Ours is not an age in which the Western church places a high value on the public reading of Scripture. In many churches anyone who volunteers may read Scripture in public worship. To assert that only the minister of the Word is to read Scripture is tantamount to heresy in our egalitarian world. It is curious that, while ministers are not thought to be necessarily the only ones called to the public reading of Scripture, they are often believed to be CEOs, public relations experts, social organizers, psychiatrists, and many other callings that are well beyond the pale of the biblical job description of the minister. And so this is why I like to refer to the office of pastor as minister of the Word[1]

Within our narrower world of confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches, I realize that elders often read Scripture in public worship within the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Our new Directory for Public Worship allows this with the wording: “He who performs this [the public reading of God’s Word] serves as God’s representative voice. Thus, it ordinarily should be performed by a minister of the Word” (DPW II.A.2, emphasis added).

Our former directory, as amended in 1992, contained a contradiction by adding a separate paragraph, reflecting the practice in some of our churches of having elders read Scripture in public worship (III.8).[2] Without that contradictory qualifying paragraph the old Presbyterian three-office[3] view stood alone in an earlier paragraph: “The public reading of the Holy Scriptures is performed by the minister as God’s servant” (III.2). This was the practice in our tradition going back to the Westminster Assembly. In the original 1645 directory: “Reading of the Word in the congregation, being part of the publick worship of God, ... is to be performed by the pastors and teachers.” The one exception is those who “intend the ministry ... if allowed by the presbytery.”[4] That the public reading of the Scripture belongs to the pastor’s office was everywhere asserted by Presbyterians, as well as other Reformed communions, as the clear biblical teaching.

It is interesting that the broadest view of the involvement of unordained persons in public worship, expressed in the 1991 Report of the Committee on the Involvement of Unordained Persons in the Regular Worship Services of the Church, affirms the traditional restriction on reading Scripture.

The DPW, however, also sets definite limits on the involvement of the unordained. Specifically, an individual role or individual expression, in distinction from the rest of the congregation, is limited to the minister; besides preaching, only he, for instance, may pray aloud and read Scripture to the congregation. Even ruling elders, by implication, are excluded by such individual expression.”[5]

The new form, which took effect on January 1, 2011, is a more consistent way of recognizing and approving of the present practice in our churches. For that I am thankful, especially given the fact that the assumed exceptions are elders who are ordained with the same doctrinal commitment as ministers. But the fact that over three hundred years of Presbyterian tradition is being altered should give us pause to at least reflect on the rationale for the old view. So, while I personally believe in restricting public Scripture reading to ministers and men approved by presbytery, who are training for the ministry, my main objective is twofold. Negatively we should not underestimate the pressure that the egalitarian instinct in our culture can place upon the word “ordinarily,” as a justification for lay readers. That only ministers of the Word should read the Word publicly is an idea to which our egalitarian world is entirely unfriendly. Fortunately, the new directory limits the possibility of abusing the exception implied by the use of the term “ordinarily,” by explaining,

When the session deems it fitting, ruling elders may lead the congregation in prayer, read the Scriptures to the congregation, lead unison or antiphonal readings of Scripture by the congregation, lead congregational singing, or, on occasion, exhort the congregation as part of public worship. (DPW I.D.2.d)

Positively, I would like to encourage a renewed interest in the public reading of Scripture. A high view of what ministers are doing when they read will help us strive to put greater effort into it.

Some will complain that I am advocating a “one-man show.” But I hope to demonstrate that there is a biblical and confessional logic to the single leadership of the minister of the Word in public worship on the Lord’s Day. Many of us succumb to the fear of being labeled “elitist” for suggesting that only ministers should lead worship, under the false assumption that only those “on stage” are participating.

The metaphor of the “one-man show” is, itself, very instructive in analyzing the problem we face. In a world strongly flavored by, and motivated with, entertainment, we have become a world of spectators who tend to envy those on stage. Thus, in smaller venues like bars and churches it is expected that everyone gets their moment in the spotlight. But public worship is not karaoke. Where worship is led by the minister alone, many struggle to participate because our cultured has largely spoiled that ability.

Hearing the Word read and preached is true participation. The Shema of Deuteronomy 6:5–6 indicates that biblical hearing is active, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” This is the true meaning of participation—that everyone in the worship of God is fully involved—God speaking through his servant and the congregation responding by hearing, praising, obeying, and serving. Hughes Oliphant Old, in commenting on the ministry of Ezra observed that the reading and preaching of Scripture comprise the ministry of the Word. This ministry is “a public act of worship. It was done with great solemnity and reverence... . It was an act of the whole religious community.”[6] Thus, properly understood, the leadership of one man, called by God for that very purpose, is in no way inimical to congregational participation.

Along this same train of thought is an aesthetic consideration. Unity of leadership enhances unity of liturgy. Aesthetics is a consideration usually downplayed or ignored today. However, every kind of worship service has an aesthetic dimension, whether it is acknowledged or not. Sensitivity to the perception of beauty is an inescapable reality. When a man is called and trained to lead worship, the simple beauty of Word and sacrament ministry will be more suited to leave a lasting spiritual impression on worshippers.

During the Reformation the “Liturgy of the Word” encompassed every other part of public worship except the separate liturgy of the Lord’s Supper. The nomenclature indicates the centrality of the Word, read and preached, to worship, but also the unity of the liturgy itself as essentially a ministry of the Word, to be administered by a minister of the Word. My concern is that, above all, the reading and preaching of Scripture go inextricably together as the central task of ministers of the Word.

Professor Old’s phrase “with great solemnity and reverence” reminds us of the most fundamental and germane doctrine underlying my assertion: that the public reading of Scripture is an authoritative and interpretive act. Worship leadership in the Bible is clearly restricted to men gifted and called by God to minister the Word. So the public reading of Scripture is an essential part of that leadership. Minister of the Word Timothy is the one who is enjoined by Paul to read Scripture. This is inexorably tied to preaching. “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13). The ESV properly interprets “the reading” (τῇ ἀναγνώσει tē anagnōsei) to refer to public, not private, reading. Modern ears instinctively read this in terms of personal devotions. But in the first century few could afford to own personal copies of Scripture. Furthermore, the codex had not yet been invented, although a century later Christians would be the ones to do so, given their intense devotion to God’s Word.

Our present directory asserts the divine authority inherent in the reading of the Word in public when it states, “Through this reading, God speaks directly to the congregation in his own words” (DPW II.A.2). The logical corollary to this is that only those God has called to preach his Word should read it. The Westminster Larger Catechism is instructive in this regard:

Q. 156. Is the Word of God to be read by all?
A. Although all are not to be permitted to read the Word publicly to the congregation, yet all sorts of people are bound to read it apart by themselves, and with their families: to which end, the holy scriptures are to be translated out of the original into vulgar languages. (emphasis added)

So the restriction of the public reading is made clear. Question 155 ties reading and preaching together, “The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means ...” (cf. WSC 89). Then question 158 makes the above restriction explicit in terms of the authority of preaching, “The Word of God is to be preached only by such as are sufficiently gifted, and also duly approved and called to that office.”

The restriction mentioned in WLC 156 gives the following proof texts:

Then Moses wrote this law and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and to all the elders of Israel. When all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, as long as you live in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess. (Deut. 31:9, 11–13, emphasis added)

So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly. (Neh. 8:2, emphasis added)

The reason for the restriction is the authority of God’s Word. This requires an authoritative office to minister it.

But, what is often entirely overlooked, due to a misunderstanding, is the interpretive aspect of reading aloud. Some misinterpret the DPW’s prohibition on commentary interspersed with the reading (DPW A.2.a) to mean that reading of the Word itself involves no interpretation. However, anyone who has ever heard the difference between a school boy stumbling through a Shakespearean sonnet and an actor such as the consummate Shakespearean John Gielgud knows the vast difference. Expert reading clarifies meaning. That is an authoritative activity.

Another misconception is fostered by thinking that synagogue worship, because laymen were allowed to read Scripture, had authoritative status in New Testament times. The assumption that synagogue worship is normative for the New Covenant church is false. The Old Covenant does not authorize the synagogue. What was done there was not worship but “Torah study.” It was voluntary in nature. In reviewing Ralph Gore’s book criticizing the regulative principle Dr. T. David Gordon observes:

If we are required, by apostolic example (Acts 2, Acts 20), endorsement (1 Cor. 16:2), and command (Heb. 10:24), to assemble on the first day of the week, what can those who call us to those assemblies lawfully require us to do there? This was the question that Calvin and the Puritans addressed; and they would have been unmoved by any consideration of what free individuals did in voluntary societies for encouragement, prayer, or study.[7]

What are the practical implications of this? Paul addresses Timothy as an ordinary (not apostolic) minister of the Word. “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13). He places the public reading of Scripture on a par with preaching. This means that denying that the reading of Scripture in public is an authoritative and interpretive act diminishes God’s Word. I am not saying that this is necessarily intentional. But, when the reading is not done by an ordained minister, the authority of the Word is diminished.

Having said this, it is therefore incumbent upon us to train ministers to take the public reading of Scripture with the utmost seriousness. The corollary to this involves the continuing education of ministers of the Word. We need to continue developing rhetorical and interpretive skills necessary to read the Word of God well in public. I suggest listening regularly to poetry read aloud, which is widely available online. Reading Scripture aloud for daily devotions is an excellent way to cultivate this holy skill.

In 1 Timothy 3:8 Paul warns deacons to not be “addicted to much wine.” The word “addicted” (προσέχοντας prosechontas) is the same word used in 1 Timothy 4:13, translated “devoted.” Truly “public reading of Scripture” is something to be addicted to. Oh, that we may devote ourselves with great energy, enthusiasm, and intelligence to this great work.


[1] For those interested in my argument for the three office view see Gregory E. Reynolds, “Democracy and the Denigration of Office,” in Order in the Offices, Mark Brown, ed. (Duncansville, PA: Classic Presbyterian Government Resources, 1994), 235–55. See also “Report of the Committee on the Involvement of Unordained Persons in the Regular Worship Services of the Church” submitted to the 58th G.A. (1991). http://www.opc.org/GA/unordained.html.

[2] “Nothing in the preceding sections shall be understood so as to prohibit ruling elders from leading in public prayer, reading the Scriptures, leading responsive readings, or, on occasion, exhorting the congregation as part of public worship.”

[3] In my understanding the traditional three-office view of church office in no way diminishes the importance of the eldership, rather it distinguishes between the office of elder and minister of the Word in order that each might pay attention to the proper functions of their respective offices. Cf. footnote 1. Anyone who uses the three-office view to arrogate power to the ministerial office is not holding the traditional biblical, Presbyterian position. On the session the minister has only one voice and one vote.

[4] The Confession of Faith (Inverness, Scotland: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1976), 375.

[5] Minutes of the Fifty-eighth General Assembly, (1991), 266.

[6] Hughes Oliphant Old, Guides to the Reformed Tradition: Worship That Is Reformed According to Scripture (Atlanta: John Knox, 1984), 59.

[7] T. David Gordon, Review Article: “The Westminster Assembly’s Unworkable and Unscriptural View of Worship,” WTJ 65:345–56 (2003), 347.

Ordained Servant Online, January 2013.

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Ordained Servant: January 2013

Reading Scripture in Worship

Also in this issue

The Public Reading of Scripture in Worship: A Biblical Model for the Lord’s Day

What I Learned from My Dutch Reformed Brethren

Alone Together: The Great Irony of Modern Communication: A Review Article

Sonnet 29

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