John Maxwell’s 21 Irrefutable Laws – Refuted

Several years ago I was helping a friend of mine clean out his dorm room at the end of the school year. We were finishing up another year at Kentucky Christian University, and I was just concluding my first year as a resident assistant. Being an RA that year was my introduction to the world of formal/vocational ministry, and as fleeting a role as it was, it turned out to be an important experience for me. I was faced with many challenges during that time, not the least of which was learning to follow Christ even when my employers and supervisors were telling me to do the opposite. Throughout that year, and on into the next, I learned one of the most difficult but important lessons that I have ever learned… that Christ’s way of leading people is radically different from anything else that this world terms as leadership, that it is extremely challenging to follow Christ’s example in this area, and that at some point those attempting to follow his example will meet with opposition. Sadly, the opposition will usually come from other Christian leaders who have a warped understanding of what it means to lead.

So as my friend Jeff and I were cleaning out his dorm room that spring, I noticed a pile of books he was getting rid of and started to thumb through them. Among them was a book that caught my attention called The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, with the interesting subtitle, Follow Them and People Will Follow You. I asked Jeff about it and he replied that he had never read it, but it was a book that he had been assigned for a preaching class he had taken that semester. I thought it seemed like an extremely interesting, if not extremely boastful title, and since the idea of leadership was fresh in my mind, I thought I would take a look. I mean, this book had been assigned reading for all the preaching majors, so there had to be something about it that was helpful to those in leadership. Or so I thought.

Well, that was several years ago now, but ever since then I have occasionally been reminded of the fact that it was, and still is, one of the worst books I have ever read. It not only epitomizes everything that is wrong with church leadership in this country, but it also sticks out as a perfect example of the kind of pride, arrogance, and self-righteousness that plagues so many Christian leaders today. Yes, just in case there is any doubt as to what I’m saying, this book is straight from the darkest pit of Hell.

To say that I’m going against the grain on this sentiment would be a gross understatement. The author, John C. Maxwell is considered by the masses (including those in church leadership around the country) to be the foremost authority on the topic of leadership alive today. The 21 Irrefutable Laws is considered to be Maxwell’s cornerstone book, and has sold over 1 million copies by itself. Maxwell is a former preacher turned leadership guru, and has been quite successful as the founder of several leadership organizations and consulting firms that cater to millions of people all over the world. His latest release, Leadership Gold, joins his other works that number over two dozen and have collectively sold more than 13 million copies. Despite whatever anyone might say to criticize the guy, his leadership philosophy will no doubt continue to amass the worship of millions for years to come.

With that said, I’m going to take a stab at this book. The 21 Irrefutable Laws, which provide the basis for Maxwell’s entire leadership philosophy, is probably, in my opinion, one of the most deceptive titles out there. In all seriousness, it could more accurately be described as, “The 21 utterly refutable illusions of witchcraft.” That probably sounds really harsh, but it is the unfortunate truth. If this was a purely secular book, and Maxwell was not a Christian leader, I would have no problem with the book at all. However, the main consumers of Maxwell’s ideology are Christian leaders and those in Church ministry; a fact that continues to perplex me beyond all reason, and compels me to say something, even if no one is listening.

First and foremost (to begin with the most obvious flaw), this book contains absolutely no mention of Jesus Christ at all. Not at all. I would submit, that any book claiming to deal with irrefutable leadership principles, should probably somewhere make mention of the greatest leader of all time – God. Considering the author is a Christian, I don’t think that’s unreasonable. I don’t buy in to this idea that not mentioning Christ is a way to reach the unbelieving world… that’s just stupid. Getting a book about leadership, that makes no mention of Jesus Christ, from a Christian leader, is the same as getting a hamburger with no meat.

Second, I would point out that the very definition of witchcraft—not bubble gum witchcraft that conjures images of jack-o-lanterns, broomsticks, and all that Harry Potter kind of stuff—but real witchcraft, in its most basic form, is simply nothing more than the art of learning how to influence, control, and manipulate people… or in Maxwell’s more digestive language, “getting people to follow you.”

Getting people to follow you has absolutely nothing at all to do with what it means to be a Christian, which by definition means being a follower of Christ alone. Moreover, the New Testament does not contain a single teaching about how to influence people and get them to follow you. It’s simply not a concern of the New Testament writers at all. The goal, the mission, the mandate, for anyone claiming to be a follower and disciple of Jesus Christ, especially those in ministry and leadership positions within the Church, should always be to point the way to Christ and help people learn what it means to follow Him. Any book, philosophy, teacher, or lecturer which offers a way for you to learn how to get other people to follow you, is by its very nature, completely pagan.

To illustrate my point, I’ll proceed with a brief breakdown of the chapters in the book, the essence of what each one is teaching, and what the Bible has to say in contrast.

1: Law of the Lid – Leadership ability determines a person’s level of effectiveness

According to Romans 12:8, leadership is a gift from God, nothing more, and nothing less. With that said, a person’s level of effectiveness, in any endeavor, is directly the result of whether or not they are acting in accordance with God’s will. For the Christian, there is really no such thing as effectiveness; there is obedience, and there is disobedience.

“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.” –Romans 12:3-8

2: Law of Influence – The true measure of leadership is influence

The measure of pagan leadership might be influence, but Christian leadership is different. In this chapter Maxwell quotes one of his favorite personal proverbs saying, “He that thinketh he leadeth, and hath no one following him, is only taking a walk.” My immediate response would be that Maxwell isn’t familiar with the Old Testament prophets, and especially the story of Jeremiah, who ministered and prophesied faithfully and obediently for somewhere around 40 years, with no one listening or responding to him in any significant way. The measure of a Christian leader is determined by how willing you are to obey God and serve others, no matter what it means, or what it might cost you.

3: Law of Process – Leadership develops daily, not in a day

Maxwell expounds upon this with the underlying thought that leadership is attained through goal-setting, and must be worked toward. This doesn’t line up with scripture either. God is the one who chooses and develops leaders, not through their own efforts at completing goals they’ve set for themselves, but through God’s grace and discipline. God may take years to develop someone into a leader, but it is his work, not ours, and he usually accomplishes this through suffering.

“During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him…” –Hebrews 5:7-9

4: Law of Navigation – Anyone can steer the ship, but it takes a leader to chart the course

I submit that Christ is both the captain and the navigator, and it is our privilege to be members of his crew.

5: Law of Addition – Leaders add value by serving others

This is a recent revision that Maxwell has made, attempting to accommodate something resembling servanthood. However, again there is no mention of Christ. From Christ’s point of view, the purpose of serving others is to show them who Christ is.

“You call me `Teacher’ and `Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” –John 13:13-15

6: Law of Solid Ground – Trust is the foundation of leadership

“For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” -1st Corinthians 3:11

7: Law of Respect – People naturally follow leaders stronger than themselves

In this chapter Maxwell generates the idea that leadership can be measured according to different levels. In other words, he says that there are level one leaders, and level two leaders, and so on, and that your position on this number scale determines who will follow you and who will not. The underlying insinuation that goes along with this kind of thinking is that our goal in Christian ministry is to engage in the pagan ritual of jockeying for a better position on the proverbial ladder so we can get above everyone else and have more people under us. This whole way of thinking is dangerous for any Christian. The result of following this kind of teaching is that a person develops a constant concern with how “strong” they are, and they inevitably begin to compare themselves with others. The Apostle Paul, in defense of his own ministry says, “We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.” –2nd Corinthians 10:12. He later concludes, “For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.” -2nd Corinthians 10:18

8: Law of Intuition – Leaders evaluate everything with a leadership bias

This is another good place to restate the point that Maxwell’s idea of leadership is not Christ’s idea of leadership. Christ’s definition of leadership is serving others with the knowledge that Christ is the leader. In that sense, anyone who leads from a Christian perspective must evaluate everything according to what God has said in the Bible and through prayer.

9: Law of Magnetism – Who you are, is who you attract

Again, it is a pagan idea that attracting people to us has anything to do with what it means to be a Christian, let alone a leader in the Church. Our mission is to attract people to Christ, which God does through us.

“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God.” –2Corinthians 2:14-17

10: Law of Connection – Leaders touch a heart before they ask for a hand

The problem with an idea like this is that you can’t really reach a person’s heart if your purpose in doing so is to get them to follow you. That’s called manipulation. It’s like saying to yourself, “Hey, I’m going to serve and love this person, so they will do what I say.” It may be true, that if you serve and love someone, they will be more inclined to listen to you, but the whole point is getting people to listen to God.

11: Law of the Inner Circle – A leader’s potential is determined by those closest to him

Well, this almost sounds like it could be true, and that’s what makes it so deceptive. Think about Christ again. Was Christ’s potential determined by his 12 disciples? Of course not.

12: Law of Empowerment – only secure leaders give power to others

Wow. There’s some strong wording here: power. Maxwell is telling me that I actually have some kind of power, and that if I’m secure in my power, I can actually allow others to share my power.

“For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” –2nd Corinthians 4:5-7

13: Law of the Picture – people do what people see

This is sometimes true, but not always. If I’m attempting to memorize a set of principles on how to get people to follow me, and those people start following me, then it is possible that they might, in turn, begin to memorize the same rules so people will follow them. I could be in trouble if that happened, because then they might go up on the leadership scale and stop following me.

14: Law of Buy-in – people buy into the leader, then the vision

God have mercy on me if I ever start to think that people need to “buy-in” to me.

“May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” –Galatians 6:14

15: Law of Victory – leaders find a way for the team to win

I’m not sure that this can be construed in any way to apply to Christianity, but if it were, and the team was say, the Church, then victory has already been achieved for us through Christ’s death and resurrection. If I’m a Christian leader, and I’m seeking a way for the people I’m serving to “win,” my only course of action is obedience to God. I have to do what God tells me to do, and I have to encourage others to do what God tells them to do. But from a Biblical perspective, obedience to God often looks a lot more like losing than winning, at least in a fleshly sense. In this chapter Maxwell makes the statement that it is the job of a leader to make things better for the people. But Christ is our leader, and he says to us, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” –Mark 8:34-36

16: Law of the Big Mo – momentum is a leader’s best friend

Maxwell’s main point here in this chapter is that momentum exaggerates things in positive ways. My question is this: if I’m a Christian leader, why would I want to exaggerate whatever it is that I’m doing? Why would I want to mislead people in any way? I’m not even sure what momentum means in terms of Christian ministry and leadership, and I’m definitely not sure about how momentum can be my “best friend.” It sounds to me like this is another way of saying, “If we’re growing, it makes me look better.”

17: Law of Priorities – leaders understand that activity is not necessarily accomplishment

In this chapter Maxwell states his own personal code for deciding what a priority to him is. He sums it up this way: Requirements, Returns, and Rewards… what he is required to do, what gives him the greatest return, and what is most rewarding. For the Christian, priorities are determined by God, and what it means for us to be obedient to him. I cannot imagine being in ministry, and thinking that my main priorities should be related to what I can get out of my position as a leader.

18: Law of Sacrifice – leaders must give up to go up

Sacrifice is an important part of being a Christian. But again there is no mention of Christ here. But also troubling in this statement is the notion that sacrifice is something I should do when it is beneficial to me.

19: Law of Timing – When to lead is as important as what to do and where to go

20: Law of Explosive Growth – to add growth, lead followers, to multiply, lead leaders

21: Law of Legacy – a leader’s lasting value is measured by succession

These last three laws finish up Maxwell’s formula for trying to be a leader. In the corporate business world, or in government, or in sports, these all might actually work… In fact, his whole philosophy is probably great for those sorts of things. But when it comes to the Christian faith, it is completely incompatible. And it burns me up to think that so many Christian ministers and Church leaders are buying into this crap. In the 21st Law, Maxwell states that, “there is no success without a successor.” There is no way you can apply that to Christianity. Christ doesn’t have a successor. And this just reinforces the idea that if you make any attempt to apply these “irrefutable laws” to the Christian faith, ministry, and Church leadership in general, what you end up with is a formula for replacing Christ’s role as head of the Church. While some of these principles might work, from a physical point of view, what are you really accomplishing as a follower of Christ, if all you’re doing is figuring out how to get people to follow you?

“Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.’” –Mark 10:42-44

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