Should Laymen Be Allowed to Read the Bible? Part 1

Reprinted with permission from As I See It. AISI is sent free to all who request it by writing to the editor at dkutilek@juno.com.

The problem stated

“If the average person is allowed to read and interpret the Bible for himself, isn’t he likely to misinterpret the Bible, and to misinterpret the Bible may have serious eternal spiritual consequences. Therefore, he dare not be allowed to interpret the Bible for himself, lest he err in his interpretation.”

The answer

I readily acknowledge that whenever people read and study the Bible for themselves they are guaranteed to misinterpret, misunderstand and misapply at least some of what they read. That is inevitable. But of course, the same is true if the same people read the newspaper, a textbook on chemistry or a magazine article on backyard gardening. Do we, then, forbid them to read and interpret these?

Does the fact of this certainty of to some degree misunderstanding the Bible, therefore, mean that either (1) the masses should not be allowed to have direct personal access to the Bible and/or (2) only authorized, authoritative interpreters of the Bible should be allowed to interpret for the rest of us what it means?

Some, such as the Roman Catholic Church, have appealed to 2 Peter 1:20 as proof of both of the assertions above. “No prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation,” (emphasis added) is explained to mean that only Church authorities have the right to interpret the Scriptures and that all must follow that authoritative interpretation. However, in context, this verse is not speaking about those who read Scripture, but those who wrote Scripture. Verse 21 continues, “but being carried along by the Spirit, men spoke from God.”

This passage demonstrates conclusively why delegating all Bible interpretation to “authoritative” interpreters is fraught with danger: they themselves can be very much in error in their Bible interpretation! There are no infallible Bible interpreters on earth, no matter what some individuals and organizations claim for themselves.

The person who receives “Bible doctrine” only second- or third-hand, after it has passed through the “sieve” of someone else’s theological perspective, is apt to receive a decidedly warped, incomplete and inaccurate view of the teaching of Scripture. Thomas Linacre (c. 1460-1524), personal physician of Henry the 8th, Oxford Professor of Greek and ordained Catholic priest, exclaimed in astonishment upon reading the Sermon on the Mount for himself for the first time at age 60, “Either this is not the gospel or we are not Christians.”

Of course, the far greater danger than the individual misunderstanding the Bible to a degree is his being completely ignorant or greatly misinformed of its contents. This ignorance is the guaranteed consequence of denying people’s right to personally read and interpret the Bible for themselves.

By both command and example the Bible itself teaches the importance, indeed the necessity, of the “average Joe” hearing (and by extension, reading) the Bible directly for himself.

Many biblical passages either command or commend the direct personal hearing or reading of the Scriptures by everyone, without distinctions of age, education, office or gender. Among the texts (all quotes from HCSB):

Deuteronomy 31:9-13—“Moses wrote down this law and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the LORD’s covenant, and to all the elders of Israel. Moses commanded them, ‘At the end of [every] seven years, at the appointed time in the year of debt cancellation, during the Festival of Booths, when all Israel assembles in the presence of the LORD your God at the place He chooses, you are to read this law aloud before all Israel. Gather the people—men, women, children, and the foreigners living within your gates—so that they may listen and learn to fear the LORD your God and be careful to follow all the words of this law. Then their children who do not know [the law] will listen and learn to fear the LORD your God as long as you live in the land you are crossing Jordan to possess.’”

Joshua 1:8—“This book of instruction must not depart from your mouth; you are to recite it day and night, so that you may carefully observe everything written in it. For then you will prosper and succeed in whatever you do.”

Joshua 23:6—“Be very strong, and continue obeying all that is written in the book of the law of Moses, so that you do not turn from it to the right or left.”

2 Kings 23:1-3—“So the king [Josiah] sent [messengers], and they gathered to him all the elders of Jerusalem and Judah. Then the king went to the LORD’s temple with all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, as well as the priests and the prophets—all the people from the youngest to the oldest. As they listened, he read all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the LORD’s temple. Next, the king stood by the pillar and made a covenant in the presence of the LORD to follow the LORD and keep is commandments, His decrees, and His statutes with all his mind and with all his heart, and to carry out the words of this covenant that were written in this book; all the people agreed to the covenant.”

Nehemiah 7:73b-8:4, 8,18a—“When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, all the people gathered together at the square in front of the Water Gate. They asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses that the LORD had given Israel. On the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women and all who could listen with understanding. While he was facing the square in front of the Water Gate, he read out of it from daybreak until noon before the men, the women, and those who could understand. All the people listened attentively to the book of the law…. They read the book of the law of God, translating and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was read. Ezra read out of the book of the law of God every day, from the first day to the last.”

Nehemiah 9:1, 3—“On the twenty-fourth day of this month the Israelites assembled; they were fasting, [wearing] sackcloth, [and had put] dust on their heads…. While they stood in their places, they read from the book of the law of the LORD their God for a fourth of the day and [spent] another fourth of the day in confession and worship of the LORD their God.”

Psalm 1:1-2—“How happy is the man who does not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path of sinners, or join a group of mockers! Instead, his delight is in the LORD’s instruction, and he meditates on it day and night.”

Psalm 19:7-11—“The instruction of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is trustworthy, making the inexperienced wise. The precepts of the LORD are right, making the heart glad; the commandment of the LORD is radiant, making the eyes light up. The fear of the LORD is pure enduring forever; the ordinances of the LORD are reliable and altogether righteous. They are more desirable than gold—than an abundance of pure gold; and sweeter than honey—than honey dripping from the comb. In addition, Your servant is warned by them; there is great reward in keeping them.”

(Psalm 119—every verse but three in this longest of Psalms commends the knowledge and study of God’s word.)

Jeremiah 36:1-2, 4-6, 8—“In the fourth year of Jehoiakim, son of Josiah, king in Jerusalem, this word came to Jeremiah from the LORD: ‘Take a scroll, and write on it all the words I have spoken to you concerning Israel, Judah, and all the nations from the time I [first] spoke to you during Josiah’s reign until today…. So Jeremiah summoned Baruch son of Neriah. At Jeremiah’s dictation, Baruch wrote on a scroll all the words the LORD had spoken to Jeremiah. Then Jeremiah commanded Baruch, ‘I am restricted; I cannot enter the temple of the LORD, so you must go and read from the scroll—which you wrote at my dictation—the words of the LORD in the hearing of the people at the temple of the LORD on a day of fasting. You must read them in the hearing of all the Judeans who are coming from their cities…. So Baruch son of Neriah did everything Jeremiah the prophet had commanded him. At the LORD’s temple he read the LORD’s words from the scroll.”

Luke 4:16-19—Jesus publicly read from Isaiah to the synagogue attendees. This was the universal practice of the ancient synagogues. Sections of the Pentateuch were read consecutively, week by week, so that following either a one-year or a three-year schedule, the whole was read through publicly to the people. Each week, a selection from the former prophets (“history”) or the latter prophets (the prophets proper) was also read. And on set feast days, the scrolls of Esther, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and Ruth respectively were read in the synagogue.

Luke 16:27-29—” “Father,’ he said,’ then I beg you to send him to my father’s house—because I have five brothers—to warn them, so they won’t come also to this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’”

[As indeed they would do week by week, if they attended the synagogue.]

Acts 13:14b-15a, 27b; 15:21—“On the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue. After the reading of the Law and the Prophets…. the prophets that are read every Sabbath,…. For since ancient times, Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, and he is read aloud in the synagogues every Sabbath day.”

Acts 17:11—“The people here were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, since they welcomed the message with eagerness and examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”

Colossians 4:16—“And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read the letter from Laodicea.”

[The “letter from Laodicea” is probably our Ephesians.]

1 Timothy 4:13—“Until I come, give attention to public reading,” which the NIV correctly renders as “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.”

It is clear that the early churches continued the practice of the synagogues of reading extensively and publicly from the written Scriptures each week.

2 Timothy 3:14-17—“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing those from whom you learned, and that from childhood you have know the sacred Scriptures, which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

Note that Timothy, even in earliest childhood, was capable of being directly taught the Scriptures, which are not only not “dangerous” for the layman to know, but to the contrary, they are essential for him to know, if he is to be a complete, fully prepared and equipped believer.

James 1:22-25—“But be doers of the word and not hearers, deceiving yourselves. Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his own face in a mirror; for he looks at himself, goes away, and right away forgets what kind of man he was. But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer, but a doer who acts—this person will be blessed in what he does.”

Revelation 1:3, 11a—“Blessed is the one who reads [i.e. publicly] and blessed are those who hear the words of this prophecy and keep what is written in it, because the time is near…. Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches,…. “

Revelation 2: 7a (11a, etc.)—“Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Revelation 22:7—“Look, I am coming quickly! Blessed is the one who keeps the prophetic words of this book.”

The writings of Christian leaders from the first three centuries (and beyond) contain many descriptions of the public reading of Scripture, and admonitions for all believers to regularly hear or read the Bible for themselves.

And 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 [i.e. pastor] verbally instructs and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. (Justin Martyr [d. ca. A.D. 165] First Apology, chapter 67.)

Additional examples appear in A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, edited by David W. Bercot (Hendrickson, 1998, pp. 598-599).

In addition, the Christian reader has the indispensable assistance of the Divine Author, the Holy Spirit, in reading the Bible.

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There are 8 Comments

Dick Dayton's picture

In our view of the church and the role of pastors, elders, bishops, all of us start out as "laymern," and then God calls some to vocational ministry. The assumption that the "clergy only" people make is that "clergy" will not misinterpret a passage when they read it. It has been my experience in ovr 40 years of preaching that I have misunderstood some passages of Scripture, and expect to do so again before the Lord calls me hiome. Otherwise, why would God direct Peter to admonish us to "grow in grace and knowledge" if there was no room for improvement or growth ? In fact, one of the very exciting things about studying the Word is that we can always learn new things, always be explorers on the frontier. God's Word and wisdom is so deep and great that we will never fully understand it.
As a pastor, one of my goals is that our people be readers and students of the Scripture for themselves. I am to "equip the saints for the work of the ministry," and they cannot do the work effectively if they are not Biblically literate.
A Biblically informed and functioning people is not a threat to my leadership and ministry, but an encouragement to it. We as leaders must remember the words of David to Solomon, "I go the way of all the earth." It should be our goal that our people will be able to function well without our direct influence. It is like parenting : our goal is to equip them to stand on their own. A Biblically informed people will be a people who make a strong church.
As I remember, the "Great Commission" has one command : "Make Disciples." We can only do that if we get our people motivated to get themselves into the Word on a regular basis.

Dick Dayton

Kevin Subra's picture

I have no problem with people reading or studying the Bible on their own. I encourage our assembly to read through the Bible each year, and many do. What I would suggest are the following clarifications or guidelines:

  1. God gave pastors and teachers to equip the saints (Eph 4:11-16). If these were not necessary, they wouldn't exist. There is no indication that we can disciple ourselves (at least in any full fashion) without being taught. Reading the Bible is great, but understanding it accurately requires instruction.
  2. God gave pastors to protect the flock of God from external and internal wolves (Acts 20:28-31). This indicates that it is easy to be misled by wrong teaching or wrong teachers. There is no indication that anyone is self-protected from error or error teachers. This is further illustrated in 2 Tim 4:1-4 where apparent believers are led away from the truth listening to teachers (many books and many teachers do not necessarily add up to spirituality or accuracy. In fact, I believe it almost always undermines what is directed in Eph 4:11-16).
  3. God prohibits many from being teachers (James 3:1). Studying is one thing; teaching is another, which requires proper depth, study, and understanding before one should ever teach (there goes SS curriculum...). This is also addressed in 1 Tim 1:7, where some "desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm" are to be forbidden to teach by Timothy. You have to thoroughly know what you are talking about, not just have the ability to read a teacher's manual. This also seems to be addressed by the "few" who should teach in the qualifications of a pastor. "Apt to teach" or being able to "exhort and convince the gainsayers" is evidence of a base of understanding of the Word of God and a working knowledge of it.
  4. It is very clear that rightly dividing the Word of God is hard, tedious work. Paul commands Timothy, after 20 years of mutual ministry, to work hard at showing himself approved to God by rightly dividing the Word (2 Tim 2:15). It is very tempting as a pastor to be lazy or rely upon someone else's efforts without doing the study. Reading the Word is not studying the Word. The latter takes learned skill and instruction (2 Tim 2:2) and much time and much effort. (1 Tim 5:17-18).

    I would (and do) encourage every believer to read the Word of God in its entirety regularly. I also warn every believer to be very, very careful of books, teachers, etc. I teach people to understand the "what" and the "why" of the Word of God. (Kudos to Dr. Myron Houghton, who's goal in class was to encourage us to understand why he said what he did!) God's plan and program is for the local shepherds to equip and protect the sheep. That cannot be discouraged or weakened apart from hurting or endangering the flock of God.

For the Shepherd and His sheep,
Kevin
Grateful husband of a Proverbs 31 wife, and the father of 15 blessings.
http://captive-thinker.blogspot.com

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

There's teaching- as in what parents do with their kids, older women with younger women- and then there's teaching- as in a calling to the church. Every Christian should be able to express what they've experienced and learned to another person, but not everyone is spiritually gifted to teach in an official capacity.

Kevin Subra's picture

I fully agree, Susan. I use the terms "authoritative" and "repetitive" for lack of better terms. One is what pastors do. The other is what everyone is required to do.

Here is a lesson that I taught some time ago as I wrestled with this:

Audio: http://www.northridgebaptist.com/Teaching/Topical/WhoTeaches/090726_Who%...
PDF: http://www.northridgebaptist.com/Teaching/Topical/WhoTeaches/090726%20-%...

As I have studied the Word over the years, my view of "teaching" as an official position has narrowed quite a bit. This is my best shot to date.

Kevin

For the Shepherd and His sheep,
Kevin
Grateful husband of a Proverbs 31 wife, and the father of 15 blessings.
http://captive-thinker.blogspot.com

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

I looked at the .pdf, Bro. Subra- that's a nice outline. I've been in some situations where pastors did not want anyone doing anything that smelled like teaching unless they had the church's approval. I can understand the concern that someone might be propagating false doctrine, but in their efforts to be proactive, it felt like talking about God and the Bible and prayer were taboo!

Charlie's picture

Kevin, I greatly appreciated that PDF on teaching. I have only one minor critical note. In the discussion of Romans 12:6-7, you listed as a reason against women teaching that the passage says "he who teaches." If you read the very next verse (at least in KJV and NASB), you will find that it also says "he who" for giving and showing mercy, actions obviously not limited to men.

Also, the construction in Greek, though taking the masculine article, is in fact a generic expression. It's the same one used in John 3:16 at "whoever believes in him." Obviously, that's not limited to males. The singular substantival participle in Greek takes the masculine even if it is referring potentially to both men and women.

Thus, I find the ESV rendering very accurate. "The one who teaches, in his teaching." Of course, it still ends up using a masculine, but that's because English has a very similar rule: default to the masculine in the case of an unknown gender. Well, at least English has worked that way; in the future, "he or she" may be proper.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Kevin Subra's picture

Charlie, I see what you are saying (I reviewed the Greek briefly). I haven't visited this since 2006 (I retaught it in 2009), but you are correct. Somehow I missed verse 8 as I was putting this together (and I'm big on taking things in context - go figure). It's not a make or break point for me, but I do want to be accurate in every way. (Good reason to revise and update!)

My audio presentation is more explanatory, and probably more tentative. I do seem to have been drawn to much more narrow than traditional views of "authoritative" teaching as time and study have compounded my understanding.

Thanks for your correction. I very much appreciate it.

For the Shepherd and His sheep,
Kevin
Grateful husband of a Proverbs 31 wife, and the father of 15 blessings.
http://captive-thinker.blogspot.com

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