Years ago, I was forced to attend a Roman Catholic Church mass to fulfill a requirement for a class I was taking in seminary. At first, I was not too pleased with this assignment, but as it turned out, it was quite an eye-opening experience to be sure. For me, having grown up as a protestant, I had never attended a Roman Catholic worship service—and I certainly had been taught much of their errors through the years. While I refused to engage in the mass due to the heretical teaching of transubstantiation, I left convicted. As a pastor of a local church and a seminary student, I was convicted for the lack of public reading of Scripture in our protestant worship services.

Over the years that would follow, I would eventually lead our church to incorporate more rather than less Scripture in worship. Why is the public reading of Scripture important and essential for our worship of God?

1 Timothy 4:13 — Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.

Establishing the Priority of Scripture for Worship

At the center of every Christian worship service must be the Word of God. We as believers must place a great priority upon the centrality of God’s Word among his people. By gathering together for the public reading of Scripture—from the very beginning of the service—it places a priority upon the Word. An honest evaluation for all believers would be to compare the amount of singing to the amount of God’s Word in a typical weekly worship service. Which one takes the priority?

As Paul wrote to Timothy (1 Tim. 4:13), he pointed him to the public reading of Scripture. Since books were scarce (especially parchments of God’s Word) and the educational level of people during the days of the early church often lacked the ability to read—the only time people could hear the Word of God was during public worship. Justin Martyr described a worship service from the second century:

On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. [1]

Each week as we gather for worship within the context of the church that I serve, we have an official call to worship from God’s Word. This is a means of the church being called to worship God through his Word from the beginning of the service. Such an official call to worship sets the stage for the fact that all of our worship must be connected to God’s Word, driven by God’s Word, directed by God’s Word, and honoring to the God of the Bible. We likewise desire to communicate to everyone who is present that the Word of God takes priority over everything else in our service.

The chief end of all worship of God will be achieved through his Word. Nothing can compete with God’s Word. Nothing can replace God’s Word. Therefore, with that firm understanding, there should be nothing that takes priority over God’s Word in the regular gathering of God’s people for worship on the Lord’s Day. John Owen, the great Puritan theologian, stated the following:

Our belief of the Scriptures to be the word of God, or a divine revelation, and our understanding of the mind and will of God as revealed in them, are the two springs of all our interest in Christian religion. From them are all those streams of light and truth derived whereby our souls are watered, refreshed, and made fruitful unto God. [2]

Establishing the Necessity of Scripture for Worship

If the only sufficient guide for life and the practice of our faith is the Word of God, why then would we gather together to worship God apart from his Word? Sadly today, many Protestant worship services contain far less public reading of Scripture than Roman Catholic Church services and in some cases—no public reading of Scripture at all.

If we will know God rightly and worship him properly, we must hear God speak through his Word. What Paul taught Timothy was emerging from the Jewish practice of reading the Scriptures in the synagogue. When Jesus visited the synagogue, he read publicly from the scroll of Isaiah. It should likewise be noted that Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians closes with the charge to “have this letter read to all the brothers” (1 Thess. 5:27).

Paul closed his letter to the church in Colosse with these words, “And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea” (Col 4:16). This public reading was to the church, which implies public worship rather than casual meetings over lattes at the local Starbucks. We likewise see this clear pattern of the public reading of Scripture in the letters sent to the seven churches of Revelation (see Rev. 1:3). Rather than arriving late and skipping over the public reading of Scripture, make sure you’re on-time, quiet, and engaged in the reading of Scripture since it not only sets the tone of the worship, but is itself part of the worship of God each week.

Honoring God’s Design for Scripture

God’s Word was designed to be read aloud. As mentioned earlier, illiteracy was a common problem among the people of the early church, but as we move through the days preceding the Reformation, the people would gather for worship and they would not be able to hear the Word in their own language, because the Roman Catholic Church sought to control the text. Even when people could not understand Latin, they would read the Bible in Latin—completely concealing the Word from the people. They were elevating ecclesiastical opinion and their own doctrinal positions above sacred Scripture.

The Reformation was about unleashing God’s Word among the people. In the early days of the Reformation and during the time period of the Puritans, they understood the value and necessity of God’s Word in the common man’s language. They had heard stories of friends and family members being imprisoned and even burned for the sake of possessing a copy of the Bible in their own language. Thomas Watson stated emphatically that the Scripture “shows the Credenda, what we are to believe; and the Agenda, what we are to practise.” [3] Reading it aloud in the public worship of God is essential for making God’s will clearly known to the people on a weekly basis.

Finally, we must never forget that God’s design is to save people through the hearing of his Word (Rom. 10:17). Far more important than our story or our opinion or the sharing of our heart is the clear reading of God’s Word. The reading of the Bible must never be reduced to a simple precursor to what the preacher is about to say. The reading of Scripture must never be relegated to the level of an introduction to the preacher’s sermon. It must be clearly established among everyone who gathers within a Protestant worship service that they not only believe the Bible, but they place great priority upon the public reading of God’s Word as well.

Although the early church primarily used the Old Testament for their public reading, we have the privilege to use both the Old Testament and the New Testament for public reading within our worship services. In an age when prominent pastors are encouraging believers to “unhitch themselves from the Old Testament”—it would be wise to use both the Old and New Testaments on a weekly basis as a reminder that the totality of God’s Word is profitable.

2 Timothy 3:16 — All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,


  1. Justin Martyr, First Apology, I. 67, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, 10 vols. (1885; repr. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 1:186.
  2. John Owen, The Causes, Ways, and Means of Understanding the Mind of God as Revealed in His Word, with Assurance Therein…, in The Works of John Owen, D.D. (Edinburgh: Johnstone & Hunter, 1850-1855), 4:121.
  3. Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1986), 30.