Mailbag

The Mailbag: Expository or Topical Preaching: Which is better?

 

I would like to read your thoughts on expositional vs. topical preaching. I know we can benefit from both but is one superior to the other and why?

Great question! You’re right, both forms of preaching can be beneficial as long as the pastor properly exegetes (rather than eisegetes) Scripture.

For readers who might not be familiar with the terms, expository preaching is basically when a pastor preaches through books of the Bible from beginning to end carefully explaining what each passage means. He might go through only a few verses each week, or maybe a chapter each week, so the time it takes to work through a book will vary from pastor to pastor.

The term topical preaching can have a couple of different meanings depending on who you’re talking to and what she understands the term to mean. Some people understand “topical preaching” to mean a sermon series, usually in a seeker driven church, that centers around something in pop culture. (For example, popular movies or the Olympics.) Normally, these sermons are very shallow, biblically – sometimes nothing more than a pep talk or self-help tips. This type of preaching is unbiblical, and if it makes up the bulk of the preaching at your church, I’d recommend finding a new church.

There is, however, a biblical form of topical preaching that can be very helpful. If a doctrinally sound pastor sees an issue in the church that needs to be addressed, there is nothing wrong with his taking a break from preaching through a certain book (or when he’s between books) to teach on this issue from the pulpit.

For example, pastors in Parkland, Florida, might wish to take a few weeks right now to preach sermons on “Why does God allow tragedies to happen?”, “How can I biblically comfort the families of the victims?”, “Are the victims of the shooting in Heaven?”, and so on. One great topical sermon concept I’ve seen is for the pastor to give the congregation the opportunity to submit biblical questions and then preach sermons answering those questions. Other times a pastor might address a biblical topic for several weeks, such as peace, the gospel, the Fruit of the Spirit, or parenting. As long as these topics are driven by “let’s look at what the Bible says about X” and the pastor handles Scripture correctly and in context, topical preaching is both biblical and beneficial.

My personal opinion (this is not law and there may be plenty of perfectly doctrinally sound pastors who disagree) is that the majority of a pastor’s preaching should be expository with occasional breaks for (biblical) topical preaching as needed. Why?

✢ Expository preaching usually covers a wider spread of Scripture and a wider variety of topics. Topical preaching is, by definition, very narrowly focused on fewer passages and fewer topics.

✢ Expository preaching models for the congregation the proper way they should study the Bible at home. Most of the time, in your daily Bible study, you should be working your way through books of the Bible systematically. (That said, topical preaching done properly is also helpful for demonstrating to the congregation how to correctly find and apply Scripture to various topics and situations which arise in their lives. We need to know how to do both, but the former is primary.)

✢ Expository preaching helps a pastor better preach the whole counsel of God. He doesn’t have to worry that he’s neglecting to teach on a certain issue and wrack his brain trying to think of what that issue might be. With expository teaching, Scripture takes care of that for him.

✢ I have to think that expository preaching is easier than being forced to come up with a new topic or series every week or few weeks. I’m not a pastor, but the Bible studies I post each Wednesday are nearly always expository. The articles I post each Friday are nearly always topical. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t fret over coming up with a topic for the Friday article and struggle against writer’s block. But I know exactly what each week’s Bible study is going to cover: whatever the next passage of Scripture is in the book we’re studying. Exposition eliminates “forced creativity stress” for me, and I’m thinking maybe it’s similar for pastors.

✢ Expository preaching pushes pastors to tackle hard and unfamiliar passages as they come up in the text, making them more biblically knowledgeable and well-rounded, and allowing them the blessing of depending on God in prayer to open their eyes to understand His Word.

✢ Expository preaching should keep the Old Testament and certain books of the Bible from being neglected as much as they usually are. There are only 66 books in the Bible to preach through. Eventually you’re going to have to get to the minor prophets, Leviticus, Jude, Philemon, Song of Solomon, and the really long books of the Old Testament. Ostensibly. I’m sure there are expository pastors out there who have preached through the more neglected books, but I’ve never sat under a pastor who preached through Nahum or Zephaniah or Ezekiel. Just sayin’.

✢ Expository preaching gives the congregation a better grip on the overall story arc of the Bible and the culture of the period being studied. If your pastor preaches a topical sermon on leadership from Nehemiah one Sunday, you’re not going to understand the post-exilic period of Israel’s history or the culture of that time nearly as well as if he preached through the entire book over several weeks or months. That knowledge and insight is something you can stick in your pocket and hang on to for studying other post-exilic Scripture at home or in Sunday School, or listening to other sermons dealing with that period of Israel’s history.

✢ Expository preaching better lends itself to encouraging the congregation to prepare for Sunday worship during the week. If you know what passage your pastor is going to be preaching on this Sunday, you can study, and even memorize verses, ahead of time to prepare your heart to hear your pastor preach it.

I just have a couple of caveats (still just my personal opinions) about expository preaching:

I don’t think it’s wise for a pastor to be so rigidly stuck on expository preaching that he ignores the leading of the Holy Spirit to preach the occasional biblical topical sermon when it would be a benefit and a blessing to his congregation simply because he sees himself as an expository preacher. Preaching a topical sermon or series from time to time doesn’t mean you have to turn in your expository preaching card.

Also, while verse by verse preaching is an excellent way to teach the text thoroughly, I once heard someone talking about her (very good, doctrinally sound) pastor who had been preaching through a particular book of the Bible for seven years and still had several chapters to go. I don’t think it’s a good idea to take that long on a single book. At that point, several of the aforementioned benefits of expository preaching are gone: the pastor has ceased to preach the whole counsel of God, he’s neglecting bibilical topics not found in that book, he’s neglecting other books of the Bible, he’s not helping his congregation learn the whole storyline of Scripture and the customs of various historic periods and cultures, and he’s not covering as wide a spread of Scripture as he could if he’d limit himself to a year or two, max, to finish one book and move on to the next.

Expository and topical preaching are both helpful in their own ways, but the most important thing is that the pastor is “rightly handling the word of truth.”


Additional Resources

Why topical preaching can never build a healthy church by Mark Dever

The Sheer Weightlessness of So Many Sermons—Why Expository Preaching Matters by Albert Mohler

What is topical preaching? Does it have a place in the church? by John MacArthur

Can Topical Preaching Be Expository? by Timothy Warren


If you have a question about: a Bible passage, an aspect of theology, a current issue in Christianity, or how to biblically handle a family, life, or church situation, comment below (I’ll hold all questions in queue {unpublished} for a future edition of The Mailbag) or send me an e-mail or private message. If your question is chosen for publication, your anonymity will be protected.

Christian women, Church, Discernment

Throwback Thursday ~ Nine Reasons Discerning Women Are Leaving Your Church

Originally published July 24, 2015
9 disc women leave

 

Earlier this week, Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay, pubished a blog article entitled “Six Reasons Why Women May Be Leaving Your Church.” Although I am not particularly a fan of Dr. Rainer (due to his allowing materials from false teachers to be sold at LifeWay), I thought this article was a good one, and I agreed with several of the issues he raised, especially, that these issues need to be addressed by church leadership.

As a ministry wife and someone in the field of women’s ministry myself, I, too, have noticed women leaving the church. Not just women in general, but a certain subset of church-attending ladies: discerning women. While Scripture is pretty clear that we can expect women (and men) who are false converts to eventually fall away from the gathering of believers, why are godly, genuinely regenerated women who love Christ, His word, and His church, leaving their local churches?

1. Eisegetical or otherwise unbiblical preaching
Discerning women don’t want to hear pastors twist God’s word. The Bible is not about us, our problems, and making all our hopes and dreams come true. We don’t want to hear seeker-driven or Word of Faith false doctrine. We don’t need self-improvement motivational speeches or a list of life tips to follow. We want to hear a pastor rightly handle God’s word from a trustworthy translation and simply exegete the text.

2. The worship hour has become a variety show
Skits, guest stars, movie clips, dance routines, rock concerts, elaborate sets, light shows, and smoke machines. We didn’t sign on for Saturday Night Live on Sunday. This is supposed to be church. Get rid of all that junk, turn the lights on, give us solid preaching, prayer, and some theologically sound songs we can actually sing, and maybe we’ll stick around.

*3. Women in improper places of church leadership
The Bible could not be more clear that women are not to be pastors, instruct men in the Scriptures, or hold authority over men in other capacities in the church. If your church has a female pastor, worship leader, or elders, or if women are teaching and leading men in Sunday school, small groups, or from the platform in the worship service, or if women are heading up certain committees, departments, or ministries which place them in improper authority over men, you’re disobeying Scripture, and we don’t want to help you do that by attending your church.

4. Children are being entertained, not trained
There’s nothing wrong with a bit of play time or crafts for younger children, but we want our children trained in the Scriptures, not entertained for a couple of hours. We want their teachers to open God’s word and read and explain it to them at a level they can understand. We want them memorizing verses, learning to pray, and demonstrating an age-appropriate comprehension of the gospel. We want them to understand that church is joyful, yet, serious, not a Jesus-laced party at Chuck E. Cheese. We need church to bolster the Scriptural training we’re giving our kids at home.

5. Women’s “Bible” Studies
The majority (and I don’t use that term flippantly) of churches holding women’s Bible studies are using materials written by Beth Moore, Priscilla Shirer, Joyce Meyer, Lysa TerKeurst, Sarah Young, and others who teach unbiblical ideas and false doctrine. Not minor denominational differences of opinion. Not secondary and tertiary unimportant issues that can be overlooked. False doctrine. While we long to study God’s word with other women, discerning women will not sacrifice sound doctrine nor the integrity of Scripture to do so.

6. Ecumenism
Is your church partnering with other “churches” whose orthodoxy and/or orthopraxy are at odds with Scripture? “Churches” which approve of homosexuality or female pastors, or which hold to an unbiblical soteriology (grace plus works, baptismal regeneration, Mary as co-redemptrix with Christ, etc.)? Are you partnering with those who deny the biblical Christ altogether such as Muslims, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Mormons, or Buddhists? Discerning women know Scripture forbids yoking ourselves to unbelievers and we want no part of it.

7. Ageism
Look around at your pastor and staff, your lay leadership, your music team, the “face” of your church. How many of those people are over 40? Usually, discernment and spiritual maturity come through walking with the Lord over many years, yet, increasingly, by design, churches are run by twentysomething pastors, staff, and other leadership, who are often spiritually immature and/or lack the wisdom and life experience that come with age. The staff is often specifically structured this way in order to attract young people to the church. The counsel and wisdom mature, godly men and women have to offer is brushed off as old fashioned, and middle aged and older church members feel alienated and unwanted. While there are those among the twentysomething set who are godly and growing into maturity, discerning women value the wisdom and teaching of their godly elders.

8. The “troublemaker” label
Discerning women who see unbiblical things happening in their churches and stand up for what God’s word says about biblical ecclesiology and teaching are often vilified and labeled as troublemakers. We are called haters, threats to unity, complainers, gossips, negative, and a myriad of other scornful names. All this for wanting things done according to Scripture. Can you blame us for shaking the dust off our high heels and leaving?

9. Spineless or stiff-necked pastors
Discerning women have little respect for, and find themselves unable to submit to the authority of pastors who see people in their churches acting overtly sinful or propagating false teaching yet are so afraid of confrontation that they will not set things right. By the same token, we cannot continue to attend a church in which we bring scriptural evidence of false teaching or sin to the pastor and he outright denies the biblical truth we present to him. We cannot be members of churches in which pastors will not submit to Scripture or carry out biblical mandates.

 

Frequently, the discerning women you see tearfully leaving your church have been there for years. Sometimes they leave your church because it was never doctrinally sound to begin with, and God has opened their eyes to this as they grow and mature in Christ. Sometimes they leave because false doctrine and unbiblical practices have crept in and taken over a church that was once a refuge of trustworthy biblical teaching. Either way, these things should not be.

Maybe it’s not that discerning women are leaving the church**, but that the church is leaving them.


*If you disagree with this point and are considering writing a comment arguing that women SHOULD be pastors and have other unbiblical positions of leadership, please save yourself some time, because I will not be printing it. As it says in my “welcome” tab (top of this page), I do not print false doctrine without refuting it, and at the moment, I do not have the time. If you are truly interested in what the Bible ACTUALLY says about the proper role of women in the church, click here and explore the Scriptures that address this topic.

**While it may be necessary to leave a church that is not operating biblically, Hebrews 10:24-25 makes it clear that meeting together for worship and the teaching of God’s word is not optional for Christians. Please see my follow up article, Six Ways Not to Forsake the Assembly for more on this topic.

Bible, Bible Study, Church, Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday ~ Context Message Me

Originally published December 3, 2013gettysburg-veterans-public-domain

Yesterday, I saw several friends and organizations re-posting this article (and others like it) on Facebook. The gist of the article is about teaching the Gettysburg Address to students in a “stand alone” sort of way without teaching that it has anything to do with the Civil War.  As a teacher myself, this seems utterly ridiculous to me. How can students grasp the full meaning, depth, and impact of the Gettysburg Address without knowing the history and events that led up to it, who wrote and delivered it, the people to whom it was delivered, and why it was delivered? Yes, a few things can be gleaned merely from the text itself, but is that all we want our students to learn about the Gettysburg Address? Are we satisfied for them to merely skim the surface of this document and leave with a superficial (and likely, incorrect) understanding of it, or do we want them to dig in and learn all they can about it?

And then it hit me:

What many of us would not abide in the classroom,
we embrace in the sanctuary.

Week after week, many Christians sit under pastors and Bible teachers who fail to preach and teach God’s word in context. A verse from one book is thrown in here, a half verse from another passage, there, like so many sprinkles on top of an ice cream sundae.

No mention is made of the historical (pre-Exile or post-Exile?) or cultural (Was this written to Jews or Gentiles?) context of the passage.

Prescriptive (thou shalt/shalt not do X) passages are conflated with descriptive (here’s what happened to this particular guy) passages, leading to confusion over law, grace, and precisely what it is that God wants from us.

Promises that were never meant for 21st century Christians (because they were written only to a specific person(s) at a specific time) are ripped away from their intended audience and plastered, bait and switch style, onto you and me. (I’ve always wondered why Jeremiah 29:11 is preached as applying to today’s Christians, but verses such as Jeremiah 29:17-19 are not.)

Pastors and teachers treat individual Bible verses and brief passages as “stand alone” items rather than showing how they fit into the immediate context of the surrounding passage and book, while simultaneously neglecting to show how those Bible tidbits fit into the broader, complete story of the gospel revealed across both Testaments.

Pastors and Bible teachers, myself included (and, believe me, I’ve failed many times in this area, too) are to care for those who sit under our teaching by doing our best to handle God’s word correctly (2 Timothy 2:15) and by preaching and teaching, as Paul put it, “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26-27). May we as teachers not merely skim the surface of God’s word, but proclaim the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth. And may our hearers demand nothing less.

Sermons

For Your Listening Pleasure

Need some great, biblical material to listen to in the car, while you exercise, or when you’re doing the dishes?

Shepherd’s Conference 2017

The mission of the Shepherds’ Conference is to provide the opportunity for men in church leadership to be challenged in their commitment to biblical ministry and to find encouragement as together we seek to become more effective servants of our chief Shepherd.

You don’t have to be a pastor or church leader to enjoy good preaching from mighty men of God, and that’s just what you’ll get if you click here. Conference sermons from John MacArthur, Mark Dever, Steve Lawson, Phil Johnson, Paul Washer, and more! Also available as an iTunes app. (Translated into several languages, so share with your international friends!)

Pastors’ Talk Podcast

OK, so this one is aimed at pastors, too. But I’ve been “eavesdropping” and learning a lot. I would highly recommend this brief weekly podcast from 9Marks Ministries for pastors and church members. It’ll help you understand some of the things your pastor has to deal with, why he does things the way he does them, how a biblically healthy church should function, and so on. Maybe it’ll even help you help your pastor. Click here to listen. (Also available on iTunes.)

Happy listening!

Church, Complementarianism, Throwback Thursday, Worship

Throwback Thursday ~ Six Questions for a Potential Church

Originally published March 27, 2015church questions1

Have you ever had to look for a new church? Even with recommendations from godly friends, it can be hard to know which churches and pastors are doctrinally sound, and, of those doctrinally sound churches (because you certainly don’t want to go to one that isn’t doctrinally sound), which ones would be a good fit for your family.

There are lots of great articles out there with good, probing questions you should ask about the theology and doctrine of a church you’re considering. (I would recommend this one, this one, and this one. Also, make sure you understand these doctrinal issues and that the church you’re considering lines up with Scripture on these issues.) However, there are times when the answers to these types of questions don’t give you the whole picture of what is actually going on in a church on a day to day basis. In other words, sorry to say, a church can give you all the right answers on paper (or on their web site), but their practices don’t mirror those answers. Additionally, there are some non-doctrinal issues that are important to know about that questions about soteriology, baptism, biblical inerrancy, etc., won’t give you the answers to.

My husband and I are currently looking for a new church for our family. Since we are Southern Baptist and somewhat familiar with the handful of Southern Baptist churches we’re looking at, we already know the answers to the most important questions (the inspiration of Scripture, the divinity of Christ, the way of salvation, etc.) But I want to zoom in a little more on the finer points of belief and practices of these churches, so here are some questions I might ask the pastor of the church we would potentially join.

1. Which Christian authors have had the biggest impact on your life, beliefs, and ministry?

When I ask this question (and look over the pastor’s shoulder at the titles on his bookshelf), I’m listening for the names of authors and pastors, living or dead, that I know are committed to sound biblical doctrine. If I hear a name like Joyce Meyer, TD Jakes, Andy Stanley, Steven Furtick, Perry Noble, Rick Warren, Beth Moore, or any Word of Faith or New Apostolic Reformation personality, I’m going back to ask more probing doctrinal questions. If I hear multiple names like those, I’m outta there.

2. Are you/this church complementarian or egalitarian?

Now you may not be familiar with those terms but any Christian pastor should be. It is a current issue in evangelicalism, and it’s part of his job to stay abreast of such things. I’m not looking for a pastor to be an expert on this topic, but he should be familiar with the terms and have a working understanding of the issues at play as well as the applicable Scriptures, and he should embrace and practice complementarianism as the biblical position.

Because I have been given the right “on paper” answer to this question in the past only to find out later that the church’s practices didn’t match up with its profession, I will probably ask the follow up question: “In what positions of leadership are women currently serving? Do any of them hold authority over men or instruct men in the Scriptures?” If I hear that women are (or would be allowed to in the future) teaching co-ed adult Sunday School classes, giving instruction during the worship service, serving on committees in which they hold biblically inappropriate authority over men, etc., that’s problematic.

3. Can you give me some examples, from any time during your career as a pastor, of church discipline issues that have arisen and how you have handled them?

I’m looking for three things here. First, what does this pastor think constitutes a church discipline issue? If he thinks it’s necessary to discipline a female church member for wearing pants instead of a skirt, that’s an issue, because he’s disciplining someone who’s not sinning. If he doesn’t think it’s necessary to discipline church members who are unmarried yet cohabiting, that’s an issue because he’s not disciplining people who are sinning. Church discipline should only be exercised over unrepentant sinful behavior.

Second, is he afraid to exercise church discipline? Generally speaking, someone who has been a pastor for many years and has never handled a church discipline issue is either woefully ignorant of the biblical requirement of a pastor to rebuke those in sin, or he is afraid to rock the boat because he might get fired. Both of these are huge red flags.

Third, how does he exercise church discipline? Does he follow the steps outlined in Matthew 18 and other Scriptures with a heart to see the church member repent and be reconciled to Christ and the church body? Is he harsh and condemning? Is he firm enough in his resolve to carry all the way through to disfellowshipping a church member if necessary?

4. How much oversight do you (or an associate pastor or elder) have over the women’s ministry at this church?

With this question, I’m trying to find out how much the pastor knows about what’s actually going on inside the women’s ministry (if they have one) and how much responsibility he takes to make sure all teaching and activities are in line with Scripture. Does he research and approve all teaching materials before a women’s Bible study commences? Does a women’s ministry director have complete autonomy over all materials and activities? Are all of the women in leadership positions in the women’s ministry godly and spiritually mature? Would any of the women’s ministry leadership raise a stink if someone showed them from Scripture that a Bible teacher whose materials they use or a women’s ministry activity they enjoy is unbiblical?

5. Does the music ministry at this church follow a minister of music model or a concert model?

There’s nothing wrong with Christian concerts per se, but my husband and I feel strongly (notice, I did not say “the Bible says”) that the worship service is not the place for one. We believe that a minister of music, preferably one who is ordained to the ministry, should lead and take responsibility for the church’s worship in a pastoral role. He should be trained in the Scriptures, preferably at seminary, in order to rightly handle and apply them to the music portion of the worship service and other music programs. He should also be trained in music theory and conducting so that he is able to lead in the practical aspects of music.

By contrast, we do not believe that making the music portion of the service like a concert, in which a band gets up and plays in a dark room with a laser light show and a smoke machine and the congregation can sing along if they want to, if they happen to know the songs, and if they are able to follow the ad libbing of the lead singer, is conducive to worship. We believe this tends to make the worship band into entertainers and the congregation into spectators, whereas the minister of music model fosters an atmosphere of “we’re all pulling together to do the work of worship as a unified body.”

This is not about contemporary music versus hymns, it is about one worship model versus another. It is our conviction (again, not a biblical mandate, but our strongly held conviction) after more than two decades in music ministry ourselves, that the minister of music model – regardless of the genre of worship music used – is the one most conducive to strong, biblical congregational worship. So this is something we’re going to want to know about, even though it is not necessarily a doctrinal issue.

6. Do you preach topically or expositorily or both?

Topical preaching is when the pastor selects a topic to preach on (parenting, money, etc.) and uses biblical passages that apply to that topic to form his sermon. Pastors who preach expositorily usually preach through a book of the Bible from beginning to end before moving on to the next book.

Both are valid forms of preaching as long as God’s word is rightly handled and applied. However, it has been my experience that pastors who preach exclusively topically have more of a tendency to lift Bible verses out of their context in order to make them fit the topic they’re preaching. This is usually not as much of an issue for pastors who preach expositorily because they are simply preaching the Word, verse by verse, in its context.

Additionally, expository preaching gives church members a better understanding of Scripture and how it fits together, and exposes them more thoroughly to a wider range of biblical truth than exclusively topical preaching does. Therefore, I am looking for a pastor whose preaching style leans mostly towards expository, but who isn’t afraid to preach topically if he believes the church needs instruction on a certain topic.

 

So, those are some of the questions I’m thinking about asking. What questions would you ask when considering a new church?