Friday, August 03, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: Rule Upon Rule, Line Upon Line

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Tom: Immanuel Can, we’ve both done a little Bible teaching over the years in local churches. I have been noticing a trend toward verse-by-verse Bible teaching over, say, topical messages, and I’m wondering if you’re encountering the same thing.

Immanuel Can: It varies. I do think I’ve seen a mild trend that way, but not exclusively so. What makes this interesting to you, Tom?

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Tom: To be honest, primarily the Law of Unintended Consequences. I’ve written about this before, but you may have noticed that with every major trend or movement, in or outside of the church, people tend to jump on board and embrace it as if the New Thing is the answer we’ve been all been waiting for. Green energy, cell phones, Internet, ethanol, Barack Obama, social justice, global warming and such trends in society; “renewal”, cell groups, parachurch organizations, megachurches and so on within Christendom. Initially, it always seems we’ve found an answer. Then two, five or ten years down the road we see the inevitable outcome of our ideas and discover there was an unexpected downside or an “unintended consequence”.

So I always like to question a trend right up front to establish if it’s anything other than change for change’s sake, because actions always produce reactions, in the secular world and the spiritual world.

IC: Yes, fair enough. To what do we contrast this line-by-line approach? What’s the alternative, do you think? Would we say … topical messages? Or application-focused messages? Or lifestyle messages? Or evangelistic messages?

Or what? I’m just trying to clear up what we’re really talking about here.

Tom: The topic of consecutive expository preaching came up in conversation with an elder from a local church in Ontario, someone I greatly respect, who says he sees it as a trend and contrasted it with topical teaching. But it could also be contrasted with teaching from a particular passage — which I’m sure both of us have often heard — and then next week going on to a different passage or different subject and possibly a different speaker.

IC: Another way of asking this, I suppose, is how did you first notice the line-by-lining as a ‘change’? A change from what?

Nicholas McDonald and Consecutive Expository Preaching

Tom: Well, let me give you a concrete example. Nicholas McDonald makes his case for consecutive expository preaching this way:
  1. It eliminates the frustration of non-brilliant communicators.
  2. It retains Biblical Structure.
  3. It cuts prep time.
  4. It encourages faithfulness for those without theological training.
  5. It feels organic yet simple.
  6. It builds bridges between generations.
  7. It appeals to ancient rather than modern authority.
  8. It allows for more personal style.
  9. It compliments personal Bible reading without being overwhelming.
I’m wondering what you think of his rationale ...

Making Some Assumptions

IC: Now, Mr. McDonald’s making some assumptions here. He’s assuming a) we’re talking about a ‘pastor’-led congregation, b) that the situation is one of unarrestable decline, in which ‘pastors’ are increasingly unable to handle complex rhetorical or exegetical tasks, and c) that congregations are populated by increasingly carnal, consumerist Christians, who will rightfully judge these increasingly incompetent ‘pastors’ by the appealing qualities of the message they put out. This is the situation to which he is proposing his remedy.

Tom: Yes, and that may not be the situation in every evangelical church. It’s a very defeatist position, to be honest, but it explains why he’s wanting to cut prep time, not “overwhelm” prospective pastors with too much study, and things like that. It’s almost a retrenching stance that he’s advocating. Given the situation he’s describing, do think his solution makes any sense?

IC: Well, we need to acknowledge that it’s a problem created by the pastor system, and it’s a concession to the idea that not too much can be expected from a congregation. Within those two limiting assumptions, there’s really not too much anyone can do, so maybe his suggestions would be the best he can conceive. However, are those limiting assumptions necessary? Or are they even a proper description of the situation that happens to pertain in congregations today?

Tom: I think it certainly describes many denominational situations. But there are many local churches that don’t employ pastors, let alone have to look ahead to a platform full of millennials. Some of these are keen on consecutive expository preaching too, probably for a whole different list of reasons.

The Value of Consecutive Teaching

Let me ask you: Can you think of legitimate reasons that elders might consider consecutive expository ministry to be a useful approach?

IC: Sure. They might point out that it preserves the thought flow and context of the original writings, and so permits a better reading of the word of God. And I’m sympathetic to that advantage, if that’s what they have in mind. But what do you think? Are there other good reasons to consider the consecutive approach?

Tom: The biggest one I can think of is when you realize there is a knowledge gap in your congregation and you don’t anticipate that it can or will be filled through private study. I remember my father taking me through Romans and Hebrews consecutively when I first got serious about Christian things, and it was tremendously beneficial, though admittedly not something it would be easy to do from a platform setting once or twice a week.

IC: Okay, so it’s got legitimate uses … important ones. But now, is there anything about it that causes you to hesitate? Should everybody be doing it? Or should it be done in most or all cases?

Overprioritizing Consecutive Teaching

Tom: I think it’s a useful tool, and I would never discourage the gifted expository preacher from doing what the Holy Spirit has enabled him to do. But not all teaching gift is expository, and I disagree with Mr. McDonald that it can be done effectively by all teachers including “non-brilliant communicators”, or that it “cuts prep time”. Not if it’s done right, it doesn’t.

IC: Those are reasonable concerns. I would also be concerned about the potential in it for some abuse. Take, for example, the situation wherein the teacher(s) involved have not thought to assess or do not want to be bothered assessing the needs of the congregation, but can still tie up the platform for a long period without much spiritual exercise or prayer, simply by opting for a book study.

Tom: Or if they are just filling in the calendar: There’s January through May. Next!

IC: Right. That’s probably common. Another concern would be the type of teacher who is weak on making applications, and so prefers that the message be safely ‘academic’, comprised of only things people cannot possibly contest, since they are nothing but the words of scripture themselves, but absent any convicting force or relevance to present needs or the question of the listeners’ obedience/lack of obedience to the Word.

Tom: Especially since Mr. McDonald — and he may not be alone in this — thinks consecutive studies are actually the easier road for the speaker. That would certainly leave me concerned about the potential for abuse. That or setting the bar too low.

IC: And then, maybe I’d also be worried about the fact that it almost certainly dictates that, in order to be a coherent study, it must be done by a single speaker only. For different speakers have different burdens and styles, and draw different threads and themes. Absent a single speaker, the supposed “book study” can quickly turn into more of a scrap-book study.

Tom: There is also this: I’d be concerned to see it become the dominant form of platform ministry for the simple reason that the methodology has no scriptural authority behind it, in the sense that to my knowledge we have no example of either Christ or the apostles proceeding in a consecutive way through a single passage or book of scripture. The messages we find in the New Testament all seem to have one or more spiritual points to them, and Old Testament scriptures are used to substantiate those points.

The Word and the Spirit

IC: Well, that’s an interesting thought. Of course, we do have examples of the Lord using sections of the Old Testament to illuminate teaching, and of Paul doing the same; but we don’t have very lengthy ones. They seemed more often than not to use paragraphs (or even just words, sometimes) as springboards for application.

But of course, they did so under the complete guidance of the Spirit of God; I’m less confident about my own preaching for application. I somehow feel it’s better for people to hear from the Lord than from me; and if that’s so, then maybe more attention to the Biblical text and less to my personal explanations still makes sense ...

Tom: But I think you’d agree with me here that it’s not “either/or”. It’s not a choice between people ‘hearing from the Lord’ or ‘hearing from me’, is it? I mean, it can be, but surely those are not the only possibilities.

It’s more like a continuum. At one end of it, you’re so afraid to muck up scripture with your own carnal views that you just read the text and sit down, so you’ve left everyone to interpret the text for themselves. At the other end, you pontificate and opinionate and force the text to say what you want, if you remember to refer to it at all. Then you’ve left them with nothing but your own eloquence and hot air.

I think we want to be somewhere in between those poles, don’t we? Somewhere where the Spirit in his word meets the Spirit indwelling me, and the gift that I was given along with his indwelling gets used to present truth?

Looking for an Application

IC: Hmm … yes, I agree. I do think that our teaching has to be disciplined by scripture, not merely drawn from “real life” opinions. And things like context and thought flow from the text are always crucial to speaking truth, for sure. At the same time, I have always thought people do have a significant point when they complain that messages they hear sometimes lack “application”. I don’t think that the desire for relevance is a carnal taste. I think it can mean, “I want to be obedient to what you are teaching, but you’re not making it easy for me to see how to do it.” So both exegesis and application, for sure.

But where do we start, Tom? How would we know what is worth studying out, or what needs to be taught at a particular time, so as to be applicable in some useful way?

Tom: That’s a good question, and as far as the elders of any local congregation are concerned, I think a great place to start would be your six-point checklist that we ran on New Year’s Day. It asks nasty questions like “What do the sheep know and what don’t they know?” That’s certainly elder territory.

But I also believe a congregation is well served by occasions for the sort of freedom the Lord and the apostles were given in synagogues, to get up and make something of a scripture reading with the gifts they have, or to bring a message that has been on their minds.

I do like the idea of elders making sure that over a period of time, certain kinds of food will be given so that in a five year period, for instance, you get a particular selection of teaching that everyone needs. But I don’t think that ought to become so predictable that we say “It was Acts 7 last week, so it’s Acts 8 this week.”

If that happens, I think you’re in trouble.

Why Should We Pick and Choose What We Teach?

IC: Let me push back on that one, Tom. Imagine me, if you will, as a disgruntled elder listening to you: “Harrumph, I say! Alllll scripture is inspired by God and profitable! How dare you suggest we pick and choose what we teach?”

What would you say?

Tom: Are all your elders Scottish?

It is all certainly profitable. If you insist on doing a 52-week study of the book of Esther, we will most definitely get something from it. After all, it’s the word of God. From one angle, how can we go wrong?

From another angle, we are called to redeem the time, or to “make the most” of the time we have. That time is necessarily limited by the fact that we have a maximum in most local churches of 2-1/2 hours per week to give to teaching. In my own local church, the last year and a half of our mid-week Bible study, or approximately 35 hours of actual teaching time, have been given over to a mere six chapters of the book of Acts. Was it profitable? Of course.

But was it the best use of our time? Absolutely, absolutely not.

Consecutive Teaching with Poor Execution

IC: Strong language, Tom. Can you justify that?

Tom: I think so. The book of Acts is a great book. I have no problem with devoting time to it. But we spent at least half of those 35 hours revisiting things we had already established, and another great, irretrievable chunk of that time listening to various brothers opine about things unrelated to the subject under consideration, though that has less to do with the consecutive nature of the ministry and more to do with the number of men involved.

But there is some value even in the worst, most repetitive and even incompetent teaching, at least for those who are willing to do the digging and seek out the truth. I have often found that bad expository ministry made me search scripture more diligently, because my gut reaction was “That CAN’T be right!”

That, by the way, does not mean I would like to see more bad expository teaching. And I feel deeply sorry for those poor sisters who sat and endured a lot of less profitable talking during that time and, because of their respect for the word of God, would not think to protest about it. They don’t get the opportunity to push back.

IC: Right. I see what you mean now. You’re saying that the problem is not in the method of going consecutively, it’s in substituting the decision, “Let’s go consecutively”, for the more relevant question, “What’s really important/necessary/ edifying for us right now?” If I’ve really grasped what you’re saying, then for you it’s really about dereliction of duty: about the preachers, teachers and elders involved not being willing to think carefully about what we’re doing and not taking responsibility for making sure it’s done well.

Tom: Yes! Thank you!

Managing Gift in the Local Church

IC: On that assumption, then, if they did think it through, and afterward decided, “What we need right now is a step-by-step study of the book of Acts”, would you still have any additional issues you’d want them to think about?

Tom: No, that would be fine …

IC: I’m thinking of things like, “Who will teach?”, “How many sections?” and “How will we know when we’ve succeeded in meeting the need, other than that the book will be at an end?” Are those relevant to your readiness to approve of the consecutive method?

Tom: Thank you. Yes, exactly.

It’s the difference between an intelligent, biblical consideration of what’s needed and a pro forma, inattentive, check-the-boxes and fill-the-schedule sort of management.

This gets us very far away from our original subject, which was the value of consecutive expository preaching. But maybe not so far after all.

How do you choose what your local church will hear for the next year, and the sorts of teachers who will present it? It seems to me it’s well worth thinking about.


  1. I tend to preach expository messages, verse by verse, in some detail. I just finished message #25 in Luke, and have got as far as Luke 8:21. I've also done expository series through Hebrews and Romans.

    That said, I have a couple of caveats:
    - I'm not doing this teaching in detail because I think the church needs death marches (i.e. we'll preach in so much detail that we weed out the people who are unworthy of our "Brethren" fellowship). I just see a need for some detailed teaching.
    - I am sometimes asked to speak on specific topics by the church elders, and gladly do so
    - sometimes I interrupt a series with sermons on a different passage or topic, as I see a need
    - it is not only the local church elders who should be thinking and praying about what teaching the believers need. The teachers in the local church should also be thinking and praying about this
    - before starting Luke, I did 17 sermons on basic theology, which I suppose would be considered topical

  2. I'm not fond of death marches either but, yes, detail can be important when it serves a particular need.

    As I alluded to, it seems to me very clear both from scripture ("varieties of gifts ... services ... activities" in 1 Cor. 12) and from experience that we would be foolish to try to straitjacket the Holy Spirit with the assumption that all teaching gift is of a single type. I have, as you have, tried on the various types of teaching over the years and think I'm much more effective preaching a message with a particular point than moving consecutively through a passage or book. I know other speakers who are tremendous sequential expositors and would be wasting their time and ours doing other things.

    I think there's a balance to be had between wise planning by teachers and elders, on the one hand, and allowing the Spirit room to use both the gift and burdens of individuals, provided of course they are not allowed to become hobby horses or grievance mongering.