Book Review: The Maxwell Leadership Bible

The Maxwell Leadership Bible: Lessons in Leadership from the Word of God, by John C. Maxwell & Tim Elmore

There are many Bibles I have bought or received as gifts from friends. There are a few more I would buy if the opportunity presented itself. This would not be one of them. If I received this Bible as a gift, I would not return it, but I would not be willing to pay more than a few dollars for it. Instead of being a situation where biblical understanding benefits a management studies approach, this book is a sterling example in terrible eisegesis.

Before discussing my more serious complaints and reservations about this book, let me at least describe its virtues first. The text is the New King James Version, with only textual footnotes, with all of the virtues and flaws of an ordinary New King James Bible to start from. For some people, that will be enough either for praise or censure. I happen to like the New King James Bible, so that spoke highly for it, though I certainly would have been content with an MKJV (a much less popular version) or a Geneva Bible as well.

Each book (or, in the case of 1, 2, and 3, John, the three books together) of the Bible is given a leadership introduction and interspersed with lessons taken from Maxwell’s famously numbered lessons in leadership. It should be noted for readers that this book follows the 21 laws of leadership, and not the 17 laws of teamwork [1]. Quite frankly, I was extremely disappointed by this book. I think highly of Maxwell’s work in general, and this book just didn’t meet the standard I expected of either biblical exegesis or leadership advice that I look for from the Bible.

There are a lot of problems which I had with this book, but rather than be exhaustive and rant, I would rather be a bit more fair and illustrate the larger issues from which many smaller ones come. For one, there seems to be a high level of arbitrariness about the book. Each book of the Bible has “leaders” and “people of influence” shown. Sometimes (as in Galatians), the same people are on both lists. In numerous other cases (basically every book of the Bible) there is no rhyme or reason why “leaders” and “people of influence” are in different categories. People of influence are leaders, and leaders lead by influencing others, regardless of whether they possess a title or not. Power is influence. The fact that this very straightforward and simple truth is muddled suggests some real serious difficulties with properly presenting biblical leadership.

The problems only get worse from there. The book as a whole seems to have a harsh bias when it comes to its examples. Examples pile on the negatives for bad examples of leaderships, show only the positive in positive examples, and fail to present any kind of balance or nuance. I frequently found the polarization of its examples, and the lack of attention to obvious questions of leadership that happen to be obscure in certain religious circles (like the need for leaders to avoid exploitation of the people), or the avoidance of obscure leaders in particular aside from the Pauline epistles to be a major failure.

But it was far from the only major failure of the book. Even more troubling than the cherry picking of examples was the jargon-riddled and highly objectionable language contained in the lessons in the book. To give one example of many, this book frequently looks for leaders to exhibit “brokenness,” talking in the vague language of evangelicals rather than more concrete and practical language. The very fuzziness of its cliches (of which “brokenness” is one of the more irritating examples) belies the explicit praise of the authors for leaders like Paul who speak blunt truths, albeit with love and respect (see Philemon for a gracious example, and Galatians or 1 Corinthians for a more blunt one). The authors praise Paul for following the 101% rule, where one gives 100% of one’s attention to the 1% that is in agreement, a rule that is nowhere followed in the ferocious denunciations of Galatians or 1 Corinthians of false teachers and sexual immorality, which ought to be obvious to anyone who has even a slight familiarity with such books.

The fact that the book spouts off pious-sounding post-Darby antinominan evangelical nonsense only makes the book’s occasional brushes with scriptural insight (like servant leadership) appear like flashes of light in a clouded mirror. Reading this book is akin to seeing whether one is like the optimistic kid of the story who was happy when put in a room full of manure because he said, “There’s so much crap in here there’s got to a pony somewhere.” Sadly, I found no pony. Even worse, I found some of the book’s essays particularly offensive. Witness, for example, this “nugget” from page 332 and 333 of the book, looking at some bogus “lessons” from 1 Samuel 9, seeking to contrast Samuel’s role as pastor (ministry leader) and Saul’s role as the entrepreneur (the marketplace leader). The book actively promotes the highly corrupt way that wealthy parishioners seek to convert their wealthy into religious power through supporting their local pastors. This is the way that religious novices with big bank accounts are made into deacons or members of the boards of congregations, and how churches get fancy campuses while not actually preaching anything of value because they don’t want to offend the big tithepayers. The fact that this book promotes such a corrupt and co-dependent relationship in the guise of religion is highly offensive to me personally and strikes a very personal nerve from my own experiences.

In short, this book requires very careful treatment. One cannot but admire the ambitions of the authors in seeking to expound upon the very worthwhile leadership lessons of the Bible, lessons which full just about every page of scripture. On the other hand, the language of the book, both in its management jargon and in its pseudoreligious cliches, fails to meet these lofty ambitions with anything remotely approaching competence. And that is a shame. I had much higher expectations for this book, probably the reason it disappointed me so greatly.


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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