Don’t Use Prophet, Priest, and King as a Modern Leadership Typology

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Writing and editing a book takes a long time. Rewriting a book you’ve already written takes even longer, but that’s precisely what I did last year.

The rewrite was necessary because I became convinced that the use of prophet, priest, and king as a leadership typology—a pattern that’s become increasingly common among Reformed church leaders—is fundamentally flawed.

Munus Triplex

I first ran across this leadership typology a little more than a decade ago when I heard potential church planters refer to themselves using terms like “kingly leader” or “priestly type.” “I’m not really preparing to do pastoral care,” one commented to me. “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 leader to supplement my leadership style by taking care of strategy and vision.”

Studying the Scriptures as I wrote a book on pastoral leadership convinced me that this typology is fundamentally flawed. And that’s why I spent months rewriting a book that was already finished.

When I pressed these individuals further, it was clear they believed this leadership model is well-grounded in the Scriptures: to lead like Jesus is to imitate one or more of the Old Testament offices Jesus fulfilled. The threefold office of prophet, priest, and king—the “munus triplex”—provided them with a typology for their leadership.

According to one proponent of this typology, the prophetic leader is “a visionary who has a burning desire to preach the Word of God,” while kingly leaders “know how to take a vision, organize, and implement it,” and the priestly leader cares for “the needs of the people” and solves “interpersonal problems.”

Over the past couple of decades, this leadership typology has grown increasingly popular among Reformed pastors and church planters. Among the church planters I knew, the triperspectival approach of John Frame and Vern Poythress solidified a typology they heard about at church-planting conferences. At first, I went along with the typology, even as I expressed some reservations about the ways I saw it applied. In particular, it concerned me that caregiving—the supposed “priestly role”—was almost always being delegated to someone else. In some cases, pastors-in-training made it clear that counseling and caring for people’s souls weren’t roles they planned to pursue at all.

It seemed that caregiving—the supposed ‘priestly role’—was almost always being delegated to someone else.

When I began co-writing the leadership book that became The God Who Goes before You, one of my goals was to curb some of the problems I saw arising from pigeonholing church leaders into the categories of prophet, priest, or king. By the time we completed the book, I concluded that the way this typology has been applied to new covenant leaders is fundamentally flawed. The result was a near-total rewrite of the entire book.

Problems with Using the Munus Triplex

The munus triplex itself is, of course, a venerable and biblically grounded structure with roots that stretch back into ancient times. But the notion that the triad of prophet, priest, and king describes capacities that different leaders possess in differing degrees is a recent idea that isn’t biblical.

Here are three of more than a dozen key truths from Scripture that drove me to this conclusion.

1. Kingship in the Old Testament had to do with covenant faithfulness, not organizational leadership.

The primary role of Israel’s king was to live as an exemplar of faithfulness to God’s covenant. This point is particularly clear in Moses’s command to future kings of Israel: “Write . . . a copy of this law” (Deut. 17:18).

This process reminded each king to live out his commitment to God’s covenant by judging the people with justice and by trusting God’s provision when enemies threatened the people’s safety. There’s no hint that visionary organizational strategies were part of the job description for Israel’s kings.

Identifying kingly leadership with organizational strategy imports a modern, 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). Through faith in Christ, women and men from every race and nation are bound together even now into this single kingdom of priests.

No individual within the body of Christ can become more kingly or more priestly than anyone else, because every aspect of Christ’s royal priesthood is already ours in him. This isn’t to suggest, of course, that different church leaders don’t have distinct gifts that are best deployed by focusing their energies on particular areas of ministry. But the identities of priest and king in particular aren’t individual capacities that some individuals possess more strongly than others; they’re identities shared by the whole community in union with Christ.

At one point, when a few Christians in Corinth did try to “reign as kings” individually, Paul’s response was to demand they return to unity with the body and imitate his way of life as a servant (1 Cor. 4:1, 8, 16).

3. Teaching is far more consistently connected with priests than with prophets.

According to the typology, the skillful teacher is a prophetic leader. But Scripture never clearly or consistently connects teaching with prophecy. In fact, teaching is most frequently linked not with prophets but with priests (Lev. 10:1011; 2 Kings 12:2; 2 Chron. 15:3; 17:79; 35:3; Ezra 7:610; Neh. 8:79; Isa. 28:710; Jer. 18:18; Ezek. 7:26; 22:26; Mic. 3:11; Mal. 2:79).

Prophets weren’t primarily teachers or expositors of written revelation; they were recipients of direct divine revelation. Their declarations of divine revelation were tested against previous revelations and against the events that succeeded their proclamations (Num. 12:68; Deut. 18:1922).

And so, even if the munus triplex happens to describe different modes of leadership that leaders possess in differing degrees, prophecy isn’t the office linked most clearly to teaching. What’s more, prophecy was seen in the New Testament as accessible and desirable for every first-century believer (Acts 2:17; 1 Cor. 14:15, 3139).

The notion that prophet, priest, and king are capacities different leaders possess in varying degrees is a recent innovation. In fact, the earliest expression I’ve discovered is in The Glorious Body of Christ by R. B. Kuiper, published in 1967. Studying the Scriptures as I wrote a book on pastoral leadership convinced me that this typology is fundamentally flawed. And that’s why I spent months rewriting a book that was already finished.

The munus triplex should indeed shape our leadership, but it shapes our leadership best when these offices are treated not as a leadership typology but as functions that have been fulfilled in Christ and conveyed to the whole people of God through union with him.

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