Who Reads Scripture in Public Worship?

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Many Protestant churches today allow unordained male and female members of the congregation to be readers in church services. Our Dutch sister churches, the GKv, have joined them. In this article, Dr Cornelis Van Dam investigates whether this practice is something new or whether there is a precedent.[i]

When visiting The Netherlands the last number of years and worshipping in our sister churches, it struck me how in virtually every service, the reading of Scripture was done by a female member of the congregation from a lectern usually somewhere in front of the pulpit. This piqued my interest and raised some questions. Why would someone other than the minister read Scripture and had women done the public reading of Scripture in worship before? Is this practice something new or would there be a precedent for such reading in the history of Christian worship? To answer these questions, let’s consider what Scripture and the history of the church can tell us.

The biblical evidence

Reading holy Scripture is a most solemn event. It means having an audience with God. He speaks through his Word and we listen. This demands an atmosphere of complete reverence as when God himself spoke from Mount Sinai to Israel. This event was followed by Moses reading the Word of God as he had received it from the Lord himself on the Mount (Exod 29:1-23:33). As God’s spokesman, Moses had a special place, but what he did in reading God’s revelation would in principle be done by others who read Scripture in holy worship.

Whenever the Bible informs us about who reads Scripture, we are told it was men with a special office. In Old Testament Israel, God through Moses entrusted the Levitical priests and the elders with God’s revelation of the law and with the responsibility for reading it out loud for all Israel every seven years in the joyful year of release at the Feast of Tabernacles (Deut 31:9-11). In this way the reading of the Word of God was to be integrated into public worship. Godly King Jehoshaphat sent officials, Levites and priests to teach and therefore to read of Book of the Law throughout Judah (2 Chron 17:7-9). It is clear from the rediscovery of the Book of the Law about two hundred years later in the days of King Josiah that the regular reading of the Law had stopped at some point. King Josiah himself read to all the people the words of the Book of the Covenant (2 Kings 22-23). When the exiles returned, it was Ezra, a scribe and a priest, who read from the Book of the Law at the Feast of Tabernacles to renew the covenant (Neh 8). These were the most solemn assemblies of covenant renewal and reformation. The Lord reminded his people through the prophet Malachi that priests were to be his messengers (Mal 2:7) and that surely included the public reading of Scripture.

In the New Testament times the Lord Jesus read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah on the Sabbath in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-19). Such a reading from Scripture was done every Sabbath (Acts 13:15, 27; 15:21). The Apostle Paul charged Timothy to devote himself to “the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim 4:13; see also Col 4:16; 1 Thess 5:27). It is noteworthy that this reading was to be followed by exhortation and teaching (1 Tim 4:13), or as we would put it, a sermon. The apostolic admonition that “women should keep silent in the churches” (1 Cor 14:34) is consistent with the fact that the Bible only mentions reading of Scripture by men with a special office.

The early Christian church and the Reformation

There is no patristic evidence from the early Christian church that those who read Scripture in public worship and then frequently explained it included women. The readers were men and by the third century such a reader even underwent ordination (Cyprian, Epistle 32) and this office became a way to enter the ministry. However, by the early ninth century the office of reader had declined and became redundant. Its function had been taken over by deacons and elders.[ii]

The Reformation in Scotland briefly revived the office of reader. The First Book of Discipline (1560) commended this office as a temporary measure for congregations without a minister. “The most apt men” were to be appointed to read the prayers and Scripture. Through further training a reader could eventually become a minister. This office was however short-lived. By 1580, the General Assembly “decreed that, as the reader’s office was ‘no ordinary office within the kirk of God,’ existing readers, on examination, should either become ministers or be deposed. In 1581 the Assembly prohibited the appointment of further readers.”

The sixteenth century Puritan Prayer Book mentions Scripture reading before the service begins, “Upon the days appointed for the preaching of the word, when a convenient number of the Congregation are come together, that they may make fruit of their presence till the assembly be full, one appointed by the Eldership shall read some chapters of the canonical books of Scripture, singing Psalms between at his discretion and this reading to be in order as the books and chapters follow, that so from time to time the holy Scriptures may be read through.” The Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God (1645) specified that “reading of the Word in the congregation, being part of the public worship of God…is to be performed by the pastors and teachers.” The Westminster Larger Catechism (1648) also made it clear that “all are not permitted to read the word publicly to the congregation” (Q/A 156). Since such reading is closely tied to the preaching, this is to be done “only by such as are sufficiently gifted, and also duly approved and called to that office” (Q/A 158). It is clear that within the church service, the privilege of reading the Word was restricted to the minsters of the Word.

Like Scotland, also The Netherlands had the dilemma of churches without pastors. The first official synod of the Reformed churches in The Netherlands which convened in Emden (1571) decided that “where the ministry of the Word cannot be established the ministers of the classis should appoint readers, elders, and deacons so that the congregation may be gathered together” (Art. 41). And so here and there some churches had readers. As in Scotland not everyone was comfortable with this. In answer to the question whether it was a good idea to appoint readers where there were no ministers, the Synod of Middelburg (1581) answered that such appointments can be made but should not be done lightly. Classis needed to be notified ahead of time and its positive advice secured (Question 12). This synod was therefore concerned to maintain the position of ministers and the purity of doctrine and feared that without close classical involvement the position of reader could gradually transform into some kind of an office which was not ecclesiastical. In congregations without a minister, the consistory, being responsible for the worship service, could appoint a competent elder, or if such should not be available, a gifted member of the congregation. This type of reader still functions today, but it is not really the same as the reader who only reads Scripture before or in public worship.

There are however also sixteenth century Dutch examples of that type of reader. There were churches which had ministers but also had readers declaim the Scriptures either before the service started, as took place in Amsterdam, or during the service, as occurred in Dordrecht where the consistory decided to ask elders to read Scripture before the minister preached his sermon. For the most part, the reader who only read Scripture did so before the service began. We usually have organ playing before the service, but in those days, since Scripture knowledge was at a low level, the time before the service was used for reading God’s Word. There is no evidence that this was ever done by women, either before or in the service.

Special readers in the worship service?

Abraham Kuyper desired to see the reader, who should be an office bearer, function as a regular feature within the church service. He reasoned that involving more than one person in the liturgy would do more justice to the church service as a gathering of people, rather than people coming simply for that one person who preaches. It has also been argued that since the Bible belongs to all the people and not just the minister, a male member from the church, as representative of the congregation should do the Bible reading in public worship. Then the congregation also speaks.[iii] Putting the matter this way, however, does not do justice to the nature of a public worship service as a meeting between God and his people who come to worship. The minister speaks as God’s representative and so reads the Scripture and proclaims the message in a sermon. There is no need for a special reader. This is also the conclusion of a liturgical committee that advised Synod Middelburg (1933). In their view, the law and selected passages of Scripture should be read by the minister because he is “the mouth of God” in the gathering of the congregation.[iv]

It is precisely this point that needs to be stressed. The reading of Scripture is listening to God himself, an activity that requires great solemnity and reverence. But this reading is closely tied to the preaching that follows. This close relationship was evident already when the apostle exhorted Timothy: “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1 Tim 4:13). Reading and expounding Scripture belong together as the task of the minister. This is not a matter of worship being a one-man show. The minister is executing his office. And the congregation is not side-lined. Listening to the Word read and proclaimed is participating in the awesome reality of worship and adoration of the Lord our God. This includes responding by singing, praising, and serving him.

We need to be aware of and resist the pressures of the egalitarian culture in which we live, a culture which demands that everyone be treated the same. In this case, that suggests that everyone should have a chance to read Scripture in public worship. There is little understanding of divinely ordained office. This becomes evident when people can speak disparagingly of a “one-man show” when it comes to worship. In an instructive article, OPC pastor Gregory Reynolds notes that the very use of the term “one-man show” is “very instructive in analyzing the problem we face. In a world strongly flavoured by, and motivated with, entertainment, we have become a world of spectators who tend to envy those on stage. Thus, in smaller venues like bars and churches it is expected that everyone gets their moment in the spotlight. But public worship is not karaoke.”[v]

In Conclusion

When we look at the available biblical and historical evidence, the notion of having specially appointed people, other than the minister of the Word, to do the Scripture reading in public worship does not stand on very solid ground. It is therefore understandable that where the practice occurred, it had historically died out. Where it did take place, only ordained people normally did the reading. There is no evidence anywhere of women doing the reading in churches of the Reformation. That has changed.

Many Protestant churches today allow unordained male and female members of the congregation to be readers. Our Dutch sister churches have joined them. In the different reports on the place of women in the church, no specific answer to the question whether women should read Scripture in public worship seems ever to have been given, even though to answer that question was part of the mandate of the Deputies appointed by Synod Zwolle-Zuid (2008) to study the role of women in the church (Art 44, Besluit 8). By 2010 the practice of women reading Scripture in public worship is noted as a fact in a workbook published by these Deputies.[vi] And so the practice seems to have simply become acceptable without any official decision by a major assembly. Was it the pressure of egalitarianism and the felt need for more “participation”? We hope not. For when a church accommodates to society’s culture, it eventually becomes part of the culture and loses its distinctiveness as “church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). One thing seems certain. Since women have been reading Scripture in public worship, resistance to their being on the pulpit as an ordained minister seems to have lessened, judging from the latest report to this year’s Synod Meppel recommending that women be admitted to all the ecclesiastical offices.

Cornelis Van Dam

 

Endnotes

[i] Dr Van Dam is professor emeritus of Old Testament at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Ontario. This article is published here with his permission and was also published in Clarion (Canadian Reformed Magazine) April 21, 2017.

[ii] H.G.Davies, “Deacons, Deaconesses and the Minor Orders in the Patristic Period” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 14 (1963): 11, 13. “In the early church, readers were men who were appointed to publicly read from Scriptures during the assembly of the church.” David W. Bercot, ed., A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs (Peabody, Massachusetts Hendrikson, 1998), 552.

[iii] Kuyper, Onze Eeredienst  Kampen: Kok, 1911), 172, 270.

[iv] T. Hoekstra et al., Rapport: Inzake de Uitbreiding van den Bundel “Eenige Gezangen” (Kampen: Kok, 1933), 30.

[v] Gregory E. Reynolds, “Who Reads Scripture?” Ordained Servant 22 (2013): 11.

[vi] Frans Wisselink et al, Handleiding M/V met het oog op het gesprek over de inzet van mannen en vrouwen in de kerk (2010), 25.