Book Review: The Book on Leadership, by John MacArthur


Do you remember the MacGyver television show from the 1980s? MacGyver was the guy who, with fifteen bad guys bearing down on him, could take a piece of gum, a pipe, and a sock and parachute to safety. He could take the wrong tools and make any task work.

I know what it feels like to have the wrong tools for a difficult task. Facing the prospect some day of leadership in the Christian church, most books on leadership I have read have only filled my ministerial toolbox with hiring advice from Wall Street, management tips from Fortune 500 CEOs, and growth programs from business school professors. Undoubtedly I will be able to use some of these tools in ministry, but finally they leave me ill equipped for much of what a pastor does. Leadership in the church is a spiritual task requiring spiritual tools.

How refreshing to find that a faithful master builder recently opened up his toolbox to share his insights on leadership. A man of distinguished character, considerable experience, and keen insight, Pastor John MacArthur has given us The Book on Leadership. His book offers twenty-six leadership principles gleaned from life of the apostle Paul.


The Book on Leadership approaches Christian leadership declaring that character is of primary importance for this endeavor. Writing to counter leadership models based in corporate ideology, MacArthur argues that “there are better models for Christian leaders to follow than Ben and Jerry. Surely our mentors in spiritual leadership ought to be spiritual people.” For this reason, MacArthur turns to Paul.

What we learn from the apostle Paul is the same thing that Jesus taught: that character—not style, not technique, not methodology, but character—is the true biblical test of great leadership. Entrepreneurship is wonderful, but the most skilled entrepreneur in the world without character is no true leader. Strategic planning is important, but if you don’t have leaders whom people will follow, your strategic plan will fail. The clarity of a well-drafted purpose statement is crucial, but the true spiritual leader must go beyond merely clarifying people’s focus. The real leader is an example to follow (xi).

If character is the starting point, then Scripture provides the leader a guide for his work in God’s church. MacArthur writes, “Scripture, not the corporate world or the political arena, is the authoritative source we need to turn to in order to learn the truth about spiritual leadership” (xi).


The Book on Leadership is divided into four parts. Part one, subtitled “Paul in Chains: Leadership in Action,” emphasizes the need for leaders to earn trust through selflessness, to take initiative, and to demonstrate confidence. Drawing on Paul’s shipwreck in Acts 27, for instance, MacArthur notes where “lesser men would have been passive or given up, Paul took charge and became an example to all who are called to be leaders” (57). These are challenging words to all who would call themselves leaders.

Part two focuses on the theme “Paul in Corinth: Leadership Under Fire,” taking from Paul’s dealings with the embattled Corinthian church. A leader, MacArthur says, is dedicated, empathetic, and tender with his people. A leader will endure many attacks on his person, which means that a leader’s sufficiency for the task is in God, not in his own strength. As such, a pastor’s qualification amidst spiritual conflict comes from spiritual devotion, not physical or personal prowess.

Part three, called “An Approved Workman: Leadership Held to a Biblical Standard,” makes the case for a leadership model defined and guarded by biblical bounds. Chapter ten’s title says it all: “How Not to Be Disqualified.” Ultimately, a leader must learn to be Christlike. Not clever or business-driven, but Christlike.

In part four, an epilogue entitled “The Measure of a Leader’s Success,” MacArthur defines success by Paul’s impact on a wide range of people. Paul’s “continuing influence in the lives of so many people gives ample proof of the effectiveness of his leadership to the very end” (206). It is an excellent note on which to finish the book.


The reader will benefit from any of MacArthur’s twenty-six leadership principles sprinkled throughout the book. Let me comment on four of them here.

Taking Initiative

Principle 2: “A leader takes the initiative”(21). Both Nehemiah and Paul acted when all others sat on their hands, and this set them apart as leaders. Christian leaders are not passive. They are action-oriented and seek always to anticipate situations.

They might spot a developing struggle within a brother and speak to him before it grows into unchecked sin. They might initiate a discipleship relationship with a younger Christian. They might ask their elders for ways to serve the body. In these and many other ways, Christians show themselves to be congregational leaders by taking initiative when others sit idly by.

Empowering Others

According to principle 9, “A leader empowers by example” (55). Think of Acts 27:33-36, where Paul had effectively become the prison ship’s leader in the wake of great danger and desperate hunger. The ship’s crew had not eaten for two weeks and was as weak in body as they were in heart. Yet Paul encouraged the crew to take food and begin to eat, and “Paul’s courage became infectious.” (54). His example had a drastic effect on the ship. Likewise, everyone—Christians and non-Christians—watch Christian pastors to see how they live. Pastors who fail to live up to their calling stamp a massive “Invalid!” on their ministries.

When my pastor told me he was sacrificing an hour of sleep for his devotions, it pushed me to do the same. Watching him turn his eyes from an inappropriate scene in a movie moved me to avert my gaze. Observing him arrive early at meetings made me want to struggle past my laziness and get to events on time. His example did not simply teach me or rebuke me, it helped me to live rightly.

Exuding Courage

Principle 21: “A leader is courageous”(135). Paul displayed this quality in response to the accusations of the false teachers in 2 Corinthians 10, where he “intended to be bold against some.” A leader speaks up. A leader steps forward to help those around him. A leader separates himself from the pack by speaking the word of rebuke nobody wants to say, by sharing the gospel when others fall silent, by opposing the foolish but popular motion at the church’s business meeting.

Being Disciplined

Principle 23 is that a leader is disciplined. In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul calls Christians to live disciplined lives. “Why is discipline important?” MacArthur asks. “Discipline teaches us to operate by principle rather than desire. Saying no to our impulses (even the ones that are not inherently sinful) puts us in control of our appetites rather than vice versa. It deposes our lust and permits truth, virtue, and integrity to rule our minds instead” (153).

The Christian leaders I have admired understand that days are short and that time must be used well. They know that leading God’s people well requires a scheduled life. They realize that the health of their bodies relates to the strength of their ministry. Eminent men of God do things like sleep regularly, eat carefully, adhere to schedules, regulate their pleasure activities, conduct daily devotions, establish regular routines with their families, and so on.


Do I have anything negative to say? At times, MacArthur makes hay from straw, finding a spiritual point in the text when it may not be there. And the book feels a little like a collection of disparate addresses culled together.

More significantly: MacArthur does an excellent job countering pragmatist Christian authors, but he could have been clearer that the gospel of Jesus Christ was his foundation. He certainly mentions the importance of the gospel (41, 89). He clearly says that good character only comes from the Holy Spirit. And his tone is unashamedly Christian, strong enough to distance himself from the secularist leadership pack. Yet I wish his gospel presuppositions were more explicit.

These matters aside, The Book on Leadership is a very good resource for pastors seeking a spiritually-focused book on leadership. Don’t pass up on this opportunity to peer into the toolbox of a master builder, and hopefully make some of his tools your own.

Owen Strachan

Owen Strachan is a theology professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Reenchanting Humanity: A Theology of Mankind. You can find him on Twitter at @ostrachan.

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