What was Paul was expecting of the young Timothy when he said, among other things, to “give attention to the public reading of scripture” [Greek, anagnosei ]? Most modern English translations interpret this word to mean “public reading of Scripture” (NIV, NASB, RSV, NRSV, NLT, ESV), even though the words “public” and “Scripture” are not in the original text. The KJV and NKJV simply translate the phrase more literally as “give attention to reading.” While there is no explicit mention in the text that this “reading” was in fact to be done in a public manner, commentators seem generally to agree that the presence of articles in front of the three main words in 1 Tim 4:13 (“the reading, the preaching, the teaching” or “the reading, the exhortation, the doctrine”) probably indicate that Paul was telling Timothy to carry out the public tasks expected of an overseer ordained (cf. 1 Tim 4:14) to serve a congregation. This is not an exhortation to make sure Timothy kept studying on his own (even if that was and is valuable) nor is this an imperative to engage in “one-on-one discipleship” whereby he sought to engage a few here and there in exhortation and teaching (again, as important as that may be). This is, rather, an imperative to pastor Timothy to ensure, that amidst everything else he had to worry about, that Scripture (and let’s not forget that this was, at Timothy’s time, the Old Testament) was heard regularly by those in his care (reading), that Scripture’s import was delivered to the people (preaching), and that the people thereby were taught to discern truth from error (teaching/doctrine). False teachers of Timothy’s day (cf 4:1ff) were no doubt spreading their divisive didactic wares, and there is good reason to conclude, along with most modern translators, that Paul indeed was encouraging Timothy to carry on the practice of public reading of Scripture to those in the congregation–a practice likely already familiar to those raised in the synagogue.
So how are we doing here? Evangelicals, oddly enough, for all our insistence about the authority of Scripture, haven’t necessarily done so well in carrying out this task of reading Scripture publicly–though I can happily say that I am seeing some signs of change here. I’m glad to see my own Church in the past few years dedicating time in our services to having increased public reading of Scripture. Nevertheless, do we evangelicals not have to admit that our brothers and sisters in the mainline traditions tend to hear much more Scripture read publicly than in our own churches? In fact, most traditional liturgies require an Old Testament reading, a reading from the Gospels, AND a reading from an Epistle in every service. No doubt, we evangelicals still pride ourselves on preaching and teaching from the Scriptures, but proportionally, we still publically preach from Scripture significantly more than we read Scripture itself.
Not that proportionality of reading to preaching is necessarily the point here. Five words of Scripture is greater than 5000 words of the preacher. As Karl Barth said, “Even the smallest, strangest, simplest, or obscurest among the biblical witnesses has an incomparable advantage over even the most pious, sholarly, and sagacious latter-day theologian.” (Evangelical Theology, 31-2). Yet the question still remains: Why have we sought to master the tasks of preaching and teaching, but have paid so little attention to the reading?
Beyond this preliminary question, may I be so bold as to suggest that perhaps part of the reason we are so skeptical that the preaching of the Word is the Word of God is because we have failed to heed what I believe to be this deliberate, Pauline ordering of reading, preaching, teaching. Let me explain.
If we take the ordering of what Paul says to Timothy quite seriously, it may be that Paul is saying, Pay attention to READING, to PREACHING (Exhortation), and to TEACHING (Doctrine)–in that order. Or put in more stark terms, Don’t preach until you’ve read, and don’t teach until you’ve preached.
Don’t preach until you’ve read, or at least, don’t preach without making it very clear that Scripture stands above and over our preaching. Preaching’s primary source, after all, is Scripture, and the public reading of Scripture helps to ensure that preaching, by itself, does not supplant the Word of God. Preaching in the absence of deliberate and attentive reading of the Scriptures is rootless. But by setting the reading of Scripture and preaching together, the Church invites those who are in hearing range to distinguish between the word of God and the word of man; by publicly reading Scripture, the Church invites the Spirit who inspires Scripture also to help hearers to discern the difference between God’s Word and the human word.
Furthermore, don’t teach until you’ve preached, or at least, don’t teach as if preaching is irrelevant to what it taught. If the Pauline ordering here is significant, Paul may be warning Timothy that teaching done in the absence of public reading of Scripture and of preaching is in danger of being demonically deceptive (cf. 1 Tim 4:1), not to mention the danger of the teacher him or herself being self-deluded. Such teaching may even be in danger of falling prey to the falsities that the Spirit warns about in 1 Tim 4:2–teaching that proceeds from “hypocritical liars whose consciences have been seered as with a hot iron.” False teachers, after all, have often been characterized by their “lone ranger” style, desiring accountability neither to Scripture itself, nor to their overseers (elders, pastors, bishops, etc.). Moreover, teachers can sometimes view themselves as the self-appointed critic of the preacher. (I know I have to say, “Guilty!”) But the Pauline order may well set preachers and teachers into proper relationship. Only as a teacher views him or herself as authorized by Word of God and the preaching of the Gospel will his or her teaching be safeguarded from didactic isolation. Granted, the teacher may at time need to serve in the very uncomfortable way of pointing out error to the preacher, but the teacher can never forget that his or her task is in service to the overall priority of the Church in public reading and preaching of the Word.
It is common to hear laments over the “biblical illiteracy” of the average pew sitter these days, and it can be easy for those of us with a theological degree (or degrees) in the theological disciplines, or for us as pastors and teachers, to complain about how we are constantly forced to “dumb down” so that people can understand what we consider to be the simplest concepts of Scripture. But perhaps a good part of the responsibility for the woeful biblical illiteracy needs to be placed squarely back into our court. Obviously a good reason to find ways to incorporate greater Scripture reading into our time of worship is simply to be obedient to this Pauline directive given to Timothy (and to us). But perhaps public Scripture reading may also be contribute in a significant way to reversing the biblical illiteracy we all seem so concerned about. Consider that many people in the pews never crack a Bible open all week. Perhaps we need to admit that they may not do it because they have not see it done regularly even in Church on Sunday morning.