Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Expository Preaching

There's a new church gathering not five minutes from my apartment. I went to check out their website today, and it starts out:
Welcome to the website of Creekside Bible Church. As a new church plant in the Matthews area we are a community of believers in Christ Jesus who are passionate for the glory of God. We are committed to Expository preaching and exist to worship God, edify and equip the saints, and evangelize the lost.
Isn't that interesting? The first thing they want you to know about their gathering is, they are passionate about the Father and the Son. The second is, they believe in expository preaching. Obviously this is an important idea to them; and it seems they're not alone: more and more I hear Christians either extolling the virtues of expository preaching, or even laying that out as a main mark of a "good" church. In fact, I have a very dear, very close friend who really gets into the "expository preaching" thing. 
But with all respect to my close friend, I'm not a fellow enthusiast for expository preaching. And please don't think I'm writing this to beat on my buddy, I'm just using him as a foil to make my point. In fact, he might well agree with me on a lot of this...
In theory, expository preaching is a good thing, because it's all about treating the Scripture as a whole in context. The idea is, it allows Scripture to speak, rather than looking through Scripture for proof texts to prop up whatever point the preacher wants to make. There is a lot to be said for that.
But on the whole, I think expository preaching is over-rated. That's not to say I think it's bad, not by any stretch. In fact, I think it's a very good thing to work one's way through the Bible, verse by verse, chapter by chapter. My disagreement comes in the focus, in the hype.

My problems with the hype on expository teaching (not necessarily expository preaching itself) can be summed up as follows:
First, there is no Biblical precedent for a focus on expository teaching. As James Martin has pointed out: "The fact that there is not one example of expository preaching in the New Testament and only one in the Old Testament would mean that, according to these people, Christ, the apostles and the prophets didn't know how to teach." (James Martin, "Biblical Teaching")  The vast majority of preaching and teaching we see in Scripture is topical: all the Epistles, all of Christ's sermons, all the apostolic teaching we have on record, it's all topical. Now please understand I'm not saying that expository preaching is wrong, I am saying it is by no means common in Scripture. In fact, it is almost unknown in Scripture.

Second, the whole idea of  a focus on expository preaching infers that the main reason for a gathering is teaching. I know I'm beating a dead horse here, but let me give the carcass a few more lashes: teaching-focused gathering leads to an intellectual Christianity. The intellect has a place in Christianity (there's a reason I have invested large sums of money in books and commentaries), but it is by no means the sum of the Christian life. Equating doctrinal teaching with Christianity  is like comparing a marriage to a one-night stand: no doubt marriage involves physical intimacy, but that is only a tiny part of the whole. Christianity that is reduced to an intellectual assent of certain doctrines, dogmas, or teachings is nothing more than resurrected Pharisaism. We ought to gather to worship and meet with God, not to get a mini-seminar. Teaching is part of what ought to be going on in the church, but it's only part. To characterize a church based on this one thing is silly and even dangerous.

Third, the focus on expository preaching implies a lack of individual study and discipline in the Scriptures. It implies a passive role on the part of the congregation in their own doctrinal feeding and growth. In the end, it's the responsibility of each Christian to dive into Scripture. We have an opportunity that was not even thought of for the vast majority of the history of the Church: individuals own copies of the Scripture. With this privilege comes the very real responsibility to make use of that. I own several Bibles, I need to ensure I do my best to wear them out.  But as I've listened to various advocates of expository preaching wax eloquent on its benefits, I've come to realize that there is an underlying assumption: if we don't give it to them here, they won't get it. If that is indeed the case, then it would be a much better use of time to explain to the congregation exactly what their responsibility in Scripture is.

Finally, the Scriptures themselves advocate searching the Scriptures. Again, this is primarily an individual thing; but if the constant emphasis and hype is about the value of expository preaching, do you really think the individuals will be convinced of the need to search the Scriptures?  

Now, let's remind ourselves that I'm not kicking against expository preaching: I'm kicking against the hype. I personally deeply value the times I sat in a Bible Reading, going through a book word-by-word with the assembly. There is significant value to that. Further, I am a huge advocate of through-the-Bible reading. I think one of  the most valuable things I have done is read my Bible from Genesis to Revelation, then start over. It gave me a much-needed wide-angle view of  Scripture I could not have gotten from reading any other way. I am currently off-schedule on my reading, and I frequently take a day or two to just read an Epistle or something; but I strongly encourage people to read their Bible cover-to-cover several times. It makes a difference.

In the end, no teaching---no matter how sound---is going to substitute for individual walk with the Lord. Piety is individual, we approach God as individuals, and are treated by Him as such. No church, no matter what format they use, or the style of preaching there, can replace an individual walk with the Lord.  
So let's consider some anti-hype. 
Is preaching part of what the Church should do? As I read Scripture, I see a good deal of preaching, but it's almost entirely to outsiders. I see teaching in the Church, preaching to the lost. Now, I see nothing in Scripture to say we ought not to preach in the gathering, but that's not the Biblical focus.  However, for the sake of argument, let's assume that preaching is valid in the gathering.  Does Scripture give us an idea what that should look like? The only example I see is 1 Corinthians 14. You know I love this passage, I refer to it constantly. 1 Corinthians 14 indicates a couple points about assembly teaching: first, there were many teachers, and apparently they were all frequently speaking. Second, they each came with something, and the decision of who was to speak appears to have been somewhat spontaneous. Third, they actually changed places part-way through the meetings.

This is not a format conducive to  expository preaching.

Is expository preaching or teaching bad? Of course not! but there are dangers in it that are frequently ignored. One danger is the "let's take it slow so we don't miss anything" problem. If you've ever been in a home Bible study, you might have seen this one. I once sat in a Bible Reading where the older guys argued for an entire hour how much time passed between Paul's arrival in Asia and his meeting Lydia. That was basically a waste of an hour. I've heard expository preachers try to give background to a book, wasting a lot of time on questions that are really only anciliary. Does it matter where Paul was when he wrote Ephesians, or how long after his visit there it was written? Maybe. Is it worth spending an hour on that, when the actual words of God are right there on the page, waiting to be read? Probably not.

There's a reason people write books on this stuff. A book is a much more appropriate format for arguing minutiae that Scripture doesn't really tell us. Time in the gathering is actually fairly rare: we need to treat it like it's valuable, and give people a list of "for further information" resources.

An opposite danger is the "let's just get through this" danger. That one's probably more rare, but it's just as bad. There is a lot to digest in any given passage. Spending too much time trying to get it all is a mistake, but spending too little time just trying to get through is no better. Teach what needs to be taught. If you see nothing of note in a geneology, acknowledge it and go on. But if you find tremendous meaning in a few sentences, don't be afraid to spend some time there digging it up.

But in the end, the real point is not so much that expository preaching is good or bad. The real point is, preaching or teaching is really a minor part of the gathering, or it ought to be. We are supposedly gathering in Christ's name, ostensibly to meet Him. Worship is really not about hearing a preacher's thoughts on a passage, it's about us presenting ourselves to God. It's about us feeding on Christ's flesh and blood, it's about our remembering Him. Preach how you want,  but don't expect that to make a huge impact on my decision to visit your church or whatever. I'm much more interested in watching how the people interact, in listening for signs that the people there are conscious of the Lord's presence.

I'll probably visit Creekside Bible Church out of curiosity: they're only a mile from my place. But the knowledge that they're into expository preaching is not a major draw. I'm more concerned with watching their expository living...
Now there's a concept: expository living. I'm going to spend some time thinking about that.


QuillMarillion said...

Hey, I appreciate your thoughts on this topic. I've recently stumbled upon the term "expository preaching" and I posted a paragraph on my own blog a while back. Your statement that neither Christ nor the apostles used "expository preaching" per se is something I need to think about. One thing I gathered from your post is that I need to be more careful about bandying terms I don't know much about. It seems from what you said that most proponents of "expository preaching" focus on preaching above worship and other aspects of Christianity... a sentiment I don't share. Also, it seems that many "exposition" proponents cling to the idea that learning God's Word is tied to the one-person-up-front-preaching model... once again, that doesn't describe me. As far as "searching the Scriptures" goes, I feel that any good teacher leaves his students hungering for more.

What I do find appealing about "expository preaching," in my limited understanding of the term, is this: I quickly tire of preachers who try to prop up their own ideas with Scripture... as if they just hit "search" in their Bible software for some relevant term and then randomly spiced their presentation with out-of-context references. This truly rankles me at times. So, whenever I hear someone teaching the Word of God in a straightforward, context-aware manner, I sit up and listen. And let's face it, most Christians don't venture very far from their daily devotion books (if they get that far)... they at least need to be wakened to the fact that the entire Bible was written for our instruction. It seems to me that some teaching about what the Bible as a whole has to say (whether that's really "expository preaching" or not) should at least whet believers' appetites to read more.

clumsy ox said...

josh, I appreciate your comments. Frankly, it's been too long since we talked face-to-face.

Let me reiterate that my problem is with the hype not the actual style of preaching.

I suspect that good topical preaching and good expository preaching might be hard to differentiate. Either one should really develop the whole counsel of God, and should follow the Scripture where it leads.

Anonymous said...

I almost certainly would avoid that church, not because it emphasizes expository preaching, but because it is closely linked with John Macarthur.

clumsy ox said...

Bill, you're completely right. I missed that on their site, and actually went for another look when I saw your comment.

Wow. I'm getting old. I was so into looking at their stuff on "expository preaching," I missed the Johnny Mac connection.

Like you, I'll be avoiding that one.