Over the years I have discovered that the more ‘Bible-believing’ a non-liturgical church is, the less Scripture is likely to be read. Amazing as it may appear to my Anglican friends, I have known Baptist churches where the one Scripture reading is limited to three or four Scripture verses. Indeed, I this was regularly the case of morning ‘chapel’ at an international Baptist Seminary where I spent a year. Indeed, I got so frustrated that when I was asked to take the morning chapel service, instead of reading just three or four verses and then preaching a sermon, I dispensed with the sermon and read the whole of Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. That caused a sensation – but as I pointed out, originally Paul’s shorter letters would most certainly have been read to a church in one sitting. The fact is that we need to read the Scriptures when we gather together in worship.
We need to take seriously the charge of the Apostle Paul to Timothy: “Give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching” (1 Tim 4.13). In the original Greek the phrase ‘the public reading of scripture’ is actually just one word (anagnosis) which simply means reading out loud. This was the word that was used in the courts of the reading ‘out loud’ of wills and of petitions. But it was also the word used in the Septuagint of the public reading of Scripture, as when the priests read from the law in Ezra’s day (Neh 8.8). Luke too uses the cognate verb when he tells of how Jesus stood up “to read and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him” (Luke 4.16,17).
The question arises: what ‘scripture’ was Paul charging Timothy to read? In so far as early church worship drew to a large extent upon the worship of the synagogue, the scripture would have included readings from the Law and the Prophets. However, in addition to the Old Testament ‘Bible’, letters and writings from the apostles would have been read at early Christian gatherings. Paul, for instance, wrote to the Thessalonians: “I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them [literally, ‘all the brothers’]” (1 Thess 5.27: see also 1 Thess 5.27). He gave similar instructions to the church in Colossae: “When this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church in Laodicea, and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea” (Col 4.16: see also 2 Cor 4.7). Significantly the Book of Revelation opens with the words: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it” (Rev 1.3: see also Rev 22.18-19). As John Stott commented: “These are extraordinary instructions. They indicate that the apostles put their writings on a level with the Old Testament.” At the same time, there would have been the telling of stories about Jesus: which were probably receiving written form around the time 1 Timothy was written.
By the time of Justin Martyr (AD 110-165) it appears that Christian worship always included two public scripture readings – one from the Old Testament, and one from the ‘memoris of the apostles’: “On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the overseer verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.”
So what principles can we learn from Paul’s First Letter to Timothy as also from the early Christian practice? At the very least, that three or four verses of Scripture do not suffice for Sunday worship! Chris Ellis in a guide to Baptist worship wrote:
It is a good rule of thumb that you should usually have somewhere between ten and twenty-five verses of Scripture read aloud, and that, if there is more than one reading they should be connected in some thematic way which will make sense to, rather than distract, the congregation. Less than (very roughly) ten verses could easily be taken out of context and over twenty-five will be more than some congregations can cope with.
I would be much more ambitious. In the first place, I would encourage churches to have at least two readings (for instance, Old Testament and New Testament, or Gospel and Epistle), and read at the very least twenty-five verses. If people bring Bibles, or look at the Scriptures on a screen or on their phones, then people’s concentration span can easily be extended. My father was a great believer in reading the Scriptures in the context of a Sunday service. In his church in Cambridge he created quite a stir when over a series of six Sunday evenings he read through all 48 chapters of Ezekiel! Later I remember his excitement when the New English Bible first came out – with such a ‘modern’ and accessible version, he would often read several chapters from a Gospel before preaching to the congregation.
The scripture readings are then followed by what Paul calls ‘exhortation’ or ‘preaching’ (GNB/NIV) (paraklesis) and ‘teaching’ (didaskalia). We should probably not over-distinguish between the two activities: “it is hard to imagine teaching without leading the people to response, or preaching without providing a reasoned exposition of a text’s principles”. In one way or another God’s Word needs to be expounded and applied (see also 2 Tim 3.16)
In Paul’s day, of course, many people could not read – nor could many afford to get hold of ‘books’ to read. This therefore made the “public reading of scripture” all the more important. Although we live in a day when general literacy can be taken for granted, and when the Bible can be bought relatively inexpensively, nonetheless we cannot assume that most Christians are regularly engaged in personal Bible reading. For although British churchgoers in a 2008 survey claimed to read their Bible every day, my experience as a pastor tells me that this is not the case. I am much more inclined to believe a 1997 Bible Society survey of regular churchgoers which found that 16% read something from the Bible every day; a further 9% read the Bible several times a week; 11% read something from the Bible about once a week; and 9% read the Bible about once a month. In other words in any given month the majority of churchgoers never read their Bible. Indeed, I sometimes wonder how many ministers read their Bible on a regular basis: for in a survey I conducted of over 300 Baptist ministers, some one in five (19%) said that they had no system of regular Bible reading. All the more reason, therefore, for ‘the public reading of scripture’ within Christian worship!