by Gary Weedman
Two of the early slogans in our Stone-Campbell tradition were: “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent” and “No book but the Bible.” Yet, for such a people of the Book, where is the Bible in our public worship? I fear that it is all too absent. A few years ago, I talked to a young married couple, raised in the Christian church, who had migrated to a more liturgical denomination. I gently inquired as to the motivation for such a move. Their response: “We miss hearing the Bible in worship.”
The public reading of Scripture has always been an important part of corporate worship. After a long period of absence of the Scriptures in worship, Josiah (7th C. BC) “read … all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord” (2 Kings 23:2). Imagine – a worship service that consisted of the reading of the entire book of Deuteronomy! The event launched a mighty reform throughout the Kingdom of Judah in behavior and devotion.
A similar phenomenon occurred in the 5th Century BC as Ezra led a large group of exiles from captivity in Babylon to Jerusalem. He read from the Law “from early morning until midday … and the ears of all the people were attentive” (Nehemiah 8:3). The result was, once again, a great religious awakening.
This emphasis on public reading continued in the synagogue. Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah (now chapter 61) and declared himself as the fulfillment of the text that very day (Luke 4:21).
These readings were considered an act of worship and not merely preparatory to the main event. So, when Paul advised his delegate Timothy to “give attention to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Timothy 4:13), he was merely affirming the accepted practice of the early church adopted from their roots in the synagogue.
A powerful demonstration of the power of the oral impact of Scripture is the dramatic presentation of the Gospel of Luke by Bruce Kuhn, a Broadway actor. Through a dramatic recitation of this Gospel from memory, the impact is remarkable. Although I had read Luke for myself and have written about large portions of the Gospel, I “heard” aspects of the Gospel for the first time. For example, I had never “heard” how many times that Luke records Jesus and others saying, “Fear not.” Those who heard his presentation can never read Luke the same.
Elders can lead in the restoration of the public reading of the Bible in contemporary worship. We have the tradition of Jewish worship, the practice of Jesus, and the admonition of the apostle Paul to support such practice. May we once again be a “People of the Book.”
What, then, can we do? A few suggestions:
- Restore the ancient practice of Scripture reading in worship, preferably a substantial portion from the Old and the New Testaments. There are many examples of weekly readings available from the Internet and from church history.
- Make these readings a celebration of the presence of God and not merely a perfunctory preface to the sermon.
- Create a ministry team of readers whose work is the reading of the Scriptures in worship and who learn the role of public reading of the Scriptures throughout the history of the church.
- Use varied reading presentations, such as a leader with response from the congregation, two or more persons reading together, or a choral reading.
- Promote Scripture memorization and recitations through church programs like Bruce Kuhn’s.