Posted by: Billy Marsh | May 21, 2008

Are We Devoted to the Public Reading of Scripture?

Over the past few months, for some reason or another, I’ve been brooding over the role of the public reading of Scripture in worship services and its lack thereof. Growing up in a traditional Southern Baptist church, most of my church exposure wasn’t very liturgical. Probably, the only formal “public reading” of Scripture occurred during the sermon or either on random occasions when the pastor wanted the text read before he entered the pulpit. Although, I do have a slight memory of a church my family attended when I was in elementary school where the deacons (my dad one of them) weekly read the sermon text before the sermon. Still, I haven’t been a part of a service where the public reading of Scripture played a major role in Sunday morning worship.

The most familiar verse on this topic is most likely 1 Timothy 4:13 when Paul tells Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” It wasn’t until SWBTS chapel services adopted a regular practice of reading through books of the Bible during each semester that I really experienced what it was like to hear large portions of Scripture read aloud over a corporate body of believers. Immediately, I was amazed at the sheer power and force that even the most familiar texts came across. Sitting under the reading of Scripture like that (especially with someone with a foreign accent), you could sense the Word of God fulfilling so many of its purposes (e.g. teaching, rebuking, correcting, exhorting, etc.) throughout the room. Now, I am more inclined than ever to believe that, especially as Protestants and people of whom the Bible has famously been the most central, we need to recover the public reading of Scripture as one of the primary parts of our worship services.

I just finished reading a book called The Last Word by N. T. Wright, and in it he gives five avenues in which Christians can hope to reclaim a right understanding and practice of the authority of Scripture. All five approaches pertain to varying modes of reading scripture. His second strategy is for a recovery of the liturgical use of reading Scripture publicly. And this is the main purpose of this post, that is, to submit to you some of his thought-provoking comments on this subject. For instance, he writes:

But the primary purpose of the readings is to be itself an act of worship, celebrating God’s story, power and wisdom and, above all, God’s son. That is the kind of worship through which the church is renewed in God’s image, and so transformed and directed in its mission. Scripture is the key means through which the living God directs and strengthens his people in and for that work. That, I have argued throughout this book, is what the shorthand phrase “the authority of scripture” is really all about (131).

Although I’m still trying to discern just exactly how Wright is defining “the authority of Scripture” in his book, I think the main idea he wants to get across is that the authority of Scripture consists of so much more than merely throwing around the phrases, “The Bible says this or that . . . ” or “The Bible says so.” Moreover, in response to the church for example that says they are in the clear regarding the implementation of the public reading of Scripture because they have the sermon text read aloud before the preacher comes to proclaim God’s Word, Wright says,

To truncate this to one lesson, or to a short reading simply as a prelude to the sermon (and perhaps accompanied with half an hour or more of “worship songs”), is already to damage or even deconstruct this event, and potentially to reduce the power and meaning of scripture, within this context, simply to the giving of information, instruction, or exhortation (132).

Even though Wright’s section on the public reading of Scripture and how the attention we give to it often reflects our view of its authority is restricted to only a few pages, he has many other helpful thoughts and insights on this issue. I think, in agreement with his assessment as well, that the departure in churches from having a blocked off part of the worship service devoted to reading through the Bible apart from the semon text has contributed in its own way in belittling the authority of Scripture in the hearts and minds of believers and its irreplaceable role in Christian worship, not to mention, the lack of a coherent and cohesive biblical-theology residing in most congregants’ theological systems. I don’t want to go to the extreme and say that the preaching of Scripture needs to be replaced by the public reading of Scripture; this would contradict much else that Paul has to say to Timothy, especially in light of his admonition in 2 Tim 4:2 to “preach the word.” However, I think it is time that we became more “devoted” to hearing and reading Scripture publicly, and maybe then, in our American culture of impatience and restlessness, the Holy Spirit will instill in us what Wright calls the “alarmed attention” to sit and listen and to worship the God who exercises his authority in and through the Word.

 

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Responses

  1. Amen. As a people of The Book, I’d love to see us SBCers more committed to its public reading.

    In our service, we use a passage as a responsive reading, to even make it more participatory.

    We also have “Bible Marathons” on occasion. This is where we set aside about 3 hours on a Friday night for the public reading of a Bible book together.

    A few weeks back we read through Acts together and shortly before that Luke.

    It’s amazing to see what is seen when you get the whole thing in one sitting, particularly in hearing it from a variety of readers.

    Of course, it’s easy to forget just how auditory the Scriptures were for generations of believers, who had no direct access to the text otherwise.

  2. Thanks Gunny for your encouragement. I really like some of your ideas and how your church deals with this issue. The “Bible Marathons” is a great approach! I would love to try something like that. I am a co-leader of a care group at Redeemer and we’ve been going through Colossians for a while, and I’ve been thinking about, once we finish the letter, taking one night and just reading through the whole thing in one sitting together. It wouldn’t be hard; of course, it’s much shorter than Acts or Luke, but like you said, “it’s amazing to see what is seen when you get the whole thing in one sitting.” Maybe you can help pave the way in SBC churches in reclaiming a primary spot in church worship for the reading of the Word. Keep on keepin’ on.

  3. I think you view is correct in that we need to hear more of Gods word in our live and the live of the church. Many times in church I look at what is to be read and find myself reading from the start of the passage or reading further then were we are at. Reading the word is good but hearing the word is great. We remember that much of the church only had public consumption of the spoken word. It seems to me that it will take some time to make a change, but a change does seem to be warranted. I remember when Bryan added some of the scripture reading in the service with the whole church reading it together. Some people did not like it, but I thought it added to the service. I wonder how the Seminary is teaching this aspect of Gods word being spoken in church today.

  4. […] Are we devoted to the Public Reading of Scripture? […]

  5. […] public reading of Scripture that I couldn’t find – but I found these one on ablog post “Are We Devoted to the Public Reading of Scripture” that gets the same point across (his post is worth reading): But the primary purpose of the […]


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