Frag-men-tar-y Ex-po-si-tion

October 17, 2013

In a sincere effort to emphasize the text of Scripture and to keep their messages biblical, some preachers engage in what we could call “fragmentary exposition.”

Here is the typical pattern for fragmentary exposition:

  1. Break the text unit down into its component parts–i.e. words and phrases.
  2. Take up each word or phrase in the order in which it appears in the English text and develop it as a separate point.

Perhaps an example would help. Here’s a sermon excerpt from Romans 12:1-2 to illustrate what fragmentary exposition looks like:

My first point is Paul’s appeal. Paul begins v. 1 with an appeal. The word Paul uses means “to exhort.” He is not just giving advice. He is summoning the Roman believers to obey. This is not the only time in Romans where Paul makes an appeal. Turn to Romans 15:30 . . . And now turn to Romans 16:17 and let’s look at another instance of Paul making an appeal. . . . You also see Paul making appeals in 1 Corinthians 4:16; 16:15; and Philemon 10. So, then, it is important for us to recognize that the Bible is not just a collection of truth statements. It comes to us and appeals to us to live in light of those truths.

Transition: So we have, first of all, Paul’s appeal in v. 1. Next we have Paul’s audience–“brothers.”

The word translated “brothers” here is adelphoi. It reminds us of the family relationship that believers have because of Christ. This is a recurring theme throughout the New Testament. For example, turn with me to the letter of Philemon. We have in this short epistle a powerful example of how individuals who were once estranged can be reconciled and become brothers in Christ. . . .

Transition: We have seen Paul’s appeal and Paul’s audience. Now, let’s consider Paul’s attitude reflected in the word “mercy.” . . .

Now, before I offer my critique, let me say that there are several commendable qualities here:

  1. The outline is simple, clearly stated, and (for all you ardent advocates of alliteration out there), it is alliterated. More importantly, however, the outline is derived from the text.
  2. Certainly attention is given to the words of the text, and the discussion that ensues is thoroughly biblical.
  3. Each word or phrase is considered from a big picture, whole Bible perspective.

There’s no doubt that this kind of preaching could and does minister to God’s people. However, there are several significant weaknesses reflected in this approach.

  1. Though attention is given to the details of the text, the individual parts are not related to each other.
  2. As a result, the idea of the passage is not clear. The audience may leave with a good understanding of the meaning of each word but still not know what Paul is saying in verses 1-2. One of our obligations is to show  our listeners how the parts fit together. How does this word relate to the next word? How does this phrase connect up with the big idea of the text? How do these verses fit into the immediate and broader literary contexts?
  3. One significant area of weakness is in the transition. The transition indicates sequence (“First . . . next . . .”) but does not reflect the logical relationship between the points.
  4. Also, the listener gets the impression that each word or phrase is a main point. And although each word and phrase is breathed out by God, it is not true that each word or phrase shares the same semantic weight or significance within the passage. Some words have a subordinate and supporting role to play. Therefore, we must stress the central thought while showing our listeners how the subordinate details relate to and contribute to the big idea.

So how could we make the preceding exposition a bit better? Consider this example:

The main point that comes out of v. 1 is this: Paul exhorts believers to consecrate their lives to God in light of His mercies. The word Paul uses in v. 1 for “appeal” indicates that this is not just good advice or his personal recommendation. No, it is a strong and urgent exhortation to consecration. And this appeal is directed to believers as the term “brothers” indicates. Those who are called to consecration are those who have come to believe the gospel that Paul preaches in the first 11 chapters of Romans. And it is that very gospel that serves as the basis for Paul’s appeal for consecration. Notice, v. 1, he appeals to them “by the mercies of God.” . . .

In this example . . .

  1. The main point is a complete thought representing the central idea of the passage. This is why I always encourage my students to steer away from topic or phrase outlines in favor of sentence outlines (or some combination of the two).
  2. The supporting details are covered much more quickly and succinctly because the explanation is “along the way” to the bigger point. The focus in the exposition, then, is on how these individual words and phrases relate to the larger concept.
  3. There is greater unity and coherence in this example because an effort is made to relate the parts and show how things fit together.

I applaud those who reverence God’s Word enough to take it seriously in their exposition. I appreciate those who want their preaching to be thoroughly biblical. But fragmentary exposition is not the best approach. Fragmentary exposition leads to a fragmentary understanding on the part of the listener. Instead, approach the details of the passage as a means to arriving at the main idea of the passage. Then preach the main idea as the main idea and keep the supporting cast in the background.


Question: Do you see any additional weaknesses or problems with the fragmentary approach to exposition? Or, do you think the fragmentary approach is valid and valuable? If so, let me know why.


Kerry McGonigal

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In Adam by birth but in Christ by grace. That's my story. Husband to one and father of three. Pastor, homiletics teacher, and passionate proponent of expository preaching. If you like what you've read and want to be notified of future posts, take a second and subscribe via RSS or email (on the right sidebar). Opinions expressed here are my own.

9 responses to Frag-men-tar-y Ex-po-si-tion

  1. It does seem like the fragmentary approach could easily lead to (1) Imaginative exposition (finding SOMETHING to say for a whole point about this word) and (2) Undue repetition. If we preach the whole biblical basis for exhortation every time we read the word “exhort” then we’re going to end up repeating ourselves frequently.

  2. A fragmented approach certainly has its disadvantages because it neglects the main idea of the text. The approach simply preaches key words (in the example: from only 2 verses, no less). However, it’s harder to spot a fragmented approach when using an entire passage. Would you still consider using a key word per paragraph as fragmentary exposition? A key word can most certainly embody the main idea of a paragraph (although I agree, a sentence to state the main point would be preferable).

    • Brian, thanks for your question. The key word approach, if I understand what you’re referring to, is not the same as fragmentary exposition. In fact, the key word approach, if done well, can contribute significantly to the unity of the sermon. Fragmentary exposition, on the other hand, tends to take listeners in many different directions without a central unifying thought. However, for the key word approach to work well, the key word must be part of a larger, more complete sentence which communicates the central thought of the paragraph.

  3. Most interesting study on exposition. Thank you for your ministry, Mr. McGonigal.

  4. I don’t have a thought as much as I do a question.

    Can you address (whether via comment here or a new blog post) the place of other passages upon the one you’re examining? That is, how much weight should be given to other passages’ discussion of a particular subject? For example, would it be appropriate for a preacher to address other Bible passages’ teaching on “the mercies of God” (Rom 12.1)? If not, what is a better way of exegeting or expositing a particular “loaded” concept from the passage in question?

    I ask because this concept seems to be similar to the frag-men-tary approach you address in this post. Such a message could theoretically address all the “nuts and bolts” (and what other “machines” they are used in!), but never direct listeners to the structure of the “machine”—or worse yet, never point them to the importance of this “machine” upon their every day lives.

    Thanks in advance for reading (and replying to?) my barrage of questions! 🙂

    • Dustin, these are great (and important) questions. So much so that I will plan to address them in a future post. Thanks for taking the time to interact and further the conversation.

  5. This seems to be a case of exposition translating into a sermon rather than exposition leading to the “big idea” to the sermon?

  6. @Dustin: I remember a few years ago, we had asked a fine Bible expositor to preach to us (a youth group) on Rom 12:1-2. He spent the first 20 minutes going through Rom 1-11 because of the word “Therefore” in 12:1. And the sermon turned out really well. I hope this is not called fragmentary exposition because the “mercies of God” had to be explained using the Rom 1-11 to justify the use of the word “Therefore”.