Posted by: chuckbumgardner | January 31, 2008

The Public Reading of Scripture

I am convinced that gospel-preaching churches ought to regularly read substantial portions of Scripture in their services.  I think that Paul’s words to Timothy in 1 Tim 4:13 are instructive in this regard:
Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.
“Public reading” is merely “reading” in the KJV (Gk. anagnosis), but the context of the verse indicates that this “reading” was something that was not personal and private, but in the same category as exhortation and teaching.  Cf. the use of the word in Acts 13:15 and 2 Cor 3:14.
This past Sunday, Ryan Martin taught a good lesson on the topic of the public reading of Scripture, demonstrating its value, and its precedent in Scripture and in church history.  I commend it to your listening. Once posted, you’ll find it here under the date of February 3.
In the lesson, he made the convicting point that mainline demoninations often read more of the Bible in their services as part of the liturgy (while formally denying its inspiration) than evangelical churches do in their services.  I’m thankful that in our church, we do read a chapter or two in our Sunday morning services.  We worked our way through Acts, and are in Isaiah now.
When we started through Isaiah, the thought crossed my mind that we perhaps should stick with NT books, as they are more suited for the church.  But Paul’s instruction to Timothy certainly was in reference to OT Scripture (with explanation from a Christian perspective, and in addition, no doubt, to available Christian writings such as Paul’s letters or the Gospels).
There is a passage in Pliny which is often used to highlight the use of music in the early church:
But they declared that all their fault or error amounted to was the custom of meeting on certain days before daybreak and singing a chant to Christ as to a god, taking turns, and binding themselves by solemn oath not to commit any crimes.
Concerning this passage, however, Richard F. Ward makes the following intriguing suggestion:
The word for “chant” is dicere carmen, which more appropriately describes the act of reciting a set form of words than it does singing. “Taking turns” refers to antiphonal recitations. (“Reading Scripture Aloud,” Reformed Liturgy and Music 30:2 (1996))
That is, he is suggesting that the reference is to Scripture being chanted, not singing as we would think of it.
Justin Martyr, in his First Apology, gave this description of Christian worship:
And so on the day called Sunday, there is an assembly in one place of all who live in the cities or in the country; the memorial of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time allows. After the reader has finished, the presiding officer verbally instructs and exhorts us to imitate these shining examples. (emphasis added)
I recognize that in many churches, the Scripture text upon which the pastor bases his sermon is read before the message, or as an introduction to the message.  And arguably, this is very much in the spirit of 1 Tim 4:13, giving attention to the public reading of Scripture in the context of exhortation and teaching. Such reading is, of course, a good practice, and perhaps would fulfill the spirit of what Paul means for Timothy to do. I suspect, however, that the church would profit even more from working through extended texts of Scripture.
In a former church at which I served, our pastor made the decision to begin to include public Scripture readings in our services (I believe we had them in our Sunday evening services).  Implementation was quite simple, and the practice was well received and profitable.  Would that Scripture was publicly and formally read in more of our churches!
In implementing such a practice, it might be wise to begin with Acts or a Gospel.  This choice commends itself because there is a storyline, so to speak, that is easier for “new listeners” to follow, and to maintain from week to week.  And it might be helpful for the pastor, at the onset of reading a particular book, to note two or three themes which strongly characterize the book; then before reading a particular chapter or two, one or more of the book’s themes which are prominent in the day’s text might be mentioned so the listeners can notice them.
I would also suggest that a church implementing public reading of Scripture give a printed set of guidelines to those who will be involved in the reading. Those who are chosen to read ought to be informed well in advance (a week at the least) so that they have adequate time to prepare. And when someone in church is asked to participate in the reading of Scripture, it might be wise to indicate that the pastor or someone else qualified to do so will meet with the reader after the reading to discuss how the reading went; this prepares the reader to accept any necessary critique and to improve skill in reading.
Resources (obviously, to be used critically):
Christopher K. Lensch, “The Public Reading of Scripture,” WRS Journal, 7:1 (2000), 19-22.  Excellent brief article.
Thomas McComiskey, Reading Scripture in Public: A Guide for Preachers and Lay Readers (Baker, 1991).  Outstanding resource.
Hughes Oliphant Old, the series The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church.  Six volumes which give historical perspective.  All are “search inside-able” at Amazon.
The Biblical Period (Eerdmans, 1998)
The Patristic Age (Eerdmans, 1998)
The Medieval Church (Eerdmans, 1999)
The Age of the Reformation (Eerdmans, 2002)
The Modern Age (Eerdmans, 2007)
Clayton J. Schmit, Public Reading of Scripture: A Handbook (Abingdon, 2002). McComiskey is to be preferred, in my estimation.
Howard Vanderwell and Norma de Waal Malefyt, “Reading Scripture in Public Worship.” Not altogether valuable, but helpful for some of its “practical suggestions”; consider the one on a standard spoken introduction and/or congregational response to the reading.
Richard F. Ward, “Reading Scripture Aloud,” Reformed Liturgy and Music 30:2 (1996).  A mixed review for this one, but of some value.


  1. You and Ryan must be studying the same material

  2. His lesson this past Sunday prompted this post! It was very good, and I commend it to your listening; it’s linked in the body of the post. It should be up on the church’s website fairly soon.

  3. […] posted on the public reading of Scripture several years back, but recently read an article that sparked […]

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