On June 16, 2017 Tim Challies posted an entry on his blog on the topic of consecutive exposition. If you have not read it, I urge you to do so before going any further in this post. You can find it here. Tim Challies is a solid brother and minister. I trust his stuff. On this particular article though, I have a few comments to make.
We need to be clear on the point he is making. The first necessary clarification is the term “exposition.” The title of the blog entry is “Consecutive Exposition Is Not the Only Way.” And I believe he is right on. The article, as far as I can tell, is a reaction against those who define exposition too narrowly. Or wrongly. Exposition is the explanation of a text. It is about conveying the meaning of a portion of Scripture. We tend to think of exposition as the opposite of topical preaching but, technically, it isn’t. If you must address a topic and you visit various passages to address it, it is a topical sermon. But if you handled each of those texts responsibly, conveying their meaning in context, then it was a topical sermon done expositionally. But Challies is pushing against another misuse of the term.
Many define expositional preaching as the practice of teaching through a book of the Bible, in order, one thought unit at a time. But we should never call this expositional preaching. We should use a more specific term. If I do a funeral and I take 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, explain its context and faithfully teach only that passage for the entire message — was that not an expositional sermon? Yet I did not preach 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12 to them at any prior point. I cannot tell them to come back next week to hear about chapter 5. It was expositional not because of its place in a consecutive line of sermons, but because I took the pericope and expounded it. This is why Challies calls what he is questioning consecutive exposition. This is the practice of preaching lectio continua.
The second clarification needed is that Challies is not saying “consecutive exposition is not a good way.” He is saying that it is not the only way. And this is true. I used an example of preaching at a funeral, but a pastor may preach on an isolated text at any time – Good Friday, Easter, on the Sunday after a major tragedy in the church or just after a significant event or controversy on everyone’s minds. A pastor doesn’t have to preach through all of Leviticus in order to address homosexuality. He doesn’t have to create an entire series through Exodus to correct idolatry in the church. If marriages are in trouble in the congregation he can go straight to Ephesians 5.
So I completely agree with the title of Tim Challies’ article. I also appreciate how he closed it. He doesn’t want us to go to yet another extreme of never preaching lectio continua. He simply wants us to consider that we should be open to preaching isolated texts from time to time. Agreed. Yet I would like to caution readers on a couple of points. While I am not in disagreement with Challies on the basic point he is making, I do want to push back a little on two items.
First, his first line of reasoning is that some respected names have taken a different approach. Okay. This isn’t the bone I want to pick. It’s the defense he provides from one of those names. Andrew Bonar would seek to get his text directly from the Lord each week. So do I. When I preach Jude 1-4 my next text is Jude 5-7. Did the Lord not give that to me? Am I listening to the Lord less because I am following His text in order? By way of reminder: I agree that I am not disobeying the Lord if I preach an isolated text. But let’s not pretend that preaching one-offs every week is somehow in keeping with a more “direct” connection with the Lord. It’s not more spiritual or more responsible.Preaching one-offs is not more spiritual or more responsible. Click To Tweet
My second issue comes from the fact that Challies does not provide the benefits of consecutive exposition or the dangers of isolated texts (the benefits of the former are the dangers of the latter). I understand why he didn’t – he is writing as a sort of retort to those who deride any method of sermon planning other than consecutive exposition. But the dangers are too salient to ignore. Below are a few of the important advantages to preaching lectio continua. For these reasons, I believe preachers should adopt consecutive exposition as their usual mode of operation. Only make exceptions for exceptional cases.
Consecutive exposition more clearly provides the congregation with the necessary context for understanding any individual thought unit.
Literary and Theological Effect
Consecutive exposition, over the course of several weeks, functions in the way the biblical book does. For instance, Paul lays down important doctrinal foundations in Ephesians 1-3 before he delves into the imperatival nature of chapters 4-6. My congregation needs that build-up just as the Ephesians did.
Obvious Divine Intervention
Certain congregants might think I am going directly after them in a message when an isolated text hits them squarely where they are. Since I chose the text, they will think I am setting my sights on them no matter how much I try to explain that “The Lord gave it to me.” Addressing specific issues in the congregation is sometimes necessary. But it is more obvious that it is the Lord setting His sights on them when they are getting hit hard from merely the next text in the line-up. I didn’t choose it; God did.
Consecutive exposition saves a ton of time and energy each week. Rather than doing all the homework it takes to enter into a different book each week, I do that work up front and stay in that book for weeks or months or even years.
Challies is right: consecutive exposition is not the only way. But as a default method for the pastor, it is the better way.