The Word of God is the foundation of our worship and the center of our worship. At least that is the theory. But how important is the Bible in our actual practice of worship? The second section of the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God is entitled, "Of Public Reading of the Holy Scriptures." What role does reading of the Bible have in our services?
The Westminster Assembly was convinced that the reading of the Bible was an important, independent act of worship. The reading of the Bible was not just an introduction to the preaching of the Word, but it had its own distinct function. The Word of God was to be placed before the people in larger sections than could be preached, so that the Word might fill the minds and hearts of the people.
The members of the Assembly remembered the commands and practices of the Scriptures celebrating the reading of the Word. God commanded the priests through Moses,
At the end of every seven years, at the time of the year of remission of debts, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place which He will choose, you shall read this law in front of all Israel in their hearing.Deuteronomy 31:10f
Ezra, at the time of the return of Israel from captivity, gathered the people for a public reading of the scriptures (Nehemiah 8:1f). The Revelation of John contains a promise about reading this book of Scripture aloud: "Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy and heed the things which are written in it..." (Revelation 1:3). Surely the public reading of the Word is one of the ways in which the word of Christ may dwell in us richly.
How well do our churches measure up to this standard of the Directory? How much of the Bible is regularly read in our services? I suspect that very little of the Bible that is not directly related to the sermon is read in most of our churches. Further I suspect that even the Scripture read before the sermon is getting shorter and shorter in many churches.
The Directory recommends that ordinarily in each service, at least one chapter be read from the Old Testament and one chapter from the New Testament. The goal is that in due course the whole Bible will be read before the congregation. The Directory states that other familiar passages may be read more frequently (such as the Psalms) - in addition to the other readings.
Ministers are warned that "regard is always to be had unto the time, that neither Preaching, or other Ordinance be straitened, or rendered tedious." The readings must not be so long as to require the shortening of the elements of the service, or so long as to wear out the listener. But how much wears out the listener? Certainly not two chapters! If two chapters are wearying, then something is seriously wrong with the listener. Listeners must not be lazy or let themselves slip into an "entertainment mode." They must work to listen attentively and eagerly to hear what God is saying to them.
But are not some passages of Scripture difficult to understand so that the listener may not comprehend easily the meaning of what has been read? The Directory recognizes that that can be a real problem and suggests that after the reading of such a passage, the minister should take time briefly to explain the basic meaning of the text.
This section of the Directory closes with a call also for regular private reading of the Bible: "Besides Public reading of the Holy Scriptures, every person that can read is to be exhorted to read the Scriptures privately (and all others that cannot read, if not disabled by age, or otherwise, are likewise to be exhorted to learn to read), and to have a Bible." Most of us will say a hearty "Amen" to the call to private Bible reading. We are convinced that it is the key element in spiritual vitality. But we may still have reservations about the s public reading.
Perhaps we think, "Must we listen to all those genealogies of people we have never heard of, all those laws that no longer apply, all those prophesies about nations long gone?" But we should ask ourselves, when we think that way, if we are really any different from liberals who remove from the Scripture passages that they do not appeal to them. Paul says, "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable..." (2 Timothy 3:16). Is our confession, that we love the Word of God, hollow if we do not want to hear portions of it read?
The Directory confronts the practices and tendencies of many contemporary churches in its section on the Public Reading of the Holy Scriptures. We should take its direction to heart. Let us make the Bible truly central in our worship. Let us do that by reading significant portions of it in every worship service.