A Leader is a Reader

J. Oswald Sanders

From: Spiritual Leadership: Principles of Excellence for Every Believer (Moody 1967, 1994). Used by permission. All rights reserved.

When you come, bring my scrolls, especially the parchments (2 Timothy 4:13)

Reading maketh a full man; speaking a ready man; writing, an exact man. (Francis Bacon)


Paul’s counsel to Timothy, “Give heed to reading,” surely referred to the public reading of the Old Testament. But Paul’s advice is most appropriate for other areas of reading as well. Paul’s books–the ones he wanted Timothy to bring along–were probably works of Jewish history, explanations of the law and the prophets, and perhaps some of the heathen poets that Paul quoted in his sermons and lectures. A student to the end, Paul wanted to spend time in study.

During his imprisonment and shortly before his martyrdom in 1536, William Tyndale wrote to the governor-in-chief asking that some goods be sent to him:

A warmer cap, a candle, a piece of cloth to patch my leggings. But above all I beseech and entreat your clemency to be urgent with the Procureur that he may kindly permit me to have my Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Grammar, and Hebrew Dictionary, that I may spend time with that in study. (note 1)

Both Paul and Tyndale devoted their last days on earth to the study of the parchments. Christian leaders of every generation will have a consuming passion to know the Word of God through diligent study and the illumination of the Holy Spirit. But in this chapter, our special interest is in a leader’s supplementary reading.

The leader who intends to grow spiritually and intellectually will be reading constantly. Lawyers must be reading steadily to keep up on case law. Doctors must read to stay current in the ever-changing world of health care. So the Christian leader must master God’s Word and its principles to know as well the minds of those who look to the leader for guidance. To do so, the leader must have an active life of reading.

Today the practice of reading spiritual classics is on the wane. We have more leisure today than ever before in history, but many people claim to have no time for reading. A Christian leader cannot use that excuse.

John Wesley had a passion for reading, and he did so mostly on horseback. Often he rode a horse fifty and sometimes ninety miles in a day. His habit was to ride with a volume of science or history or medicine propped in the pommel of his saddle, and thus he consumed thousands of books. Besides his Greek New Testament, three great books took Wesley’s mind and heart during his Oxford days: Imitation of Christ, Holy Living and Dying, and The Serious Call. These three were his spiritual guides. Wesley told the younger ministers of the Methodist societies to read or get out of the ministry!

Leaders should determine to spend a minimum of a half an hour a day reading books that feed the soul and stimulate the mind. In a perceptive series on “The Use and Abuse of Books,” A.W. Tozer said:

Why does today’s Christian find the reading of great books always beyond him? Certainly intellectual powers do not wane from one generation to another. We are as smart as our fathers, and any thought that they could entertain we can entertain if we are sufficiently interested to make the effort. The major cause of the decline in the quality of current Christian literature is not intellectual but spiritual. To enjoy a great religious book requires a degree of consecration to God and detachment from the world that few modern Christians have. The early Christian fathers, the Mystics, the Puritans, are not hard to understand, but they inhabit the highlands where the air is crisp and rarified, and none but the God-enamored can come. One reason why people are unable to understand great Christian classics is that they are trying to understand them without and intention of obeying them. (note 2)


What to Read

A man is known by the company he keeps, so also his character is reflected in the books he reads. A leader’s reading is the outward expression of his inner hungers and aspirations. The vast number of titles pouring from presses today makes discriminating choice essential. We can afford to read only the best, only that which invigorates our mission. Our reading should be regulated by who we are and what we intend to accomplish.

An old author whose pen name was Claudius Clear said that a reader could divide his books as he would people. A few were “lovers,” and those would go with him into exile. Others were “friends.” Most books were “acquaintances,” works with which he was on nodding terms.

Matthew Arnold thought that the best literature was bound within five hundred book covers. Daniel Webster preferred to master a few books rather than read widely. To them he would appeal for genuine knowledge of the human heart, its aspirations and tragedies, hopes and disappointments. Indiscriminate reading serves no one well. Hobbes, the English philosopher, once said, “If I had read as many books as other people, I would know as little.”

Sir W. Robertson Nicoll, for many years editor of British Weekly, found biography the most attractive form of general reading because biography transmits personality. To read the lives of great and consecrated men and women is to kindle one’s own heart toward God. Imagine how the missions movement has been inspired by the biographies of William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, Charles Studd, or Albert Simpson.


How to Read

By reading we learn. By meditating on the themes of our reading we pluck the fruit from the tree of books and add nourishment to our minds and our ministries. Unless our reading includes serious thinking, it is wasted time.

Spurgeon counseled his students:

Master those books you have. Read them thoroughly. Bathe in them until they saturate you. Read and reread them, masticate and digest them. Let them go into your very self. A student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books he has merely skimmed. Little learning and much pride comes of hasty reading “¦

Use these rules for making your reading worthwhile:

  • What you intend to quickly forget, spend little time reading. The habit of reading and forgetting only builds the habit of forgetting other important matters
  • Use the same discrimination in choosing books as in choosing friends.
  • Read with pencil and notebook in hand. Unless your memory is unusually retentive, much gained from reading is lost in a day. Develop a system of note-taking. It will greatly help the memory
  • Pass no word until its meaning is known.
  • Vary your reading to keep your mind out of a rut. Variety is as refreshing to the mind as it is to the body



  1. William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536) was the first to translate the New Testament into English, in 1525, from a base in Germany. He was arrested in 1535 and a year later burned at the stake. Before his death, he completed the translation of the first five Old Testament books and Jonah.
  2. A.W. Tozer, “The Use and Abuse of Books,” The Alliance Weekly, February 22, 1956, 2.

Excerpted from Spiritual Leadership: Principles of Excellence for Every Believer (Moody 1967, 1994). Used by permission. All rights reserved.

John Oswald Sanders (1902-1992) was the director of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship and the author of more than forty books on Christian living.