satisfaction for our sins through the sacrifice of his death. He also serves as our “everlasting intercessor,” which gives us peace of conscience and confidence in the power of prayer.21

For a fully developed Reformation statement of the threefold office of Christ we may turn to the Heidelberg Catechism written by Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus and approved in 1563. After defining the title “Christ” according to his Father-ordained, Spirit-anointed, threefold office as “chief Prophet and Teacher,” “only High Priest,” and “eternal King,” the Heidelberg Catechism proceeds to explain why the catechumen is called a Christian:

Because I am a member of Christ by faith, and thus am partaker of his anointing; that so I may confess his name, and present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to him: and also that with a free and good conscience I may fight against sin and Satan in this life and afterwards I reign with him eternally, over all creatures.22

Here the munus triplex defines every Christian’s calling: to belong to Christ is not only to share in the benefits of his threefold office, but also to exercise the gifts of its prophetical, sacerdotal, and regal ministry.23

The evangelical Methodist John Wesley also saw value in the threefold office of Christ for Christian theology and ministry. Although the triad appears only occasionally in Wesley’s writings, a good case can be made that “priest, prophet, king” serves as the deep structure of his doctrine of Christ.24 For Wesley, all three offices are needed to achieve the goal of moral transformation—ultimately, of Christian perfection. With this goal in view, he exhorted preachers to proclaim Christ “in all his offices,”25 and thus to address humanity in all its need:

We are by nature at a distance from God, alienated from Him, and incapable of a free access to Him. Hence we want a Mediator, an Intercessor; in a word, a Christ in His priestly office. This regards our state with respect to God. And with respect to ourselves, we find a total darkness, blindness, ignorance of God and the things of God. Now here we want Christ in His prophetic office, to enlighten our minds, and teach us the whole will of God. We find also within us a strange misrule of appetites and passions. For those we want Christ in His royal character, to reign in our hearts, and subdue all things to Himself.26

Like John Wesley, John Henry Newman saw pastoral benefit in preaching Christ in all his offices. Newman’s noteworthy Easter sermon from 1840, “The Three Offices of Christ,” pre-dates his conversion to Catholicism. But it is worth pausing to mention that the threefold office of Christ also has a place in Roman Catholic theology. Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church has adopted something very close to the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood, prophethood, and kingship of all believers. In defining the church as a “priestly, prophetic, and royal people,” the Catechism states: “The whole People of God participates in these three offices of Christ and bears the responsibilities for mission and service that flow from them.”27 Perhaps this development in Catholic thought, grounded as it is in the shared tradition of the Church Fathers, can help to build a bridge for Protestant and Catholic cooperation in Christian higher education.

But to return to Newman, what captivated the Oxford theologian was the deep human need for precisely the threefold ministry that Christ provides:

These three offices seem to contain in them and to represent the three principal conditions of mankind; for one large class of men, or aspect of mankind, is that of sufferers, such as slaves, the oppressed, the poor, the sick, the bereaved, the troubled in mind; another is, of those who work and toil, who are full of business and engagements, whether for themselves or for others; and a third is that of the studious, learned, and wise. Endurance, active life, thought—these are the three perhaps principal states in which men find themselves. Christ undertook them all.28

Newman’s use of the munus triplex opens up promising avenues for application: in what ways do the prophetic, priestly, and kingly ministries of Jesus Christ address humanity’s deep need for guidance, care, and protection?

To complete our brief historical and theological survey, Karl Barth was deeply influenced by what the Geneva and Heidelberg Catechisms taught about the threefold office of Christ—so much so that the munus triplex provides the soteriological structure for the fourth volume of his Church Dogmatics.29 “The Lord as Servant” (IV.1), “The Servant as Lord” (IV.2), and “The True Witness” (IV.3) address the priestly, kingly, and prophetic offices of Christ, respectively. Barth celebrates Jesus as “the superabundant fulfillment” of his “provisional representatives” among the leaders of ancient Israel.30 As Son of God and Son of Man, Jesus of Nazareth now serves as the royal Reconciler and Revealer—the mediating priest, the kingly victor, and the faithful witness. For Barth, Jesus Christ is “the God-man who is instituted by God Himself, and who in the midst of world-history exists in His name, with His authority and in fulfillment of His will, suffering as High-priest, ruling as King and revealing Himself as Prophet.”31

If it is wondered why Barth concluded his discussion of soteriology with the prophetic rather than the priestly or kingly ministry of Christ, this is partly due to his insistence that Christ’s prophetic ministry is for the whole world, not merely for the church.32 It is also due to Barth’s strong emphasis on the missionary calling of the church. Indeed, the German theologian saw the recovery of Christ’s universal prophetic office as an act of divine providence that prepared the church for its prophetic witness to the modern world. The Reformation rescued the church from the temptation to separate from the world—just at the time when the world was separating from the church—by showing the church how to serve the world instead.33 Since we have been called by grace to a Christ who exercises a prophetic office, we have “no option” but “to become with Him proclaimers of the reconciliation of the world accomplished in him, heralds of His person and work.”34

The Offices of the President

Since the time of the early church—and across nearly every major theological tradition—Christians have learned from Scripture that the Holy Spirit calls and empowers them to exercise the threefold office of Christ. There are prophetic, priestly, and royal dimensions to the work of every Christian who is called to lead. This is true in the home, where fathers and mothers instruct their children, lead them in family worship, and set boundaries for their conduct.35 It is true in the church, through the preaching of the gospel, the ministry of intercession, and the proper exercise of church discipline. It is even true in the marketplace, where effective executives oversee training, establish personal connections with their workers, and enforce policies that advance the prosperity of their business.

The president of a Christ-centered college or university also serves as prophet, priest, and king. Yet this threefold paradigm rarely has been used to provide biblical and theological perspective on the college presidency. One notable exception comes from the early decades of Harvard College, where Charles Chauncy, Increase Mather, and other early presidents viewed their office in continuity with the ministry of Elijah and Elisha, who led “the School of the Prophets” in ancient Israel.36 Thus the president of Harvard served as prophet (though not as priest or king). Employing the triplex munus Christi in this fashion was not original to Harvard, but went as far back as Alexander of Roes, who in the 13th century clearly distinguished the prophetic calling of the academy from the priestly calling of the church and the kingly calling of the government.37 The distinction between these three offices was dramatized across the New England landscape in towns that featured a school, a church, and a town hall on their commons.38 Somewhat more recently, University of Chicago President William Rainey Harper—writing at the turn of the 20th century—used the threefold office of Christ as an analogue to the prophetic, priestly, and kingly role of the secular university as “the Messiah of the democracy, its to-be-expected deliverer.”39

President Harper’s vision plainly represents the kind of secularization that Christ-centered colleges and universities are trying to resist. Chauncy’s vision holds more promise, but needs to be expanded. By making use of the threefold office of Christ—that is, by widening our perspective to see the priestly and kingly as well as the prophetic dimensions of campus leadership—today’s Christian college presidents may properly view their work as something they have been divinely anointed to fulfill. What follows, therefore, is an all-too-brief consideration of the sacred office of the president as prophet, priest, and king (or queen, as the case may be), with examples that are intended to invite deeper reflection and wider application.

The President as Prophet

A Christ-centered presidency is prophetic. On a Christian campus, this partly means speaking truth from Scripture.40 At a time of declining biblical and theological literacy, college and university students (not to mention faculty, staff, alumni, and trustees) desperately need presidents who are able to communicate biblical truth. For some presidents, this includes teaching and preaching God’s Word in chapel worship services. But it also means taking every opportunity to set the mission of the college and its service to society within a biblical framework. In using social media, writing for the college magazine, addressing alumni, speaking to students or faculty, and nurturing the souls of trustees, the prophetic president is always ready to share something useful and relevant from Scripture.

Prophets are also visionaries; they anticipate the future. So a Christ-centered presidency is forward-looking. Presumably most presidents do not receive divine revelation about the future of their academic institutions. They are more like G. K. Chesterton’s “realistic Irishman,” who said that he preferred to prophesy “after the event.”41 Furthermore, it can be difficult to stay future-oriented on a campus that is steeped in history. Yet the best presidents foresee the potential long-term consequences of daily decisions. They cast vision for the future, helping their constituents see what their school can become—what sacrifices need to be made, for what gains. They make wise and strategic plans that are consistent with biblical teaching.

Vision-setting and plan-making are done collaboratively, not independently, so that the Holy Spirit can speak through the campus community, with its full range of prophetic gifts. Presidents exercise the prophetic office when they protect their college or university’s future mission by submitting to the authority of Scripture in defining and defending doctrinal boundaries. They often consider what the implications of their actions (and inactions) will be for their successors. They also look to a further horizon, anticipating the final in-breaking of the kingdom of God at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

But prophetic ministry has as much or more to do with interpreting present realities. This was true in biblical times: the preponderance of biblical prophecy pertains to the present rather than to the future. College presidents exercise the prophetic office when they practice appropriate transparency and speak the truth to their campuses, including the truth that some people may not want to hear: about financial exigencies, perhaps, or personnel changes, or enrollment challenges, or prevailing campus attitudes that do not glorify God. Presidents with a prophetic gift constantly and openly talk about what they are doing, and why. They have a knack for asking perceptive questions, as Jesus did in his prophetic ministry. They do not put off addressing issues they know they need to confront because they fear negative consequences or hope to avoid conflict. Remembering that prophets are never popular, they say what needs to be said.

The president’s prophetic voice is not for the campus only, but also for the wider culture, especially when the church is marginalized in society. Although a Christ-centered college or university is not a church, properly speaking, it has opportunities for evangelism through student outreach, through faculty scholarship that integrates learning with faith, through alumni who view their various vocations as forms of kingdom service, and also through presidents who exemplify gospel witness through their office. College presidents share the uniquely Christian identity of their institutions with presidential colleagues, accrediting agencies, politicians, and journalists. On occasion, they are called to address cultural issues that intersect with their mission—everything from the impact of immigration on higher education to protection from sexual assault. Since every issue has a biblical perspective, the college presidency provides a public platform for Christian witness. And since colleges stand somewhat outside the church, they have unique opportunities to communicate the counter-cultural priorities of the kingdom of God.

Unfortunately, colleges and universities do not always get to choose their battles, or decide which stories will generate media attention. Thus Christian college presidents may come under attack as they respond to government initiatives that wittingly or unwittingly infringe on religious liberty, or otherwise hinder the ability of Christ-centered schools to carry out their God-given mission. Prophetic witness may also arouse opposition, especially when a campus controversy touches the nerve of a cultural idol such as athletic success, material prosperity, or sexual identity. Since what happens in the academy usually anticipates movements in society, Christian colleges and universities serve the wider church as first responders to new threats and opportunities. Knowing that he or she is divinely called to be a prophet can strengthen a president’s resolve to speak the truth clearly, boldly, and persuasively, whatever the cost.

The President as Priest

A Christ-centered presidency is also priestly. Perhaps the first duty that the term “priest” brings to mind is sacrifice. Certainly college presidents are called to make sacrifices for their institutions, especially of their time and energy, including their emotional energy. When we remember the priestly oblation that Jesus made in the sacrifice of his death, we are reminded not to make too much of such sacrifices. Still, every Christian—including every Christian college president—is called to offer the priestly sacrifice of praise (Heb. 13:15; see also Rom. 12:1), and every Christian leader should be ready to make any sacrifice that proves necessary for the cause of Christ (Phil. 2:17; 2 Tim. 4:6).

Another crucial category for the priestly office of a college or university president is “presence.” Here it helps to know that the Old Testament priests did not minister exclusively or even primarily at the temple in Jerusalem. The priests descended from Levi, the only tribe that was not given a territory to call its own (Deut. 10:9). Instead, the priests lived in nearly 50 cities scattered across Israel (Num. 35:6-8). On occasion, they performed their rotation of sacerdotal duties at the temple. But what prepared them to exercise this priestly ministry was their active participation in the community life of God’s people through teaching and leading in worship (Neh. 8:1-8; Mal. 2:4-7). The priests ministered God’s presence to his people. Of course, the supreme demonstration of priestly presence is the incarnation of Jesus Christ (John 1:14), who has promised to be with his people forever (Matt. 28:20; Rev. 21:3).

Few aspects of a college presidency are more rewarding, or more important, than a ministry of presence. There is always something for a president to do on a college campus: host dinners, go to plays and concerts, attend athletic competitions, visit classes and lectures, drop by dormitory events and house parties, show up at retirement receptions, and so on. People expect to see the president, and rightly so. The simple presence of the main leader on campus places the imprimatur of the entire college or university on the activity in question. In effect, a ministry of presence fulfills the priestly function of pronouncing a blessing on the people who participate.

The priestly office is also a ministry of care and concern. Here we recall that the high priesthood of Jesus is characterized by compassion; he is not unsympathetic to our problems, but knows exactly what we need because he has been in our situation (see Heb. 4:15; 5:7). We also recall that in his earthly ministry Jesus was constantly drawn to people in need—the needier, the better. Thus college presidents fulfill their priestly calling when they promote student welfare, set a high standard for community care, and bear a personal burden for people who need practical or spiritual help. Welcoming internationals, providing access for students from underprivileged communities, reserving financial aid for families with high need, caring for students with disabilities, pursuing racial reconciliation, ensuring student access to physical and mental health care, giving comfort in times of personal or institutional tragedy—these presidential priorities reflect the empathy of Jesus Christ. When college presidents advocate effectively for the needs of faculty, staff, and students, they fulfill Christ’s priestly office on campus.

No culture of care is complete without the spiritual discipline of prayer. To exercise the priesthood of a Christ-centered presidency is to pray, and to call the campus community to pray. If it is tempting to think that there is too little time to do this, the intercession of Jesus serves as a necessary corrective (for example, Matt. 4:1-11; 14:13-23). Part of the president’s office is to pray for theological integrity and financial stability, for the spiritual and intellectual growth of the student body, for the hiring and retention of gifted staff and godly faculty, and for everything else that will advance the mission of a Christ-centered college or university. This means much more than praying at major public events or at the beginning of important meetings. It means praying routinely and constantly for any big or little thing that requires divine assistance (in other words, for everything).

The President as King (or Queen)

We complete the threefold schema by claiming that a Christ-centered presidency is royal. To see a kingly dimension to campus leadership is not to advocate for an imperial presidency. But it is to recognize that as the sovereign Christ fulfills his kingly office, he appoints certain leaders to serve as the rulers of particular institutions, and to see that the proper exercise of their God-given authority brings blessing into the world.

College and university presidents fulfill their kingly office in part through their public leadership on ceremonial occasions. The president serves as the school’s living logo, not demanding personal attention, but representing an office. As Bolman and Gallos explain, “Strong symbolic leaders understand that they are always onstage, and they take advantage of every opportunity to use themselves as symbols of important values, priorities, and agendas.”42

There must be more to presidential leadership than symbol and style, however; there must be substance. Presidents fulfill their royal office when they organize their campuses for success. Solomon is an example of a biblical king with a remarkable gift for administration (see 1 Kings 10)—a gift no college president can lead without. Presidents fulfill their royal office when they provide wise guidance for their governing boards, when they hire and develop a team of gifted leaders, and when they implement their expansive vision. Effective kingship has always been collaborative—the “shared governance” that academic communities prize. Building and maintaining facilities is a kingly function. So is growing a school’s academic programs or expanding its intellectual influence through centers and institutes that build the church and benefit society. Strong kings (and queens) are defenders. So the calling of kingship includes safeguarding an academic institution from internal and external threats to its missional identity, theological integrity, financial health, or legal standing. Protecting moral and theological boundaries is a royal duty (although distinguishing between the “clean” and the “unclean” is also a priestly duty). When a difficult decision needs to be made—especially when the competing interests of various constituencies require adjudication, or when some sort of discipline needs to be exercised—the president fulfills his or her office by making the decision.

The kingly dimension of presidential leadership is a noble calling, for when it is carried out wisely, graciously, and effectively, it brings shalom to a campus community (see 2 Sam. 23:3-4). There are also dangers, however. Privilege quickly becomes entitlement. Given the prevailing norms of contemporary culture, the office of the president is in need of biblical deconstruction and Christological reconstruction. College and university presidents do well to remember the pattern of Christ’s kingship, in which the leader becomes the servant and power is exercised for the weak. Christian leaders should never forget that they serve a king who died for his kingdom.

Andy Crouch has demonstrated that power and privilege are divine gifts— dangerous gifts, perhaps, but gifts nonetheless.43 Thus it is not the right and proper use of power that dishonors God, but its abuse or misuse. Thankfully, there is a clear and reasonable criterion to help us know the difference: am I taking advantage of this privilege primarily for my own benefit—in which case my presidency is more pomp than circumstance—or am I using it in ways that benefit others and ultimately bring honor and glory to God? Crouch observes that on the rare occasions when Jesus claimed the right to use something—for example, the upper room where he washed the feet of his disciples (John 13:1-20; also Matt. 26:17-18)—he used what he claimed in service to others. If some of the privileges that go with a college presidency are unavoidable, the question is what a president does with these privileges for the sake of others.

Three Offices, One President

How do these three offices—teaching and communicating, mediating and interceding, ruling and governing—relate to one another? In the person and work of Jesus Christ they are fully and perfectly integrated. The prophetic, priestly, and kingly offices, writes Richard Mouw, “are now gathered into an integral unity within one person.”44 Indeed, this is why theologians typically have expressed the munus triplex in the singular, as the “threefold office” rather than the “three offices” of Christ. The promised Messiah does more than execute each office flawlessly; as one, whole person he carries out all of their functions harmoniously, fulfilling each office with the virtues of the others. His wise teaching comes with royal authority, his kingly rule is exercised with priestly sympathy, and so forth.45

Three offices integrated in one person should be the goal of anyone who wants to fulfill the sacred office of a Christ-centered presidency. The office of the president is not the only place to look for prophetic, priestly, and kingly gifts, of course. We might see the college or university campus as a place where trustees are kings (and queens), faculty members (and alumni, perhaps) are prophets, and the chaplain and student development staff are priests. But in many ways the presidency embodies the institution, and thus the president is called to demonstrate all three dimensions of Christ-like leadership.

Regrettably, what we find in practice is that most presidents are strongly gifted in one office but somewhat deficient in at least one of the others. “Sadly,” writes Dan Allender, “the crisis, complexity, betrayal, loneliness, and weariness of leadership transform most prophets into trouble-makers, most priests into dogmatists, and most kings into dictators.”46 Richard Mouw describes some characteristic deficiencies:

A priestly imbalance is an empathy that has no clear sense of where to go and no ability to move. … A prophetic imbalance is a vision of the way things could be, without a grasp of present realities and an inability to facilitate healthy change. A rulerly imbalance is a skill in making things happen without either an empathetic grasp of the present or a vision of a future that is good for the followers.47

The negative consequences of any imbalance in the threefold office of a Christian leader are easy to multiply. Without a strong prophetic gift, institutions drift from their mission. Without a strong priestly gift, a Christian community becomes more rigid, more legalistic, and less genuinely pious. Without a strong kingly gift, things are not well run and problems tend to fester. Typically, leaders who have a strong priestly gift without an equally strong royal gift lack the courage to confront. They are tempted to be people-pleasers. Leaders who have the opposite imbalance—namely, kingship without priesthood—rely too much on dictation or manipulation. Their temptation is to become control freaks. Is it an exaggeration to say that nearly every lingering problem in the leadership of a Christian college or university can be traced back to some deficiency in living out the offices of Christ?

The problem with a college president who fails to integrate the offices of Christ effectively is that every campus needs leadership in all three dimensions. Christian colleges and universities need vision and instruction that is consistent with the Word of God (prophetic office). They need a ministry of presence and prayerful dependence on God’s grace (priestly office). They need clear doctrinal boundar- ies, wise allocation of resources, and decisive leadership on strategic priorities (kingly office). A failure in any of these areas can be disastrous. Typically, when campuses survive a presidency that is notably deficient in one of Christ’s offices, they overcorrect by choosing a successor who obviously supplies the missing gift but may be unexpectedly inadequate in another crucial area.

The best leaders have a good sense of their strengths and weaknesses. The threefold office of Christ can help by providing a useful framework for personal (and communal) evaluation. The prophetic ministry of the Word, the priestly ministry of compassion, and the royal ministry of decision-making are all important. But where is a president most (and least) gifted? The answer can help determine which complementary gifts are most needed in the administrative cabinet, especially since it takes a Christian community to exercise fully the threefold office of Christ.

Still, every Christian college president should aim to integrate all three offices and thus to embody the ministry of Christ in all its dimensions. However imperfectly, the best and most complete presidents grow to display strength in the prophetic, priestly, and kingly dimensions of their leadership. When a campus is blessed with a three-dimensional, Christ-centered presidency, every member of the campus community is freely empowered to discover his or her own prophetic, sacerdotal, and royal gifts.

The Gospel According to Christ’s Threefold Office

No president—indeed, no person—lives up to the high biblical standard of the threefold office of Christ. To one degree or another, we are all false prophets, flawed priests, and failed kings. Sooner or later, the presidents of most Christian colleges and universities will experience such failures. The vision could not be achieved; the campus was too large and too complex to care for in all its need; the management decision backfired, or had unintended negative consequences.

Christian leaders may also discover that the offices they are called to fulfill sometimes appear to conflict. For example, the iconic nature of kingship may dissuade a president from speaking with the kind of prophetic voice that may arouse opposition. Sometimes the conflict takes place within the president’s own mind and soul. Should a subordinate who struggles to excel be exhorted (prophetic response), consoled (priestly response), or terminated (kingly response)?

Our prophetic, priestly, and royal limitations and failures reveal the profound need that all of us have for the ministrations of the Messiah in all his offices. We are not defined by what we do, but by who we are in relationship to Jesus Christ. Thus his threefold office is essential to our spiritual formation. Here is how the twentieth-century Dutch Calvinist Herman Bavinck summarized our circumstance: “We need a prophet who proclaims God to us, a priest who reconciles us with God, and a king who in the name of God rules and protects us.”48

Another way to say this is that we all need the gospel. This point takes on particular force when we recognize that Jesus suffered as our prophet, priest, and king.49 Here is a profound mystery: Christ was humiliated in each of his offices. Before handing Jesus over to the Romans, some of his Jewish tormentors slapped him and said, “Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?” (Matt. 26:68). For their part, when Roman soldiers led Jesus to his death, they scoffed at his kingship with a scarlet robe, a crown of thorns, and a scepter of straw. They knelt before him in mock homage and said, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (Matt. 27:28- 29). Later that day, while he was offering himself up for our sins, people scorned the efficacy of his priestly sacrifice. “He saved others,” they said; “let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” (Luke 23:35). Yet at that very moment Jesus was interceding for his enemies and offering his body and his blood as a sacrifice for their sins. So Christ suffered as prophet, as king, as priest. Even a brief consideration of his threefold humiliation should be sufficient to chasten any concern we take over the criticisms people make about our own leadership. “If they persecuted me,” Jesus said, “they will also persecute you” (John 15:20).

Here is something else to consider: not simply what Jesus suffered, but also what he accomplished. The cross of Christ is three-dimensional, for in his cru- cifixion our Savior fulfilled all three of his offices.50 He carried out his priestly ministry in the very act of making an atoning blood sacrifice, and also in the prayer that he offered for his enemies (Luke 23:34). In his dying hours Jesus exercised his prophetic office by teaching the Word of God. In effect, he used his cross as a pulpit, speaking “seven last words” to remind us of the promises of God and to prophesy an entrance to paradise for the penitent thief who died on the cross next to him (Luke 23:43). John Calvin added a third office by defining the crucifixion as a royal act in which the King was lifted up to unexpected triumph: “There is no tribunal so magnificent, no throne so stately, no show of triumph so distinguished, no chariot so elevated, as is the gibbet on which Christ has subdued death and the devil.”51

This death was not the end, of course, but only the beginning. Christ is risen (!) and thus he continues to exercise his threefold office though the Holy Spirit. As soon as he was raised from the dead, Jesus resumed preaching the kingdom of God, teaching his disciples the implications of the cross and the empty tomb (see Luke 24:44-49; Acts 1:1-3)—a prophetic ministry of the gospel.

In addition, the ascension served as a coronation. The royal Son returned to his Father’s glory, where he was crowned with kingship and enthroned with everlasting honor (1 Tim. 6:15; Heb. 2:7-9). All things were placed under his dominion, in anticipation of his universal rule at the final judgment (1 Cor. 15:27). But the exaltation of the Christ has a priestly as well as a kingly dimension. Having presented his sacrifice in the heavenly holy of holies, our great high priest is now “seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven” (Heb. 8:1; see also Rom. 8:34), where he exercises a permanent priesthood (1 John 2:1). In short, “the historic offices of Christ and our participation in them are not forgotten but eternally transfigured.”52 This is made possible by the gospel: not only Christ’s crucifixion for our sins, but also his resurrection from the dead and his ascension to glory.

College presidents need the present ministry of the crucified, risen, and exalted Christ in all his offices. They need a true and final Prophet to give them a daily word from God that shapes their vision for their campuses. They need a great High Priest to calm their fears, hear their prayers, and perpetually intercede on behalf of all their limitations. They need a King of kings to defend them from every danger, provide for every need, and guide every decision. One of the greatest gifts a president can give to any college community is to make Christ’s faithful witness, merciful intercession, and royal authority the source of personal strength and the model for campus leadership. When Jesus Christ is at work in all his offices, the position of the president is not untenable after all, but sacredly and divinely empowered.53

Cite this article
Philip Ryken, “Christ-Centered Presidency: The Threefold Office of Christ as a Theological Paradigm for Leading a Christian College”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 47:2 , 107–126


  1. Brian Pusser, “AGB-UVA Symposium on Research and Scholarship in Higher Education,” Occasional Paper 41 (Washington, DC: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, September 2000): 13-14.
  2. Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, Gerald B. Kauvar, and E. Grady Bogue, Presidencies Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail and How to Prevent It (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 3.
  3. Joseph C. Rost, Leadership for the Twenty-first Century (New York: Praeger, 1991), 99.
  4. Albert Yates, quoted in University Presidents as Moral Leaders, ed. David G. Brown (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006), 4. “Moral legitimacy” is an important category for Rita Bornstein, Legiti- macy in the Academic Presidency: From Entrance to Exit (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003). See also William V. Frame, The American College Presidency as Vocation: Easing the Burden, Enhancing the Joy, Council of Independent Colleges (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2013).
  5. A notable example is the fine epilogue that William P. Robinson (President Emeritus, Whit- worth College) wrote for Karen A. Longman’s Thriving in Leadership: Strategies for Making a Difference in Christian Higher Education (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2012), 301-310. See also the thoughtful treatment that Robert Sloan (President of Houston Baptist University, formerly President of Baylor University) gives to the leadership attributes of Jesus Christ in “A Biblical Model of Leadership,” Christian Leadership Essentials: A Handbook for Managing Christian Organizations, ed. David Dockery (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 2011), 8-23.
  6. Ken Blanchard and Phil Hodges, Lead Like Jesus (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008).
  7. Taylor University President Eugene B. Habecker answers in the affirmative in the occasional paper he wrote as President of the American Bible Society: “Why Servant-leadership is Not Enough!” See also the critical survey of secular and faith-based leadership models that R. Scott Rodin provides in The Steward Leader: Transforming People, Organizations and Communities (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2010), 70-89. Rodin rightly calls Christian leaders not to follow Jesus as merely a model of effective leadership, but to participate in the completed work of his life, death, and resurrection.
  8. Happily, Richard J. Mouw began to fulfill this lacuna by contributing “Leadership and the Three-Fold Office of Christ” to the volume he edited with Eric O. Jacobsen: Traditions in Leadership: How Faith Traditions Shape the Way We Lead (Pasadena, CA: The De Pree Leader- ship Center, 2006), 118-138.
  9. See Edward J. Young, My Servants the Prophets (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985); and Robert R. Wilson, Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1980).
  10. See William Symington, Messiah the Prince: Or, The Mediatorial Dominion of Jesus Christ (London: T. Nelson, 1881); and Jeremy R. Treat, The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014).
  11. See J. J. M. Roberts, “The Old Testament’s Contributions to Messianic Expectations,” in The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity, ed. James H. Charlesworth, The First Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992), 39-51.
  12. Mouw, 121.
  13. Timothy J. Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 344.
  14. For an excellent historical-theological summary, see the chapter entitled “The Threefold Office in Retrospect” in Geoffrey Wainwright’s For Our Salvation: Two Approaches to the Work of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 99-120. See also George H. Williams, Divinings: Religion at Harvard from its Origins in New England Ecclesiastical History to the 175th Anniversary of the Harvard Divinity School, 1636-1992; Volume 1: First Light: The Formation of Harvard College in 1636 and Evolution of a Republic of Letters in Cambridge, ed. Rodney L. Peterson (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014), 1:110-120.
  15. Eusebius, The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, trans. G. A. Williamson (New York: Penguin, 1965), I.3 (42-43).
  16. Eusebius, The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, trans. G. A. Williamson (New York: Penguin, 1965), I.3 (42-43).
  17. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae: A Concise Translation, ed. Timothy McDermott (London: Methuen, 1989), III.22.1.
  18. Martin Luther, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” in Luther’s Works: Word and Sacrament, II, ed. Abdel Ross Wertz (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1959), 36:116.
  19. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Library of Christian Classics, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), II.xv.2.
  20. Ibid., II.xv.4.
  21. Ibid., II.xv.6.
  22. Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 31, 32.
  23. Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Williard (1852; repr. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, n.d.), 178. See also Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr., 3 vols. (Phil- lipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1994), 2:375-499.
  24. See John Deschner, Wesley’s Christology: An Interpretation (Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist University Press, 1960).
  25. Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1994), 109-114.
  26. John Wesley, note on Matthew 1:16, in Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament (1754; repr. London: Epworth, 1976), 16. See also Wesley’s “Sermon 31, I, 6,” as cited by Deschner, 209, in which he commends preaching Christ as “our great High Priest,” “the Prophet of the Lord,” and “a King for ever.”
  27. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997), pars. 783-786. See also Yves M. J. Congar, Lay People in the Church: A Study for a Theology of the Laity, trans. Donald Attwater (Westminster, MD: Newman, 1959).
  28. John Henry Newman, “The Three Offices of Christ,” in Sermons, Bearing on Subjects of the Day (London: Gilbert and Rivington, 1843), 61.
  29. See Philip Butin, “Two Early Reformed Catechisms, The Threefold Office and the Shape of Karl Barth’s Christology,” Scottish Journal of Theology 44.2 (1991): 195-214.
  30. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, ed. G. W. Bromily and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956-75), IV/1, 70.
  31. Ibid., IV/3.1, 66.
  32. Ibid., IV/3.1, 18.
  33. Ibid., IV/3.1, 19-38.
  34. Ibid., IV/3.2, 606.
  35. For a good example of applying the threefold office of Christ to family life, see David Setran, “Priests and Prophets in the Home: Cotton Mather and Parental Prayer,” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 8.1 (2015): 28-52.
  36. George H. Williams, Wilderness and Paradise in Christian Thought: The Biblical Experience of the Desert in the History of Christianity and the Paradise Theme in the Theological Idea of the University (New York: Harper, 1962), 143-147. See also Williams, Divinings: Religion at Harvard, 1:276-279, 290-291.
  37. Williams, Divinings: Religion at Harvard, 1:111.
  38. Ibid., 1:108-109.
  39. William Rainey Harper, “The University and Democracy,” in The Trend in Higher Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1905), 12ff.
  40. For a clear and persuasive argument that all three offices are logocentric—united in their focus on reading and hearing the Word of God—see Uche Anizor, Kings and Priests: Scripture’s Theological Account of Its Readers (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2014).
  41. G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News (October 7, 1916).
  42. Lee G. Bolman and Joan V. Gallos, Reframing Academic Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), 118-119. See also Lawrence. V. Weill, ed., Out in Front: The College President as the Face of the Institution, The American Council on Education Series on Higher Education (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009).
  43. Andy Crouch, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2013).
  44. Mouw, 121.
  45. See W. A. Visser ‘t Hooft, The Kingship of Christ: An Interpretation of Recent European Theology (New York: Harper, 1948), 16-18, 130-131.
  46. Dan Allender, Leading with a Limp (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook, 2008), 185.
  47. Mouw, 119.
  48. Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith: A Survey of Christian Doctrine, trans. by Henry Zylstra (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1956), 335.
  49. Treat, 165-173.
  50. See J. C. Ryle, Luke, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2012), 345.
  51. John Calvin, Commentary on Philippians-Colossians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979), 191.
  52. Wainwright, 185. Dane Ortlund explores the implications of Christ’s resurrection and ascension for all three offices in “Resurrected as Messiah: The Risen Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54.4 (December 2011): 749-766.
  53. The author is grateful to Andy Abernethy, Dan Boone, Mark Bowald, Dot Chappell, Andy Crouch, Jim Fitzgerald, Timothy George, Stan Jones, Tim Larsen, David Lauber, Doug McConnell, Richard Mouw, Darrin Patrick, Noah Toly, and Dan Treier for recommending resources and generating ideas that improved this essay immeasurably.

Philip Ryken

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