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steve worsley: the problem of exposition and bias

A year or so ago I found myself interviewing some of our highly regarded preachers for a resource I was creating called, One Step Ahead Preaching. I wanted to create a ‘master class’ environment where preachers from across the denominations could learn from some of our best preachers.

On the DVD I ask these preachers a myriad of questions about all aspects of preaching. One question from the final session proved particularly revealing: “Are there any overarching themes in Scripture that we should look out for as we go about our preaching?”

The responses were fascinating. One person said “No”, suggesting that true expository preaching means approaching the text without presupposition. Other answers included things like, ‘God’s love’, ‘sin’, ‘grace’ and ‘redemption’. But it was Murray Robertson’s response which stood out as different:

“The mission heart of God who comes seeking the lost, the poor, the broken and the estranged – that’s the Bible’s meta-narrative from Abraham right through. That message needs to come through all our preaching until people grasp it. And when they grasp it they’ll start living it out. Everyone brings some kind of grand narrative to their preaching – for some it’s just personal salvation or personal wholeness or interpersonal relationships. I think the overriding narrative is the mission of God.”

This is an incredibly important question. I wondered why in all my years of study and ministry I’d never heard anyone ask about what the big message of the Bible is. It was amazing to see how different the answers were. I was disturbed to think that one could adopt and practice all the values and methods of expository preaching and yet potentially miss the Bible’s main point in our weekly messages. To what extent are our congregations shaped by our understanding of the Bible’s overarching message? Certainly Murray’s beliefs on this have had a powerful shaping effect in his church setting.

No doubt the principles of exposition are designed to limit the bias we bring to the text, but does it limit it enough? Might an evangelical heritage cause us to notice personal salvation in Scripture, while overlooking recurring messages about God’s mission heart for the world? Do the individualistic and materialistic forces from our culture cause us to focus heavily on the individual and his/her needs? Should someone teach a class on the overarching message of Scripture, or would this ruin our objectivity for expository preaching? These questions do my head in.

I guess I worry that we could preach well for years in an expository fashion but still bring our personal biases with us and our congregation could end up missing the big picture. I’d love to hear what others think on this.

[Editor’s note: check out One Step Ahead Preaching, a superb resource designed to equip expository preachers, at www.onestepahead.org.nz].

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Steve Worsley has been Senior Pastor at Petone Baptist Church for five years. He wrote and created the worship leader training course called, ‘One Step Ahead Worship‘ and has more recently interviewed key preachers to create ‘One Step Ahead Preaching‘.  He is passionate about helping churches find ways to upskill and improve what they do in their gathered church services.

18 Comments

  1. Robyn Mellar-Smith says:

    Thanks Steve for this post. I found it quite thought provoking and have further questions to pose…

    Do we as the preacher have much control over what people perceive as the overarching theme of our biblical preaching? Or is it something that flows out of us and is “caught” rather than “taught”?

    And as a follow on from that, how do we as the preacher allow God to imprint his big story on us???

    1. Hi Robyn,

      Good questions! I guess I’m convinced that our key convictions about Scripture’s big story will come out over time whether consciously or not and that these are likely to have some shaping effect on our congregations. (In some cases that ‘shaping effect’ may be that people who disagree with us leave and those who like us come!) Do we have control over what themes people perceive in our preaching? I think Murray R is a good example here. He has engaged with this question well, determined what he believes Scripture’s metanarrative to be and gone about highlighting it in his weekly preaching wherever it surfaces. In his case it’s intentional and evidence suggests his listeners have picked up on it pretty well.

      How do we allow God to imprint his big story on us? Dunno. But robust discussion on the subject must certainly help!

      1. Robyn Mellar-Smith says:

        Hi Steve,

        Thanks for your comments.
        One thing that I did do to help this last year, when I had been here about 6 months, was to preach a series on the grand narrative of the Bible using as a resource, among others “The Drama of Scripture” by Bartholomew and Goheen.

        It was a 6 part series – Creation, Catastrophe, Covenant, Christ, Church and Consummation. I learnt so much! Then for the rest of the year, whatever book of the Bible I was preaching from, I could point back to where it belonged in the big picture.

        I love what Murray told you though. It is so true and it inspires passion! Thanks for taking the time to write about this.

  2. Anthony Rimell says:

    Steve, an excellent article.

    One of the key reasons for the decline in a sense of a big message of scripture is precisely because seminaries and academia have accepted the Derridean/ Deconstructionist premise that there is no meta-narrative: merely specific books, letters and scattered fragments that have been brought together by happenstance. Oh, there remain a number of academics who believe in the notion of meta-narrative of scripture, but as a whole this is fallow ground.

    It is hardly surprising that our preachers don’t look for one when they are no longer taught that there is one.

  3. Amen! Thanks for that Steve.

    Expository preaching is not Christian preaching untill the context in which you set the scripture is the whole of scripture which is inevitably going to end up being a whole lot more than, “God is love” or personal salvation. Every sermon on a text should also be in some way a sermon on the whole Bible.

    I would agree that theological education as a whole finds it easier to spend its time on the text side of the hermeneutical circle than the context, however this stuff is taught at least in the two colleges I have some asociation with, perhaps we could teach it better and put more emphasis on it, but I think at least some of the responsibility lies with the student to recognise the significance of what is being taught, and this is hard for them to do if their pastors only model myopic sermons.

    I think the fact that Murray Robertson is able to answer that question so forcefully and provocatively is a major clue as to why his preaching ministry has been so fruitful.

  4. Myk Habets says:

    Nice post Steve but I wonder if your theological education has let you down somewhat, or if you missed something along the way. Systematic theology is what is missing from your perspective. And yes I am biased in this discussion! 🙂 But systematic theology has always been that discipline which provides the Chritian with an interpretive grid for Scripture, a systeamtic theology has an interpretative motif which enables them to read Scripture as a whole and interpret the parts within the big picture. In our atheologial context I think many pastors have forgotten the theology they learned at College and have impoversdhed their preaching and ministry as a result.

    So the real question is what is your systematic theology? What is its integrative motif? What impetus does it give to reading the metanarrative of Scripture and interpeting the hard and obscure parts?

    My theology is Reformed and Baptist, therefore the integartive motif is grater than the mission of God, it is the Glory of God. Mission thus forms one way way in which this grander purpose if achieved. It is theocentric and thus throughout our reading of Scripture God is the point and we find our place within his story.

    So, back to theology and working out how it is a handmaid to reading Scripture.

    1. Hi Myk,

      Nice to hear from you and some other ex-BCNZ’ers! I’m also a believer in the place of systematic theology. To me one of the limitations of the expositional style of preaching is that it can give an unclear or imbalanced picture on a theological issue which may be broadened or clarified by a wider consulting of Scripture. For this reason I do some preaching that would be better described as ‘theological’ than as ‘exposition’.

      Your point about clarifying one’s own theological standpoint and its relation to our weekly preaching is good. However, I doubt if many of my peers would have done that in this overarching sense. Also the majority of what I recall from undergrad theological classes related to specific doctrines rather than the one grand theme of Scripture. Heck – wouldn’t it be great if all students had to write an essay on what they understand to be the grand metanarrative of Scripture! Perhaps such things do happen nowadays – it’s a while since I was there!

  5. Mark Maffey says:

    Hi Steve

    I wonder too if our gifting bias comes into our preaching as well, the various motivational giftings in Romans 12 do influence our approach. For example my main gifting is encouragement and I believe that I would subconsciously be wanting to encourage my listeners in my sermons. Having said this I agree with Murray’s grand narrative view, I see God as a relational God, his desire right from Genesis 1 was to be in relationship with his human creation. If you look at Luke 15’s 3 parables,describing how God seeks to bring the lost back to him and at some considerable cost, God does want us to teach people that God is worthy of their commitment.

    Expository preaching at it’s heart requires dissection of the text, and the context of the verses within the chapter, within the book which they form a part needs to be the first thing that needs to be considered in preparation. Regardless of our gifting and personal biases, we need to be faithful in our preaching of God’s word

    1. Hi Mark,

      This is a really good point and a good example. I think God needs that ‘encouragement’ gift and needs preachers who have it. The fact that you recognise that and also have a view to Scripture’s overarching theme has got to bring us closer to the answer!

      I have recently been training some new preachers, one of whom is constantly drawn to the gifts of the Spirit in Scripture almost regardless of the passage. I’m interested to see how the disciplines of expositional style preaching will affect this in her case. I’m also looking forward to the discussion about Scripture’s megatheme once we get to One Step Ahead Preaching session nine! I think I’ll be pushing my guys all the harder on this question given the feedback in this forum!

  6. Greg Liston says:

    Thanks for the post Steve, made me think! (Highest possible praise!)

    My view is that it is impossible for someone to not have a view as to what the “big picture” of the Bible is. (In the same way that someone can’t not have a world view) Everyone brings some kind of interpretative grid to the text. And its those who don’t acknowledge that interpretive grid that are the most dangerous, because it means their grid is unacknowledged and untested.

    My suggestion is that we have a kind of internal, ongoing dialogue between our interpretive grid and the text. Sometimes (normally) we stand in our interpretive grid and examine the text. Other times we stand in the text and examine our grid. Our aim is to have the two be as consistent with each other as possible, for each to illuminate the other more and more. This means that our interpretive grid will change over time to be more and more consistent with deep, rich understanding of Scripture. (There’s a great book on this – Reason within the bounds of religion by Nicholas Wolterstorff)

    I think that most of us do this kind of thing automatically anyway, even Murray Robertson! His view on the “big picture” of Scripture has changed from the 70’s. (There’s a talk on how it happenned that he gave at Titirangi Baptist – I tried to find the link but couldn’t get it to work.) But if we take the process of dialogue between our interpretive grid (or a systematic theology, as Myk put it) and Scripture from subconscious to conscious then it becomes much more fruitful, productive and quicker.

  7. Myk Habets says:

    Yes, good points Steve and a good thoughtful post to get us thinking further. Thank you.

  8. Since reading all your comments I decided to search my memory banks and fossick out the things that have informed my own thinking on the Bible’s metanarrative. The first thing that came to mind was the ‘Perspectives’ course that I did before I did my tertiary theological study. This course promotes the idea of God’s heart for mission as the determining theme of Scripture and traces through Old and New Testament to prove its case. Secondly I was quite impacted at BCNZ by my reading of Grenz’s theology and how he sees the themes of ‘community’ and eschatology shaping Scripture. My interest at that time in the story of Willow Creek church led me to Gilbert Bilizekian’s ‘Community 101’ where he outlines his case for redemptive community as Scripture’s key theme. I liked this so much that I found myself working it into a creed which played at Baptist Assembly a year or two back. Thirdly I recall the discussions at BCNZ about whether biblical insight should rule theology or whether theology should rule biblical insight, and also the discussion of metanarratives in Paul Windsor’s ‘Gospel in a Post Christian Society’ class.

    Certainly this issue was raised for me during my theological study, and I should leave open the possibility that it was raised in other ways that I can no longer recall. I guess I’m just waking up to the importance of the question in that it can shape preaching ministries, and to a related extent, congregations.

    Some things about this question:
    a. It lies between disciplines – should one expect to cover it in a theology class or a preaching class or a new and old testament survey class?
    b. It is hard to answer with finality, but if one doesn’t tackle it there is a risk of being rudderless or allowing one’s biases too much air.
    c. It is certainly a responsibility of the preacher as much or more than the responsibility of the tertiary training institution. As such, I’m not trying to lay any blame with this article. If anything this is one reason why pastors could do with a refresher course in theology after 10 years or so of ministry! We have a lot of power in our hands and need to be responsible for how we use it.

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