“Till I come, give attendance to reading [public],
to exhortation, to doctrine.”
1 Timothy 4:13
If the Biblical epistles originally written to churches are to be a guide as to what Biblical teaching and preaching should look like (and they should), they presuppose the hearer have a fairly extensive knowledge of the Bible as a whole. Consider how the many citations of Scripture in Hebrews and Romans are used to make the point of the author. If the hearer didn’t know those texts and their original context, the point being made would be lost on him. As these epistles were read aloud to the church, a person ignorant of Scripture would have a hard time understanding and following the arguments being presented.
This brings up an interesting question. Just how did these early Christians gain such a vast understanding of the Scripture? This question is even more compelling when we consider that over 90% of them couldn’t read and, of those that could, very few had their own, personal copy of the Scriptures.
The answer to the question can first be found among the Jews from which ancient Christianity initially came forth and then the actual example of Christian practice in antiquity. What we find are daily, communal readings of the Scriptures. As Jews and proselytes would gather in the synagogues to hear the Scriptures read, Christians were gathering “from house to house” (Acts 2:46).
The antithesis of this thoroughly Word based faith and experience could be found in the pagan temples. In paganism there were no protracted meetings for the purpose of listening to the readings of their sacred texts. Indeed, their sacred texts tended to be exceedingly short and paltry compared to the books of the Bible. Gatherings in pagan temples were all about performance, experience, and the stirring up of the emotions. To the typical pagan, apostolic Christianity looked far more like the philosophers forum than it did the pagan temple.
Fast forwarding to today…If you read your Bible hours every single week, you only have a taste of what our ancient fathers had. I say a “taste” because they not only heard the Scripture, but had the added benefit of the fellowship and conversations sparked by these communal, Bible readings. They were a people thoroughly baptized in the Word of God.
We live in a time when everyone has multiple copies of the entire Bible. Access to literally hundreds of translations online, and can study the original Greek and Hebrew with fancy, free, browser based tools that have everything thoroughly indexed and linked (blueletterbible.com). One would think that we are the most Biblically literate Christians to have ever lived. In reality, there has never been a generation that had ready access to the Scriptures (though it may have only been in public readings) that was as Biblically illiterate as this generation.
We have traded the excellence and splendor of Holy Spirit lead, Word-based Christianity, for the entertainment of praise bands and feel good sermons so shallow and lacking that there is almost nothing for the non-elect to reject in them. We have traded the life transforming power of a thoroughly word-based faith, for the fleshly delights in things that merely engage our raw, fleshly emotions. This is why the testimony of the typical, contemporary evangelical is not only one of Biblical ignorance, but worldliness. Contemporary Christianity looks more like Paganism than it does the faith of our fathers.
Faithful ministers have pled or centuries with the flock to be diligent students of the Scriptures, but Biblical literacy gets worse with each generation. Biblical preaching and teaching, is very difficult to find today as ministers dumb down their sermons for an audience that is not only ignorant, but accustomed to that which delights the flesh. In the end, what we have is the ongoing apostasy of the church.
All this to say, I wonder if we should not return to the communal reading of the Scriptures? What if we got together with brothers and sisters throughout the week to spend an hour simply reading through books of the Bible? What would be the effect if instead of pleading with people to read their Bibles, I plead with them to join us for the communal fellowship of communal readings? Somehow I don’t think that those who avail themselves of it would let their Bibles collect dust either.
While this may not be practical in our day for a number of reasons, the consideration makes me want to go read my Bible. I think I’ll do that now…
Here is an interesting video on communal Bible reading.