Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Conversation of Worship - The Public Reading of Scripture

The public reading of Scripture is a feature of the corporate worship of God’s people, both in the Old Testament and New Testament. Public reading of Scripture was found during the wilderness wanderings (Exod 24:7), the great reformation of Josiah (2 Kings 22-23), and the return of the exiles under Ezra and Nehemiah (Neh 8-9). In each of these cases, as well as more that could be cited, the public reading of Scripture played a major and vital role in the revival and growth of God’s people. This practice was carried over into NT Judaism, seen in the life of Christ (Luke 4:16ff) and Paul (Acts 13:15ff; esp. v. 27), though the reading of the word was typically not mixed with submission in those who heard it.

Paul considered his own writings as authoritative and worthy of public reading. He command the public reading of Scripture in 1 Timothy 4:13 (“Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture”), Colossians 4:16 (When this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodicea), and 1Thessalonians 5:27 (I adjure you by the Lord to have this letter read to all the brethren.) Likewise, the letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation were to be read to the churches, as the message of Jesus Christ to the people. Thus, the mandate for the public reading of Scripture seems clear.

However, the public reading of Scripture may be the most uncommon of worship practices in modern churches, particularly in fundamentalism. Though we have long and rightly emphasized the preaching of the word, we have often overlooked the naked reading of the Word. It is generally not viewed as a dynamic part of the worship, and perhaps viewed by many as boring and uninteresting.

What is striking in the OT passages is that the people’s attention was focused on the Scriptures for lengthy periods of time. They would stand while the Law was read from for hours at a time—from “early morning until midday” in Nehemiah 8:3 and for a fourth of the day in Nehemiah 9:3.[1] In our modern culture of constant visual and aural stimulation, our attention span struggles with just a few verses of reading, much less more lengthy passages. This failure to discipline the mind to hear the reading has robbed the church of a blessing that comes from obedience to this command of God. The reading of Scripture calls for our rapt attention on every word, trying to gather in not just the words of Scripture but their relationship to one another, trying to understand the point that is being made.

There are a number of ways in which the public reading of the Word can be carried out. It can be done by a single person reading aloud to the assembled congregation, by means of responsive reading (alternating verses between a solo leader and the unison reading aloud of the congregation), or by having the congregation read aloud together. A variety of practice can be beneficial in exposing ourselves to the Word of God through the bare reading of Scripture without comment.

[1] It may be that these long sessions also included “translating to give the sense” of the Scripture, which would be preaching.


Matt said...

Excellent reminder, Larry. I wonder, though, how effective responsive and unison reading are.

In my experience, the congregation reads rather slowly and pedantically. Thus, encumbering one's ability to follow the flow of thought.

I find solo reading to be the most effective. It allows the reader to "interpret" the mood of the text and attempt to communicate (i.e. read) it in a way that makes it understandable and flowing.

I am open to responsive and unison reading. But I would like to see a congregation that reads with enthusiasm rather than out of a sense of duty.

just my thoughts...

Matt Olmstead

Anonymous said...

Though the form may be different, as much of our current worship form differs from OT worship, it seems that the reading of the Word is still central in most of our services since we preach from the Word we have read.

Our church does not have a stand-alone Scripture reading time in the worship services, but our messages always begin with Scripture reading, followed by preaching which is intended to make the meaning known and applicable to the listener. How is that different in substance from what we find in Nehemiah 8?

Larry said...

Thanks for reading ...


Responsive and unison reading are a bit more cumbersome and not my favorite, though we do it from time to time. It is usually just a verse or two at the beginning of the service as a "Call to Worship" kind of things. On occasion, for instance at our annual Thanksgiving Pie and Praise service (perhaps we should call it Praise and Pie to get the order right), we usually have a responsive reading. Not often otherwise.

To anonymous,

I think that is the public reading of Scripture in line with what I am suggesting. I am not necessarily encouraging a time different than the beginning of the message so much as noting that Scripture does have the public reading of Scripture.

It seems that some churches do not have this reading because the preaching is topical or idea driven rather than text driven. In addition, a sermon that is based on a single word lifted from its context makes for a rather uninspiring public reading as well.

BTW, I encourage commenters to use a name for conversational purposes.

svb89 said...

We are blessed with multiple copies of God's Word coupled with a literate society (well....), and have drifted from this practice. In OT and NT times, public reading HAD to take place or you would NEVER know what God's Word said.

Having said that, however, I have been taking this admonition more seriously (how many in our churches actually DO read their Bibles?). We have started doing longer portions of responsive reading from the Psalms each Sunday AM, and I, for one, have been blessed.

svb89 said...

My name is not svb89 but Randall

Chip Van Emmerik said...

Sorry, I was not sure how it would work. I do not have a Google password or an "other" webpage, so I chose anonymous because it was eaisiest. I just noticed the line that says all these fields are optional. Hopefully this will work.

Our sermons our normally expository, so they are drawn from one primary passage. However, there are times when they are expository/topical - where a thought the author glossed over in his epistle because he had covered it in person previously needs to be fleshed out to be understood in our church setting. These instances may only have one verse read at the beginning of a message, though many other verses/passages will be read during the course of the sermon.

And there are some topical messages thrown in as well, but never without careful use of Scripture throughout. Would you include these instances under Scripture reading in the church?

I guess my question comes down to this. Most church I have attended that promote "Scripture Reading" in the service have a time in the service dedicated to this, and the passage is generally distinct in content from the message. I have no problem with this, I am just wondering if this is the only way to faithfully follow the pattern of Scripture reading found in Scripture.

Larry said...

First, as far as names go, I don't particularly care whether you have a blogger account. It is enough for me that one sign with a name at the bottom. And I won't delete you for not using a name. It is just a preference, particularly for responding. I like to talk to people with names ...

To Randall, there is a point to the fact that public reading was the only way to hear Scripture for the most part. So it definitely has a different nature now.

To Chip, I think there are some acceptable ways to do topical messages, provided we do it with great care not to abuse the text or the topic. Tying that into reading, I still think it beneficial to have some relevant Scripture reading during the service, whether from the text being preached from, or a related text of some sort. Even if one is picking a topic from a verse, the paragraph itself still sets the context for the use of the phrase and justifies the topic being addressed.

I think there are different acceptable ways to read the Scripture publicly (whether unison, responsive, or solo; whether the text of the message or another text; whether prior to the message by the pastor, or earlier in teh service by another person). On the other hand, I am not sure there are acceptable ways to not read the Scripture publicly.