Q. I’ve noticed that we designate a significant amount of time to two or three scripture readings in our worship service. Why do we do that? It reminds me of some other liturgical churches I’ve visited, and many of those churches embrace liberal theology. Wouldn’t we do better to reduce the time spent reading and spend more time singing?
A. Excellent question! To begin with, I’m glad that you’ve noticed that we are devoting time to scripture reading. I’d like to share some of the reasons why the reading of scripture has always been a cornerstone of Christian worship and why it’s so important to us. As we’ve discussed in relation to other worship issues, our grid for making decisions about corporate worship is shaped by biblical, theological and historical guidelines.
1. Biblically, we have both the example of Christ and the mandate of the apostle Paul to guide the reading of scripture in worship. Luke 4:16 tells us that it was Jesus’ habit to read the scriptures aloud in corporate worship in his hometown: “He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. As usual, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath day and stood up to read.” By his participation in the reading of scripture in worship Jesus approved a practice that he grown up with each week in synagogue worship.
Beyond the example of Christ, Paul instructed Timothy that the reading of scripture was a vital part of the gathering of God’s people. In 1 Tim 4:13 he writes, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.”
2. Theologically, our understanding of the nature and efficacy of scripture compels us to read it publically. First, it is significant that we refer to scripture as “God’s Word”; as such it is certainly worthy of our time and attention. Secondly, the Bible repeatedly describes the power of scripture to accomplish God’s purposes. Isaiah 55:10-11 says,
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (emphasis added)
Hebrews 2:11 also comments on the power of God’s Word:
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
3. Historically, the reading of scripture has always been at the center of corporate worship. In the early church this reading began with the Hebrew Bible (what we now call the Old Testament) and later included the writings of the apostles, the letters that were circulated among the churches. The use of many other elements of worship (music, architecture, vestments, the order of worship, etc.) have all waxed and waned throughout church history, but the reading of scripture has remained a constant. So important was this element of worship that many denominations created elaborate multi-year reading plans called “lectionaries” that allowed the congregation to hear all of the major portions of scripture in the course of three to five years.
You have noted correctly that there are many modern denominations that continue to have multiple readings of scripture even though they are liberal in their theology and no longer believe in the inerrancy of scripture. They read the scripture – not because they believe it – but because they are maintaining a tradition that was given to them. How sad! But how much more should we who do believe that the presence and power of the Holy Sprit attends the public reading of the Word of God devote ourselves to its hearing? Their reading only by habit certainly does not rob the Word of God of any of its power. Let us pray that, even in these congregations who read the scripture only by habit and ritual, the Spirit of God may yet move to regenerate those whom God has predestined for salvation.