The very words of God

A conversation between two seminary professors about why and how Scripture is read in worship services.

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Lynn: Public Bible reading in worship has strong biblical support. When Moses gave the Torah to Israel, he commanded the people to read it aloud every seven years to learn to love the Lord (Deut. 31:10-13). When Israel returned from exile, Ezra had the book read aloud in assembly with commentary so that all could understand. Though people wept in repentance, the Levites declared a day of rejoicing and feasting (Neh. 8). Jesus introduced his first synagogue sermon by reading Isaiah 61 (Luke 4:16-30). Yet, despite biblical precedent and strong commitment among Mennonite Brethren to be a biblical people, public Scripture reading is not prominent in our worship gatherings. Why is that?

Brian: Public reading of Scripture can be a very positive experience, but as you referenced with Ezra’s commentary, what matters is what the text means. Peter, in referring to the apostle Paul’s letters, writes: “There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16, NRSV).

Nearly every cult and heresy has begun with an individual interpreting the Bible on their own. Obviously, this is not a deficiency of the Bible but evidence of the human propensity to twist our interpretations to make the Bible say what we want it to say. I think this is even more likely in 2019, where in an increasingly post-Christian culture, most people have very little understanding of orthodox theology, themes and classical interpretations of texts. Therefore, the public reading of Scripture can be a good thing—but without careful interpretation, it may not always produce the results we expect.

Lynn: These are excellent reminders, Brian. Reading the Bible has been hazardous to people’s lives—and their faith. This reinforces the importance of reading the Bible in community. We have much to learn about public Scripture reading from those who read it as an act of worship. Often Bible-reading churches follow the lectionary, a Bible reading plan shared by Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists. I attend a church that weekly reads an Old Testament text, a psalm in response, a New Testament passage (usually an epistle) and a Gospel reading (often the preaching text). We work carefully to avoid making Bible reading drone endlessly and a chance to daydream or take a mind break.

Brian: Yes, there is much to commend to this tradition. We need more churches that value hearing from the Word of God! And yes, Lynn, reading (and even more discussing) the scriptural text within community can produce a powerful encounter with the Holy Spirit.

All of us are limited, embodied beings. We see all of life, including the Scriptures, based on our experiences and current context. Yet, when we hear how others interpret the Bible based on their experiences and contexts, there is the potential for us to see God in a new light. This was clearly the experience of the early Jewish Christians when the word of God began to be received by the Gentiles (Acts 10).

But I am still a little unsure about some practices of the public reading of Scripture. As we become increasingly biblically illiterate, I am a little concerned that if an “unbeliever or an outsider” (1 Cor. 14) is present in worship, that they will simply be confused.

In my opinion, if more than one text is read during worship (or in a sermon) it tends to often confuse most worshippers. We are not much of an oral culture anymore, and we certainly are not a text-based culture but an image-based one. I fear that it is increasingly difficult for contemporary people to easily follow along during the readings of multiple texts—let alone understand them.

Lynn: Again, you underline how essential good reading is for understanding. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God!” (Rom. 10:17). Effective public Scripture reading begins with love for the Bible. As Mennonites, we declare that the Bible is our authority because we know that in these words, we find eternal life. We believe that we meet Jesus the Living Word within the pages of the Written Word as interpreted by the Preached Word (designations suggested by theologian Karl Barth). We love Scripture because it tells the story of how God’s people have experienced God saving, loving and speaking through the years.

We express our love for the Bible by deeply engaging the text in preparation for reading. We show respect for our audience by reading the assigned text slowly, repeatedly, in several versions until we hear God’s Word ourselves. Familiar words of Jesus and from Paul’s letters often address us warmly immediately. Other texts may sound less “friendly,” especially when they speak with judgment. We must live with the text, allowing it to penetrate our lives if we are to read in the power of the Spirit.

Brian: Yes, I would certainly affirm a love of Scripture. It is inspired and God-breathed and certainly was instrumental in the Holy Spirit personally drawing me to saving faith in Jesus. And yes, I also affirm the “Preached Word,” leading us to the “Living Word,” through engagement with the “Written Word.” But this also gets to my slight concern about simply publicly reading the Bible. I am not sure without prayerful and careful explanation and illustration of these texts, that necessarily, people will find the Living Word. As Jesus himself says: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40).

Lynn: We are agreed on that point! To help people who are “biblically illiterate,” we encourage readers to introduce the Scripture briefly. Three sentences that “position” hearers to receive the text as God’s Word can help open their minds to the Bible. Sometimes referring to the biblical context helps hearers find meaning. Sometimes listening for key themes commands attention.

For people to hear well, we who read must honor the text. Practical pointers can make the difference between careless and care-filled reading. Repeated rehearsal is a good starting point. The reader should read clearly, slowly and with sufficient volume that worshipers seated in the first rows could hear without amplification. Read for meaning, giving attention to the phrasing of the text. Be so familiar with the passage that you are not “surprised” by an additional phrase after you have paused for a breath or a full stop.

Although important in public speaking, making eye contact and using gestures during public Bible reading can become a distraction. The best reading does not call attention to itself with exaggerated expression or dramatic pauses. Letting the text speak is the goal. The key is to honor the text.

Congregational worship should be dynamic, reflecting the resurrection life that we celebrate each Sunday. Routines can be our friends, helping us with a sense of belonging. When we read the Gospel text each week at our church, we carry the pulpit Bible to the center of the sanctuary. All stand for the reading of the Gospel. We honor the text by carrying the Bible to the communion table. When routines become ruts, they lose vitality. In our congregation we include drama at times. Recently, our youth group “interrupted” the Bible reading by standing to shout out the words of the crowd before Pilate. On Easter Sunday the youth took on the roles of Jesus and those who visited the tomb to proclaim the biblical text.

Brian: These are some helpful tips and suggestions, Lynn. I affirm most of them. I think that I would personally encourage a “slightly” dramatic reading of the text. Passion, excitement and movement are often valued within our contemporary culture. Now of course, there is a line that can be crossed where a reading goes from being interesting to coming across as overly sentimental and inauthentic. But I would encourage a reader to give it enough energy that it would be difficult to accuse the reader of boring them. I do not think that we will always be successful with this, the Apostle Paul even bored someone to death (Acts 20:9) but it should be our goal. These are not merely human words that we are reading after all—but the very words of God.

Lynn: One last thought from MB elder J. B. Toews: “The Bible, like a lion, needs no defense.” Let it roar!

Lynn Jost and Brian Ross are colleagues at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, the Mennonite Brethren seminary in Fresno, California. Jost is professor and program director for Old Testament and the director of the Center for Anabaptist Studies. Ross is assistant professor and program director for Christian Ministry and the Master of Divinity & Ministry Leadership and Culture program.

CL Staff
This article has been posted by CL staff.

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