The Public Reading of Scripture: Six Practical Suggestions

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Reprinted with permission from the March 2017 issue of Gospel Advocate Magazine.

A vital element to the worship assembly of the body of Christ in the first century was the reading aloud of the Scriptures (1 Timothy 4:13; Acts 13:15). Today, it is probably hard to imagine a time when God’s word was accessible only when assembled with God’s people; it was a communal experience. The proliferation of Bibles today has truly made reading Scripture an individualized practice; yet, this has not always been so. In fact, the meaning of “church” (ekklesia; “an assembly”) presumes a people gathered to hear, to commit to, and to act upon the Word of God (Matthew 16:18; Deuteronomy 4:10-11; 31:9-13). Thus, hearing God’s Word is part of who we are as “the church” (Acts 11:26; 14:27).

The church needs to elevate the importance of the Scripture reading assignment in our assembly (Act 13:15; 2 Corinthians 3:14). There is a tendency to be too casual about this assignment. Perhaps it is because we take literacy for granted, though the capacity to read words is not the same as understanding the words being read. In this connection, we may then take for granted that anyone can read the Scripture aloud to the church. In some societies, reading is still regarded as a technical skill, much as it was in Bible times.

If reading the Scriptures will make a child of God “complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17 ESV) when read for private devotion, then the same God-breathed writings read aloud will provide the same effect for the congregation. In the Scripture reading, God is speaking to His people. For this reason, the public reading of Scripture is a crucial element of the worship assembly and should not be taken casually or lightly.

A Note on the Context

In fact, Paul anchored to this very core principle when he wrote to Timothy to provide a strategy for the faithful to protect themselves from a departure from the faith, which will consist of Christians “devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1). The antidote against “irreverent, silly myths” (4:6-7) and any possible competitors to divine revelation is the healthy teaching from God (4:13). Public reading of Scripture inoculates against false teaching and invites faithful discipleship and commitment to God (Exodus 23:22; 24:7). It syncs us up with God.

Paul makes similar requests in other letters to the churches of the first century. When detailing the unveiling of the mystery of Christ, Paul anticipates and expects the church to share his understanding (Ephesians 3:4-6). After he writes on the supreme role of Christ in redemptive history, he expected the Colossian congregation to letter swap with Laodicea (Colossians 4:16). And, to the Thessalonians, he was quite strong when he placed “an oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers” (1 Thessalonians 5:27), for through the reading aloud of his letters they would be taught (2 Thessalonians 2:14-15). And in the final revelation of Jesus, the apocalyptic portrayal of divine victory through the gospel is framed as one that must be read aloud and safeguarded against addition and omission (Revelation 1:3; 22:16-19).

Reading Scripture aloud can bring the church into sync with God’s word. The more exposure, the better our biblical literacy; then, ideally, the healthier our churches will become. Let us switch gears, now, to provide practical suggestions for this powerful act of reading Scriptures aloud in our worship assembly.

Six Suggestions for Reading Scripture Aloud

There must be a spiritual gravitas connected to reading Scripture before the assembly. I had a mentor, Don W. Hinds, that would stop me when I misread a passage aloud. He would use the adage, “take heed how you read,” to instill in me the importance of properly reading the biblical text aloud. I would like to use this as a refrain as we consider some practical guideposts for reading the Scriptures aloud when the church is assembled for worship — although these suggestions can be applied in various settings of church life.

Furthermore, in many congregations, those who manage or arrange the various elements of the worship assembly (deacons, elders, etc) should seriously consider the points below as they select public readers of Scripture. We are worshipping God and engaging in spiritual and divine matters, we are not merely filling a roster. God’s word must be the centerpiece of our worship.

First, the reading should be met with a respect for proper pronunciation and performance. This is the “oral” spiritual heritage of God’s people, to hear and understand God’s word (Nehemiah 8:1-8). Not only should one practice to read clearly and distinctly, but some types of Scripture (genre) require an element of performance (cf. Psalms). For example, we should not read a psalm of lament (Psalms 51) as if it were a genealogy. Take heed how you read.

Second, we should consider the verbal skill set of those who will read before the assembly. The goal is to instill an understanding of God and to invite the church to obedience. There is no verse that prohibits individuals with speech problems from publicly reading Scripture. We should both be sensitive and inclusive. Fortunately, audio technology facilitates what requires loud speaking in other settings. Still, as long as the public reading reaches its goal then it has accomplished its purpose. Take heed who will read.

Third, the reading selection should be long enough to understand the message. This is especially true when the selection is independent from the sermon. Some congregations may design their readings to go through a book (Psalms) or a large section of Scripture (Major Prophets). Other times, they are connected to the sermon. The readings must be of sufficient length to provide context and understanding and should have a natural and intended connection to the worship service. All things being equal, we may ask, “why read from the Song of Solomon when the sermon is on the ‘second death’ of Revelation?” Take heed what you read.

Fourth, the readings must be the Scriptures free from alteration. From time to time some like to add a few impromptu thoughts in connection with the reading of the Scripture. The points may be very excellent, but they run the risk to be of another variety. It is important to keep to the task at hand, which is to read the assigned portion of Scripture. There are many reasons for this. The most significant reason is to elevate the word of God over the words of men. As Revelation 22:18-19 warns, the text must be read without omission and addition. Take heed that you read.

Fifth, the reading of Scripture must be purposeful. There should be communication before hand to prepare those who will read aloud in worship. Sometimes we can displace others when we lean upon “good readers” in a pinch. With a purposeful schedule, we can give enough notice so that our readers can prepare, become familiar with the text, and develop a comfort level. Preparation and practice are the best helps to reduce “stage fright.” Take heed before you read.

Sixth, the reader should not cause a distraction by what they wear. It is true that God seeks and looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7; Matthew 15:8), but one should dress for the spiritual occasion (Matthew 22:11-14). While attire may sometimes be a distraction, it is more important that the reader’s lifestyle should not be a distraction. If those who pray in assembly should have “holy hands” (1 Timothy 2:8), what of those who read Scripture. Paul told Timothy that he should be an example; this would make an additional influence when he would read aloud the Scriptures to the church (1 Timothy 4:12). Take heed by whom you read.

Concluding Thoughts

The public reading of Scripture was an essential component of the first-century worship assembly. If in today’s time, the church seeks to be in conformity with the early worship practices of the New Testament church, then it will seek to incorporate this practice and develop those who will read. Moreover, the church will grow when she integrates the three-fold instruction given to Timothy: the public reading of Scripture, the exhortation, and the teaching (1 Timothy 4:13). In a day and time when so many church groups are seeking new and innovative methods to “enhance” worship, the age-tested and inspired method to read aloud God’s word must be in the forefront of our worship assemblies. Blessings to the reader, and blessings to the hearer.

Jovan Payes preaches for the Highland Church of Christ in Bakersfield, Calif.

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