Who Should Do the Reading?

reading.jpgI received a private email this morning asking a follow-up question to the previous article on the reading of the scriptures in worship: Who should be reading the scriptures in worship – “the minister” or “some other person” (PCA BCO 50-2)? That is a good question and one on which a number of different answers have been given historically.

The questioner’s reference to PCA BCO 50-2 refers to the odd and less-than-helpful language of that paragraph, which states, “50-2. The reading of the Holy Scriptures in the congregation is a part of the public worship of God and should be done by the minister or some other person.” Everyone clear on that? Lest there be any confusion, parrots, robots, and other non-persons are not to read the scriptures in public worship. It’s paragraphs like that one that sometimes make me glad that the PCA directory of worship is the only Presbyterian directory in history not to have constitutional authority (except for the chapters on the sacraments [56-58]). Morton Smith notes in his commentary on the BCO that:

“As already noted, this paragraph is in contrast to the first sentence of 50-1. The “or some other person” was added by the PCA by motion from the floor fo the Assembly when it adopted the Book, and it is evident that it was not carefully compared to other portions of the Book. Without any qualifications as to the “other person” it nullifies all restrictions implied by both 50-1 and 50-2. This is one of those areas that needs further study.” [Morton Smith, Commentary on the Book of Church Order, p.408]

As Smith indicates, BCO 50-2 contradicts 50-1 which states that “The public reading of the Holy Scriptures is performed by the minister as God’s servant.” More importantly it also contradicts Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 156 which states “Although all are not to be permitted to read the word publicly to the congregation,” I say more importantly because the Larger Catechism does have constitutional authority in the PCA. Clearly the very least we should learn from all this is the danger inherent in attempting to write a Book of Church Order via motions from the floor.

But the very addition of the contradictory nullifying phrase to 50-2 points out that many people feel that the scriptures may be read in worship by any person, and most of us at some point have have had to sit through the uncomfortable* experience of having a small child lisp their way through the reading during a Holy Day or “Advent Season” service, or having a woman from the congregation do a reading. Nothing in scripture supports this however. Nowhere do we see women or children publicly reading the word in worship, and certainly the historic Reformed understanding of Paul’s command in 1 Tim 2:12 would seem to militate against the idea . The question though remains which men may read the scriptures in public worship?

Opinions on that have differed slightly. For instance, the Scots Presbyterians prior to the Westminster Assembly had an office of “Reader”or the ordained version of what we might call a “worship leader” who customarily handled the portions of the service that did not involve teaching, including reading the scriptures. Warfield notes how this office disappeared:

“Of more importance than any of these usages, at least for the conduct of the public services, was the loss by the Scots, through the Westminster Directory, of the office of “Reader.” From the Reformation down, the former or liturgical portion of the Scottish Sabbath service — the opening prayer, the lessons from Scripture, and the singing of a Psalm — had been conducted by a “Reader,” the Minister taking charge of the services, and indeed commonly entering the church, only when he ascended the pulpit to preach. The Westminster Divines found no Scriptural warrant for the office of “Reader,” and, much against the wishes of the Scots, enacted that the Minister should conduct the entire service. “Reading of the Word in the Congregation,” they set down in their Directory, “being part of the Public Worship of God (wherein we acknowledge our dependence upon Him, and subjection to Him), and one means sanctified by Him for the edifying of His people, is to be performed by the Pastors and Teachers.” The only exception they would allow was that they permitted candidates for the ministry occasionally to perform the office of reading, as also that of preaching, on permission of their Presbyteries.”[B.B. Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and Its Work [1931], p. 49]

However, it should be noted that the Reader was considered an office of the church. Men from the congregation were not randomly invited to come up and lead in worship or read the scriptures. The argument then was not whether lay people might also read the scriptures in worship, but over whether only the minister and possibly ministerial candidates were permited to read it. The Westminster divines judged it irrefutable that only the officers of the church were allowed to read.

Personally, I would hold that the public reading of scripture in worship is only to be done by the elders of the church, I do not happen to believe there is any reason why ruling elders may not also read the word and certainly any argument that might be advanced asserting that only teaching elders may publicly read the scriptures would also necessarily remove all other ruling elder involvement from public worship and effectively negate the two office view. Therefore, I would answer the question, who should do the reading? The Elders of the Church.

* That is uncomfortable for OSPs, your own feelings may be different

About Andrew Webb

I was converted out of paganism and the occult in 1993 and while I was initially Charismatic/Arminian in my theology, I became Reformed and Presbyterian through bible study and the influence of ministries like RC Sproul's. After teaching in local bible studies, and taking seminary courses part time, I began to feel called to the ministry in 1997. I was Ordained as an RE at Christ Covenant PCA in Hatboro, PA in 2000 and as a TE by Central Carolina Presbytery in 2001 when I was called to be the Organizing Pastor/Church Planter for Providence PCA Mission, Cross Creek PCA's church plant in Fayetteville, NC (home to Ft. Bragg and Pope Airforce Base). In 2005 when the Providence PCA Particularized I was blessed to be called by the congregation to be their Pastor
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7 Responses to Who Should Do the Reading?

  1. Doug Warren says:

    Your article stated that there is no biblical support for women reading Scripture in a public worship service. This is an unfortunate oversight that I am sure you did not intend. The reality is that the clearest instructions we have in the Scriptures on participation in the public worship service including who is to read the Scriptures and how they are to be read appears in First Corinthians. What we find there is instructions for both men and women praying and prophesying and only later are we told that men only are to interpret the word prophesied. That interpretation is the preaching which is limited to men only, but as for praying and prophesying (now reading) there is not only an absence of prohibition, but a positive instruction for how they are to do it.

  2. Andrew Webb says:

    Dear Brother,

    As you know, Paul addressed many problems with the worship of the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians and prior to the 20th century, Reformed commentators were in agreement that one of the most serious of those errors was a sinful egalitarianism that had led to the Corinthian women taking part – speaking – in the public worship services, contrary to the universal practice of the apostolic churches.

    Here is a brief round up of just a few Reformed expositors who all make the point that Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 14:34 – “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak” meant exactly what it says:

    B.B. Warfield: “It is important to observe, now, that the pivot on which the injunction of these verses turns is not the prohibition of speaking so much as the command of silence. That is the main injunction. The prohibition of speech is introduced only to explain the meaning more fully. What Paul says is in brief: “Let the women keep silent in the churches.” That surely is direct and specific enough for all needs. He then adds explanatorily: “For it is not permitted to them to speak.” “It is not permitted” is an appeal to a general law, valid apart from Paul’s personal command, and looks back to the opening phrase – “as in all the churches of the saints.” He is only requiring the Corinthian women to conform to the general law of the churches. And that is the meaning of the almost bitter words that he adds in verse 36, in which – reproaching them for the innovation of permitting women to speak in the churches – he reminds them that they are not the authors of the Gospel, nor are they its sole possessors: let them keep to the law that binds the whole body of churches and not be seeking some newfangled way of their own.

    The intermediate verses only make it plain that precisely what the apostle is doing is forbidding women to speak at all in the church. His injunction of silence he pushes so far that he forbids them even to ask questions; and adds with special reference to that, but through that to the general matter, the crisp declaration that “it is indecent” – for that is the meaning of the word – “for a woman to speak in church.”

    It would be impossible for the apostle to speak more directly or more emphatically than he has done here. He requires women to be silent at the church meetings; for that is what “in the churches” means, there were no church buildings then. And he has not left us in doubt as to the nature of these church meetings. He had just described them in verses 26ff. They were of the general character of our prayer meetings. Note the words “let him be silent in the church” in verse 30, and compare them with “let them he silent in the churches” in verse 34. The prohibition of women speaking covers thus all public church meetings – it is the publicity, not the formality of it, which is the point. And he tells us repeatedly that this is the universal law of the church. He does more than that. He tells us that it is the commandment of the Lord, and emphasizes the word “Lord” (verse 37). ”

    Charles Hodge: “If connected with 1 Cor. 14:34, this passage is parallel to 1 Cor. 11:16, where the custom of the churches in reference to the deportment of women in public is appealed to as authoritative. The sense is thus pertinent and good. “As is the case in all other Christian churches, let your women keep silence in the public assemblies.” The fact that in no Christian church was public speaking permitted to women was itself a strong proof that it was unchristian, i.e. contrary to the spirit of Christianity. Paul, however, adds to the prohibition the weight of apostolic authority, and not of that only but also the authority of reason and of Scripture. It is not permitted to them to speak. The speaking intended is public speaking, and especially in the church.”

    F.W. Grosheide: “The view has been expressed that Paul does not issue an absolute prohibition of women’s speaking in the church for 1) the verb the apostle uses connotes speaking rather than the giving of an address, and 2) it should be remembered that the special circumstances at Corinth may have demanded special measures.

    It should be granted that Paul writes of speech not of prophecy. But it is inconceivable in this context that Paul’s words should imply no more than that women may not speak during the services. Such an admonition would ill accord with subjection as also saith the law. Does not the context speak of using the gift which God has given to the church’s profit? Secondly, the expression “speaking in tongues” implies that “to speak” is more than simply expressing oneself. Much more plausible is therefore the view that Paul uses the general word “to speak” because he is of the opinion that any kind of speaking in the services is forbidden to women. Vs. 35 even forbids asking questions in the meeting. And as to the second argument, conditions were indeed unusual at Corinth, but at the beginning Paul stated that the rule which applies at Corinth applies everywhere. Our verse, it should now be clear, contains an absolute prohibition against women’s speaking in the services.”

    I could go on to cite several others but I’m sure you get the point.

    I am aware that in recent years expositors like Keller and Clowney have tried to use the prohibition in 1 Tim. 2:12 to create a new category of pulpit speech for women – “non-authoritative teaching” but I don’t find their arguments to be exegetically persuasive. For a good critique of that position, please check out Dr. Mark Herzer’s paper: Clowney’s Interpretation of I Timothy 2:12

    In any event, while some contemporary churches may have embraced the idea of women leading in worship, reading, praying, and teaching and sharing non-authoratatively, I don’t think anyone would argue that this was ever the Old School Presbyterian (OSP) position, and therefore I hope you will forgive us if we don’t recommend it on this particular blog.

    May God bless your efforts to extend His Kingdom in the state of Maine!

    Your Servant in Christ,

    Andy Webb

  3. Doug Warren says:

    Dear Andy,

    Thank you for your gracious response and you prayers for our church-planting efforts in Maine. We like you share a passion for extending His Kingdom according to His Word.

    I appreciate your recounting several commentators in our tradition and I have weighed their exegesis carefully. What neither they nor you respond to however is the text itself. Certainly a mainstay of Old School Presbyterianism is the priority of Scripture to tradition.

    I agree with you that Paul uses the strongest language to prohibit women’s speaking in 1 Cor 14. The question is what “speaking” is being prohibited? You answer emphatically–all speaking. But unfortunately while this accords with many excellent scholars in our tradition, it does not accord with the rest of the letter to the Corinthians.
    Scripture interpreting Scripture is another fine OSP commitment. First Cor 11 addresses prayer and prophesy in the corporate worship service and Paul does not prohibit women from speaking in these situations, but rather gives instructions for how both men and women are to do this. Our interpretation of what is said later must not contradict this. What is discussed in 14 is the interpretation of the prophesy (Word of God) and for this speaking (preaching) Paul is rightly emphatic that women are to remain silent. This is what the text says and any exposition of 14 must take into account 11. Neither you nor those you quoted have done so and so I must humbly submit to the Word of God rather than the traditions of men.

    By Christ’s Grace,

    Doug Warren
    Portland, Maine

  4. Andrew Webb says:

    Hello Again Doug,

    Thank you for being willing to enter into a profitable dialog on this matter. Iron sharpens iron as Prov. 27:17 tells us.

    I had thought that the commentators I had cited had actually interacted with the text (although I didn’t cite their full interaction with all the scriptures of 1 Cor. 11 & 14). I should note that all of them were first rate New Testament scholars. Warfield’s specialty for instance was the Greek of the NT, and Grosheide, noted for his R/H scholarship, was the chair of the New Testament department of the Free University. Hodge was also an excellent exegete. None of them would simply have accepted a tradition uncritically without seeing it proved in the text.

    Anyway, on to 1 Cor. 11 and whether it actually offers proof that the Apostles taught that women were allowed to preach (prophesy) and lead corporate prayer in public worship.

    Paul is dealing in 1 Cor. 11:2-16 with yet another problem in the worship of the Corinthian church. Some of the women were worshipping in a manner that challenged the local customs of Corinth and seemed to imply a denial of biblical headship. They were acting in a way that not only scandalized Greek culture, but which went against the natural hierarchy that God established between the sexes. In some way, their manner of worship seemed to be eliminating the distinction between the sexes.

    Please keep in mind that Paul had already said that we should not offend against the cultural norms of a society if those customs were things indifferent. In other words, if a missionary went to a culture where it was the custom for men not to wear yellow clothes because only women wore the color yellow and it was therefore considered effeminate and offensive for a man to do so, he should listen to Paul’s instruction in 1 Cor. 10:32: “Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God” and Chapter 9:22 “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” And not go about wearing yellow. However, if it was the custom of that society to go about naked, that is not a matter of indifference, the missionary must keep his clothes on no matter how weird or offensive it might seem to them.

    In Greek society, in common with most places in the east, we know it was the custom of the women to have their head covered whenever they were in public, they normally wore a veil called the peplum which was thrown over the head. The only possible exception to this rule that we know of were women of ill-repute. Therefore for a woman to be uncovered in public would have been considered scandalous to the Greeks of Corinth. On the other hand it was the custom of Greek men to have their heads uncovered in public.

    So after establishing the importance of headship in verse 3 Paul, starts out teaching from an opposite example. If a man were to cover his head while praying or prophesying, and the word prophesying (Prophetuo) speaking on behalf of God, lets us know that he means in the context of public worship, the public assembly, well then that man dishonors his head, not literally the head on his own shoulders, but the head set by the context of verse 3, that is Christ. This is because he would be appearing with the sign of male headship worn by women on his own head. He would be a man dressed as a woman, which would bring shame upon the church of Jesus Christ, in the same way that a general appearing for an inspection dressed in a summer frock would not only be a shame to himself, he would be showing disrespect to the entire US military and his Commander in Chief.

    The woman therefore who enters into worship without a covering is doing the same thing. She is appearing in public worship in a manner that dishonored her head, that is the man. By doing so she puts herself in the same category as a woman whose head had been shaved, which at one time was a universal sign of disgrace for women. For instance, it is interesting to reflect that throughout Europe, in France, Italy, Norway, and so on, following their liberation from Nazi occupation women who had collaborated with the Germans were disgraced by having their heads shaved.

    Clearly, being shaved was also a disgrace in Greece, so let them therefore have their heads covered.

    Now as we see confirmed in 1 Cor. 14:34 Paul is not saying that it is ok for women to prophesy in public worship, he is merely noting that they were doing so. He later judges and condemns that practice in explicit terms. So as Calvin puts it disapproving of the one, does not mean approving of the other.

    Paul then goes on to say why the natural order ought to be upheld in the way we act, in a way that would indicate to us that a sinful egalitarianism was being displayed. Man was created in the image of God, therefore his calling was to glorify God by exercising dominion, the woman was also created in the image of God, but she was created by God not to exercise dominion, but to act as a help-meet to the man and to voluntarily submit to him. In that manner she glorified God. The fact that she was created from a rib taken from the side of the man reinforces that help-meet role.

    Just to show that I’m not entering into a private exegesis of chapter 11, here are Calvin and Hodge on 11:5

    Calvin: “It may seem, however, to be superfluous for Paul to forbid the woman to prophesy with her head uncovered, while elsewhere he wholly prohibits women from speaking in the Church. (1 Timothy 2:12.) It would not, therefore, be allowable for them to prophesy even with a covering upon their head, and hence it follows that it is to no purpose that he argues here as to a covering. It may be replied, that the Apostle, by here condemning the one, does not commend the other. For when he reproves them for prophesying with their head uncovered, he at the same time does not give them permission to prophesy in some other way, but rather delays his condemnation of that vice to another passage, namely in 1 Corinthians 14. In this reply there is nothing amiss, though at the same time it might suit sufficiently well to say, that the Apostle requires women to show their modesty — not merely in a place in which the whole Church is assembled, but also in any more dignified assembly, either of matrons or of men, such as are sometimes convened in private houses.”

    Hodge: “Praying and prophesying were the two principal exercises in the public worship of the early Christians. The latter term, as above stated, included all forms of address dictated by the Holy Spirit. It was Paul’s manner to attend to one thing at a time. He is here speaking of the propriety of women speaking in public unveiled, and therefore he says nothing about the propriety of their speaking in public in itself. When that subject comes up, he expresses his judgment in the clearest terms, ` 1 Cor. 14:34.”

    Admittedly, Paul’s language throughout chapter 11 is difficult to interpret (“because of the angels” in 11:10 for instance) so attempting to base a theology of women in worship either way on this chapter alone is not advisable. Therefore the clear and unambiguous instructions of 1 Cor. 14:34 and 1 Tim. 2:12 and the principle of scripture interpreting scripture are a better place to determine what role (taking part by listening and learning) women should have in public worship. Certainly we should be hesitant to establish a theology that ok’s what Paul calls a “disgrace” (aischros) in 1 Cor. 14:35.

    It is worth noting that for almost two millennia Christians did not interpret 11:5 as allowing women to speak in public worship, and that was certainly the case for the first 300 years of Presbyterianism.

    I don’t quote Roger Ellsworth, the author of the Wellwyn commentary on 1 Corinthians to offend, but I find that there is at the very least a kernel of truth in what he says here regarding the change in interpretation of 1 Cor. 11:5 –

    “The difficulty of interpreting this passage is compounded by the fact that this topic is one of the most hotly debated in society in general. It is very easy for the Christian to pick up certain ideas from society, then carry these to the Bible with the expectation of having them confirmed. It should be quite obvious that many of the things troubling the church today would not be problems at all if they were not problems in society. The church has to be sensitive to the trends of society and address itself to those concerns, but that doesn’t mean she should simply parrot what her society happens to be saying at a given moment. Today’s church seems to be doing exactly that. There wasn’t a gay rights movement in the church until there was one in the world! There wasn’t an abortion rights movement in the church until there was one in the world! And there wasn’t a militant feminism in the church until there was one in the world! Don’t these things indicate that the world just has to name a song and Christians start humming the tune? Let society sneeze just once and half the church seems to come down with a cold!”

    Your Servant in Christ,


    PS – as a child I spent my Summer vacations in Maine (particularly a place called Deer Isle) and Nova Scotia, and often passed through Portland. I love Maine, and lament the contrast between its physical beauty, and the ecclesiastical wasteland it became after the collapse of the robust Calvinism of New England in the 19th century.

  5. Frank J. Smith says:

    Dear Andy:

    Let me add that the PCA General Assembly has spoken definitively to this very issue, when it took exception to women leading in prayer and reading Scripture in a worship service of Presbytery of Southern Florida. That Presbytery, after a couple of years, finally conceded that it had erred.

    Cordially in Christ,
    Frank J. Smith, Ph.D., D.D.
    Pastor, Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church of Sheboygan, Wisconsin
    Stated Clerk, Reformation Presbytery of the Midwest
    Editor, Presbyterian International News Service

  6. Doug, I too find Andy’s (and Warfield’s and others) reasoning to be less than compelling. There is little debate that these scholars advocate the position that he says they do. They lived and breathed in a culture of patriarchy and it seems that it clouded their reasoning on this point. Need it be pointed out that many “solidly Reformed” people of this era also found the Scriptures to support some form of slave-keeping. Just because Reformed Fathers say it doesn’t make it true. And just because there is a traditional trajectory doesn’t mean that this trajectory shouldn’t be inspected and critiqued.

    The only way you can argue that 1 Cor 14 says that women should not read or pray in worship is by ignoring the clear import of 1 Cor 11. And, if you take Andy’s route, I don’t see how you could allow a woman to sing in worship, share a testimony in worship, or for that matter, even speak to their children sitting next to them. If you’re interpretation of this passage leads you to outlaw women from reading a passage or praying, it seems consistent to follow the verse faithfully and truly ask them to be silent.

  7. Andrew Webb says:

    Dear Brian,

    I’ve done my best to offer what I consider to be a compelling exegetical argument for why 1 Cor. 11 – the only scripture in the NT that speaks of women prophesying and praying as part of corporate worship – is not endorsing the practice.

    To my admitedly simple mind it is hardly likely that Paul would teach that this practice is acceptable in the midst of a chapter in which he is uniformly rebuking and correcting serious errors in Corinthian worship and where he has acknowledged they are deviating from the uniform practice of the other churches any more than he is teaching that it is acceptable for people to be drunk in worship because he notes in verse 21 that some of the Corinthian worshipers are drunk without unambiguously condemning drunkeness.

    Surely we would answer an argument for drunkeness based on his failure to condemn it there that he doesn’t need to explicitly condemn it at that point, since scripture condemns it elsewhere. But suddenly we break with that common sense exegetical practice and in 1 Cor. 11 we are supposed to assume that a narrative description of the current erroneous and indecent worship practices in Corinth (Paul’s words not mine) trumps his unambiguous declarations in 1 Cor. 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:12.

    Now regarding the argument that Reformed exegetes from Calvin to Warfield exegeted the verse the way they did because they “lived breathed in a culture of patriarchy”, that argument logically extends further than I think you might want it too. Liberal expositors of these verses have pointed out that Paul (as well as all the human authors of scripture) also “lived and breathed in a culture of patriarchy” this is how they dismiss 1 Cor. 14:34 and 1 Tim. 2:12 as well as a host of other scriptures they regard to be as “chauvinistic” as you feel Warfield and company were in their exegesis. In one sense though the argument (which actually provides a psychological rather than an exegetical explantion) doesn’t go far enough. I was brought up in our modern egalitarian world and was frequently dragged to churches as a child where the ministers and readers were female, and yet I never understood 1 Cor. 11 in context to be teaching that women could officiate in worship. [BTW – would you argue that the Bible doesn’t call for male headship (patriarchy) in the home and the church?]

    Additionally, to say that Calvin, Hodge, et al’s interpretation of 1 Cor. 14 would prevent women from singing etc. is to carry an argument we don’t like to the level of absurdity. It is like saying that because we are not allowed to officiate or be on the field it indicates we cannot be at the football game. It is always and everywhere assumed that women would be in the congregation and singing, all that is being forbidden are the responsibilities associated with those who lead the worship.

    Finally, its worth noting that this interpretation is hardly in danger of taking over and ruling the roost. A recent White Horse Inn made the point that far from being in danger of “patriarchical tyranny” protestant churches are rapidly becoming entirely female dominated. Women already make up the majority of new Ministers going into mainline denominations and the evangelical churches are by and large following the egalitarian trend in an overwhelmingly egalitarian culture.

    So brother, rest assured that there is NO shortage of church plants out there in which women can teach, preach, and lead in worship (I’ve even attended some), and I don’t think they are in danger of being driven out by the comparitively tiny number of OSP plants do you? In fact, if current trends continue OSP churches may eventually end up facing not only ecclesiastical, but civil pressure to allow the ordination and participation of women in all the parts of worship.

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