The Reading Meeting
There is some interest in the “reading meeting” practiced in some assemblies of the Lord’s people. What is a reading meeting? is there Scriptural support for having such a meeting? How would we go about holding one?
Sometimes we refer to the reading meeting as the “Bible study” or the “Bible reading”. It’s an informal round-table discussion of a passage of Scripture. The reading meeting can be an excellent opportunity for teaching in the assembly: the very nature of a reading makes it easy to ask questions, offer corrections, and help one another understand difficult passages.
Of course we ought not consider any sort of meeting without considering what Scripture has to say about it. So let’s ask the most important question, “What does Scripture say?”
Why Do Christians Meet Together?
Scripture gives several reasons for the assembly to gather:
First, we meet together because the Lord is present in the assembly. The assembly is “a habitation of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22, JND). The Lord Jesus said, “where two or three are gathered together unto my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20, JND). We understand from the epistles that the Lord is with us individually (1 Corinthians 6:19-20): but the teaching of Scripture is clear that the assembly is a place where the Lord is present in an entirely different way. So there’s a sense where we go to the meetings to meet with the Lord.
Second, we meet together to eat the Lord’s Supper. This is taught remarkably in 1 Corinthians: “I do not praise, namely, that ye come together, not for the better, but for the worse… When ye come therefore together into one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s supper.” (1 Corinthians 11:17-20 JND). The apostle writes to the Corinthians like this is a strange thing, that they’d gather not to eat the Lord’s Supper. And the story of Paul’s visit to Troas corroborates this: “the first day of the week, we being assembled to break bread, Paul discoursed to them, about to depart on the morrow. And he prolonged the discourse till midnight” (Acts 20:7 JND). Clearly the early Christians assembled the first day of the week, specifically “to break bread”.
Third, we meet together to edify one another. 1 Corinthians 14:2-5 says, “he that prophesies speaks to men in edification, and encouragement, and consolation. He that speaks with a tongue edifies himself; but he that prophesies edifies the assembly” (JND). This is one reason we gather: to edify one another. What is edifying? To edify is to “build up”1. So we gather to build one another up. The idea here is not an ego boost: it’s to encourage one another and help one another grow.
There are other reasons to gather, but three are sufficient for our present purpose. We might consider Matthew 18 as the Lord’s instructions regarding the assembly gathering to settle a dispute between brothers. We might also consider the where a wedding or a funeral fits into the gatherings of the assembly: that would be an interesting discussion in itself.
Which Meetings Does Scripture Describe?
The epistles describe two meetings in some detail, but Scripture hints about others as well, especially in the Acts. The Apostle Paul tells us the Lord gave him a special revelation about the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). He also gives instruction for the “ministry meeting,” where the assembly gathers to receive ministry (1 Corinthians 14:15–30). Apparently the ministry meeting was unscripted: the apostle tells them that two or three were to prophesy, with the rest judging (v. 29). If one receives a revelation while another is speaking, the speaker is to “be silent” and the next person is to start (v. 30). The important characteristic of this meeting is that it is to be done in an orderly manner (v. 33).
In addition to the Lord’s Supper and the ministry meeting, the Scripture obliquely references other meetings. When Peter was in prison, the assembly met to pray for him (Acts 12:12). Whether this resembled what we’d today call a “prayer meeting” isn’t clear. But there was some sort of prayer meeting in response to urgent need.
Acts 20:7–12 describes a meeting where Paul taught the assembly at Troas. There are several notable points in this brief passage:
First, Paul spoke to the gathering at the Lord’s Supper. He’d spent a week in Troas; doubtless he’d spent time preaching in the market, on the street, and in the synagogue. We can be all but certain he used his time there to encourage and instruct the saints, as well as preaching the Gospel to those without. But on the first day of the week, he wasn’t holding “special meetings”, he wasn’t in the synagogue or the agora: he joined the assembly when they gathered to break bread.
Second, it appears his “discourse” was really a follow-up to the Lord’s Supper. Scripture doesn’t say the assembly gathered to hear the apostle, it says they gathered to break bread. Again, we can be sure that the assembly had listened to Paul many times through that week, but they didn’t gather to hear him speak on the first day of the week. They gathered to remember the Lord.
When they were gathered, Paul addressed the assembly in a “discourse”. Some read v. 11 as indicating that Paul spoke to the assembly before the breaking of bread2. Kelly argues that Paul was speaking after the Lord’s Supper, and he ate the leftover bread from the Supper at the end of his discourse, before leaving Troas3. Either way, teaching took a second place to the remembrance.
What Is The Difference Between Teaching and Preaching?
Interestingly, throughout the New Testament there’s no real sense of preaching in the assembly. Preaching is connected with the Gospel. In the assembly there is teaching, but it’s difficult to argue from Scripture that there is preaching. We tend to get those things backward: we do a lot of preaching to the saints, and we try to teach sinners the Gospel. But Scripture presents preaching as something we do to the lost, teaching as something we do in the assembly.
We might also note that the Lord Jesus sat down to teach (Matthew 5:1–2; Luke 5:3; John 8:2). Of course it’s not wrong to teach standing up: but our Lord’s habit was to sit down. And the Lord’s teaching style wasn’t lecturing: His audience was quite comfortable asking Him questions, and He answered them in turn.
Why Do We Have The Reading Meeting?
We’ve already seen the Scripture doesn’t actually describe what we call a “reading meeting”. Scripture describes the Lord’s Supper and it describes the ministry meeting, where two or three speak and the rest judge. Scripture doesn’t describe the prayer meeting, but it’s clear the assembly gathered specifically to pray. And although we don’t have all the details, we know that the Apostle Paul taught in the assembly when they gathered for the Lord’s Supper. We also have descriptions of the Lord Jesus’ teaching interactively, sitting with His audience, and responding to their questions.
The “reading meeting” is an extrapolation of the Lord Jesus’ teaching style into the assembly. It’s an opportunity for the assembly to learn interactively. A brother who is an expert in a particular topic, or a particular part of Scripture can thus share his expertise with the assembly, and the assembled saints can ask questions, or perhaps offer corrections.
The reading meeting is an opportunity for brothers in the assembly to address the assembly without the pressure of speaking “up front”. It’s a mistake to limit ministry in the assembly to teaching: the reading meeting is a place where there can be admonitions, encouragements, and exhortations given. It’s a place where a brother who doesn’t want to put himself “in the spotlight” can speak up and share an exercise the Lord has laid on his heart.
There is an unfortunate tendency for the Lord’s Supper to become a place for exhortation, admonition, and teaching. That’s not why we gather around the Table. But in assemblies where there aren’t other opportunities to speak up, brothers often resort to speaking in the Lord’s Supper. This has the dual effect of derailing the remembrance of the Lord, and making it easy to dismiss whatever exhortations or teachings were given. Both “reading meetings” and “ministry meetings” give an opportunity to address the assembly, without interfering with the assembly’s remembering the Lord at His table.
What Does The Reading Meeting Look Like?
The reading meeting is informal: the assembly gathers together with Bibles open, and a passage is taught. Questions are asked and answered, and comments are made about a passage. There might be someone with the responsibility of facilitating or introducing the discussion: perhaps whoever proposes a book to study is responsible to “chair” those meetings.
There is some difference of opinion about the role of sisters in the reading meeting. Some believe and teach it is wholly appropriate for sisters to ask questions in the reading meeting. Others believe that 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 applies: “Let your women be silent in the assemblies, for it is not permitted to them to speak; but to be in subjection, as the law also says. But if they wish to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is a shame for a woman to speak in assembly” (JND).
Sometimes in a reading meeting, it becomes obvious that one brother knows a passage better than the others. The others will often ask questions of the expert. This shouldn’t be an occasion for fleshly pride or arrogance. The brother answering questions this time might well be the one asking them next time.
A reading meeting might be topical, or it might be expository. Really, the reading meeting is an excellent forum for expository Bible study. A great deal is said about expository preaching, but expository teaching is much more profitable. It’s helpful to have an opportunity to ask questions about a passage.
Is There A Need For The Reading Meeting?
From a strictly Scriptural standpoint: the only two meetings the Epistles teach are the Lord’s Supper and the “ministry meeting”. So technically the “reading meeting” isn’t necessary. But it can be very helpful.
First, it provides a venue for brothers in the assembly to address the assembly without having to go “up front” and give a lecture. Sometimes a brother has a very simple exercise: maybe only a sentence or two to share with the assembly. The reading meeting is a perfect opportunity to share this.
Second, it allows the assembly to ask specific questions about a passage. There might be a brother who’s spent a lot of time in a certain epistle, or perhaps one of the prophets. The opportunity to turn and ask him a specific question is tremendously helpful.
Third, it is an excellent format for expository Bible teaching. There is a real trend to encourage more and more “expository” teaching, but that can be difficult in a “ministry meeting” or even a series of addresses to the assembly. The reading meeting is a very natural setting for the assembly to work through a book of the Bible verse-by-verse.
Fourth, there is great value in seeing the assembly function. Especially for children, seeing one brother carefully correct another, or how a brother humbly receives correction is invaluable.4 And the format reminds us that we need one another. This is, in fact, one of the central facts of the assembly (Romans 12:4–5). It can be a real encouragement and a very powerful lesson for us to see this in action.
In the end, there is no Scriptural command for us to have a reading meeting. We can’t point to assemblies where there is no reading meeting and say they’re violating Scripture. But there is great value to having a time when the assembly can be taught interactively. The reading meeting is simply applying the Lord Jesus’ teaching style to the assembly; it’s an opportunity to open the Word of God with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and to function as the assembly is called to function, as we edify one another.
1 edify. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved March 25, 2013, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/edify
2 MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary, New Testament, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, 1990, p. 463
3 Kelly, Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles, C. A. Hammond, London, 1952, p. 298
4 I’ve been corrected several times in the reading meeting. This is how the assembly is supposed to function. See 1 Corinthians 14:20-33 JND.
Editor’s Note: If you enjoyed reading Mark’s post you may also be interested in his earlier guest post on Digital Sojourner: Reading John Nelson Darby. Mark maintains two blogs of his own: Assembly Quest where he writes about spiritual matters and Clumsy Ox where he writes about his culinary endeavors. Once again, thank you Mark for your excellent contributions to Digital Sojourner. May the Lord be glorified. ~~ Scott