Tim Challies Christian Blog and Commentary

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Men, Women & the Public Reading of Scripture

Last week I posted a short guide to the public reading of Scripture, and I sought to show how we emphasize Scripture reading at grace fellowship church. I was a little bit taken aback at some of the reaction, especially after one popular blogger linked the article to her Twitter followers; this generated a lot of response and, in many cases, quite an energetic response. Many people were offended to learn that I believe that this is a ministry that ought to be reserved for men.

Had I anticipated this reaction, I would have dedicated more effort to explaining why I believe this is the case. Operating under a philosophy of “better late than never,” let me do that today. Let me tell you why I believe the Lord would have the public reading of Scripture in worship services be led by men.

There are different ways we could go about this, but let me show it just from 1 Timothy—a book that has a lot to say about how worship services are to be conducted.

Over the years there has been near-endless discussion and disagreement about 1 Timothy 2:11. There Paul writes to Timothy and says, “Let a woman learn quietly and with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” He goes on to ground this in God’s Creation ordinance. “For Adam was formed first, then Eve…” Some people hold that when Paul says, “I do not permit,” he is speaking from a personal perspective and his words do not carry the weight of God’s authority. Some people hold that this is a cultural command that is no longer relevant today. Some hold that the kind of quietness he advocated was limited to very specific circumstances that do not apply to our churches. What we can all agree on is that these words, whatever they mean, are in the Bible and are, therefore, given by God for our instruction. These are not sexist words; they are God’s words.

It is my conviction that these words are meant to be read and understood in the simplest sense. Speaking with God’s authority, Paul is saying that women are not to exercise teaching authority over men. In other words, it is men who are charged with authority in the church and the most important component of this authority is to declare the words of God. This puts me firmly in the complementarian camp which says that God has created men and women equal in value and dignity and worth, but different, complementary, in function. Men have been called to exercise headship in the home and in the church while women are called to different and complementary functions. 

I am sure that this comes as no surprise to those who have been reading this site for any length of time. Now let me explain how this applies to the public reading of Scripture.

Perhaps it would be useful to first explain how we publicly read Scripture at Grace Fellowship Church. We do it as one component of our worship service. Here is how a typical service might proceed:

  • Songs
  • Welcome and Prayer
  • Scripture Reading
  • Songs
  • Pastoral Prayer
  • Sermon
  • Songs

The music is led by a lead worshipper and the musicians are a mix of men and women. The prayer tends to be led by the elders of the church (and the pastoral prayer is always led by the elders), but on some occasions we have both men and women of the church pray. Of course the sermon is always preached by one of the elders or, on occasion, by a man appointed by the elders (such as a non-elder who is a gifted teacher). So some of the components of the service are open to men and women while some are open only to men. The question is, where does Scripture reading fall?

Our Scripture reading will often be lengthy—an entire Psalm or a full chapter of the Bible. We preface the reading by declaring, “This is what Holy Scripture says” or something similar. We conclude it by again declaring, “This is the Word of the Lord,” to which the congregation responds, “Amen.” We build that formal structure around the Scripture reading to set it apart and to give it weight. We expect people to understand that this is not mere formality and it is not merely words they are hearing. Rather, they are hearing the very words of God.

If you read through the article in which I described how we go about preparing to read Scripture, you will see that we expect those who read to understand that this is a teaching ministry. The preparation is meant to be preparation to teach—not just to read well, but to read in such a way that the reader is a teacher. 

In this way we see the public reading of Scripture as being in the same category not as singing or praying, but as preaching. It is a teaching role.

I believe we stand on firm biblical grounds here. In 1 Timothy 1:1 Paul tells Timothy to devote himself to 3 things—3 related things: the public reading of Scripture, exhortation and teaching. This follows Paul’s instruction that women are not to teach or exercise authority over men. It is my understanding that this applies to all 3 of these things—reading Scripture, exhortation and teaching. These are 3 parts of the same ministry—that of exercising authority in teaching. So I see it explicitly there, and then I find it implicit in my general understanding of teaching, gender roles and complementarity.

So I suppose what I would want you to see is that my conviction about the public reading of Scripture in the worship services is built upon the same foundation as my conviction about the preaching ministry. They are two components of the same ministry, and, therefore, what applies to one applies to the other.