I 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 , 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