An earlier version of this post was published on The Gospel Coalition website.
“‘Touch not mine anointed.’ That’s what this book says!” the preacher stormed, flapping his Bible above his head. “There are people in this church right now who are trying to touch God’s anointed—but I won’t let them stretch their hands against me!”
I was fourteen years old, and common sense was in short supply for me at the time. Still, something about the chapel sermon that day in this tiny fundamentalist school didn’t seem right.
The chapel preacher for the day was the school principal, who also happened to be the church’s associate pastor. Trouble had started when this principal and pastor was caught secretly watching high school girls as they changed clothes before gym class. It soon became apparent that this may not have been all that he was doing with girls in the church and school.
This day’s chapel message was the principal’s retort to those who wanted to terminate his employment and to report his crimes. His message began with David’s refusal to overthrow King Saul: “Who can stretch forth his hand against the LORD’s anointed?” (1 Samuel 26:9 KJV). The principal launched into his tirade by identifying himself as a man anointed by the Lord to be a pastor. Before it was over, he had made his way to Psalm 105:15 and declared that, because God had anointed him, God would punish anyone who tried to remove him. In that chapel more than three decades ago, I was far from able to articulate all the problems with the principal’s interpretative acrobatics. Yet it occurred to me even as a fourteen-year-old that the associate pastor of a church was not precisely analogous to the anointed leader of Israel.
The Threefold Office of Christ and Leadership in the Church Today
Perhaps it was this past experience with an abusive church leader who claimed an anointed role that triggered my queasiness a few years ago when I began to hear potential church planters use terms like “kingly leaders” or “priestly types” to refer to themselves. “I’m not really preparing to do pastoral care,” one of them commented to me over lunch at a conference, “I’m more a king than a priest, you know. So someone else will need to do the counseling and visiting when I’m a pastor.” Another pastor-in-training put it this way: “I’m more of a prophetic teacher, so I’m looking for a kingly type to supplement my leadership style by taking care of strategy and vision.”
When I pressed these individuals further, I realized they were operating with a leadership model that they perceived to be well-grounded in the Scriptures. From the perspective of these students, to lead like Jesus was to imitate one or more of the Old Testament offices that Jesus fulfilled. As they saw it, the threefold office of prophet, priest, and king—the munus triplex—provided them with a typology for church leadership. As leaders, they possessed prophetic, priestly, or kingly gifts in differing degrees; these categories would determine their roles in the church. Seen in this way, kingly leadership has to do with visionary leadership and strategic planning; priestliness connects with caregiving, while prophetic leadership focuses primarily on teaching and biblical fidelity. According to one proponent of this typology, the prophet is “a visionary who has a burning desire to preach the Word of God,” kings “know how to take a vision, organize, and implement it,” and the priest understands “the needs of the people” and is capable of solving “interpersonal problems.”
Over the past couple of decades, this typology has grown increasingly popular among Reformed pastors and church planters. The triperspectival approach of John Frame and Vern Poythress had solidified this typology in the minds of many of the potential church planters who were eager to tell me where they fit into the structure.
The munus triplex itself is a venerable, biblically-grounded structure that reaches back at least as far as the fourth century A.D.
But what about the use of these offices to describe different expressions of leadership, with each one present in varying degrees in different leaders’ lives?
That’s a different question, and it’s the question I recently faced while working on a biblical theology of leadership. The answers that emerged from my research caused me to rewrite most of the book.
Three Problems with Using the Munus Triplex as a Leadership Typology
What I had planned to do when I mapped out the chapters on Old Testament leadership for the book was to curb possible abuses of this typology that pigeonholed new covenant leaders into categories of prophet, priest, or king. What I concluded by the time I completed these chapters in The God Who Goes Before You was that the way in which this typology has recently been applied to new covenant leaders is fundamentally flawed.
Here are three key recognitions that led me to a very different understanding of how the munus triplex should shape leadership today:
(1) Kingship in the Old Testament had to do with covenant faithfulness, not strong organizational leadership. The primary role of Israel’s king was to live as an exemplar of faithfulness to God’s covenant with Israel. This point becomes particularly clear in the one act that Moses commanded every future king of Israel to undertake for himself: “Write … a copy of this law on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests” (Deut 17:18). By copying the covenant anew, each king of Israel engaged in a sacred act that resulted in a sacred artifact. This act and artifact reminded each king of his central role as an exemplar of covenant faithfulness for the people of Israel. Neither in Moses’s description of God’s design for the monarchy nor in any later descriptions of the ideal king is there any hint that visionary organizational strategies were part of the job description for Israel’s kings. Identifying kingly leadership with organizational strategy imports a very modern and very Western conception of leadership into old covenant kingship.
(2) Kingliness and priesthood in the new covenant are communal identities, not individual capacities. God has designated his new covenant people as “a royal priesthood” through our union with Christ the perfect high priest and king (1 Pet 2:9; see also 2 Tim 2:12; Rev 5:9-10). No one in the body of Christ can become more kingly or priestly than anyone else, because we all share in the same royal priesthood through Christ. None of us has the right to reign individually or independently in the church of Jesus Christ. When a few Christians in Corinth tried to “reign as kings,” Paul demanded that they return to unity with the body and imitate his way of life as Christ’s steward and slave (1 Cor 4:1, 8, 16).
(3) Prophecy and teaching are never consistently connected in Scripture. According to this typology that classifies leaders as prophets, priests, or kings based on their gifts and proclivities, the prophetic leader is a skillful teacher; in some applications of this typology, teaching pastors are classified as prophetic leaders. And yet, Scripture never clearly or consistently connects teaching with prophecy. In fact, teaching is most frequently linked not to prophets but to priests (Lev 10:10-11; 2 Kings 12:2; 2 Chron 15:3; 17:7-9; 35:3; Ezra 7:6-10; Neh 8:7-9; Isa 28:7-10; Jer 18:18; Ezek 7:26; 22:26; Micah 3:11; Mal 2:3-9). Even if the munus triplex happened to describe different modes of leadership that leaders possess in differing degrees, prophecy isn’t the office that is linked most clearly to teaching. What’s more, although particular individuals continued to be gifted as prophets in the New Testament, prophecy was seen as accessible and desirable for every first-century believer (Acts 2:17; 1 Cor 14:1-5, 31-39). It was possible for a single individual in the first-century churches to be both a teacher and a prophet (Acts 13:1), but the two gifts were still seen as distinct.
The notion that prophet, priest, and king are capacities that leaders possess in varying degrees seems to be a recent one. In fact, the earliest expression of it that I’ve discovered is in Rienk Bouke Kuiper’s book The Glorious Body of Christ, published in 1967. Kuiper—much like Vern Poythress in more recent years—saw kingly leaders as ruling elders, prophetic leaders as teaching elders, and priestly leaders as deacons. All of this fits together conveniently, particularly if you happen to be Presbyterian, but the typology seems to me that it falls short when it comes to biblical support. The munus triplex should indeed shape our leadership—but it shapes our leadership best when the offices are seen first and foremost as functions that have been fulfilled in Christ and conveyed to the whole people of God through union with Christ.
Have you heard prophets, priests, and kings used as a leadership typology? What has been your perspective on this typology in the past? How has this post altered your view?