I first heard Dr. Ryken present the substance of this essay at a conference of Christian college and university presidents. Resonance filled the room. Heads nodded with empathy and affirmation. I have also had opportunities to see the ways in which Dr. Ryken integrates the roles of prophet, priest and king as he leads Wheaton College. Reading this essay with these two perspectives in mind contributed to my sense that he makes his case with integrity and relevance.

Also coloring the lenses through which I read this essay were my own inescapable biases. First, I spent 24 years as a college president, 17 in a Christian college that differs in mission from Wheaton College. Second, my most advanced training is in the behavioral sciences. I am neither a theologian nor a biblical scholar. Third, I was considered by some of my colleagues to be an unconventional president. Fourth, I hold a degree from the college over which Dr. Ryken presides, so I probably feel I know more about his context than I actually do. I am uncertain whether my perspectives clarify or cloud my reading of Dr. Ryken’s essay, but they inevitably affect the meaning I draw from what he has written. Central to my discipline is the conviction that neither writers nor readers lay hold of total objectivity.

We see the world through the prisms we bring to our observations. For example, Dr. Ryken looks at the threefold office of Christ as a Western Christian theologian. His field bears deep Platonic influences. The behavioral sciences, which contribute to my disciplinary perspectives, bear deep Aristotelian influences. Plato believed in absolute truth and unchanging reality, accessible largely through rational processes. Aristotle’s epistemology relied on sensory data. He trusted observation more than intuition. Dr. Ryken offers perspectives on both theory and practice, but he is particularly interested in the theoretical alignment of Christ’s threefold office with the responsibilities of the Christian college president. I, too, am interested in both theory and practice, but I read this essay thinking of the ways in which Christ’s threefold office in the presidency gets applied, and misapplied. I suspect the philosophical foundations of our disciplines affect the way we think about this paradigm. These philosophical foundations, and count- less others, cannot help but influence what we see. But most important in what we both see comes from a sacred foundation – an unwavering commitment to the Lordship of Christ and the authority of Holy Scripture.

Perspectives matter. I first started writing down my thoughts on this essay while flying from Newark to Portland. My wife Bonnie, a graduate of the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music, asked if she could look at the essay. Not long into her reading she made an interesting observation: “This is more about the actions and duties of the three roles than it is about how those roles affect a president’s heart.” She is a musician. She can reach a listener’s soul by simply touching a piano key. Her perspective is learned and legitimate, but she sees both scripture and the presidency from the vantage point of a musician and that of a president’s spouse. Several years ago I conducted a new presidents institute for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. As I was getting ready to start the first session, Bonnie called. I asked her if she had any advice for new presidents. She said, “Tell them presidents should not talk so much about their stuff, and tell them they should ask more questions about other people’s lives.” This was probably a prophetic (perhaps intercessory) message for me, but college presidents seem particularly prone to thinking that what interests them, interests everybody. But our interests and perspectives are not universal. Hence, for our consideration of Philip Ryken’s essay to go beyond presidents talking about their stuff, the focus must be on how the Christian college president can represent the threefold office of Christ in Christlike ways. A final perspectival influence comes from the homes in which both Dr. Ryken and I were raised. Philip Ryken’s father served on the Wheaton College faculty for 43 years. Both of my parents were faculty members at the Moody Bible Institute for the first 25 years of my life. At some level, both Phil and I formed images of the Christian college president through the experience of our parents. I would not, from a behavioral science perspective, say we are captive of those images, but I do think they left a mark on how we see the Christian college presidency.

On the face, I find unassailable Dr. Ryken’s exegesis of Christ’s offices, the Church’s call to reflect those offices, and the extent to which the duties of those offices correspond to the duties of the Christian college presidency, or any college presidency, for that matter. But I do have a few comments, questions, and concerns about how presidents go about filling the roles of Christ’s threefold office. My comments are divided into four groups of observations: (1) the ontology of the paradigm, (2) the influence of trajectories, (3) the problem with kings, and (4) the benefits of the paradigm.

The Ontology of the Paradigm

Dr. Ryken shows us from Scripture how the ministries of Christ’s threefold office have been bequeathed to the saints. Although he labels his treatment of Christ as prophet, priest, and king as “brief,” he packs the thoughts of contemporary and historical titans into a wonderful summary. I found this survey extremely well done. My ontological addendum might be tucked in as a conclusion to this section or as an introduction to the “Offices of the President.” It might also come under the category of those things that go without saying, but one thing still needs to be said: Jesus is Jesus, and college presidents are not.

In verse 6 of John 1, John interrupts the literary grandeur of his prologue: “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. … He was not the light, but was sent to bear witness to the light.” Why would The Evangelist wedge three verses about The Baptist into his cosmic introduction of Jesus Christ? Maybe he felt five verses were as long as he could go without reminding the world that only Jesus is the light. We are not the light. We are not THE prophet. We are not THE king. And we are not THE high priest of the Most High. As servants of Christ in any vocation, we should drench ourselves in this awareness when we take on the sacred assignment of appropriating the threefold office of Christ.

I told a veteran Christian college faculty member I had been asked to comment on an essay that looked at the Christian college presidency from the perspective of Christ’s threefold office – prophet, priest, and king. He understood the idea theologically, but he wondered if a president should be the one writing about the similarities between Jesus and college presidents. At first blush, he considered the exercise rather self-elevating. But I had misrepresented Dr. Ryken’s work. The essay offers an aspirational paradigm; it does not suggest college presidents look a lot like Jesus. It is very important for the reader of Dr. Ryken’s essay to look closely at its title: “Christ-Centered Presidency: The Threefold Office of Christ as a Theological Paradigm for Leading a Christian College.”

If Christian college presidents look to the prophet, priest, and king paradigm as elemental roles within the leadership they provide, they will respect the ontological chasm between Christ’s fulfillment of the threefold office and their own. I think this theological paradigm serves presidents well as a Christological reference point. But if the threefold office of Christ becomes the essence of presidents’ self-identity, if they believe they must be the prophet, be the priest, and be the king, they will crumble under the weight of their own pride, and they will exhaust themselves into oblivion. Presidents that see themselves as divine become insufferable disasters headed for Herodian fates. Presidents are not the light; they are appointed to bear witness to the light.

The Influence of Trajectories

Everything about Christ as exemplar must begin with the essence of the incarnation. In the greatest hymn ever composed, the Apostle Paul traces Christ’s descent from equality with God all the way to its ignominious end on the cross (Phil. 2:5-11). Christ as the example of anything must be considered in light of his incomprehensible humility and condescension. The pathway of Christ was downward until the day of his resurrection. The pathway of the college presidency is upward until the day of his or her inauguration. Christ’s trajectory to humiliation bends in the opposite direction of the president’s pathway to the inauguration. Surely, we presidents step into our offices affected by the routes we have taken to get there. They are not Phil. 2:5-11 passageways.

Dr. Ryken makes clearly the powerful point that Christ suffered humiliation in all three of his priestly roles. But few search committees look for candidates well experienced in humiliation. Christian college presidents often reach their stations by rising through the ranks. Rightfully, they are confident of God’s call as it is affirmed by a board of trustees, a campus community, admiring alumni, and their own sense of fulfillment. Their arrival in the presidency culminates with an inaugural coronation, complete with choral anthems, herald trumpets, shrimp cocktails, and greetings from the world. Inaugurations feel kingly. Inaugurations also offer a moment, perhaps the last moment, when the president has prophet capital. “Our future glistens with … but we must battle the forces of…” (I know this; I did this.) It is a new day with a new prophet. And while all this is going on, faculty members dream of a priestly intercessor, defending their academic freedom to the board of trustees and raising money for their projects from donors. When I was inaugurated to the presidency of a Christian college, I said I was “humbled” by the appointment. Technically, I probably was, but humility recedes without much of a fight when you receive the royal commissioning to a college presidency.

If anyone could say, “It’s all about me,” it was Jesus. But he never did. For Jesus, it was all about the One who sent him, and what he was sent to do. Jesus never lost his humility. As Dr. Ryken points out, the signature declaration of his kingly office rested on a cross above his ultimate humiliation. If presidents are to integrate the roles of Christ-like prophets, priests, and kings, they must battle the privileges that attend the ascent and the “entitlements” (another greedy nemesis identified by Dr. Ryken) that greet them in the office.

If there is an anecdote to the seductions that line the trajectory, it is Ryken’s argument for the Christ-like president to empower the campus generously:

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.

For presidents to see that “every member of the campus is freely empowered to discover his or her own prophetic, sacerdotal, and royal gifts,” they must enter the Upper Room of Christ the exemplar. I agree with Dr. Ryken’s point that “servant leadership” is not always enough for the Christian college president. But presidents who lead from the basin more often than from the pedestal emit the fragrance of Christ. Their high view of colleagues should inspire a generous presidency. They give dual meaning to the CEO acronym. Yes, they are the chief executive officers, but they are also the chief empowering officers. Jesus empowered his disciples to heal, cast out demons (Luke 9:1), effectuate the forgiveness of sins (John 20:23),
and make disciples (Matthew 28:19, 20).

Christ’s empowerments flowed freely from his threefold office, endowing the disciples with elements of each role. In his humility, Jesus was careful to acknowledge his authority was given by the Father, and in his humility, Jesus was not possessive of that authority. He passed it on to his disciples. Similarly, Christian college presidents must serve humbly in the awareness that their authority is granted, and it is not to be possessed. The presidents who prophetically defend academic freedom endow faculty members with the right to exercise their prophetic roles. The presidents who authorize administrators to make final decisions in their areas empower co-workers to be “kings” in moments when the situation calls for one. And Christian college presidents who intercede in all directions for their campuses enable and empower faculty, staff, and especially campus ministries to serve as intercessors on behalf of students.1

The Problem with Kings

It was Dr. Ryken’s discussion of kings that raised the most questions for me:

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.

My understanding of Pauline ecclesiology makes me wince at the notion of “rulers” over Christian institutions. If presidents are to reflect Paul’s descriptions of the body of Christ, they will use their gifts of leadership and administration to steward their colleagues’ charisms and their institutions’ resources. I was also unsettled by Dr. Ryken’s reference to the presidency as a “sacred” office. Used in this way, “sacred” is not a very Reformed adjective. Reformed theology discourages believers from viewing vocation in hierarchical terms. Further, I do not think it is helpful for presidents to think their office is more sacred than other offices. Perhaps that is not what Dr. Ryken meant.

In its origin, God established the human office of king in a fundamentally different way than the other two offices. For the people of God, the appointment of prophets and priests seemed to originate by divine initiative. The office of king, however, was the product of human initiative (I Samuel 8: 4-18). In fact, God told Samuel to tell the Israelites they should be careful what they wish for:

So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

Granted, God’s description does not exactly reflect the style of twenty-first-century college presidents. But Israel’s response to Samuel should serve as a warning that Christian college campuses can idealize secularized presidencies in other institutions that appear to prosper: “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” But secular colleges and universities do not pursue Christian missions, and their presidents are not expected to provide spiritual leadership.

Although the office of king emerged as a divine concession rather than a divine initiative, I find, ironically, we Christian college presidents often elevate it above the other two roles of the munus triplex. And in that respect, we are like other university presidents. Dr. Ryken treats insightfully the ineffectiveness and even danger that can result from an imbalance in the president’s fulfillment of the threefold offices of Christ:

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.

I find this assessment very sound, but I think for many presidents, the imbalance of roles is a matter of pride, focus, and circumstances as much as it is giftedness. The responsibilities and trappings of the presidency pull its occupant in an executive direction. Presidents easily convince themselves there are more duties exclusively in the province of the king-office than of the other two. For example, tenured faculty can offer bold critiques and prophecies, while chapel ministries serve as a veritable storehouse of priestly resources, but there are certain kingly things only the president can do. Presidents can justify putting on the crown more often than the collar or mantle, but when donning a crown, everything begins to look like king-work. As Dr. Ryken reminds us, all members of the community can and should engage in the work of prophet, priest, and king. The president who empowers freely will need to wear the crown less often.

My argument and warning is that serving as prophet and priest is a matter of discipline more than giftedness for many Christian college presidents. The university presidency has become more complex, thankless, gilded, compensated, exposed, and zero-sum based than all other campus positions. The temptation to settle into “king mode” is fed by efficiency whispering “Just do it” in one ear, and responsibility whispering “You have the authority” in the other. Presidents need to remember God’s warning about the natural inclinations of kings. I wonder if “servant leadership” became the all the rage as a corrective to so many leaders over-functioning as kings. And I also wonder if ego contributes to the eagerness with which leaders spend time as kings. A close friend and long-term Christian College president observed about the presidency, “Ego is the monster hiding under the bed.”

The Bible is clear. God is behind the appointment of those in authority over us, and we should respect our authorities. But when God gave Israel a king it was a concession, unlike God’s provision of prophets and priests. Could it be that humans in general and presidents in particular can serve the offices of prophet and priest in better judicial alignment with the heart of God than they do as king? Could it be that something deeply anthropological entered into God’s reluctance to give Israel a king? Could it be that when the contaminating effects of pride found their way into the garden, our ability to rule suffered a sharper blow than our capacity to intercede and proclaim?

In my observation of hundreds of Christian college presidents, and in my own efforts at doing the job, I find Christ-like humility and self-limitation to be more difficult to embody in the office of king than in the offices of priest and prophet. Yet disproportionately, king is the office to which we are drawn, leaving us vulnerable to forgetting to whom the kingdom belongs. As the motto of Wheaton College (“For Christ and his Kingdom”) reminds us, Christ is king and the kingdom is his. His kingship is at the heart of our Trinitarian theology and Christological soteriology. But we, God’s people, have a history of getting “king” wrong. The Israelites got “king” wrong often, and Christ’s followers got “king” wrong when they tried to make him one on their timetable (John 6:15). Christian college presidents will also get “king” wrong if they fail to meet the vital criterion Dr. Ryken suggests and Andy Crouch elaborates:

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?

The Benefits of the Paradigm

Dr. Ryken has offered several clear ways in which institutions benefit by having their presidents see leadership through the theological paradigm of Christ’s threefold office. I find particularly helpful the importance of balancing the roles demanded by each office. All university presidents need to make unpopular decisions, take stands, and nurture their institutions. As the essay emphasized, the big problems come when presidents provide these services disproportionately or inappropriately.

I would also suggest that presidents benefit when they are sensitive to those seasons in which the offices should be summoned unequally. When Christian colleges find themselves in controversies provoked by the complications of identity, gender, race, and social location it can be anguishing. In those circumstances it is not “business as usual” for college presidents. Depending on the situational needs, I think this paradigm can help presidents provide the kind of spiritual, well-reasoned adaptability that benefits Christian college campuses.

At the heart of Dr. Ryken’s essay was the call for Christian college presidents to imitate Christ. And benefits abound whenever we strive to imitate the Savior. Christian college presidents can get tangled up in endless duties and demands that bend them away from Christ-likeness. So I think the most valuable benefit of the munus triplex is its invitation for presidents to ask three questions: Am I holding a prophetic point of view that reflects Christ? Am I pastoring the campus in a way that reflects Christ? Am I executing the duties of the presidency in a way that reflects Christ?

Among the regrets I have in my 24 years as a college president, asking too few questions is high on my list. Christ was the consummate questioner. On countless occasions he used questions rather than imperatives. His questions elicited responses that ring through the ages. For example, without Christ’s question, we would not have Peter’s glorious answer:

So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:67-69)

Questions bring the best out in others, but questions can also bring the best out in us. All Christian leaders would benefit from better interrogative tools. If Christian leaders repeatedly asked prophet, priest, and king questions, they could explore deeply both episodes and daily duties through a Christ-like lens. I benefitted immensely in my last 10 years of the presidency from approaching every difficult situation asking the John 1:14 twofold question: Am I being grace-filled and am I being truthful? If not, I am not being Christ-like. I think Dr. Ryken is right in contending Christ-likeness is also missing if our leadership fails to resemble the threefold office of Christ.

I am grateful for Philip Ryken’s essay. If I were to conduct another new presidents institute, I would commend it for deep consideration. Perhaps my warnings and annotations to the essay evolve from my own failures and sinful proclivities. But suspecting I am not alone in the way I handled the charms and challenges of the Christian college presidency, I offer my response as a companion to Dr. Ryken’s scholarly, thought-provoking, and beckoning contribution to the study of Christian college presidencies.

Cite this article
William Robinson, “Response to Dr. Ryken’s Essay on a Christ-Centered Presidency”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 47:2 , 149–158

Footnotes

  1. I am certain my generalizations of the trajectory apply more to white males than to people from under-represented categories. The stories of women and racial-ethnic minority presidents often include prejudicial hurdles. Partly because of geographic proximity, I have observed the presidency of Andrea Cook at Warner Pacific in Portland. She did not enjoy the assumptions that paved the paths for many of us, and it shows. She occupies her office with humility, empathy, gratitude, and the strength gained from overcoming obstacles. Unfortunately, Christian colleges and universities compare unfavorably to their secular counterparts in its percentage of non-white male presidents. But some progress has been made in the last decade.

William Robinson

Whitworth University
William Robinson is president emeritus of Whitworth University, in Spokane, WA.