When Timothy was exercising responsibility over the Ephesian church, the apostle Paul instructed him as follows: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim 4:13). Although this was to be a temporary role for Timothy (“until I come”), it presumably outlived him in the life of the church; that is, when the apostle wrote “until I come”, he was not suggesting that the practice itself would be temporary, only that his own arrival would mark the end of Timothy’s personal responsibility to fight for and guarantee these practices.
In our own contemporary context, although the degree and specifics may vary widely from church to church, conservative evangelicals are known for being devoted to the Bible. ‘Sola Scriptura’ goes to the heart of who we are, being readily perceived both as those who hold Scripture in the highest authority, and as those who joyfully give ourselves to the teaching of that Word.
What follows in this article, however, is an exploration of the other aspect of devotion to Scripture that this verse enjoins upon God’s people, and one that receives less attention: the public reading of Scripture. That is, whilst we may be devoted to the teaching of Scripture, does the same hold true for our public reading of it? And, if so, what would the evidence of that be? What tangible realities would abundantly display our love and passion for hearing Scripture read out loud?
There is so much that could be written on this subject,1 and in some ways, this article is about a symptom of a deeper crisis in evangelical churches—of what church actually is—but it is by addressing this issue that deep and pervading help may be found, since it involves the breath-taking power of God’s living and active word transforming his people into Christ-likeness.
For some, the general scenarios I depict in this article or the comparisons I make may sound very alien to your own experience of church. Nevertheless, I trust that there is sufficient encouragement here for all of us to strive for the sounding of God’s voice in this world.
1. Devotion as ‘maximum application’
The imperative translated in 1 Timothy 4:13 as ‘devote’ is also regularly translated in Scripture as ‘pay careful attention to’, or, in more negative contexts, as ‘addiction’. The objects of our devotion dominate our horizon and they consume our vision. They are the things we labour for unreservedly and wholeheartedly; we are enslaved to them, unable to escape their pull. In the positive frame, we rejoice that that is the case: we want to be enthralled by them.
And we pursue this enthralment. Devotion is not an experience we are passive in, or an irrevocable force that we wait to ensnare us. Paul commands devotion of Timothy: it is an act of the will. It is something that we can pursue—sometimes in season, sometimes out, but a tangible reality of our lives nonetheless.
Therefore a devoted person is a ‘maximum application’ person, rather than a ‘minimum requirement’ person. Whereas a minimum requirement person looks to find the least they need to do in order to be able to say they are obedient, looking for reasons to do less, and begrudging anything more, the maximum application person is constantly looking for more ways to live out the command, and pursues them with fervour.
The elders of our churches have the responsibility then to promote, defend, and pay careful attention to the public reading of Scripture. As an addict (negatively) finds himself enslaved in his addiction, so the elder of God’s church is to be ‘addicted’, not just to the Bible or the teaching of it, but the audible public reading of it. And as they model love and passion for hearing the living word of God, so their flock learns to imitate and reflect them.
So the question is not whether we do read the Bible publicly; it’s not even if we recognize the importance or value of it. The question is whether we are devoted to it, whether it is readily and easily known to be our delight, our passion, our longing; the thing for which we joyfully labour and strive.
Is it possible to ‘quantify’ such devotion? The answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. On the one hand, devotion has nothing to do with quantity. It is possible to have a wealth of public Bible reading and yet have a heart that is far from caring about it. We can honour God with our lips whilst our hearts are far from him (Mark 7:6).
On the other hand, the answer is also ‘yes’. While giving significant time to reading Scripture publicly is no evidence of devotion to it, devotion will be evidenced by a maximizing tendency, which does have quantity-elements to it. To ask ‘how much’ may be to miss the point of what a devoted person is like, but to ask ‘how much more’ is exactly the point—looking not for the ceiling, but for the sky as our limit.
2. A mirror held up to current church practice
In light of this, I’d like to examine general public reading trends in evangelical churches by comparing them to a particular heritage: the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
Many evangelical churches are today characterized by what we might call a ‘relaxed liturgy’ (the idea that we have no liturgy is, of course, a nonsense, since we all have habits and cultures of doing church, even if it isn’t ‘codified’ in text like a prayer book). Within this relaxed format, or so-called ‘freedom’, the church will hear one or two Bible readings of about 10-15 verses each. If they’re lucky. There appears to be a trend in some evangelical circles to adopt the habit of 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.2
Furthermore, unless the service leader is particularly capable, the unwritten habitual 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. Regardless, my point is this: in a service that runs for around 90 minutes, the Bible reading usually takes about three or four minutes tops.
Let’s look at the wider church context. What if this church repeats the sermon across all services? And what if they pair their mid-week Bible-study groups with the sermon series? This means that, in any given week, church members will publicly hear 15 verses of Scripture (there are about 31,100 verses in the Bible, for those who are curious). In a given year, then, this church will publicly read about 780 verses, or (for the non-mathematicians amongst us) 2.5% of the Bible.
There is much to explore here, and lots of questions to be answered, and perhaps you could argue 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 hold up a comparison to our church practice to see how we fare. How did our English forefathers, whom many of us claim to be in the particular heritage of, work 1 Timothy 4:13 out in practice? Let’s look at the 1662 Book of Common Prayer order of morning prayer, which is largely the same as Cranmer’s 1552 morning prayer service. It includes:
- various verses from Scripture to commence church
- the Lord’s Prayer
- Psalm 95
- five Psalms
- an Old Testament reading (about 30 verses)
- a New Testament reading (about 30 verses)
- Luke 1:68-79 or Psalm 100
- the Lord’s Prayer again
- 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 Old Testament and New Testament readings would mean that over the course of the year the whole Old Testament would be read publicly once, the New Testament twice, and the Psalms twelve times. This is a little more than 2.5%!
It is well beyond this article to debate about the usefulness of what they did, or to talk about the place of set verses and corporate reading of Scripture. It’s also not possible to cover the reality of daily publicly reading the Scriptures, which was, from my small knowledge, at the very least evident in the New Testament, the early church, the English reformation, the English restoration, into the 19th century, and even—for children in schools at least in Sydney—into the twentieth century.
However, I want us to be honest with ourselves as people who love the Bible. As we compare ourselves to this heritage (whether it is ours or not), is it possible for us to say that we are, in our churches, devoted to reading God’s word aloud? Would the English reformers, whom we cherish so dearly, even recognize what we do? But the only question that matters is this: does God think we are devoted to the public reading of Scripture? What does he make of the evidence before him?
Again, this mirror that I have held up is not an attempt to quantify devotion to public Bible reading, but rather to find a practice that might exemplify it. And yet there is a quantitative aspect, because a devoted person always seeks to have more, not less. And at the moment, it would be very hard for some churches to have less than they currently do.
3. It’s not that difficult to change
Before we go any further, let me illustrate that this is not an area of life that would be hard to change—and it doesn’t take much to think of the awesome wonder of what would be produced should we change.
If your church’s current practice resembles the general picture above—of 15 verses per week or 2.5% of the Bible per year—it will take 40 years for someone to hear the whole Bible read publicly. This is only if the sermons never repeat, and the congregation has an active policy to get through the whole Bible every 40 years. Which, let’s face it, they probably don’t. This is the consequence of having a church structured so that the public reading of Scripture is solely driven by the preaching agenda—however expository that might be.
Using these rough percentages (15 verses roughly equates to half a chapter), imagine for a moment a church had three Bible readings: an Old and New Testament reading each week moving systematically through books, and a third reading for the sermon (a practice that many ministers would have encountered in chapel during their college training). We’d move from 2.5% of the Bible being read annually to 7.5%. What if these readings were about 30 verses (or one chapter) rather than 15 verses (or half a chapter)? We’d get through 15%. And again, what if we stopped running our Bible studies in parallel but had Bible studies different to the preaching? We’d read 20% every year; we’d get through the whole Bible once every 5 years.
Let’s take this one step further. What if, instead of segregating congregations according to demographic, we actively promoted church as being a ‘twice on a Sunday’ activity, with discreet Bible reading programs between services? After two and a half years, the whole Bible would be read publicly to those who came to church twice on Sundays, while those who attended one church meeting (whether through immaturity, health, shift-work or ministries like Sunday school) would still hear the whole Bible once every five years.
Again, this isn’t a matter of quantifying or mandating ‘how much’, just an illustration of how easy it would be to begin maximizing public Scripture reading. Would requiring two sermons on a Sunday mean significant time spent investing in training lay preachers (since it’d require two sermons on a Sunday)? Does the verse mandate that all Scripture is to be read? Do we need both Old and New Testament readings? Do we have three readings or two long ones, or one ‘whole book’ reading? What about preaching systematics and training courses? What about the logistics of building space? These are but a few of the questions that would need to be worked through, of course. But rather than think of all the objections that might arise, dream the dreams of a devoted person and imagine how public Bible readings might increase in your context.
4. Why we don’t
For the sake of argument, I’ll assume that our churches do have ‘minimizing’ tendencies with regards to public Bible reading. If that’s not you, praise God! I trust that there will be helpful things here anyway.
It’s impossible to specifically cover all the reasons for the decline in public Bible reading in some churches, but it’s here in particular that we start to uncover some of the underlying issues that the decline is symptomatic of: the drift in ecclesiology (theology of church), that current practices are both evidence of and shaping. People aren’t necessarily conscious of this as it happens, certainly. But it is issues like these that stir the pot enough for us to realize where we have come and are heading in what we think church is.
a. Some of us don’t realize what we are doing
Firstly, for some of us, it is simply because we’ve never thought about it before—we were converted or have grown up in or inherited a church model that never did anything different in our experience. We’ve been so busy rightly affirming our belief in the authority of the Word and our desire to teach (and be taught by) it faithfully that we just haven’t noticed that we don’t actually read much of the Bible with each other.
Secondly, there are those who are more conscious of it, given that they once used prayer books, but who now have, for the most part, abandoned formal liturgy. And by this I speak not just of what happens in a service (the order for morning prayer, for instance), but what governs the administration of those services across a period of time (tables of readings across years, etc.). Whatever the reasons we left prayer books behind, we also left behind safeguards to have the whole Bible read regularly. When we did this, we didn’t think through all of the consequences; we saw what would be gained but didn’t stop to think of what would be lost, for ourselves and our peers, but even more so for our children and grandchildren.
Thirdly, there has been a degree of intentionality to the minimizing of Scripture, albeit ‘rightly motivated’. As I have written before,3 it is possible to make what seem to be good decisions that in effect (either in the moment, or over the course of time) have the unintentional consequence of producing significant negative side effects (the abandonment of formal liturgy would be an example of this).
This shouldn’t surprise us; good intentions and actions that are wise and appropriate in one context aren’t appropriate in all contexts. Jesus addresses this very issue in Mark 7. It is possible to have a human tradition that sounds very appropriate, such as devoting everything to God. But if that principle ends up contravening a biblical mandate—like honouring one’s father and mother—then it is false worship, not true worship.
Such ‘devotion’ may have been an excuse by some Pharisees to avoid true godliness, I’m sure, but for others it may have been genuinely meant (that is, they wanted to do what was right but were simply ignorant of the consequences of their tradition before God)—but the result was still the same. It’s similar with publicly reading the Scriptures. It is possible to have bad reasons to minimize their reading, but it is also entirely possible to have had ‘good’ reasons too—and just be sorely mistaken.
A common example of this, for instance, is the desire to ‘focus’ the service around one particular element, to have a theme for the church meeting. It sounds great, and has all kinds of benefits, but it does mean that it can unexpectedly create a conflict with devotion to public reading if it means minimizing Scripture to avoid ‘topic changes’. It was never the intention, but has still occurred.
Fourthly, I believe we have sometimes privileged certain non-theologically determined pragmatic ideas and practices in our thinking about church, and have not realized that the outworking of these reflects poorly on what we truly believe about the nature of church, church growth, and Scripture. We keep breathing words of love for the Bible, but in reality we’re deceiving ourselves about our devotion to it.
Our theology is not abstract, and our practice is not neutral theologically. There seems to be an unwitting tendency to view theology as the fence that keeps us safe, while we adopt whatever practice seems to work (pragmatism) within the boundaries of that fence to ‘get things done’. Our biblically shaped theology remains abstract, and our practice consists of ‘plundering the Egyptians’ for what works.
Theology isn’t abstract, but relational and participative; those who know God walk in the light as he is in the light. Further, pragmatism isn’t theologically neutral. Everything I do is theological—especially when it comes to church. However I choose to organize and structure a church meeting, whatever culture I develop in meetings over time, whichever systems I put in place to shape church practice, I am saying something about what I believe church to be, of what I believe causes church growth.
Our theology is not simply the fence that keeps our strategy (methods) from running astray; our theology is our strategy—it is fence, paddock, shepherd and all. Let’s bring our doctrine to the fore in our strategy meetings. Imagine if we sat down together, and asked: “We believe in the clarity of Scripture. What would our church look like if we worked that out in practice? And how would working this out in practice promote other doctrines rather than deny them?” That’s a strategy meeting worth going to.
Let me be blunt: when we reduce the Bible reading in order to privilege something else in our meetings we are shifting the congregation’s understanding of what church is. When we choose not to read some bits because we deem them inappropriate, we forget that God wrote them—and that in his wisdom he knew what he was doing when he did. When we choose not to read parts because they seem irrelevant or unclear, we teach our congregations and ourselves that God’s word isn’t eternal or understandable. When we choose to not read the Old Testament because it is ‘unfamiliar’—how else are we going to get familiar with it? The non-Christian world certainly isn’t going to help us. If we find Scripture to be boring, it’s not God’s fault, and the solution isn’t to silence God! If we find a part boring, we must ask God to give us interest in it, because we love him and want to know what he has to say. The Bible is well aware that some bits are harder to understand than others (2 Pet 3:16-17). But where did we get the idea that the solution to this is to stop reading?
When we choose to reduce Bible readings for something else, do we then in effect say that our means, our words, are better than God’s to grow people?
b. Others of us don’t think it worthwhile
This is a category of people that is difficult to write about, but must nevertheless be articulated; perhaps some aren’t devoted to the public reading of Scripture because they no longer believe it’s worthwhile.
Let me paint another church scenario. When you go to church, at what point in the meeting do you expect God to do his work of transformation in your life? As you think about the way the meeting is organized and structured, and the way various elements are arranged and contextualized, where does your minister teach you to expect the work of God’s Spirit to occur?
My guess is that, for many, the honest answer to those questions is the sermon. Don’t for a minute hear me dismiss Bible teaching! But there’s a glaring issue here: what about the rest of the meeting? Isn’t all our speech to be such that we “let the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly” (Col 3:16-17)? But most particularly: shouldn’t we expect God to change us in the very reading of the Bible, not just the preaching of it?
For various reasons, I fear that some of us may no longer expect this. Trends in church practice result from our hearts and minds (wittingly or not), so let me share some indicators which have convinced me that we need to spur one another to individual and corporate repentance in this matter, where necessary.
Have you ever noticed how we tend to pray to understand God’s word after the Bible reading and before the sermon? Have you noticed how our relaxed liturgy often means that that prayer opens with “As we come to hear your Word now…”? That the focus of the prayer is directed to what is to come (the sermon) as opposed to what was just heard (the Bible). It’s great to pray to understand God’s word, but what does the location, vocabulary, tense and tone of that prayer teach the congregation about where we think the ‘action’ is?
Combine this with further habits in our meetings. How many times have you heard the service leader say “In a moment Scott is going to get up and preach to us tonight’s passage, but before he does that Calvin and Aidan will read the Bible to us” (i.e. the trajectory of where we are heading is the sermon, not the Bible in itself)? More, the sermon runs for around 10-15 times the length of the Bible reading(s) (I love longer sermons, so don’t hear me as disparaging that). Does this sound anything like your church? What do these things reveal about our priorities; is Bible reading held in as high importance and delight as the sermon? Is the Bible reading—in the moment of the reading—a place we expect God to refine us?
So the question, then, is this: as the Bible is read to us, do we rejoice (with trembling) as we listen—that we are hearing the living God who transforms us into his glory? Or is it merely the preparation for what the speaker is going to preach on, and that is where God will ‘do his thing’? Unless we can get this clear, we’ll never be devoted to the public reading of Scripture.
The strict one-to-one correspondence between what is read and what is preached does not help us here. I’m not for a minute saying we stop reading what we are preaching on—not at all! But I am saying that we need Bible reading that is independent of the sermon too. We need to teach each other to be enthusiastic for Scripture in its own right.
Aside from knowing the perversity of my own heart, the thing that first started to convince me that our churches have learnt this deafness all too well is when we ask pastorally, after church, or publicly during question time, what the point of having the second Bible reading was. In our minds, the second Bible reading is only relevant if it ties in with the sermon. And if the preacher doesn’t mention it, why did we bother with it? And if it is a reading independent of the other passage, even more so. When this begins to crop up, I can’t help but suspect that, in people’s hearts, public Bible reading has been reduced to an adjunct to preaching. Is this sad lack of perceived relevance why churches have gone to one Bible reading? And for those of us who are elders, we share in responsibility for that, for we have taught them that in how we conduct the ministry of the Word.
What confirms my fears, however, is when I have raised this issue with lay people and pastors. When people have responded with a reluctance to have more Bible reading in church, it is almost universally because they believe that people won’t understand it if it stands on its own. And so we return once more to the clarity of Scripture. The clarity of Scripture doesn’t preclude a blurb that gives context, a couple of questions to ask as the passage is read, and prayer after it. But the lack of faith by ministers of the Word that the congregation can understand (by God’s grace) the Bible, which God chose to write as he did (the depths of Zechariah was God’s choice), places significant question marks over what people really believe the relationship is between Scripture, preaching and the Spirit in ministry.
Some very good intentions—preaching from the Bible rather than the air, and tying the readings together to show the interconnectedness of Scripture—are in danger of taking us to a place that no one with a high view of Scripture could go. We’re in danger of supplanting the Bible with preaching, rather than holding them both, together, in high place and esteem in our practice. And in some places this
is happening already, with sermons that subsume the reading within them, and services without Bible readings. And when you change church practice, theology follows.
As I said, it’s not with casualness that I write these things. If this isn’t you, praise God! But, being conscious of it, will you be a safeguard for those for whom it is, and shield your church from it? Whatever the case, let’s remember that we generally read a tiny amount publicly and we need to seek for answers of how we’ve ended up here. Is there a theological reason why churches are heading down the one reading road? Is there a theological reason why churches are increasingly pairing Bible study groups with the sermon series? If not, have we unwittingly let pragmatics determine practice, and now that practice is determining belief? How anaemic are our churches because we refuse to hear God speak for himself?
5. Why we must (and the delight therein)
There is something so special, so extraordinary, so life-giving and life-sustaining about hearing our God speak, that it seems odd to spend time writing about why we must be devoted to publicly reading his words. It is important, however, to be certain of why we should. I hope this section will make my joy in public Bible reading more understandable, and give you the same fervour. To do this, we need to return to how we are to understand 1 Timothy 4:13.
a. Does it still apply?: ‘public’ and ‘private’ Bible reading
Technically, ‘public’ doesn’t occur in the verse, as older translations will testify to. But the sense of the word ‘reading’ in its historical-linguistic context implies audibility, and the clear context of the chapter is Timothy’s responsibility within the church. Whatever else it may be, it is not a comment on reading the Bible out loud to non-Christians (as if church is ‘private’). Nor is it really a comment on church reading as opposed to personal or family reading. In fact, it’s not really trying to make a contrast at all; rather, Paul simply meant ‘out loud in the presence of others’—especially church.
And yet this question about public versus private reading raises all kinds of useful questions regarding the way in which the mandate still applies today. Does the practical possibility (at least in some parts of the evangelical world) of private and family reading alter the application of this verse? Should we speak of being devoted to Bible reading generally as opposed to public Bible reading? Does the ‘quantity’ aspect of devotion change in light of this?
Once again the answers to these questions, I suggest, should be both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. If we can read the Bible at home now as well, then Bible reading all the more! Yes, it should change our attitude and devotion to the reading of Scripture, but not in a way that introduces minimizing tendencies in church. Rather, it should change our attitude in such a way that we are thrilled to have the opportunity to be devoted at home and at church!
But the answer should also be ‘no’ as well: there are aspects of public reading that private reading cannot reflect. There are also many other pieces of evidence to consider than just literacy and availability.
Public readings guarantee that those who are unable or unwilling to read the Bible privately still hear God’s word. The idea of ‘universal literacy’ is in practical reality a myth, and for a whole variety of reasons there are many people in our churches whose ability to comprehend far outstrips their ability to read. Children are the most obvious example (in fact, in a friend’s church the children’s spot each week is ‘simply’ reading through a gospel to the children). But there are also many educated and wise adults who have a very minimal functional literacy, for whom silent reading is painful and bewildering. They own few books, and never read for pleasure. When we include those with significant illnesses or disabilities (physical or mental), and those who truly are illiterate as defined by the state, the number of people in our church for whom private Bible reading is not an option rises considerably. But each of these people’s ability to understand when something is spoken to them is entirely different.
With regards to family reading at home, public reading guarantees that those who live alone, who come from non-Christian families, or (let’s be honest) who have a Christian family that doesn’t read the Bible together, do get to read the Bible corporately in significant amounts—a vital (as we’ll see below) opportunity that they otherwise wouldn’t have. If we go down a path that structures less reading at church, we marginalize those who don’t enjoy what we may enjoy.
Finally, it also ensures that those who are unwilling, indifferent, refuse, or in any other way make little time to read the Bible at home still hear God speak. The elder of the church, who is responsible for his flock, cannot be sure that his parishioners will hear the Bible at home. No matter how much he may teach, promote and persuade people about private and family Bible reading, he can never guarantee it. He can’t stop human sin (laziness, materialism, workaholism, idolatry of other things, etc.). But he can guarantee it, and so fulfil his responsibility, through corporate Bible readings.
As an argument, using the claim “now we can do it at home too” as a reason to introduce minimizing tendencies is inconsistent at best, and devastating if worked out fully. The problem of the personal literacy/print availability argument is that it works just as well and on exactly the same principles as for preaching and teaching. We have a multitude of Christian books we can read, and a multitude of sermons we can listen to at home, both of which will mostly likely be of better exegetical rigour, wisdom, insightfulness and theological integration than what we’ll get at church—it is the best that Christendom has to offer. And yet we still insist on the primacy of preaching in church, and often devote forty or more minutes of our meetings to it. We insist on Bible study groups and training courses. But, under the literacy-and-availability argument, we surely must apply the same principle here. And if we do minimize any sense of the Word dwelling richly amongst us, then we become ghosts of churches, and barely, if at all, worthy of the biblical understanding of church at all.
So then, Bible reading all the more, both private and public! And it is here that again we see an invaluable aspect of public reading. We all seek to encourage our congregations to read the Bible in their homes but, on the modelling principle of ministry, will our churches’ private reading ever be enthusiastic if our role models (our preachers and leaders) aren’t publicly enthusiastic for it?
b. Why reading in public is more fruitful than reading in private
Reading the Bible in the presence of others—with whom we can discuss and pray about it—is in the end of more value than private Bible reading (as valuable as that is!). The reason for this is that we have a problematic tendency in our sinfulness to deceive ourselves (Jer 17:9; Heb 3:12-13). We need each other to prevent ourselves from hearing God’s voice and yet hardening our hearts against it. In fact, we have a responsibility to each other for this very thing (which is why Psalm 95, which Hebrews 3-4 keeps returning to, was chosen to be read during every Anglican service of morning prayer).
c. What does God’s word do?
We must also be devoted to public Bible reading because of what God’s word does.
First, God’s word is more than God’s word about himself (although it is that!). When we encounter God’s word we encounter God himself. We meet God in/by/through/with the Word. Even if the Bible were only about God it ought to be the source of our greatest delight. How much more when we realize that we actually meet God there!
Second, God’s word is more than God’s word about his plans and purposes (although it is that too!). God’s word brings God’s plans and purposes about. God’s word and God’s Spirit go together; God’s word unfailingly achieves whatever purpose God has sent it out for (Isa 55:10-11). God’s word is living and active (Heb 4:12); not just sufficient for all matters of faith and conduct (2 Tim 3:14-17), but efficient for all matters of faith and conduct also.
These things don’t happen when our Bibles are closed and on the shelf or in the pew in front of us. They happen when the Bible is read. Now we may choose to say that this doesn’t necessitate public reading of the Bible. Perhaps not: silent reading by myself at home will do these things too. But let’s observe what God’s plans and purposes are, and why he is making himself present amongst us.
God’s plan and purpose is to gather a people to himself, to his glory. He is creating a people to dwell amongst. If we meet God in his word (the Son, who comes to us clothed in Scripture), and God’s word brings this about, then church (God’s gathering) must actively promote the presence of God’s word if it is to reflect its present heavenly and future reality, and the reason God brought it into being. There are all kinds of ways we “let the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly” (Col 3:16-17), but it seems obvious that a large component of that would actually be the reading of the Bible to each other.
Further, it would be very odd indeed if we were to promote private reading of Scripture at the expense of or without promoting or guaranteeing public reading; the desire of the God we meet in said Word, and the purpose he is bringing about by this Word, is a people who are gathered around him, whom we meet in his Word/Son—that is a corporate reality, not an individual one.
d. It is a safeguard for us
Finally, Paul did not write this verse to Timothy in a vacuum. In fact, the injunction comes as an explicit contrast to what various elders and teachers in the church were devoting themselves to instead: the teaching of demons and myths, and promoting division and departure from the faith thereby (in 1 Timothy 1:4, 4:1, where the same word ‘devote’ is used). By contrast, Timothy was to build the congregation by devoting himself to publicly reading the Scriptures (and preaching and teaching). Paul saw—God sees—the sounding of the Word as a safeguard against and repudiation of false teaching.
In our churches today, to what extent do we leave our congregations open and vulnerable to every wind of teaching because we are simply ignorant of what Scripture says? Could the prayer of Jabez controversy have lasted two weeks without the general ignorance of the church about what the context of 1 Chronicles 4:10 actually was?
6. Where to from here? Pursue devotion, model devotion, teach devotion
a. Devotion in elders
For the elders and preachers among us, we in particular have the responsibility to lead the flock in this matter, to set the example, and to lead them where perhaps they don’t know that they need to go just yet. It is we who will help people see both the need and the joy of public Bible reading; it is we who will set and shape the structures of church to both guarantee and promote public Bible reading.
Staff and eldership teams, can I ask you to set aside a meeting to discuss this very issue? To ask one another pastorally whether you secretly devalue reading the Bible to each other? To ask what the evidence of your devotion to publicly reading Scripture is, seen in the way church is conducted week-to-week and across the life of the church over time? To spur one another in this matter, to ask “how much more?”, to pray for repentance if repentance is due, and to ask how the coming year will reflect the fruit of devotion to public Bible reading?
If you’re an elder of a church, can I invite you to think through the importance of public Bible reading for church as church? Aside from all the benefits that reading the Bible brings, most importantly, being gathered around the word of God is at the heart of what it means for church to be God’s church in the here and now.
b. Devotion in preaching and programming
Again, could I invite those involved in how church is structured to stop conducting the ministry of the Word in such a way that Bible reading is only a prelude to preaching? To have Bible readings that stand in their own right? Both are important, so let’s make sure that we’re doing lots of both. This may mean spending the time to create a Bible reading program across several years/congregations/groups. It would be a wonderful thing if our churches put the same level of time, energy and zeal into the planning, programming and preparation for Bible reading as they do the preaching.
Part of the joy of this is that the reading of the whole Bible can then be deliberately pursued. When I became a Christian, the first pew Bible I ever encountered explicitly reduced to three columns (along with an almost unreadable font) those bits of the Bible deemed ‘inappropriate’ for reading in church. Goodbye Leviticus! But before we despise such a godless attitude to Bible publication, do we have in effect the same attitude in our programming? When was the last time 1 and 2 Chronicles was read through in our churches? When will it ever be?
For those of us who preach, let’s do away with a somewhat bizarre habit that has developed in narrative preaching. Take 1 Samuel 17 for instance. It has 58 verses in it, so more often than not the preacher decides to only read some of the passage, because “reading it will take too long” (i.e., another three minutes). As a result, the congregation is then treated to 15 minutes of scene-setting by the preacher. If length was the issue, I’ve yet to meet the preacher who retells the passage quicker than actually just reading it out loud. The sermon also suffers too—it becomes a re-telling of the passage rather than preaching (although there is a narrative-style form of preaching that is brilliant, but that’s not what I’m speaking of here).
c. Devoted readers
I suspect that some of us have feelings of reluctance about increasing our public Bible reading because we’ve sat through some truly awful attempts at reading the Bible. Attempts that confuse the meaning of the passage, rather than making it clear. Attempts that call for the ‘patient endurance of the saints’! And most of us have probably been perpetrators of such readings at some point in the past.
I’m not writing this as a mockery of people who simply want to serve God and his people—devotion is an issue of the heart for the reader, not skill (although one would expect them to work on their skill). But the fact remains that, in many of our churches, reading the Bible is the thing we get people to do simply to get them involved. Admirable in one sense, but in another it is predicated on a fundamental flaw: that just because I am literate and know how to read means I know how to read audibly. Public Bible reading is a gift—and not everyone has it. How much of our reluctance to sit under the Word is simply that we’ve created a rod for our own backs; we are so used to poor public reading that the idea of reading more than a few verses really does feel like misery?
Speaking corporately, let’s show our devotion to the public reading of the Bible by having gifted reading of the Bible, where we aren’t fighting through the reader to hear the Bible, but where the Bible reader fades from view as they bring us into the text. That means training our readers, making reading an invitation-only service, and having the guts to ask people to stop (or step back ourselves) if they are not good readers. Being devoted individually to the public reading of Scripture doesn’t mean I have to do it. Most often, it should mean we seek out those who can do it well (i.e. are gifted at it). In this vein, why do we labour under the tradition that the preacher, who has been immersed in the text—the one who is best equipped to read that passage—is never on the Bible reading roster?
With a good Bible reader, we forget the amount of verses as we are immersed in the text and the world of the text is opened to us. A good Bible reading ‘interprets itself’, revealing clarity rather than obscurity. And with the sermon passages, it makes a massive difference to the task of preaching. As Mark Baddeley puts it:
Clear public Bible reading is a weekly workshop in the clarity of Scripture. To have just one Bible reading, done poorly, as the introduction to the sermon, which then makes what had been unclear (the reading) clear is a weekly attack on the clarity of Scripture. Churches need to focus on doing public reading well—because it is a way of making the clarity of Scripture an ‘experiential’ truth, something that is just part of our experience of doing church.4
7. God’s longing is that we feast on his word
As mentioned before, devotion is a matter of the heart too. It is possible to have all the Bible reading in the world and still not be devoted to public reading of Scripture. But there is no such thing as devotion to Bible reading that doesn’t actually have Bible reading in clear evidence. And until such admiration grows, we may have to content ourselves with guaranteeing the structure of public Bible reading, and pray for the affection to follow. The good thing is, God’s word is living and active… the more we hear him, the more we’ll love the sound of him.
Further, while there are lots of implications to consider, it’d be a shame if we let some questions prevent us from action. It’d be a shame if, because point ‘e’ seems so far away from point ‘a’, that we failed to make the easy steps to points b, c, and d in the meantime. All it takes is for us to not shrink back in fear, but to be brave, strive for God’s voice to be heard in this world, and delight in God as he does his work.
And he does work! We have a God who esteems the one who is humble, contrite in spirit, and trembles before his word (Isa 66:2). We have a God who hasn’t left that word in unattainable places, but is very near us (Deut 30:11-14), and we have God’s Spirit by whom we understand Scripture (1 Cor 2:11-16). We have a God who pleads with us to come to the feast of his word, and listen to him, wherein God’s word does exactly what he intends it for (Isa 55:1-11). In light of such blessing, how could we do any less than pursue the sound of this word in his church?
1 Some of this I have already written about, in a lengthier series at http://solapanel.org—although this article includes much that isn’t online.
2 I wrote a short article on this topic in Briefing #378, ‘Does your church believe in the clarity of scripture?’.
4 In discussion on The Sola Panel, http://solapanel.org/article/are_we_devoted_to_the_public_reading_of_scripture_part_3/.