Devotion to the public reading of scripture

I previously wrote a review of Adrian Reynolds book Progress: lifelong growth for gospel workers. You can read my full review here.

One of the arguments made in the book related to the public reading of scripture. Particularly landing on Paul’s charge to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:13, the case is made that the preacher ought to be the one publicly reading the scriptures.

Many of the churches which call themselves evangelical and say they love the Bible spend precious time reading it aloud in services. Some of us, in a worthy attempt to tackle narrative passages of Scripture in whole story units, skimp on readings and give an edited highlights package of, say, 1 Samuel 17 – a sort of divine Match of the Day.

Moreover, even those church leaders who do include public reading of Scripture in services (and why would you not?) allocate the task to others rather than taking it on themselves. For some, this is part of a healthy attempt to avoid one person doing everything in a service, but I believe there is a real danger that we undervalue the nature of public reading of Scripture.

It could be, of course, that Timothy is to commit himself to the concept of public Scripture reading. This would be like Paul saying, ‘Make sure it happens, though it doesn’t matter who does it’. To be honest, that would be a good starting point for us to adopt if it led to more public reading!

But it seems difficult to square this abstract understanding with the more personal commands with which it is interwoven. We cannot be sure, but it seems most likely that the public reading that Paul has in mind is Timothy himself doing the job… There is a kind of public reading which is necessarily linked to the preaching and teaching and for which the preacher or teacher must take responsibility… Such a view still leaves room for others to read, of course. Indeed, if you have more than one reading in a service, someone else can read aloud the other passage… I imagine that most people in ministry are more devoted to the teaching of Scripture than we are to the public reading of it and some recalibration is required.

I think Adrian is onto several important points here but I am going to disagree with him on his overarching one.

Here is where I think he is right. I am with him, all day long, about the edited highlights approach to scripture reading. Whilst I understand why people take this approach, it does smack a little of prioritising people’s desire to get home for lunch over their commitment to hearing the scriptures publicly read and expounded. All too often, the sentiment along the lines of ‘it’s a bit long’ or ‘will people engage for all that?’ ring out from churches. There does, often, feel like a misordering of priorities. Despite the length when we, in my view rightly, take large chunks of narrative text to keep whole stories together, I firmly believe we should read the passage we are going to preach in its fullness.

Second, I think Adrian is right that there can be an implicit devaluing of scripture in churches. I will, shortly, disagree over how that occurs but the point bears considering. I suspect he is right that many are dedicated to the preaching of scripture while not quite so committed to the public reading of it. It is vital that we analyse how we might be devaluing scripture in its public reading and work hard to ensure that we are giving it proper weight in its rightful place.

Where I not so much disagree as place a different emphasis to Adrian is in both how we devalue scripture reading as well as what Timothy was being called to do. Adrian appears to argue that scripture reading is implicitly devalued when we farm it out to others and ties this into his view that Timothy specifically is called to devote himself to the public reading of scripture. I, by contrast, want to argue that 1 Timothy 4:13 isn’t demanding Timothy (or the preacher) be the one to read publicly and that using others to read does not devalue the public reading.

I acknowledge, along with Adrian, that Paul’s comments here are personal to Timothy. But I wonder if this is to overlook that the entire letter is written to Timothy. Whilst much in the letter gives instructions on others in the church, it can’t escape notice that they are all written to Timothy as things for him to implement.

It also bears asking, if Timothy is being commanded to devote himself to the public reading of scripture in this way i.e. he must do it himself, where does that leave us with the same commands for teaching and exhorting? If it is wrong to allow others to read the passage we are going to preach, is it not also wrong to allow others to teach when we are present? If, however, it is acceptable for others to teach while Timothy is in attendance, why not permit them to read on the same grounds? What about the command to devote yourself to exhortation; is this specific to Timothy or does it apply more widely?

We may want to argue ‘such a view still leaves room for others to read… if you have more than one reading in a service, someone else can read aloud the other passage’. Likewise, others may still teach if you have multiple services. But, if we are linking public reading specifically to Timothy and to one particular act of teaching, doesn’t it divorce the context to imply others may exhort and teach too? Is Timothy still devoted to teaching if he permits others to teach while he sits under the Word at any given meeting? If we have no problem with this, why is it a problem for public reading?

Adrian also seems to suggest that we implicitly devalue the public reading of scripture when we give it to others to do. There are two reasons that might be given for this (one legitimate, one less so). Legitimately, the argument may be advanced that the preacher is aware of the specific points and emphases he wishes to draw out from a passage and this should alter the manner in which we read the passage aloud. Less legitimately, one might simply wish to argue that the pastor (or preacher) has a weight of inherent authority that the lay reader doesn’t. To let a layperson read instead of the one vested with the authority to preach implicitly devalues the Word read.

The latter reason is a nonsense, of course. It is predicated on a view that the pastor, elder or preacher is somehow inherently more authoritative and significant than a layperson. Such a view fails to account for the priesthood of all believers, the imago dei, and much Biblical data about preferences in the church. Leadership authority in the church exists only so much as it corresponds to scripture. The priesthood of all believers makes clear that there are no ‘special persons’ in the church; ‘all are one in Christ Jesus’. Those who believe any aspect of service is devalued because it is not lead by an elder or pastor has misunderstood the nature of their role.

The former reason is much more legitimate. I think a good case can be made for asking the preacher to do his own reading to elucidate and emphasise the points he will draw from the text. However, I would want to suggest this is a question of wisdom, not Biblical fidelity. I don’t think asking another person to read inherently devalues the public reading of scripture, but I can see – prudently rather than strictly scripturally – it may behove the preaching if the preacher read his own text and emphasised what the Spirit will illumine in his preaching. That, however, is not a position drawn directly from 1 Timothy 4:13.

I want to say again, I think Adrian raises some really valid points in the section of preaching. Clearly, the public reading of scripture is significant enough for Paul to ensure that it is done. What is more, Adrian’s call for us to assess whether our practice implies that the public reading of our passage in its entirety is as important to us as scripture suggests is worth serious consideration. Have we adopted practices that implicitly (or explicitly) suggest a devaluation of scripture?

But do I think 1 Timothy 4:13 requires the preacher to do his own reading? I’m not so sure it does. I can certainly see good reasons to commend it as helpful. But is Paul concerned about Timothy reading or the scriptures being read? If Paul’s concern is that teaching and exhortation take place – albeit Timothy may be the one to do much of it – then I suspect we are pressing the demand for the preacher/teacher to do the public reading himself too far.

2 comments

  1. Building Jerusalem is my favourite blog!! but I’m not convinced on this one. I think you end up arguing for the exact opposite of what the verse teaches, send me your email address and I’ll send you some thoughts. Keep writing it’s good stuff

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