On Lay Readers


It has become common in many churches, Protestant, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic alike, to see “lay readers.” But it is not very common for people to know the basis upon which lay readers have begun to appear in the churches. Any discussion of this practice should be informed by the basis for the practice.

The practice of lay readers, as we presently understand the term, flows from the work of the founder of the so-called liturgical renewal in Roman Catholic and Episcopal circles, Dom Gregory Dix. Dix advocated the use of lay readers because of his view concerning the source of the Scriptures themselves. Following the thinking of what we would call liberal theologians in both Roman Catholic and Protestant circles, Dix argued that the Holy Scriptures arise out of the Christian community, and therefore, this understanding should be reflected in how the Scriptures are read in the churches, namely by lay persons arising from the midst of the community to come forth and read the Scriptures to the community. Dix is correct in one basic respect: Behaviors convey meaning! Behaviors proclaim theology, often louder than the words that may accompany those behaviors. And if a church believes, as liberal theologians and churches do, that the source of the Holy Scriptures is the Christian community of believers, then we would expect the practice of having lay readers come forth from the community to read the Scriptures to the community.

But this is not what we believe as Confessional Lutherans! Yes, there are many Lutheran churches in which lay readers are used, but this only means that a different theology of God’s Word is being demonstrated by behavior than is being professed by the stated beliefs of the church. According to her Confessions, the Lutheran church professes that the Scriptures come to the Christian community, not from within the Christian community. They address the Christian community as the voice of God, speaking through the voice and the pen of God’s chosen and inspired spokesmen, who speak not because they are part of the community (for often they were viewed as enemies of the interests of the community); rather, they speak as ones specifically called by God.

In the New Testament, the church is shown that God addresses her through the voice of the called ministers of the Word. Listen carefully to the instructions that the Apostle Paul gives to the young Pastor Timothy: “Until I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine” (1 Timothy 4:13). Here St. Paul lists three particular activities that Pastor Timothy should be conducting in his ministry, especially in the absence of the direct work of the Apostle: the public reading of Scripture, preaching, and teaching doctrine. This passage alone is enough to inform us of the source and handling of God’s Word in the Christian community.

Does this mean that always and only the Pastor should read the Scriptures in the gathered Christian community? Not necessarily. But first we must understand that this passage underscores that the public reading of God’s Word, like preaching and the teaching of doctrine, is an action in which God speaks and the Christian community listens. It is not a matter of one believer reading to another believer, and it is not a matter of having a representative part in the services of God to his people. Rather it is a matter of God speaking to listening believers. God speaks to us through the office of the apostolic ministry, first through the apostles themselves, and after the days of the apostles, through the called servants of his Word. He does this as they read his written Word to the community, as they preach his holy Gospel to the community, and as they teach his pure doctrine to the community.

In the early Church, it was not always and only the pastor who read the Scriptures. It was the deacons who did some of the reading, and they kept the manuscripts. (Remember, there were no mass-produced Bibles from which the Scriptures were read, preached and taught.) The deacons guarded the sacred manuscripts with their lives. In the services they would read the available manuscripts of the Old Testament and the Epistles, and then would open and hold the manuscripts for the pastors or bishops to read from the Holy Gospels. We should also note that the office of deacon was a secondary office of the holy ministry, not a representative of the community. The deacon served under and with the offices of pastor and bishop. In the early Church, the reading of the Word was definitely not viewed as a function of the community, but rather as part of God’s service to the community.

This ancient practice of the church is still carried on in many churches who wish their practice to confess their doctrine, and who wish to profess their oneness with the historic Christian church. Those who read the Old Testament and the Epistles are not necessarily the pastor, but are those who are recognized by one and all as serving with and under the authority of the pastoral office. As such, they are vested like the pastor is vested, as a sign of serving under authority and within the supervision of the pastoral office, just like the early office of deacon. Even with this arrangement, the pastor still reads the Holy Gospel, namely that portion of God’s Word where Christ is shown in his public ministry coming from God to be among God’s people with God’s Word. The pastor does this reading, and supervises the other readings, for he, because of his office and not because of his person, stands within the community, but not as a representative of the community. Rather he serves within the community as one called by God and sent by God, as one who serves within the community in the stead of Christ and by the command of Christ.

This history, together with the Scriptural teaching that undergirds it, gives us both the flexibility and the limitations within which to deal with the reading of God’s Word so as to have our behaviors teach the same thing as does our doctrine.

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