In 1 Timothy 4:13, Paul instructs Timothy as follows: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching”.
In a series of posts, I’d like to explore what this verse might mean and look like in our lives. Similar to my post on whether we believe in the clarity of Scripture, I’d like to take a look at the difference between what we may think we believe, and what our practice actually testifies to. Like previous posts, I can only speak of my experience of church life: that of Sydney Anglicanism. I trust, however, that this will be of benefit to others.
Typical to many Sydney churches, perhaps, is what we may call a ‘relaxed liturgy’. The idea that we have no liturgy is, of course, nonsense, since we all have habits and cultures of doing church, even if it isn’t ‘codified’ in text like a prayer book. As a result of this trend, or so-called ‘freedom’, my observation is that in a 90 minute service, the congregation will hear two Bible readings of about 10-15 verses. If they’re lucky. My observation is that churches are increasingly adopting the habit of only having one Bible reading—and this Bible reading is effectively set within the context of ‘preparation for the sermon’ rather than standing in its own right (again, see the article on the clarity of Scripture).
Further, unless the service leader is particularly capable, the unwritten habitually-learnt phrases associated with the ‘relaxed liturgy’ usually result in a service being led with little reading of verses from Scripture. Now to be fair, occasionally we may sing a song that adapts Scripture, but it isn’t drawn to our attention as such. Nevertheless, my point is this: that in a service that runs for around 90 minutes, the Bible being read for public benefit usually takes about 3-4 minutes tops.
Let me take it further. On a given Sunday—particularly if the sermon is repeated across services (and since the readings are paired entirely with the sermons), the public reading of Scripture consists of about 15 verses in a week. In a given year we will get through, then, publicly, about 780 verses, or (for the mathematicians amongst us) 2.5% of the Bible.
There is much to explore here, and I’m sure you can probably argue successfully that to some extent I’m over-stating the case. But please bear with me and feel the weight of the observation I’m making, especially as I now hold up a comparison to our church practice, and see how we fare. Namely, how did the Reformers, whom we love and claim to be in the heritage of, work this verse out in practice? To do that, I’ll use the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which is largely the same as Cranmer’s 1552 prayer book service.
- Various verses from Scripture commence church
- The Lord’s Prayer
- Psalm 95
- 5 Psalms
- OT Reading (about 30 verses)
- NT Reading (about 30 verses)
- Luke 1:68-79 or Psalm 100
- The Lord’s Prayer
- The verses accompanying the collect
- The Grace (2 Cor 13:14)
The service for evening prayer follows a similar structure. Further, with the assumption that public services would be held morning and evening every day of the week, the OT and NT readings would be such that (and excluding the extra bits of Scripture that permeate church), over the course of the year, publicly, the whole OT would be read once, the NT twice, and the Psalms twelve times. This is a little more than 2.5%!
We can debate all kinds of things about the usefulness of what they did, etc. And over the next little while I want to tease out some implications of what it might look like to be devoted to the public reading of Scripture.
For the moment however, I want us to be honest with ourselves as people who claim to love the Bible as God’s word, knowing that we don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. As we compare ourselves to our heritage, is it really possible for us to say that we are, in our churches, devoted to the public reading of Scripture? Would any Reformer, whom we cherish so dearly, even recognize what we do compared to them? But the only question that matters of course is this: does God think we are devoted to the public reading of Scripture?