Exegetes at Church

A few recent conversations have sparked some thoughts about going to church as a critically-engaged exegete.

Biblical exegesis is all about critical analysis of the details of a text and critical scrutiny of other exegetes’ work.  Several times after intense and involved class discussions, someone has commented that it must be tough to go to church.  If you’re analyzing the nitty-gritty of a text so closely, emphasizing each feature as crucial, how do you put up with sloppy preaching?

Good question.

Here are a few scattered thoughts, in no particular order.

First, there’s a world of difference between a critical mind and a critical spirit.  A critical mind is essential for the classroom and important for life.  A critical spirit, however, is soul-corrupting and community-destroying.  Hopefully, as I mature, I’m cultivating the first while avoiding the second.

Second, I don’t expect a classroom experience in church or an academic paper from a preacher.  Further, my attention span on a Sunday morning is about eight minutes.  The kid sitting in front of us usually reads Berenstain Bears books during the service, so I have to fight the urge to lean forward and find out what’s making Papa Bear freak out.  Rather than a complex treatment of interpretive options, I love hearing someone trace the broad contours of a text to provide a sweet and simple glimpse into the grace of God in Christ.

Third, when I hear something I haven’t heard before, or even something I’ve previously dismissed as unworkable, I don’t pass judgment and shut down.  I take it up and consider it.  I look again at the biblical text and ask if it fits.  Such opportunities force me to re-examine the text more closely and that’s always a good thing.

Fourth, ministry is hard.  It’s lonely.  Pastors hear far more criticisms than encouragements.  Rather than an exegetical critique on the way out, what a pastor needs to hear at the end of a service is, “thank you.  I appreciate that.  I hope you have a good week.”

Finally, I go to the weekly gathering of my church family as a Christian.  That is, my aim must be God’s aim, and his priority for my church is for it to grow in unity and love as a people called and brought together by the Spirit of God in Christ.  That aim must orient my behaviors.  So, when I’m at church, I try to have one or two good conversations, asking someone some good questions about how they’re doing.  I try to have some good laughs.

Criticizing the sermon simply is not on the agenda.

Exegetes, new and experienced, how do you approach the Sunday gathering?

Pastors, what are your experiences with professors in the pew?

19 thoughts on “Exegetes at Church

  1. Tim Cole

    In my 3rd year in a NT Th.M. program (early 80’s), I ate supper with F.F. Bruce, long-time NT exegete from Machester (Eng). I asked him what he told his Ph.D. students before they left for their posts. He replied: ‘read your Greek NT everyday’. My thesis advisor said: Stay in the text. Wise counsel. Later while working in a doctoral program under J. Sailhamer (in OT), I heard essentially the same thing. Now, after 30 years of taking their counsel seriously and expounding the Biblical Text each week to a congregation, the approach remains the same: Study the recipe carefully. Design a meal for the soul saturated with Christ. Give the people bread, but not the recipe.

  2. Adam Lorenz (@adamlorenz)

    Often it has been my experience that Biblical exegesis, or a persons personal ‘proper’ exegesis is placed ahead of what it means to ‘be’ and ‘do’ church.

    As I sit in seminary classes, the thought often crosses my mind about how much emphasis is placed on the pulpit but not the actual sacraments or community in the formation and training of pastors – and how that then plays itself out later in their ministries.

    Through that somehow, an appreciation for the homilies found in many Catholic churches has grown on me and a curiosity of what it might look like for a community to ‘level the playing field’ of a service.

    1. timgombis

      Certainly different traditions have different emphases in their services, and no doubt exegetes tend to envision the preaching / handling of the text as paramount.

  3. Andrew T.

    Tim said “First, there’s a world of difference between a critical mind and a critical spirit.

    Quoted for truth (QFT) – and good observation.

    That said, “Is there such thing as ‘sloppy preaching?” If so, how does one recognize it, how does one deal with it?

    1. timgombis

      Most certainly there is, Andrew, but dealing with it is a real tough one requiring probably a range of discussions! I’m glad I’m in a fellowship with a very careful, thoughtful preacher. I know that’s not the case for everyone . . .

  4. Bill C

    Tim, I came to the recent realization that the critical skills and abilities that I had honed in over 40 years on business management were useless when “in Community”! I never did have a business assignment where the goal was to love my neighbor! Worship service is a Community event and critical skills such as evaluating the sermon or the music simply do not apply.

    1. timgombis

      Well said, Bill. Another instance of how our perceived gifts and talents can be weaknesses when it comes to participating fruitfully in the church. We’re not there to analyze, but to enjoy, to love and be loved.

  5. Josh

    Reblogged this on Soli Deo Gloria and commented:
    I greatly appreciated these thoughts from Tim Gombis.
    “there’s a world of difference between a critical mind and a critical spirit. A critical mind is essential for the classroom and important for life. A critical spirit, however, is soul-corrupting and community-destroying. Hopefully, as I mature, I’m cultivating the first while avoiding the second.”

  6. aussiemef

    Being both a professor teaching bible and a preaching Pastor the latter has been the much harder work. Bringing God’s word to a congregation is (for me) a much more difficult task. And particularly now in a city where there is a strong influence that women should not preach or teach I have found not the professors as critics with but believers who believe the meaning of the text regarding women is obvious. Professors are much more aware of the hard work of preaching.

  7. Jackie Whyte

    Hi Tim from wet and windy Northern Ireland!
    I get the opportunity to preach once a year in the church where my Masters’ lecturer and tutor attends. The congregation includes quite a few professional and highly educated people from many walks of life. The advice my lecturer gave me was that all they wanted from me was to consider how they might be better at being a Christian, not so much a heavy or techincal message, it was very releasing, as are your comments on the subject.


    1. timgombis

      Hey Jackie, glad to hear it’s windy and wet there — it’s been bucketin’ and blowin’ here like the north coast!

      Being freed up like that is a wonderful encouragement. I can imagine it would be intimidating to have profs in your congregation. Glad he’s also wise!

  8. imaginewithscripture

    “Fourth, ministry is hard. It’s lonely. Pastors hear far more criticisms than encouragements. Rather than an exegetical critique on the way out, what a pastor needs to hear at the end of a service is, “thank you. I appreciate that.”

    This is exactly right. Thank you, Tim.

  9. Dave Wainscott

    What a tremendous..
    post. I am a pastor AND college Bible teacher..

    Without me planning it, our organic congregation (i haven’t really ‘preached’ in years; we have moved more into open source conversation, ).has moved into a season where we balance critical exegesis AND devotional/formational. Often i will suggest the “contours’ (your phrase was so helpful), but all have a chance to speak and discern the developing message.

    In a way, I am thrilled to most of our people (even…especially?..the young) are able to do deep exegesis. partly because i have faith in them.

    I worry that I/we, though, might find it hard to sit through a sermon at another church that was full of sloppy textwork/eisegesis. So have gone overboard on praying and speaking well of other congregations.

    Oh, i am belated in thanking you for the Ehesians book. I have used it as a textbook in class AND as a resource for our church’s “17 year series on Ephesians”…. It had been huge for both,,


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