Expository Preaching is as Subjective as Topical Preaching—as is All Preaching

Expository Preaching is as Subjective as Topical Preaching—as is All Preaching December 15, 2020

I remember at least one pastor telling me the reason he practiced expository preaching was to avoid bias/subjectivity. His theory was that topical preaching was inherently biased because the topic was chosen for personal reasons (perhaps a pet peeve of the pastor/priest) and the Bible was brought into service to make the point of the topic (the speaker’s views on the topic, really), rather than allowing the topic to arise organically from the Bible passage. I remember attending a Calvary Chapel church for a while, where they were so proud of their adhering to this method, they announced it every Sunday morning before the sermon when telling visitors about their church. I’m sure they practice this method for the reasons already mentioned.

The problem is that all preaching is biased, subjective, and limited by perspective. Further, this is natural, unavoidable, and only a bad thing if not recognized and admitted up front.

Many expository preachers think if they simply read through books in the Bible, passage by passage, line by line, they are avoiding prejudice, bias, and subjectivity. This would be partly true if they read the passage and then just sat down and didn’t utter a further word. Even then, each listener would hear what was read and process it subjectively, with bias, and with prejudice. Each might understand and interpret what they heard very differently.  So, pick your poison.

But no pastor just reads a passage and then sits down (what many of us secretly wished). They interpret the passage too. They tell us what it means—or what they think it means. They preach.  They teach. They extrapolate, they reason, philosophize, theologize, surmise, and draw conclusions—even if tentative ones. This is all well and fine. But this is done from a perspective, from a bias, from a subjective point of view.

The problem arises when either the pastor or person listening thinks this process to be without any bias, prejudice, or subjectivity. If they or the pastor thinks this is a pure and clean one-to-one (preacher/listener) communication of the original writer’s (or Holy Spirit’s) intentions and thoughts, without any interjection of the pastor or listener’s own perspective, they are fooling themselves.

This can be a powerful and dangerous delusion. It can lead to the idea that it’s not the pastor speaking, but God. I’ve actually heard pastors, after reading a passage and commenting on it, say something like, “That’s not me speaking, that’s God speaking!”  Well, no.

And the listener can think it’s not really the pastor she’s hearing, but God. This is how cults work. This is why pastors and priests, Christian leaders, can often do terrible things but suffer little consequences. People will overlook a lot when they think a person is literally communicating God’s thoughts, intentions, and meanings directly, almost as a medium or someone who talks to the dead.

What can be done to mitigate this reality? First, every Christian pastor/priest/leader should make it clear they are speaking/teaching from a perspective, a certain point of view. They should note this is true for everyone and is simply part of being a limited, finite, person. How is it we can read the same passage of scripture, but many times come away with very different understandings/interpretations? Because, partly, we are reading it from different perspectives.

Second, they should speak/teach from a place of humility, rather than an over-confidence that is off-putting and actually may telegraph an ignorance of other views or some deep insecurity. It wouldn’t hurt to say something like, “This is just my opinion, here are my reasons, but I could be wrong and there are other intelligent and reasonable people who take a different view than mine.”

(A small caveat and aside here: The, “this is just my opinion,” qualification should be thought of in line with the famous quote (authorship unclear): “IN ESSENTIALS UNITY, IN NON-ESSENTIALS LIBERTY, IN ALL THINGS CHARITY.” We might think of an essential as our belief in the incarnation, but a non-essential as the method of baptism. Additionally, this qualification doesn’t apply when speaking of issues like racism, sexism, or of moral truth. Some things (murder) are not just a difference of opinion but are a matter of essential, foundational, moral truth—and to be asserted without qualification.)

Third, stress the importance of learning from a community/history-based understanding. In other words, we should learn in community with our entire history/tradition in mind. The Bible doesn’t belong to any single individual or even one community either now or historically. The Bible, it’s teaching, our understanding, is something that belongs to the entire world-wide community of the Christian body and to every age, from the first century up to now.

Another aside: If one finds their entire view of the Bible and their faith is based mostly (if not entirely) upon what popular, American, white, evangelical leaders from the 1970s, 80s, and 90s taught, that may be a problem. One probably has a very truncated, shallow, and limited perspective if such is the case.

The Christian body/community, from the beginning, was led by councils. The idea was that truth and wisdom, arose within a community—not just a single person. I think the Catholic Church believes this even with their singular official head, as the Pope also leads, ultimately, through his college of cardinals. While each Christian tradition understands and practices this idea differently, it is still central to, at least, the Eastern and Western Church, Anglican, and mainstream Protestant traditions. The point is that just like most of us have probably made our wisest decisions after consulting others, the same applies to the church. It helps us see things from another perspective.

This idea (the conciliar) is probably weakest in the fundamentalist/evangelical/Baptist/charismatic traditions, which, frankly, I believe, goes a long way toward explaining much of their own peculiar dysfunctions and spiritual/theological problems.

Teaching and hearing out of community, in a continual conversation with the past, speaking the tradition anew in one’s own time, is what can help us out of the blinders of an assumed, present-moment, oriented objectivity.

In my opinion, the idea there is a method of teaching/preaching that is objective, neutral, non-biased, non-prejudicial, and simply a pure and objective transmission of God’s thoughts/meanings is a modern fantasy. It’s also a potential gateway to authoritarianism and many other destructive outcomes.  Recommendation: Flee the pastors/leaders and churches that believe it.

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