Who May Read Scripture To The Congregation In Public Worship?

Reading the Word of God publicly to the congregation is the duty of those especially called as ministers of the Word.”
…Reading the Scriptures ‘publicly to the congregation’ is a part of conducting the public worship of God, and therefore it is to be done only by those who have been properly called to that office in the church. Of course in the absence of an ordained minister or licentiate, the elders of the church may properly appoint some person to read the Scripture and conduct a prayer meeting or ‘fellowship meeting.’ What the catechism denies is that any private Christian may lawfully take it upon himself to conduct public worship, without being appointed to do so by those who office it is to rule the house of God

Johannes G. Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, 438, 439. (HT: Brian Tallman)

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  1. I’m not sure the catechism isn’t too rough on this one. All worship/ prayer is informed by the spirit (loosely Romans 8:26) and all scripture is spirit breathed. How can we say that we expect members to witness and “breath the Gospel” as the salt of the earth; insist they cannot read scripture as a part of worship? Paul says let him who knows stand up, and if a person can read clearly and well… I’d rather acknowledge the gift than insist a human elected elder who reads unclear must do it.

    • “All worship?” Or “authorized worship?” Surely not the former, unless we’re going to baptize anything that comes into our heads.

      “I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honour of God.” John Calvin

      As Christians, we have to resist even our own impulses to sanction as acceptable our own opinions respecting worship. Just because I am indwelt by the Spirit does not prove my offering.

      We should apply a different rule, therefore, to the question: Who may read aloud Scripture in the public worship of God. May a woman? Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to speak,” when the context is this worship. I can’t tell if your generic references to members generally or the elder acknowledges this restriction; but the text you quote must be harmonized with that limit, and with any others. It is not an “open” invitation.

      When Paul gives his plainest commandment in this regard, 1Tim.4:13, it is unto the minister of the Word, “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture,” to which he adds exhortation and teaching. These are the constituents of the essential preacher’s task.

      Those who speak forth the Word of God should be those who have been approved (called, elected) to be recognized as office-bearers under Christ’s Lordship. His is a Kingdom of order, with lawful government. These ministers speak for the Sovereign, never more clearly than when simply reading that Word of his. There is a fitting formality to this matter.

      One may well assent to the concept, therefore, that an elder with an unclear delivery is unsuited to this work. But surely, the preaching minister ought, at the very least, be capable of practicing his reading (who will then declaim upon the text!) and preparing a clear presentation. If he does it alone, none are the worse. And practical restrictions on poorly gifted officers and candidates is no offense to them or the church, though others more capable may be given the task.

      Is the ministry a thing? Or do the egalitarians hold the field in our Reformed churches re. Eph.4:12?

    • Bruce,

      I want to pick up on your comment about women reading scripture. I’m not totally sure what Pauline verse you are quoting when you claim he said “I do not permit a woman to speak”. I think you have conflated 1 Tim 2:12 and 1 Cor 14:34. I’ll deal with both briefly.

      1 Tim 2:12 is a much-debated verse and there is no consensus in the church as to its application. However, the prohibition (of arguable scope) is on women teaching, and the immediate context, maybe even the reason for the restriction, is of overthrowing authority. At the risk of stating the obvious, reading the Bible in church is not teaching, nor does it give involve authority – the authority is the text not the reader. Even if you take a strict view of this verse, it’s simply not relevant to the situation where the leadership of a church asks a woman to read the Bible in a meeting.

      1 Cor 14:34 is also highly contentious, but again, we have to consider the context. The following verse suggests that questioning is involved, and the preceding verses are all about order in worship and prohibiting things that cause disruption. And just three chapters earlier, Paul indicates that women can pray and prophesy (1 Cor 11:5), which is simply not compatible with treating this verse as a universal ban on women speaking in church. He has to be referring to disruptive speech. Again, this is not relevant to a woman reading the Bible in a church meeting when it’s been agreed by the leadership.

      However (and I don’t take credit for this line of reasoning – I read it somewhere but can’t track it down), if the Holy Spirit can cause women to speak words so inspired that they have been included in the Biblical canon, then it is simply crazy to claim any basis for preventing a woman from reading the scriptures in church. Anyone who would prevent Mary from reading her own Magnificat needs to do some serious self-examination.

      • David,

        1 Timothy 2:12 is much-debated in broad evangelicalism but not with the confessional Reformed churches. It is debated because it pushes against the egalitarianism of our late-modern age but Paul’s intention is fairly clear.

        I agree that there are some challenges in relating 1 Timothy 2 to 1 Corinthians 11 but the historic Reformed understanding is hardly “crazy.” I agree that it is likely (though not certain) that females prayed and were given Spirit-inspired prophecies in the apostolic churches but it is also true that the Spirit preserved not a single one of those prophecies in holy Scripture and that we are attempting to reconstruct apostolic practice by inference and speculation. It is not a good procedure to turn that speculation into a lever by which to control much clearer passages (e.g., 1 Tim 2).

        It is not obvious at all that reading Scripture in public worship does not constitute the exercise of authority. The problem here is not fundamentally females leading worship but laity leading worship or exercising authority in public worship. It was likely the democratization of formal and informal church leadership that has led to the present question.

        People of good will may differ on these questions so let’s try to discuss these questions calmly and civilly.

    • Hello David. Thanks for contributing.

      Two verses. Two prohibitions. You point to the interpretive debates, which are pretty much modern phenomena. And yet, you offer no concrete commitments as to what activity Paul decidedly inhibits.

      Seems to me, my primary concern should be to determine best I can what those limits are, so that I don’t start out transgressing the apostolic tradition (1Cor.11:2) that as to the first instance Paul commends the Corinthians for keeping, regarding to the first of their congregational issues addressed.

      1Tim.2:12 is given in the context of a passage primarily concerned with prayer as a principal function of church life. In prayer meeting, women should be praying, no less than men; but having said so, Paul feels obliged to counterbalance that encouragement by repeating his customary injunctions respecting church order. Just because it’s proper for women to pray in public gathering for that purpose, does not remove the rule concerning the public worship of God.

      Reading Scripture is the height of authoritative declaration. The preached word has tremendous authority, but still it is beneath and subject to the Voice of the Lord. It defies reason to exclude women from the formal office of teacher because they lack the authority; only to promote them to the greater dignity. And if we fail to see the plain “mouth” of the Lord as superior, that says volumes about our lax appreciation for the dignity of the text without any adornment.

      Say what you will, then, but your assertion is not “obvious.” My interpretation is consistent with the intent of the text, consistent with Paul’s whole corpus of instruction, and consistent with the Reformed tradition as it reads that corpus.

      I could say a good bit more on 1Cor.14:34 than is appropriate to a combox. v32 addresses someone’s objection. “O Paul! I have to speak! I cannot keep silent, and you can’t silence me. God is the one who has willed I should utter this. You, Paul [or some Corinthian elder] are opposing God.” Rubbish. Don’t color lack of self-control as submission to God. The prophets (with their superior gift) are under as much duty to restrain themselves as the tongue-speakers, who have a lesser gift.

      This rule sets prophet and preacher firmly under authority. They are not free to demand an audience on the supposed authority of God. For, v33, “He is not a God of confusion.” How dare anyone suggest otherwise, and that to allow them to vaunt them over others! “He is a God of peace,” which is to order as warmth is to light.

      Vv34-35 are a coming-back-around to women’s decorum in the congregation. It is probable that the disorderly condition of the church gatherings was threatening even such creational order as male-female roles reflected in the church of the Creator. According to ch.11, this church was resisting any moves against the order, whether explicit or implicit. Here, Paul confronts a second, implied objection: “I may be a woman, but I’m a prophet; thus, no one can prohibit me from giving utterance in worship.” Absolutely not, but as v34 states so clearly, “they must keep silence.”

      We break with the modern mind here; as much as Paul was willing to break with the women’s lib of his day. The apostle is crystal clear here (as in other passages). So, many try to make his command here just his personal opinion. By that hermeneutic, this whole passage is nothing but his opinion.

      God is clear—by his NT writer, by creation and natural revelation, and (as Paul states) by his OT writer also. It seems as if perhaps those 1C services (with all their speakers) also made room for audience questions. Paul forbids even questions from the women in that setting. He says it is shameful, embarrassing. How utterly contrary to the Word is every church where the people are ashamed to dissent from the world. So they dissent from God.

      So we finally come round to 1Cor.11:5. Believe it or not, you have imported a meaning to Paul’s expressions there. Maybe what you say is implied, but it is not stated that women are praying and prophesying in the public worship at Corinth. What is stated is that it is expected of the women who are with the congregation for worship: that she has some kind of covering on her head. Whatever the comment means about praying/prophesying is incidental to the thrust.

      It is a key interpretive observation that the hypothetical case proposed by Paul respecting the woman–just as with the man–is presented as contrary to fact. The cases are whole: must we assume that the men (v4) were flouting the conventions? Ergo, the proposition that certain elements of the hypothetical are factual must be either assumed or demonstrated. I certainly will not allow to pass the notion that it’s just self-evident that some women were so behaving.

      But suppose they were. Or (as I suppose) there WAS an incipient movement within the Corinthian church to change the order established by Paul, and to promote a kind of women’s egalitarianism; that there was some level of agitation (could be still minor at this point) for women’s praying and prophesying in worship–this was agitation that the elders are commended (v2) for resisting!

      It must be explained how much of this entire hypothetical scene is being resisted. What elements are structural and normative, and where is the “outrage” in the proposal? As I read it, what Paul says would be a dishonorable thing had not actually taken place, so how much of the hypothetical? If a woman had done part? or all? what was suggested, then she had utterly disgraced herself. Which is it?

      Disgrace is implied by the of the end of v5, “it is the equivalent of her head shaved,” nigh to balding. Paul’s assumption is: women naturally glory in their hair. So, v6, if she would not be covered (in worship is implied), just go ahead and shear all that glory. But, if you agree it is shameful to be shorn or all the way to shaved… he commands “let her be covered.”

      But then we get insertions of “follow through” ideas which aren’t in the text. Let her be covered… “and then its OK for her to pray and prophesy in worship.” As if that was the subject of the text? But the subject isn’t that, but women’s covering; and that IS Paul’s conclusion. He takes it no further; and it’s quite fallacious to argue from a contrary-to-fact hypothesis used for illustration purposes to allowances partaking of select parts of the illustration. That’s transparently self-serving.

      Finally, your concluding comment is a demonstration of a rationalist argument; and it’s being pitted against exegesis. Bad form. The way you addressed it in your post, your argument presents an ad baculum fallacy. To put it in another form: “God spoke to women; His word belongs in worship; therefore women can quote themselves in worship; furthermore, other women can read the Bible in worship too.”

      That’s not logical, let alone demonstrable by exegesis. Instead, it’s pure rationalism. It has an appearance of wisdom; but there is no rigor to it. It is simply what could be the case, provided there aren’t good reasons to doubt it. Similarly one might argue: “God made us and gave us eyes; we learn partly through visible media and other senses; therefore we should make observable representations of God as aids to worship–how about a golden calf?”

      What exegetical support is there for the idea Mary would even attempt to recite her Magnificat in worship? God speaking to or through a woman as prophetess is simply insufficient grounds to open the door to speaking authoritatively in public Christian worship. Answering an exegetical appeal to Paul’s “silence!” by saying “crazy!” is reminiscent of leftist cant.

  2. Genuine question: Would the old testament prophets have been allowed to take up the Pentateuch and read it publicly?

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