Do pew Bibles matter? Churches of all styles have had to ask this question in recent years. The increase of church plants using secular spaces for worship means that church planters must contemplate the extra weight, hassle, and expense of providing Bibles for their congregants each Sunday. The rise of technology means that many congregants come to church with merely their phone for a Bible. On top of those societal factors, the pandemic forced most churches to remove pew Bibles for a season, leaving room to reevaluate their utility in worship.
But these questions are not just theoretical; they can be profoundly personal and pastoral. Recently, I (Billy) had the opportunity to worship in the pews with my kids. As a pastor, my preaching schedule rarely affords me the opportunity to spend the entire service with my family. So it was a special treat to watch my kids interact, not only with the liturgy, but with the liturgical tools around them. What grabbed my attention most was this: at some point, each of my four kids (ages 5.5 through 11.5), took out a pew Bible for personal use.
So, we must ask: in this post-COVID, post-modern, post-literate, technological, consumer society, do pew Bibles matter? Does the connection between the Word and the form of accessing the Word matter? Is something lost when we depend on digital media for our Scripture consumption? Is projecting the Scripture passage onto the screen adequate for whole-person and whole-church discipleship and mission, or can a case be made that pew Bibles are an essential part of making God’s Word accessible for all?
Part 1: The Accessible Word: Christian History
The physicality and accessibility of the Word of God is a continual theme across Christian history. From the Scriptures themselves through the Early Church and Reformation, there has been a constant mandate for spiritual leaders: make God’s Word physically accessible. God’s people are a people of the book.
In Deuteronomy 17, for example, Moses makes an odd requirement for Israel’s future king: “he shall write for himself in a book a copy of the law … it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them.” (Deut 17:18-19) Such a bookishness was unknown as a requirement of the Ancient Near East ruling class, and yet before all things — military power, courtly procedure, or administration — the king ought to write by his own hand the Law of God. For the king, the Word was to be accessible.This theme recurs throughout Scripture. The biblical authors presume that meditating on the Law, which is the precursor to actually obeying it, requires the external composition of a literary work. Oral culture was not enough; God’s spoken Word needed to be written and re-written as a whole, in order to be absorbed (e.g. Deut 6:9; Jer 30:2).
This focus on the written text has been a prominent feature of Christianity throughout the centuries. One of the key characteristics of early Christianity, according to scholar Larry Hurtado, was its unusual bookishness. The early Christians were committed to making God’s Word physically accessible for others, going so far as to eschew dominant forms of producing texts by using the codex, rather than bookrolls or scrolls. Says Hurtado,
The bookroll was the prestige bookform of the day, and so, if Christians wanted to commend their texts to the wider culture, especially the texts that they read as scripture, it would seem an odd and counterintuitive choice to prefer the codex bookform for these texts. Indeed, it would seem like a deliberately countercultural move. … It certainly had the effect of distinguishing early Christian books physically, especially Christian copies of their sacred books.
This shift had several advantages. First, because of the cheaper production of the codex, more physical copies of Scripture could be produced. The codex made the sacred Scriptures more physically available to the people of God. Second, the codex form allowed for greater ease of study and cross reference as opposed to the cumbersome nature of the scroll. In God’s providence, this widespread availability of the codex empowered later Christians to more accurately translate and further propagate God’s Word. Indeed, the widespread historical attestation of Scripture — far more than any other classical text — owes to the early church’s commitment to the accessible Word.
This emphasis on the availability of the Bible is shot through the Reformation as well.
As Luther was hiding in the Wartburg, avoiding the wrath of the emperor and pope, he turned his attention to translating the New Testament in German, which would definitively shape the national tongue. Luther’s motivation was to make the very words of the Lord accessible to Christians: “Neither have I sought my own honor by it; God, my Lord, knows this. Rather I have done it as a service to the dear Christians and to the honor of One who sitteth above, who blesses me so much.” William Tyndale, the famed English Bible translator, is said to have aspired, according to John Foxe, “If God spared him life, ere many years he would cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than [a learned Catholic theologian] did.” As these few examples show, the Church has a historical commitment to making Scripture available in written form. The accessibility of Bibles is a venerable part of Christian history.
Part 2: The Accessible Word: Phenomenology
At the same time, pew Bibles make a valuable contribution to the experience of worship. Without pew Bibles, something is tangibly missing from our liturgical space. As we see constantly in the Old Testament, and reaffirmed through the Reformation, liturgical space has a catechetical effect. The physical things in our worship space teach us about God and about the anticipated experience of worship. From the shape of the space to the decorations and light, the concrete location of our liturgy is a testimony to what we think we are doing and, in a sense, an indication of what we consider about the One whom we are worshiping. This should include the prominence of the Word of God in our midst, tangibly.
Imagine walking into a room filled with books throughout. As you acclimate to the space, you realize: every book is the same. This is no library. In this room, you are never more than a stride away from one particular work. What would you conclude? At the very least, you would have to assume that the people who gather there have a special reverence for and an active engagement with this text. Pew Bibles concretely communicate the centrality and prominence of Holy Scripture in the life of the Church.
In the place of worship, the authoritative Word, which is the divine instrument that constitutes the worshiping community, is ubiquitous and accessible to all literate members. This accessibility stands in sharp contrast with many other religious traditions, which require mediation in order to access holy writ. In Hinduism, the Vedas are the proper domain of the Brahman caste. In Islam, the true words of Allah are only accessible to one who can read classical Arabic. But in Christianity, the Word is open and available to all.
Not only is the presence of the pew Bible communicative, the very construction of the Bibles themselves demonstrates their use among the people. Unlike the Quran, the physical copy of Christian Scripture is not set apart as an object of veneration. It is intended to be handled by all. Thinking of the pew Bible as a tactile artifact, its construction represents a Christian ideal: tolle lege, take up and read. Pew Bibles have robust, hard covers, thick pages, and minimal apparatus; this is no delicate book, but one meant to stand up to the treatment of life in covenantal community. Whether in the callused hands of the laborer or the tiny, sticky digits of a child turning its pages for the first time, the Bible in the pews tactilely beckons all to peruse and meditate on the Word.
By making God’s Word available to all, we reinforce the dignity of the people and the priesthood of all believers. We in the West can often take the ubiquity of the Bible amongst us as a given to which we have become numb. However, for those cultures for whom the Bible has only recently become available in the vernacular, we can see the proper joy with which the Bible should be received. As west African theologian Lamin Sanneh records,
When a local Christian held a translated Gospel in his hands for the first time, he declared: “Here is a document which proves that we also are human beings — the first and only book in our language.’’ Equally exultantly, a Christian in Angola celebrated holding the Gospels in his hands for the first time, affirming, ‘‘Now we see that our friends in the foreign country regard us as people worth while.”
These African brothers rightly consider the presence of Scripture in their language to be a mark of their equality before God. The humble pew Bible teaches us in the West the same. By making the Word of God physically accessible, churches communicate a high doctrine of Scripture and of humanity’s need to be addressed by the Word.
Part 3: The Accessible Word: Use
The case for pew Bibles is strengthened when we consider how the accessible Word functions within discipleship. The physically accessible Word empowers discipleship and mission.
Pew Bibles empower the people in the hearing and heeding of God’s Word since they place the revelation of God in their hands with no impediment and with the endorsement to see for themselves. As the pastor speaks the Word of God, the people may follow along; they are both physically and metaphorically on the same page. The presence of pew Bibles is certainly not the only way to accomplish this, but a church that actively and intentionally places the Word of God before the people signals the leadership’s subservience to the Word. The presence of the pew Bible invites and empowers all and sundry to be like the Berean believers who “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). The listening congregation is invited both to contemplate the text in real time and cross-reference other texts as needed or led.
Listening to a sermon with an open Bible allows for contemplation of the biblical passage as a whole while the preacher preaches. This is far superior to having the reading only on slides, which may contain only part of a passage or be gone in an instant. It is also far superior to using a device, which can become a portal into distraction and worldliness with the flick of a finger. The pew Bible is a way of enacting with our bodies what we are meant to be doing during the sermon with our hearts, minds, and souls: attending to the Word of God alone, seeking to hear His voice, attending exclusively and particularly to God’s definitive account of reality and our lives individually and together before him. The pew Bible in its analog glory allows for this engagement in a way that a screen or app cannot.
Pew Bibles democratize the Word to those without smartphones or the memory to bring their own Bible with them, such as the children in the congregation. Pew Bibles actively empower covenant discipleship. As noted earlier, I (Billy) recently got to observe my four kids in worship. For each of them, the pew Bible became part of their worship experience.
For the older two, the pew Bible enabled them to read along with the Scripture reading. And, when one of them got a little bored, as all kids do, he simply kept reading the Bible, turning to an exciting text or an interesting passage. I was able to call them back to the sermon, but even so, the pew Bible allowed a form of sanctified distraction, as opposed to flipping through social media on a phone or simply reading another book. For my third youngest, I was able to demonstrate how to find the Scripture text, using page numbers and the Table of Contents. And for the youngest, the hardcover pew Bible proved to be a useful surface to support some drawing paper. But even this was not sacrilege. Instead, it communicated a familiarity that, with time, can be used to draw her into a deeper relationship with God’s Word. From an early age, she too, appreciated the accessibility of the Word. This behavior is not exclusive to pastors’ kids. All children are curious and active, and parents wanting to help inculcate their children’s faith will benefit from a pew Bible. What other tangible object lets us teach our kids the benefit and beauty of God’s Word?
Evangelistically, pew Bibles can be given away and are an opportunity of providential encounter. At the church I (K.J.) attended in college, the pastor would always make a point before the reading of Scripture, that the “Bibles in the Pew are there for the taking.” He would invite the seeker or the unbeliever to consider that Bible in the pew as their own. This reflected a fundamental missional reality of Church. The word of God is not proper only to the gathered Church service, nor is it something that is accessible only in a fleeting moment on the screen. The word of God is to be broadcast and is open to all. Yes, of course, anyone can go and download a Bible app, and many certainly do; but, you can never really be gifted one as an act of kindness. A physical book can catch your eye years later and lead to providential possibilities that are beyond digital ephemera.
To return to the opening question — “do pew Bibles matter?” — the case from history, phenomenology, and usage shows pew Bibles to be a theological treasure. It should be every church’s privilege and joy, given the resources of our day, to provide physical copies of Scripture so that God’s Word can be accessible to all. Considering our cultural moment of digital overload, pew Bibles help us tap into the wisdom of the early church, which self-consciously chose a countercultural medium to transmit Scripture. Such countercultural ways may actually constitute a form of Christian renewal. As Jay Kim notes in Analog Church:
The most transformative experiences people were having in our communities, we slowly realized, had nothing to do with the lights, sound, and spectacle. Transformation was happening in much more tactile ways–through personal relationships and the profound simplicity of studying Scripture, praying, and sharing meals together.”
Alongside these ordinary, tangible means of grace, the pew Bible has a valuable place. It is a celebration of the gospel, the triumph of the early church, and the spirit of the Reformation. And for a generation of digital burnouts, the pew Bible helps us connect with a crucial truth: that salvation is physical, tangible, earthly, and available for all.
William E. Boyce is the pastor of Christ Church of Arlington, a small Presbyterian church in Arlington, VA. He recently completed his DMin at Trinity School for Ministry, studying the intersection of race, theology, and experience among Black pastors in the PCA. K. J. Drake is Academic Dean and Professor of Historical Theology at Indianapolis Theological Seminary. His publications include articles in the Journal of Reformed Theology and Westminster Theological Journal and online with the Modern Reformation and Credo Magazine. His first book entitled "The Flesh of the Word: The extra Calvinisticum from Zwingli to Early Orthodoxy" was published in the Oxford Studies in Historical Theology. Dr. Drake is an ordained Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America having served churches in both Missouri and Ontario.