“Are writers leaders?” My instinct says, “Yes.” Writers can lead people for good or ill, and Christian writers can lead people either to or away from God. But instinct isn’t enough to validate an opinion. Opinions require some foundation for them to be not only believable but also arguable, defensible. I can say writers are leaders, but if I can’t point to reasons why that is, I’d be better off lapsing into silence.
Fortunately, I’ve done some thinking on the question and devised two ways to approach it, particularly as the question relates to Christian leadership. Other avenues exist, of course, but I’ve chosen two to keep things simple and to prevent rambling for an age. The first perspective comes from examining a biblical figure; the second, from literature itself.
Paul is probably best known for sharing the gospel with the Gentiles. But his missionary efforts required more than traveling from seaport to seaport, and from city to city, to speak the good news. He used his life and writing, too, to lead people to Jesus and to grow them in their faith.
Paul downplayed his spoken words. In 2 Corinthians 10 he said, “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account’” (2 Corinthians 10:10 ESV). And yet, he recognized the need to use spoken words to share the gospel. He said in Romans and Colossians:
Paul’s statements both encourage and challenge. I would prefer to let my written words speak for me. But written words, while good, while capable of leading people, should not exist in isolation. They should be integrated with spoken words and a life well-lived so that in all things Christ receives the glory and praise, and people draw near to Him.
Paul also shared the gospel with his actions, what we usually term “demonstrating the gospel” at The Austin Stone. Paul understood words without complementary actions would hinder his ability to speak and people’s willingness to listen. He told the Thessalonians:
For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. (2 Thessalonians 3:7-9 ESV)
Later, Paul exhorted Timothy to lead with his speech and behavior (1 Timothy 4:12 ESV). Other apostles, like John, agreed with Paul. John’s first letter reminds me that my words and life have to sync (1 John 3:18 ESV). Both are required when following Jesus and seeking to make Him known to others.
Paul seemed to recognize his natural talents rested in writing—as did his recipients. The Corinthians apparently found his letters “frightening” (2 Corinthians 10:9 ESV). Even the critics admitted Paul’s written words were “weighty and strong” (2 Corinthians 10:10 ESV). Paul didn’t seem to mind for his next words were not apologetic but explanatory:
Let such a person understand that what we say by letter when absent, we do when present. (2 Corinthians 10:11 ESV)
Paul’s other letters often followed a similar format. He encouraged the Philippians to lead lives “worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27 ESV) whether he visited again or remained absent. The Ephesians received a similar exhortation (Ephesians 4:1 ESV). For Paul, his written words were an extension of his life and speech. They worked in concert, as they should in me. My life and words, spoken or written, should always, always point to Christ.
For literature, I turn to literature itself. It has its own weight, center, gravitas. But by literature I don’t mean solely creative works like fiction, memoir, short story, essay, or poetry. I refer to the vast archive of letters, which includes personal letters, plays, manifestos and creeds, satire, written speeches, scripts, etc.
Entire modes of thought owe their origin to writing. Galileo, for instance. He discovered the earth wasn’t the center of the universe, but it wouldn’t have been such a transformative fact if he’d only told fellow scientists. He published his findings, and they changed science and man’s understanding of his place in the universe forever.
Or consider social movements. Jonathan Swift wrote scathing (and sometimes alarming) essays and books about the culture of his time, not to bemoan its character, but to call for change. He wanted people to wake up to the needs of people around them, and he used the pulpit and the book to sound the alarm.
Other writers produce profound effects on much smaller scales. The scale, however, doesn’t matter. What matters is that the writing led a person from one point to another or gave words to what a person felt but couldn’t coalesce into a fully-formed thought. I experienced both when I read Luci Shaw’s Breath for the Bones, a book I frequently recommend to people interested in the intersection of art and faith. Her book made me feel seen as a writer and artist. It also acted as a step on the journey to where I am today, a resident at The Austin Stone Institute.
Writing can do all those things because writing is powerful. Writing influences people. But not all writing influences people for the good, and therein lies the danger of the written word. Much of today’s writing is angry, praises practices and lifestyles God opposes, or pushes an agenda antithetical to God’s kingdom. And yet, some of today’s writing, even some of the angry writing, illuminates things that are good, beautiful, and true.
That’s why I argue writers are leaders. Writers can effect change, starting in the heart of man. But the question becomes where they lead those hearts. Do they lead them to the One who is wholly good, beautiful, and true, or do they lead them to faulty ideas and beliefs?
We who describe ourselves as writers can do the former. However, it will require that we recognize our role as leaders, albeit leaders of the quieter sort. Our “quiet” creations, though, could change the world, introducing people to Jesus and shaping a culture that reflects Him.