Editors commentary: Too much of a good thing?

What did your pastor preach last sunday?

Hopefully he preached faithfully from the Bible. And probably he gave an ‘expository sermon.’ By that term we mean that he took a passage of Scripture, explained its meaning and brought practical application for living.

Often these expositions are consecutive. Over the weeks the preacher takes the congregation through a whole Bible book. So if we’re asked what’s going on at church we might reply, ‘We are going through James,’ or ‘We are looking at Esther.’

This expository method of preaching, taught on most conservative evangelical Bible courses, can be of enormous benefit. One of the great formative experiences of my own Christian life as a young man was to hear Stuart Olyott, over a period of about six months, preach through Romans so that we could remember the shape and argument of the whole book. It also has many advantages. It delivers the congregation from being continually exposed to the minister’s hobby horses. It means that we don’t avoid the difficult bits. We have to face up to the teachings which are at odds with today’s society; we have to include understanding God’s wrath as well as his love. Expository preaching also naturally leads into an overview of the whole Bible, which is good for everyone.

Time for a rethink
However, I have wondered whether we have put ourselves in something of a straightjacket. While noting its many advantages, is this expository method the only way to teach Scripture authentically?

A number of factors have prompted a rethink.

First, though there is something like it in Nehemiah 8, we don’t generally find this kind of sermon in the Scriptures themselves. The sermons we find in Acts, for example, certainly refer to Bible texts and explain their meaning, but they are not restricted to one passage. Usually they draw on a number of references as they pursue a message. The particular problems of a local church set the agenda for Paul’s Letters, which he then addresses, deploying Scripture appropriately, not the other way around. Sometimes the writers of the Letters could even be accused of the dreaded ‘error’ of ‘proof texting’ – though, of course, never out of context.

Second, in our pursuit of consecutive exposition, are congregations becoming doctri-nally ignorant? They know many Bible passages and what they teach, but these have never been put together in any ordered systematic way. This means they don’t have a theological framework in their minds by which to think their way through life. This can lead to spiritual disaster. For good reasons churches used to have catechisms. Wouldn’t it be helpful from time to time for a church to be taken through its Confession of Faith showing its biblical basis? If the different books of Scripture are like different instruments in an orchestra, sometimes the whole orchestra needs to be heard on certain doctrinal or practical themes.

Third, congregations are refreshed by hearing a different approach. Variety can help.

Fourth, sometimes the consecutive exposition method can encourage a kind of mechanical approach in a pastor which is not good for any one. He knows what he is doing next week and he just gets on with it. There might be a crying need for teaching on reconciliation or handling terminal illness in the church, but he is in the 23rd chapter of 2 Chronicles and has already prepared his message.

Don’t misunderstand. I love expository sermons. But isn’t there more than one way to skin a cat?

I shall probably be accused of heresy.

John Benton

This article was first published in the January 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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One thought on “Editors commentary: Too much of a good thing?

  1. As teachers we must teach the full counsel of God and teach God’s emphasis, not our own. Teaching consecutively through the Bible is helpful for getting the context and balance right,but we are often missing out on the full counsel of God. One of the important passages in the Bible on the subject of compassion is Isaiah 58. There are few “conservative” churches in UK who have taught that passage recently because Isaiah is a long book to deal work consecutively and most pastors will just do a small section or concentrate on the “Servant Songs”. It takes hard work to come up with a balanced teaching programme and I’m persuaded that consecutive preaching should remain the foundation, but we must be ready to teach doctrine, and even address the issues of the day when there is a national disaster or similar.

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