three ways to lead?

You’ve probably encountered the idea that there are different ‘leadership styles’ (mirroring, e.g., the differences between introverts and extraverts, etc). In some Christian circles, this observation has been transformed into a typology of leadership — suggesting there are three ways to lead: as a king, a priest or prophet. You may recognise this (from Mark Driscoll’s On Church Leadership):

Prophets tend to be strong at vision, study, preaching, teaching, doctrinal truth, refuting error, and calling people to repent of sin. … Priests have a deep understanding of human suffering and are compassionate and merciful in tending to the needs of hurting people so that they are loved to spiritual maturity. … Kings excel at systems, policies, procedures, planning, team building, mission executing, and simply maximizing resources to accomplish measurable results.

Now, this can claim a venerable lineage — stretching back to Israel’s historical experience of God’s careful governance through its kings, priests and prophets. Better still, since at least the sixteenth century theologians have tied each of these ‘offices’ to Jesus. So perhaps it makes sense to see these rays refracted even when viewed through the prism of the cross.

However, I do feel the need to sound a cautionary note: the way these so-called ‘biblical leadership styles’ apply to Jesus tends to undermine rather than reinforce their differences.

Let me try to illustrate what I mean…

When John Calvin pioneered the application of the ‘threefold office’ to Jesus, he argued that Jesus fulfilled the prophetic and priestly offices as Israel’s long-awaited king. In this he can cite good biblical precedent — the author of Hebrews appears to treat Jesus’ kingship as the necessary (if not the sufficient) condition of his high priesthood.

On the flip side, I’d be inclined to paint Jesus’ kingship in priestly (and prophetic) colours. For Jesus is radically different even from the best of the Old Testament kings. He’s the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, a king who perfectly reveals God (as final prophet) and offers himself once for all through the eternal Spirit to deal with sin.

And Christian leaders are called to be the same (e.g., in 1 Peter 5.1-5).

To me, this suggests that for all the evident differences between Christian leaders, the direct application of the king, priest, prophet typology is ill-advised. For it feels like it threatens to undo the way the roles are drawn together and recast in Jesus, and presented in that form as a model for us.

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