Not required: Expository Preaching

Is expository preaching biblically mandated?  Does anyone ask that question?  It seems to me that the default setting of conservative, especially reformed Christians, is that expository preaching is the biblically prescribed form of preaching.  While I do not lay forth this post as a polemic ‘against’ expository preaching, I do lay it forth as a polemic against the creation of a ‘law’ regarding expository preaching.  In other words, I contend that in conservative evangelicalism, especially among the reformed, an unwritten law has fettered pastors to expository preaching.  To be clear, if expository preaching is indeed prescribed by scripture, then without a doubt pastors should be fettered to it, but if it is not commanded in scripture then we must admit that we have been in sin by creating a law not prescribed by God.

Before someone gets out the tar and feathers, I will say that I preach in an expository manner, I find it logical and not near as prone to becoming all muddleheaded as some other forms of preaching.  Nonetheless, we make a grand mistake if we do not see the short comings of expository preaching, moreover, we make an even grander mistake if we turn expository preaching into a binding law on pastors.

One of the troubling things about the New Testament is that we do not have many examples of preaching within the Church.  What I mean is this, most of the sermons we have in Acts are not to the believing community, but to the lost.  Of course in the Gospels we do have the Sermon on the Mount, and other preaching from Jesus to his church, but we do not have ‘post resurrection’ accounts of sermons delivered to local congregations.  We do know that sermons were delivered to congregations, but we don’t get to see the content of them.   One might argue that we have all of the epistles and could argue that the epistles are indeed sermonic.  I am not sure I agree, but I am willing to roll with that for a minute.  Are the Epistles ‘expository’ in nature?  Verse by verse exposition of OT scriptures?  Of course they are not.  Instead they are a smattering of scriptures brought together from the OT to make the grand point of redemption in Christ.  If we are honest, and it is hard to be honest in this case, the epistles are by and large “topical” in nature.

It is hard to find an expository sermon anywhere in the scripture.  You might consider Peter’s Acts 2 sermon as an expository sermon on Joel, but if you are honest you will see that it is not at all a verse by verse exposition of Joel, not even close.  You might look at Romans as an exposition of Genesis 15, which by the way, is essentially how the “New Perspective” folk look at Romans, but clearly Romans is not a ‘verse by verse’ exposition of anything.

Again this is not a polemic against expository preaching, but it is sinful to assert that for a Church to be biblical it must have ‘verse by verse’ exposition as the content of its Lord’s Day messages.  To do this is to create a law not given in the scripture.

Let’s be honest, expository preaching (which I do and love) has its short comings.  It’s a lot like twitter, powerful 140 character quotes discussed and explained, with little thought to how the whole course of things fits together.  Now granted, we expository preachers do our best to keep the scripture we are preaching in its context, but by the 4th week in Romans most people have forgot the exposition of the first week.  Of course we must ask the question of whether or not Romans was supposed to be broken down to the umpteenth degree?  Or was it, or any other of the epistles, Psalms, histories, prophecies, etc… really meant to be taken piecemeal?  Of course they were not and we need to keep this in mind as we go ‘verse by verse’.  If you do not take big enough chunks you end up spending 6 weeks per chapter and have actually done violence to the overall flow of things, no matter how faithful you try to be to context.

With all that said, and all these questions raised, I understand why I use expository preaching, and I understand why it seems to be the preferred method of many preachers.  First it binds us to the text and doesn’t give us enough rope to lead our congregations to believe whatever we want them to believe.  However, again be honest, for every numbskull that is going off on some topical rant, there is another numbskull doing the same thing under the banner of ‘expository’ preaching.   I guess if we are going to question if ‘expository’ preaching is a biblical mandate, we might as well ask if ‘topical’ preaching is biblically forbidden?  If it is not forbidden, then we are in no place to forbid it.

I contend that the best bet (though I do not prescribe a law) for preaching is a bit of a blend between topical and expository preaching.  What I mean is this, before we even have our text before us, our topic should be set.  That topic is the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ for the redemption of this world.  Then we exposit our scriptures within the framework of our predetermined topic.  This appears to me to be how the epistles function.  You see the problem with topical preaching is that it squeezes the scripture into the predetermined topic, however if you look at the scripture as a whole you see that there is one topic in which you are always safe to squeeze any scripture into.  That topic being the life death and resurrection of Christ.

Let me close this with a little word of comfort.  Don’t feel guilty if you are not spending 48 weeks in Philemon, Paul didn’t either.

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8 thoughts on “Not required: Expository Preaching

  1. Pingback: The Seven 6.4.13 | Dead Pastors Society

  2. I like a steady diet of expository preaching with an appetizer occasionally of a topical series. I would not like a steady diet of topical because eventually the temptation is too deep for the preacher to preach on his favorite subjects or avoid the necessary ones, and/or to gravitate to preaching a wide topic with only a survey of verses basing it (Joel Osteen comes to mind here, as the worst example of that kind of topical speaking).

    But to your main point: I agree with you. If expository preaching is not mandated, then it is a sin for us to mandate that our preacher preach only that way. BTW Ezra comes to mind as an example of expository preaching, he read the Law and then explained it. The people clamored for more, didn’t they!

    • Good work! Ezra makes for a good example, one I hadn’t thought of.

      I think the point I made above, and John made below, and that you have just made is the best of reasons to preach expository sermons. The simple fact that a preacher is bound to the text, and the text (ideally) drives the topic, not the preacher’s latest whim. These are noble reasons for expository preaching, reasons I agree with.

      One of my grandest fears for Christianity is the creation of Laws not prescribed in scripture. (I think we are at a point where expository preaching has become one of those unspoken laws in many circles, thus this post.)

      I think we are all legalists at heart and that legalism infects all sorts of things, and creates mandates that do not exist. If we are not on constant guard against ourselves we will create a whole plethora of rules without even knowing we are doing it! If it gets too bad we will all be wearing denim skirts, eating organic foods, and turning our nose up at every Lutheran who washes his or her pizza down with a glass of Yuengling.

  3. Eric, I am not looking to have my cake and eat it too. Moreover, I actually think MacArthur is a good example of how expository preaching can go wrong. I like MacArthur on occasion but there are a lot of areas where I wouldn’t see eye to eye with him. Don’t simply make an appeal to his success either (that is mere pragmatism, and by that logic we would have to view Osteen *shudders* as successful as well.)

    So back to my point, to clarify, is that it is not LAW to preach expository sermons, though it has been treated that way by many. That is the point. I do preach expository sermons, and love expository preaching, but the moment someone says ‘that is the way the bible is supposed to be preached’ they have created a law which doesn’t have the bible as it’s backing. I bring up the lack of expository preaching in scripture, not to make a case against doing it, but because the majority of readers and writers of this blog are proponents of expository preaching (myself included) who need to see that we cannot simply make a LAW out of it. Does that make sense?

    There is no ‘chaffing at the bit’, just a call to look objectively at expository preaching. The only person who is in the crosshairs of this post is the person who believes that expository preaching is a requirement (!) for a biblical church/pastor/sermon.

    John, I am not in the Lectionary right now (it is ‘ordinary time’ on the church calendar so it makes sense to deviate from it. I do use the lectionary for Psalm and OT readings all the time, as well as for preaching during Advent, Pentecost, and Lenten seasons. I am not however dogmatic about it, and I will deviate from it if I think it necessary.) I am actually preaching through the Sermon on the Mount this summer (verse by verse), though I did just preach Matt 5:21-48 as one single (expository) sermon.

    • Thanks for the clarification. We can make a law out of any thing.

      Appealing to Dr. Macarthur was not meant as pragmatic, but as an example of someone who has faithfully preached expositionally for longer than I have been a Christian. I’m a recovering Charismatic-there’s a lot I wouldn’t agree with Macarthur about, but I still give him great respect for preaching through the entire NT.

      Having spent my adult life as a Christian listening to very bad topical sermons, I find it very refreshing to hear good preaching verse to verse. Of course, that can be done badly, as well as the topical method. In the long run, however, I believe it keeps men honest, and forces them to wrestle with the text, and to deal with topics they might not otherwise cover. The same could be said, I think, for lectionary preaching, although I am not really familiar with that format.

      We really aren’t given too many sermons in the NT to make a litmus test for expository preaching, but in today’s “fly- by-the-seat-of-your-feel-led-britches” Evangelicalism, it would seem the safer approach.

      Thanks for the dialogue.

      • No problem! I agree with you on the whole steady diet of typically lame topical sermons! We both agree that we don’t need one more sermon about how to have a better sex life, or financial stability.

        I get really nervous when I hear powerful personalities (Sproul, MacArthur, Horton, and others) that I and others really respect start placing standards on people beyond what the scripture places.

        Just an aside, my primary beef with MacArthur would be his stance on Israel, and his general theology regarding the end times. Those are significant issues, but I like a lot of his other stuff, and he truly is fantastic at delivering a message (even if I don’t agree with it.)

        Peace for now!

  4. I don’t get it. If you don’t think expository preaching is the preferred method, why do you do it? If you love expository preaching as you say you do, why does this come off as someone “chafing at the bit”, so to speak? It would seem you want your cake, and to eat it, too. Explain Dr. Macarthur’s success at expository preaching for so many years, if it so easy to veer into an expository rant. How is expository preaching any less contextual than topical preaching? Maybe I’m missing something here?

  5. I would of thought you’d used a lectionary by now….

    For the most part I’d have to agree with you. The paulian letters were read all at once to the churches…I would submit to you that this may be the perfect example of how to preach…for faith comes by hearing and hearing from the word of God. If you spend too long in one book of the Bible it becomes a joke. “and now we begin our 52nd Sunday on the book of Matthew, turn to chapter ten…”

    By contrast though, expository preaching forces you to tackle subjects and verses you wouldn’t cover by doing topical sermons.

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