Should women be permitted to read Scripture aloud in a church service?
Probably for many of you reading this, the answer would be a simple yes. Neo-Reformed church leader and uber blogger Tim Chailles delivers an emphatic “No!” in this post. In his congregation as well many others in both fundamentalist and neo-Calvinist camps, including this one, only male leaders are permitted to read Scripture:
Because of the importance of the Word of God, at Grace Fellowship Church we ask certain members of the church to be involved in a Scripture Reading Ministry—a ministry of those who are specially trained and equipped to read the Word of God and to read it well. We consider this a teaching ministry, which means that it is a ministry reserved for men.
My husband and I currently attend a church where a male pastor reads the Scripture from which his sermon is based as a part of the message. In the past, we’ve attended churches that used the Lectionary, which allowed a variety of people from the congregation serve as readers. We’ve also attended churches where a vetted reader presents the Scripture(s) for the sermon, and then the preacher follows. (Yeah. We’ve been around.)
I was involved in service planning at a church that used a mix of preacher-reading and congregant-reading of the morning’s Scripture. And then there was my stint administrating chapel services at Trinity International University. The school has a conservative evangelical base and one marquee-name prof who helped found the Gospel Coalition. Even so, the chapel planning teams were charged with ensuring that the diversity of the entire body of Christ was represented in those daily chapel services.
All this to say that I’ve coached Scripture readers in a variety of church settings. I would emphasize to readers that there are three basic ways that Scripture can be presented during a worship service:
(1) Read it: Transfer information; vocalize the words on the page as if you’re reading information from a Wikipedia entry.
(2) Perform it: Treat the pulpit as a stage; sell the words using the techniques in an actor’s toolkit
(3) Proclaim it: A hybrid of number 1 and 2, this way of presenting Scripture is imbued with a humble sense of surrender to the Author of those words and reliance on His Spirit to transmit the life, power and intention of the words to the hearers. Proclamation is, at its heart, a prophetic act.
There is a place for #1 (a classroom or study group) and #2 (dramatization can bring Scripture to life as an accent to a service or as a stand-alone event). But for most services, proclamation is the way to go. Well-done proclamation in the public reading of Scripture models for all the simple, unadorned power of God’s word. Diversity is a healthy ingredient in this this proclamation – after all, at the end of things, we will all be proclaiming his worth. Some of the most memorable public readings of Scripture I’ve ever heard have come from children, a wizened old man, a soft-spoken Asian woman, a newly-sober twenty-something dude.
Tim Chailles’ post had some useful pointers about how to prep people for the important responsibility. I can applaud the sobriety with which he encourages his boy congregants to approach this task. However, I can not celebrate the harsh legalism found in the way he applies his complementarian viewpoint to a role that the entire priesthood of believers can and should be taught to do. This debate goes far beyond Scripture reading, of course, and my .02 won’t change those who are bunkered in their theological convictions on the ongoing gender role debate.
But I do offer my thoughts here for those who may be on the fence about this topic, and feel perhaps convinced by the intensity of the convictions that are issued in a vigorous blog conversation from the neo-Reformed world. I write here from my history as a practioner, and am informed on the topic of women proclaming Scripture prophetically by passages like these:
“‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”- Acts 2:17-18 (Peter quoting from Joel 2)
“For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.” (1 Cor. 14:31)
“Therefore, my brothers and sisters*, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.” (1 Cor. 14:39)
Hearing a variety of voices proclaiming the Word of God gives a congregation an opportunity to encounter him and one another in ways that a small crew of male leaders can not. The first proclaimers were the women who discovered an empty tomb on Sunday morning. Their gospel ministry belongs to all of us we proclaim God’s word to one another, whether we’re standing in front of a pulpit mic on a Sunday morning or in the context of our Monday-Saturday lives.
What do you think about this issue? How does your church choose, prepare and use its Scripture readers? Have you ever had an experience of being especially moved by the unadorned Word of God being proclaimed to you by an unlikely messenger during a church service?
* Note: The Bible version of choice for many in the Neo-Reformed movement is the ESV. It is worth mentioning that the ESV renders this phrase “my brothers”, rather than the NIV’s “brothers and sisters”.
6 thoughts on “Who read Scripture during your church service this morning?”
These people seem to be making so much fuss. Today I was wondering if in heaven there’d be such division over male/female roles? Aren’t we to bring heaven to earth now in as much as we can, the new creation, God working through us? I don’t think Jesus will be segregating along gender lines when all things are reconciled and made new. Please people!
Thank you Michelle for your wise words.
For years I have taken this approach to the teachings of Peter and Paul, who had to deal with local and cultural issues in the churches they planted and pastored and who had strong words that seemingly suppressed women: If their “commands” can’t be supported by the teachings of Jesus, then their words were limited to their time and place and are not applicable to us. Denominations that take Peter and Paul’s directives so literally may be well-meaning, but have no idea of they damage they do.
M – I agree. Living a life of reconciliation is a picture of “all things new”.
Carla, your common-sense approach certainly simplifies the conversation re: cultural practices. How do you answer those who say that if all of Scripture is inspired, we can’t apply a filter to any of it – it’s all equally relevant to our day and time?
You are certainly right. They have no idea of the damage they do…!
Thank you for this.