Who is Permitted to Read the Word Publicly to the Congregation in the PCA?

Within the PCA, there is a broad range of practices regarding who is permitted to read Scripture publicly within a worship service.[1] Some PCA churches restrict the public reading of the Word to the minister alone while others permit Christian men to read the Word. Still others allow even women and children to conduct the public reading of Scripture.

The causes for such diverse practices and opinions are not difficult to understand. The indirect answer in WLC #156 (“all are not permitted to read the Word publicly to the congregation”), and the non-binding, unclear statement of BCO 50-2 (“The reading of the Holy Scriptures in the congregation…should be done by the minister or some other person”), have opened the door to wide divergences in the PCA.[2] It is a mistake, however, to act as though Larger Catechism #156 and BCO 50-2 are the only relevant sections for giving our congregations direction about who may read the Word publicly.

In this article, then, I want to plead with fellow presbyters in the PCA to reclaim the biblical and historically Presbyterian understanding that the public reading of Scripture is an exercise of church authority. Accordingly, I will argue that the Scriptures and our constitution give us sufficient clarity about who is, and who is not, permitted to read the Word publicly.

Is the Public Reading of Scripture an Exercise of Authority?

Thankfully, the disagreement in the PCA about reading the Word publicly is not about whether women may exercise authority in the church (1 Tim. 2:12). Instead, the disagreement is about whether we should understand the reading of Scripture as an exercise of church authority. So, the Sessions who authorize women to read the Scriptures publicly may justify their actions by stating that simply to read the Bible publicly is not authoritative in the way that preaching is.

It is somewhat surprising, though, that we often do not consider this question of the public reading of Scripture in the light of a wider understanding of the biblical nature of authority in the church, as set down in the Preliminary Principles of the BCO. Preliminary Principle #7 is especially clarifying: “All church power…is only ministerial and declarative.” That is, within the church, there are only two lawful ways to exercise authority: (1) by ministering God’s word, or (2) by declaring God’s word.

Regarding the declarative aspect of church authority, we believe that the authority of the church does not consist in the power to legislate a new word from the Lord, but that we exercise authority whenever we declare the (old) word of God, as contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments (WSC #2). According to this definition, is the public reading of Scriptures an authoritative declaration of God’s word?

The answer to this question must be a resounding yes. Any time someone reads the Word of God publicly, that person is declaring, “Thus saith the Lord.” Indeed, we should notice the often overlooked (and, to my knowledge, uncontroversial) explanation of the nature of the public reading of Scripture in BCO 50-1: “Through [the public reading of the Holy Scriptures] God speaks most directly to the congregation, even more directly than through the sermon.” To read the Scriptures is to stand as God’s authoritative herald, declaring the word of God—even more directly than during the sermon.

So, Paul exhorts Timothy to devote himself to exhortation and teaching, and also “to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13). Then, Paul explains that these things (including the public reading of Scripture) were entrusted to him as a gift at his ordination, “when the council of elders laid their hands on you” (1 Tim. 4:14). Ordination is therefore a conferring of authority for a man to read the Scriptures publicly, among his other duties.

Our authority, then, is only a stewardship of God’s authority, in his Word. Therefore, we confess the “authority of the Holy Scripture” (WCF 1.4), and that the Word contains “the authority of God himself speaking therein” (WCF 14.2). Even apart from the sermon, the reading of the Word of God is authoritative in itself. We also see this point constitutionally upheld in BCO 8-5, when the BCO singles out “reading…the Word of God” as a particular function of the teaching elder, right alongside preaching and administering the Sacraments.

What makes public reading authoritative? We find the answer to this question in our confessional, constitutional doctrine concerning worship, where not only the “reading of Scriptures with godly fear,” but also the “conscionable hearing of the Word” is counted as important “parts of the ordinary religious worship of God” (WCF 21.5). When someone reads the Word of God publicly, the whole congregation must worshipfully, obediently, and submissively listen to that reading.

Who May Exercise this Authority?

It is abundantly clear in the Scriptures themselves, as well as in our constitutional documents, that reading the Scripture is a declarative exercise of church authority. Who, then, may exercise this authority in the church?

In general, anyone who may preach may also read the Scriptures publicly. This understanding is reflected in BCO 50-4, which states that the minister may “expound any part of what is read” as a part of what it means to read the Scriptures. As Paul suggested in 1 Timothy 4:13, public reading, preaching, and teaching are all interconnected as three facets of the declarative authority of the church.

The good and necessary consequence we must deduce from all this is that the Scriptures do not permit women to read the Scriptures publicly: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (1 Tim. 2:12; see also 1 Cor. 14:34). Arguments from the silence of WLC #156 and (non-constitutional) BCO 50-2 may not set aside what is clear in the rest of the constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America, and in the Scriptures themselves.

This does not mean, though, that all men are permitted to read the Word publicly. Unordained men, for example, do not possess the requisite spiritual authority. Furthermore, while deacons do possess spiritual authority, that authority is exercised in a ministry of deed, not a ministry of the Word. There is no biblical warrant for deacons to read the Word publicly.[3]

On the other hand, our BCO affirms that “ruling elders possess the same authority…as teaching elders,” and it encourages ruling elders to “cultivate their own aptness to teach the Bible and [to] improve every opportunity of doing so” (BCO 8-9). Ruling elders, then, have been entrusted the authority necessary to read the Word publicly to the congregation.[4]

Furthermore, when a presbytery licenses a man to preach (BCO 19), that necessarily includes a license to read the Word of God. Licentiates may also read the Word publicly to the congregation.

Relatedly, the BCO explicitly authorizes presbytery interns to “devote themselves diligently to the trial of their gifts; and no one should be ordained to the work of the ministry of the Word until he has demonstrated the ability both to edify and to rule in the Church” (BCO 19-12). Those, then, who are training for the ministry of the Word may read the Word publicly, under the supervision of the Session, as a part of their preparations and trials.

What’s at Stake?

I am all too aware that I have articulated a controversial opinion that may draw ire. Nevertheless, I write this from the belief that much is at stake in the public reading of Scriptures, especially surrounding the unbiblical perspective that reading the Scripture is not an exercise of authority.

My chief concern is that we are downgrading the authority of the Word of God. The public reading of Scripture is not a light thing, but a grave exercise of Christ’s authority. Those who read Scripture publicly function as God’s very voice, directly addressing his people through his Word. To say that the reading of Scriptures is not an exercise of the church’s authority would be to suggest that worshipers in the congregation do not need to submit to the Word of God when it is read.

Second, I am concerned that distinguishing preaching the Word as authoritative, while downgrading the reading of the Word as non-authoritative, subtly suggests that worshipers are submitting to the authority of the preacher, rather than to the authority of God’s Word itself. On the contrary, preachers are simply servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries (1 Cor. 4:1). It is the Word that is authoritative; our only authority is to declare that Word by reading and preaching, and to minister that Word to the people.

Third, I am concerned that introducing unbiblical practices into worship is a violation of liberty of conscience, which protects church members from innovations “contrary to [God’s] Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship” (WCF 20.2). When Sessions permit those who do not possess the requisite ecclesiastical authority to read the Word publicly, they bind the consciences of their congregation by forcing them to worship contrary to God’s Word.

Let’s Upgrade our View of God’s Word

As I stated in the introduction, my plea to fellow presbyters in the PCA is to reclaim the biblical and historically Presbyterian view that reading the Scriptures in public worship is a declarative exercise of authority.

Brothers, let us therefore devote ourselves to the public reading of Scripture as a gift entrusted to us as a gift by our ordination, immersing ourselves in it, so that all may see our progress. In this, let us keep a persistently close watch on ourselves and on the teaching, for by this we will save both ourselves and our hearers (1 Tim. 4:13–16).


[1] We are not the only Presbyterian group to struggle with this question, as the 1991 report and the two (!) minority reports of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s “Report of the Committee on the Involvement of Unordained Persons in the Regular Worship Services of the Church” makes clear.

[2] For a thorough study of the development of these statements from the Westminster Larger Catechism and the BCO, see Brian Tallman’s excellent article, “The Public Reading of Scripture, Presbyterian-Style.” Rev. Tallman concludes that the “some other person” of BCO 50-2 “can only be expanded to include visiting ordained ministers, ruling elders, and those who are not yet ordained as either a TE or RE, but are in training for that office and have been approved by the Session.” I come to the same conclusions; however, I think more can be said from the other sections of our Confession and BCO that are fully constitutional.

[3] The only possible exception would be Philip, a deacon whom we see exercising the authority of reading, preaching, and even baptizing (Acts 6:5; 8:4–8, 26–40). Nevertheless, in addition to serving as deacon, Philip also held the office of evangelist, which does possess authority to engage in the ministry of the word (Acts 21:8; see also 2 Tim. 4:5): “Evangelists were extraordinary officers, suited to the infant state of the church, who were commissioned to travel under the direction and control of the apostles, that they might ordain ministers and settle congregations, according to the system laid down by Christ and his apostles” (Thomas Smyth, An Ecclesiastical Catechism of the Presbyterian Church: For the Use of Families, Bible-Classes, and Private Members (Boston: Crocker & Brewster, 1841), 39). Some do not believe that the Philip from Acts 8 is the same Philip ordained as a deacon in Acts 6:5 (and, therefore, Acts 21:8), but this would not damage my argument, since if there were two Philip figures, then the Philip of Acts 8 engaging in the ministry of the Word would not be a deacon. Personally, I see only one Philip, and his work in Acts 8 fits in well with the office of evangelist.

[4] This is different from the Westminster Assembly, which adopted a four-office view: Doctor (i.e., Teacher/Professor), Pastor, Elder, and Deacon in their Form of Presbyterial Church Government (1645). The Westminster Assembly’s Directory for the Public Worship of God (1645) limited the public reading of Scripture “to be performed by the pastors and teachers,” although “such as intend the ministry, may occasionally both read the word, and exercise their gift in preaching in the congregation, if allowed by the presbytery thereunto.” In that view, ruling elders exercised the (ministerial) key of discipline only, while pastors exercised the key of discipline and the (declarative) key of doctrine. For more, see Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici or The Divine Right of Church-Government, ed. David W. Hall (1646; repr. 1995 by Naphtali Press).