Over the years at our various Christmas carols evenings, children, men, and women have read portions of Scripture interspersed with the singing of hymns. No one blinked an eye. Why would they? At some point, we stopped using children in this part of the program, reserving it for church members. Again, no big deal. But what if, on Sunday, a female church member read Scripture in our corporate worship service? I suspect that, besides it being an anomaly, most would not give it a second thought. In fact, many would welcome this participation of women in the service. On the other hand, some may be a bit uncomfortable since, historically, male church members have been up front at the beginning of a service.
Usually, elders lead the service, offering various prayers and, of course, reading Scripture. Sometimes, other men have fulfilled these functions. Elders should continue to lead the services and, usually, should lead in the prayers (for reasons discussed below). But should the reading of Scripture be the sole domain of the elders? Of men in the congregation? As recently communicated, the elders don’t think so. We are persuaded that both male and female church members can participate in the public reading of Scripture. This article will address this issue. But first, why do the elders usually lead the services? Second, should they continue to? Third, should non-elders, male and female, publicly read Scripture in our corporate worship?
More often than not, an elder is tasked with leading our Lord’s Day services. We do this because, together, we have planned the service and, as those responsible for shepherding the flock, we desire to pray for and with the congregation. Carrying particular burdens of the body, we want to pray and guide the congregation in corporate confession, corporate praise, and corporate petitions. When it comes to mundane announcements, since we usually have an informed handle on events happening in the church, we assume that us making these announcements is prudent. Prudent, not prescribed. That is important to bear in mind. We are aiming at doing things decently and orderly (1 Corinthians 14:40). We will continue to do the majority of the leading of services. No fireworks there.
But when it comes to reading Scripture, we are of the view that any capable and faithful member of the church, male or female, can and probably should be included in this corporate act of worship. By “capable,” we mean those who can read clearly, including good annunciation and the ability to project their voice.
When it comes to the public reading—not preaching—of Scripture—there is nothing in the New Testament that limits this to elders. In fact, some elders should not lead in this way for the simple reason that not every elder is comfortable with public reading. No problem. On the other hand, some men who are not elders have a good reading voice coupled with good diction. They read Scripture in a way that is helpful to us hearing it. They should be used in this way. As should some women who have the same ability. If a woman has a good reading voice and reading cadence, which will help the congregation to hear the reading of God’s truth, it seems both imprudent and poor stewardship to neglect such gifting.
Of course there is a world of difference between reading and preaching Scripture. First Corinthians 11:5 substantiates doing the former while passages such as 1 Timothy 2:10–12 forbid the latter. Reading Scripture is an act of corporate (male and female) worship and corporate (male and female) participation, while preaching Scripture is a function reserved for biblically qualified male leadership. Let me put it this way: Reading scripture publicly is not an authoritative responsibility while proclamation does carry authority. Hence, proclamation is reserved for male leadership.
When women began to publicly pray in our corporate Sunday evening prayer meeting, a few people enquired concerning Paul’s admonition, “As in all churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches” (1 Corinthians 14:33–34). Later (v. 35), Paul writes, “For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Some therefore have concluded that women can neither publicly pray nor publicly read Scripture in a corporate church service. But that conclusion is wrong.
The context of the passage in 1 Corinthians 14 addresses speaking in tongues and prophesying when the church gathers. In neither case were women forbidden from exercising these gifts. First Corinthians 11, in fact, speaks approvingly of women prophesying in the church. What women were biblically prohibited from doing was expounding the revelation (in this context, the revelation that accompanied prophecy and tongues). The context of 1 Corinthians 14:26–32 makes this clear. Paul makes the point that the exercise of the speaking gifts must be done in a way that does not cause “confusion.” For a woman to exercise a leadership ministry of teaching the church is to confuse God’s creation order (1 Timothy 2:12–13). Therefore, it is not permitted.
We can conclude that a woman relaying (reading) God’s revelation (his word) publicly is biblically normal, whereas the authoritative function of expounding, teaching, exhorting, or preaching is unbiblical and abnormal for a woman in a corporate church setting (1 Timothy 2:11–15). Being persuaded of this, we at some point plan to begin utilising more of our members—both male and female—in publicly reading Scripture in our corporate worship services.
We don’t have some huge agenda in this. We don’t feel any pressure from either the culture or the contemporary church. We do, however, realise that, in some areas, tradition has become the unquestioned norm. We believe it is time to questionit! If it is biblically permissible and corporately acceptable for women to read Scripture at Christmastime, what hinders them from doing so at all seasons? Since Scripture does not forbid a woman from doing so, our church has no justification to maintain the status quo.
Having recently explained this at our quarterly members’ meeting, some may think this article is unnecessary. However, out of a desire to help us all to better understand the change, we thought an article would be helpful.
As explained, we are persuaded that this different approach will legitimately widen congregational participation. That is good for us all. After all, the church must always be open to reforming to the word of God. That includes who can participate in the corporate reading of the word.
As always, the elders are happy to engage and to answer any questions you may have.
Reforming with you,
Doug with all the elders