Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Public Reading of Scripture

Recently in our church, the elders decided that I would read both the Old Testament and New Testament readings in worship. This brings our practice more into conformity with the OPC Directory for Public Worship. While it allows ruling elders and men training for the ministry to read Scripture in worship as the session deems fitting, it also says that the public reading of Scripture is ordinarily to be done by the minister of the Word. 

“Because the hearing of God's Word is a means of grace, the public reading of the Holy Scriptures is an essential element of public worship. He who performs this serves as God's representative voice. Thus, it ordinarily should be performed by a minister of the Word.” (DPW II.A.2.a)

The public reading of Scripture is an essential part of Christian worship and of a minister’s duty. Just as reading the Scripture was a part of weekly Old Testament worship in the synagogue (Acts 13:27, Acts 15:21), so Paul exhorted Timothy concerning New Testament worship, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). In fact, it is evidence of the fact that the apostles viewed their teachings as on par with the Old Testament when they directed the churches to read their writings in the assembly (1 Thess. 5:27, Col. 4:16). When John wrote the book of Revelation, he wrote it to the seven churches via their “angels,” that is, their preachers (the word can be translated “messengers”; Rev. 2:1, 2:8, etc.), who would “read aloud the words of this prophecy” so that the people of the churches would “hear” it (Rev. 1:3). 

Our OPC Directory for Public Worship builds upon the earlier Directory for Public Worship written by the Westminster Assembly in 1645, which said, 

“Reading of the word in the congregation, being part of the publick worship of God, (wherein we acknowledge our dependence upon him, and subjection to him,) and one mean sanctified by him for the edifying of his people, is to be performed by the pastors and teachers. Howbeit, such as intend the ministry, may occasionally both read the word, and exercise their gift in preaching in the congregation, if allowed by the presbytery thereunto … Beside publick reading of the holy scriptures, every person that can read, is to be exhorted to read the scriptures privately, (and all others that cannot read, if not disabled by age, or otherwise, are likewise to be exhorted to learn to read,) and to have a Bible.” 

The Westminster Assembly also included this distinction between public and private Bible reading in our Larger Catechism (1646), which in answer to question 156 says,

“Although all are not to be permitted to read the word publicly to the congregation, yet all sorts of people are bound to read it apart by themselves, and with their families…” 

The Westminster Assembly defended this position in its Form of Presbyterial Church Government (1646). There it said of pastors that 

“ belongs to his office … To read the Scriptures publickly; for the proof of which, 1. That the priests and Levites in the Jewish church were trusted with the publick reading of the word is proved (Deut. 31:9-11, Neh. 8:1-3, Neh. 8:13). 2. That the ministers of the gospel have as ample a charge and commission to dispense the word, as well as other ordinances, as the priests and Levites had under the law, proved, where our Saviour entitleth the officers of the New Testament, whom he will send forth, by the same names of the teachers of the Old (Is. 66:21, Matt. 23:34). Which propositions prove, that therefore (the duty being of a moral nature) it followeth by just consequence, that the publick reading of the scriptures belongeth to the pastor’s office.” 

With respect to the Old Testament practice, I might add that later on it seems that public reading and teaching was also done by rabbis under the supervision of the elders, which is why Jesus and Paul were able to read and teach in the synagogue despite not being Levites. Yet I do not think it affects the assembly's argument much, since the public reading was still restricted to approved men who find their New Testament equivalent in the ordained pastors and teachers of the church. I think their argument from the Old Testament is sound, but I also realize that many Christians today might find the argument from New Testament that I mentioned above (1 Tim. 4:13, Rev. 1-3) more convincing. 

You will notice that the Westminster Assembly, unlike the OPC directory, does not make an exception for ruling elders to lead public worship. Presbyterians have differed over the years on where exactly to draw the line between ruling elders and teaching elders. We they have generally agreed that while all elders ought to be able to teach and defend the faith, among the elders of the church there are some elders "who labor in the word and doctrine" (1 Tim. 5:17 NKJV) and that these "teaching elders" or "ministers of the word" are at least primarily responsible for the public reading and preaching of Scripture. 

Why is all this important? Not only as a history lesson, but because Scripture is central to the relationship between God and his people. It is the covenantal document that binds us to him. It seems ironic that many liberal mainline churches and Roman Catholic churches have more Scripture reading in their service than many Bible-believing evangelical and fundamentalist churches. The Bible itself and our Presbyterian heritage would urge us to cherish the public reading of Scripture as an essential part of worship in its own right (in addition to preaching, prayer, etc.). May the messengers of the churches read the word, as well as preach the word, with authority and clarity. May we all listen attentively and receive it with understanding, reverence, and faith. 

"Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near." (Revelation 1:3) 

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