Book Review 4: “Spiritual Leadership” by J. Oswald Sanders

A book praised by many, J. Oswald Sanders’ Spiritual Leadership certainly impacted me years ago when I read it. It is a book that, at one point, I read every year for about three years in a row. However, until now, I have never taken the time to review it and see if its content is square with God’s Word.


This book’s conclusion has an index, notes and small group study questions. The study is separated into six sections. As a result, I review this book in its’ six separate parts.


After the preface, Sanders starts by talking about how the apostle Paul (in 1 Timothy 3:1) called aspiring to leadership “an honorable ambition” (pp. 11-15). He uses the New English Bible translation of that verse, which is interesting given it is viewed by one website as “nothing special.” He then talks about God’s sovereignty and the spirit of servanthood as it pertains to leadership (pp. 17-26). He cites church history and important Scriptures in his discussion. While I do not quite agree on his handling of Isaiah 42, he does not write anything heretical.


In this part, Sanders begins by comparing and contrasting natural leadership with spiritual leadership (pp. 27-32). In chapter 5, he actually uses no Scripture references as he discusses how Jesus selected leaders (pp. 33-37). This is essentially Sanders’ own opinion. Thankfully, Sanders switches gears in the next two chapters as he draws insights from Peter and Paul on leadership (pp. 39-50).


Sanders discusses the essential qualities of leadership in chapter 8. These include discipline, vision, wisdom, decision, courage, humility, integrity and sincerity (pp. 51-64). The additional qualities of leadership that he discusses in chapter 9 include humor, anger, patience, friendship, tact, diplomacy, inspirational power, executive ability, the therapy of listening and the art of letter writing (pp. 65-75). In chapter 10, he discusses how being Spirit-filled is “indispensable” (pp. 77-81).


In perhaps the most practical part of the book, Sanders discusses how the spiritual leader should outpace the rest of the church “in prayer” in chapter 11 (pp. 83-91). He then writes an excellent chapter (chapter 12) about the leader and time (pp. 93-99). It should be noted in this chapter, however, that he does cite the Phillips Bible, a Bible that is essentially a paraphrase of the Holy Scriptures (p. 93). Some refer to this paraphrased work’s author, JB Phillips, as a heretic who denied Bible inerrancy. At this point it should be noted that Sanders does not often cite what Bible version he is using throughout this book. That lack of clarity is hard to ignore. Furthermore, the fact he cites questionable translations (the aforementioned NEB version and the Phillips version) diminishes the book’s quality. After all, why cite a version made by someone who denied Bible inerrancy?

Sanders devotes chapter 13 to the subject of the leader and reading (pp. 101-108). While he gives plenty of examples of individuals that had excellent insights on the subject of reading, he gives little Scriptural support. He devotes this part’s last chapter to improving leadership (pp. 109-114).


In a very characteristic-heavy part of the book, Sanders discusses the cost of leadership (self-sacrifice, loneliness, fatigue, criticism, rejection, pressure, perplexity and the cost to others), the responsibilities of leadership (service, applied discipline, guidance, and initiative) and the tests of leadership (compromise, ambition, the impossible situation, failure and jealousy; pp. 115-136). He concludes this part with a chapter about the art of delegation (pp. 137-141).


In this part, Sanders discusses replacing and reproducing leaders (pp. 143-154). He then discusses the perils of leadership (pp. 155-163). Afterwards, he concludes the book with both a chapter about the leader Nehemiah and a final word to the reader (pp. 165-171).


In terms of practicality, this book certainly delivers. Sanders’ frequent citation of individuals from the early church that made an impact certainly paints a clear picture of how a Christian can develop into a better spiritual leader. Furthermore, he writes his book in a very clear and simple manner, thus making it easy to read and comprehend. He also is pretty accurate in handling God’s Word.


While Sanders uses clear language in his book, he is extremely unclear in the Bible translations he uses. On only a handful of occasions does he explicitly state what translation is used. Furthermore, he cites the NEB and Phillips, translations that have clear cons, as mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, it is his citation of the Phillips translation that is very alarming given its obvious problems.

Sanders also could have done a better job of backing up some of his assertions with Scripture. As mentioned, Sanders used no Scriptural support when discussing how Jesus selected leaders (pp. 33-37). This lack of support is hard to ignore given the fact Jesus is the subject there. Sanders also could have strengthened his assertions about natural and spiritual leadership with some Scriptural support (p. 29).


Despite some obvious shortcomings and/or concerns, Sanders writes an extremely simple and practical book here. Its simplicity allows it to be easily comprehended. Its practicality inspires the reader to be a better spiritual leader in his/her own community. to the glory of God. While there are some obvious bones to spit out (and every book that is not the Bible will have them), there is too much meat in this book to ignore. For those reasons, Spiritual Leadership represents a must-read book for the Christian.


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