Who is Permitted to Read the Word Publicly to the Congregation in the PCA?

It is somewhat surprising, though, that we often do not consider this question of the public reading of Scripture in the light of a wider understanding of the biblical nature of authority in the church, as set down in the Preliminary Principles of the BCO. Preliminary Principle #7 is especially clarifying: “All church power…is only ministerial and declarative.” That is, within the church, there are only two lawful ways to exercise authority: (1) by ministering God’s word, or (2) by declaring God’s word.

Regarding the declarative aspect of church authority, we believe that the authority of the church does not consist in the power to legislate a new word from the Lord, but that we exercise authority whenever we declare the (old) word of God, as contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments (WSC #2). According to this definition, is the public reading of Scriptures an authoritative declaration of God’s word?

The answer to this question must be a resounding yes. Any time someone reads the Word of God publicly, that person is declaring, “Thus saith the Lord.” Indeed, we should notice the often overlooked (and, to my knowledge, uncontroversial) explanation of the nature of the public reading of Scripture in BCO 50-1: “Through [the public reading of the Holy Scriptures] God speaks most directly to the congregation, even more directly than through the sermon.” To read the Scriptures is to stand as God’s authoritative herald, declaring the word of God—even more directly than during the sermon.

So, Paul exhorts Timothy to devote himself to exhortation and teaching, and also “to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13). Then, Paul explains that these things (including the public reading of Scripture) were entrusted to him as a gift at his ordination, “when the council of elders laid their hands on you” (1 Tim. 4:14). Ordination is therefore a conferring of authority for a man to read the Scriptures publicly, among his other duties.

Our authority, then, is only a stewardship of God’s authority, in his Word. Therefore, we confess the “authority of the Holy Scripture” (WCF 1.4), and that the Word contains “the authority of God himself speaking therein” (WCF 14.2). Even apart from the sermon, the reading of the Word of God is authoritative in itself. We also see this point constitutionally upheld in BCO 8-5, when the BCO singles out “reading…the Word of God” as a particular function of the teaching elder, right alongside preaching and administering the Sacraments.

What makes public reading authoritative? We find the answer to this question in our confessional, constitutional doctrine concerning worship, where not only the “reading of Scriptures with godly fear,” but also the “conscionable hearing of the Word” is counted as important “parts of the ordinary religious worship of God” (WCF 21.5). When someone reads the Word of God publicly, the whole congregation must worshipfully, obediently, and submissively listen to that reading. Read more»

Jacob Gerber | “Who is Permitted to Read the Word Publicly to the Congregation in the PCA?“ | Apr 27, 2022


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One comment

  1. This was/is a very thoughtful article. Westminster did indeed have a very high view of the public reading of Scripture. Anglicans, until fairly recently, had an office of Lay Reader, for which people were trained and had to re-train every five years or so. When I fill pulpits and people ask if I would like to read my text, I ordinarily say, “Yes, and it will make the sermon briefer; because I will pre-preach the text in the reading.”
    The reason we have poetry readings (or used to have them…) is because to read a poem is to impose an interpretation on a poem; it is no different with the Holy Scriptures.

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