Posted by: Johnold Strey | September 11, 2009

Love for the Lectionary

Some time ago, a relative on my wife’s side of the family asked me a question about the lectionary.  This relative was a member of an LCMS congregation.  His church had discontinued the use of the lectionary.  Most readers of this blog probably know what I’m talking about, but in case you’re not familiar with lectionaries, here’s a quick summary:  Lectionaries are repeating series of Bible readings to be used in worship, which highlight church seasons and take worshippers through the life of Jesus and the major teachings of Christianity on an annual basis.  Various lectionaries exist, and people have their preferences for one over another, but that’s the gist of them.  Liturgical churches, including Lutherans, typically use a lectionary.

My wife’s relative emailed me when his congregation decided to no longer use a lectionary.  Instead, the church in question began to use a single Bible reading each Sunday, chosen by the pastor.  Our relative’s gut reaction was that this was a bad move, but he couldn’t put his finger on why it was a bad move.  He thought that perhaps  he was overreacting.  So he sent me a note ask asked for my thoughts.

There are, of course, no New Testament worship laws.  No “thou shalt” statements exist that would dictate the choice of Bible readings on a given Sunday.  However, as with many worship issues, this does not mean that anything should go.  (Rule #1 for worship: Just because an idea isn’t wrong doesn’t mean it’s wise.  Actually, that’s rule #2.  Rule #1 is to preach the gospel!  But I digress).  That’s what this family member sensed: His church’s practice wasn’t necessarily wrong, but it didn’t seem like a good idea.  I happened to agree with him. 

I suppose that the best way to flesh out the argument will be to lay out a little background on lectionary systems.  For several centuries (stretching back well before the Reformation), there was a one-year lectionary.  This “historic lectionary” (as it is often called) remained in use in most liturgical churches even after the Reformation.  Each Sunday had two readings assigned to it, both from the New Testament: an Epistle reading and a Gospel reading.

This historic lectionary remained the primary lectionary for liturgical churches until the Second Vatican Council (1960’s).  As a part of Vatican II’s worship reforms, a new three-year lectionary was produced, with the goal of opening up a larger portion of God’s Word to worshippers over the three years of the cycle.  The Vatican II lectionary was obviously designed for Roman Catholic parishes, but the liturgical tsunami that shook Vatican II swept over other liturgical churches, including Lutherans.  Eventually the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship (ILCW) tweaked the Vatican II lectionary, which was further tweaked by the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod in its 1982 hymnal, Lutheran Worship, and was still further tweaked by the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod in its 1993 hymnal, Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal.  (As an aside, the WELS Commission on Worship gave our previous lectionary a major overhaul and included the revisions in the new “Supplemental Lectionary” found in Christian Worship: Supplement).

The Vatican II lectionary, and all the ones that followed it, added an Old Testament Lesson (the “First Lesson,” which reverts to Acts during the Easter season but is otherwise from the Old Testament), and expanded the cycle to cover three years instead of one year.  Each of the three years focuses on one of the synoptic Gospels (Year A is Matthew, B is Mark, C is Luke), with John scattered throughout all three years (especially Year B).  First Lessons were generally chosen to match the emphasis of the Gospel for the day, i.e. to demonstrate the connection between Old and New Testament.  Sometimes Second Lessons were also chosen to match the Gospel’s focus, but in other seasons the Second Lesson is a running series of readings from the same book.  This was designed to help people get an understanding of the overall flow and content of these New Testament letters.  As mentioned earlier, the expansion from a one-year cycle to a three-year cycle was intended to help people become acquainted with more sections of Scripture.

Unfortunately for us today, Jesus did not give concrete “lectionary instructions” before his Ascension.  Lectionaries are man-made tools designed to assist worship.  Some may be “better” than others in the way they are set up – do they cover the life of Jesus, the content of Scripture, and the doctrines of the Bible thoroughly, or are major sections or doctrines left out?  But lectionaries, when well-designed, accomplish some excellent purposes: (1) They review the life of Jesus annually; (2) They cover major sections of Scripture, especially working through the Gospels and New Testament letters/epistles in a rotating cycle; (3) They help people see a connection between the Old and New Testaments; (4) They review the major doctrines of the Bible on a repeated basis.  And let me add this thought: Lectionaries are not designed to allow the preacher to get on his soap box each week and preach about the particular topic that he wants to preach about; rather, they are (hopefully) designed to cover what God wants us to talk about, namely, the content and doctrines of Scripture.

This gets back to the issue my relative first raised.  While we cannot say that it is wrong to have one reading per week in worship, in my opinion it is not wise.  One reading will not allow you to see connections between Old and New Testament.  If the pastor works with a lectionary but picks just one of the three lessons to read each week, i.e. if he jumps around from Old Testament (First Lesson) to New Testament (Second Lesson) to Gospel, then the week-to-week flow is lost, not to mention the ability to get a feel for a Bible book’s overall flow and content.  The pastor who doesn’t follow the lectionary often picks his own readings each week.  In other words, the individual pastor decides what the “topic” is going to be, then he find a reading to match the chosen subject.  This may (notice I said “may,” not “does”) keep a church from hearing all the major doctrines of the Bible in worship, or listening through important sections of Scripture over an extended period of time, or walking through Jesus’ life and ministry annually.

In a worst case scenario, this may mean that the pastor has decided what that section of Scripture means before he has studied it carefully!  By making Scripture fit a predetermined topic rather than allowing it to speak for itself and not forcing it into a theme, the preacher may unwittingly fall into “eisegesis.”  Exegesis, a Greek word that means to “draw out,” is properly drawing out of Scripture its intended meaning.  The created term “eisegesis” (picking up on the Greek preposition eis, “into”), a term sometimes heard in Lutheran circles, is what happens when the pastor reads his thoughts into the text, even though the text itself may not suggest those thoughts as directly as the pastor thinks it does.  Following the lectionary is an excellent way to prevent “eisegesis” (that almost sounds like medical advice, doesn’t it?!).  🙂

Unfortunately, in the situation at my relative’s former congregation, the pastor predetermined his subject prior to his lesson choice and study each week.  My cousin spoke with the pastor, and after sensing multiple reasons for concern (not just the lectionary matter), he left the congregation and has since joined another church of his synod in his area.  I give him kudos for first speaking up and then being willing to move elsewhere when the handwriting was on the wall.

I have laid out some of the arguments for working with a lectionary.  I do not want to suggest that one may not set aside the lectionary from time to time for special occasions.  I also want to clarify that one will not go to liturgical hell if one fails to use a lectionary.  This is not a mortal sin!  But if this is the direction a pastor or congregation takes, it would be reasonable to politely ask, “Why?”  There are so many benefits from using the lectionary that, in this pastor’s opinion, it just doesn’t seem wise to limit worship to one reading, to jump around from one lesson to another each week, or to have the pastor pick his own readings from week to week.  But whatever system we use in the end, let’s be sure to preach the whole counsel of God and the entire story of salvation to our people on a regular and repeating basis!



  1. I wish more people understood the wisdom and the protection provided in the lectionary and the benefits of liturgical worship.

    I was lost in the wasteland of American evangelicalism searching for where God had disappeared to for many years before I finally found the Lutherans. The problem of eisegesis is more than real and damaging and perhaps even damning in far too many churches.

    Thankfully, God rescued me from my misery, so I am of the opinion that the traditions in Lutheranism are vital not optional. 🙂

  2. Johnold, do you happen to have any idea why they chose a three-year cycle? I’ve often thought that a four-year cycle — one Gospel each year — would have been a better idea.

  3. I seem to recall reading about a Jewish tradition of a three-year cycle that may have influenced the decision, but I’m not 100% sure about that. I would also venture to guess that the fact that there are three synoptic Gospels may have been a factor; that way the general flow of every year in the cycle would be somewhat similar. There’s a book on my shelf about the whole development of the V-II lectionary that I’ll skim through to see if I can give you a more concrete answer.

  4. I think I have to agree with Jeff here: “a four-year cycle — one Gospel each year — would have been a better idea.” Not only would we go through one of the Gospels a year, it would also open up more time to add other sections of Scripture to the cycle. I was just reviewing the LSB-LW Lectionary Comparison and was grieving just how much Scripture is never read from the lectern in these lectionaries. For example, the books of Ezra, Esther, Song of Solomon, Obadiah, Nahum, Haggai, 2nd John, 3rd John are never read in either lectionary. And many of the other books are read from just once or twice every three years. The result? There are large gaps in the public proclamation of Scripture – to the detriment of the Church.

  5. Several confessional Lutheran pastors I know are in favor of returning to a one-year lectionary. Each pastor has his reasons for such a proposal, but one of the more common thoughts I’ve heard is that the one-year lectionary provides frequent repetition of the same stories. The rationale is that, in a day and age of biblical illiteracy, the repetition of readings leads people to be familiar with a core of Bible sections, while the three-year cycle doesn’t afford enough frequent repetition to address that problem.

    I don’t mention that because I favor the one-year concept. I’m not opposed to it, but I’m quite satisfied with the three-year system we have adopted and adapted. I merely raise it to show why there is wisdom in not expanding the system to four (or more) years. A good, solid adult Bible class might be the way to address additional sections.

  6. How far back in history does the one-year lectionary (in whatever form) go, if we know? I’d be curious what the practice was when the vast majority of the people in church were illiterate and (as far as I know) there were no Bible classes or anything like that — just the liturgy, readings, and sermons in the regular service (and on festivals).

    And while a good, solid adult Bible class might be a way to address additional sections, when I consider only maybe a quarter to a third of my adults who attend church are in Bible Class – and recently most of my confirmands haven’t been regular in Sunday School – I can’t help but think that Scripture I don’t read and preach on in the service may otherwise never be learned.

    I have some other ideas for changes to the lectionary, but they’re still not fully thought through (and I may very well abandon them after more thought!). In the meantime I’m happy working through CW’s three-year lectionary (and even happier with the additional readings the Supplement offers). I’ve just finished my first nine years of ministry, which means I’ve preached on almost every one of the CW Sunday texts now — and I have an even greater appreciation for the Lectionary than I did when I first started out.

  7. Jeff,

    Here are some quotes from The Sunday Lectionary: Ritual Word, Paschal Shape by Normand Bonneau (The Liturgical Press, 1998) that address some of your previous questions.

    The first hints of a liturgical year begin to appear in the second century with the emergence of an annual commemoration of the death and resurrection of the Lord at Passover time. By the third century, there is evidence that Christians had begun reading certain scriptural books, or selections from books, to celebrate Easter. (p. 11)

    In the fourth and fifth centuries, lectionaries, in the sense of separate books containing prescribed selections from scripture, had yet to make their apperance. … It was only in the sixth and seventh centuries that actual “books containing full texts of lessons arranged calendrically” began to proliferate. These early lectionaries were called comites (in the singular, a comes, Latin for “companion”) because such books accompanied presiders and celebrants in their liturgical functions. They were a form of “user-friendly” liturgical Bible — instead of carrying around a copy of the entire Bible, a presider needed only a book or two containing the assigned passages. … As a rule, comites primarily contained the readings specially selected for the major feasts of the liturgical year. For the “green” Sundays, or Sundays of the Year, some comites offered a collection of readings from which the presider selected a few for each Sunday. (pp. 12-13)

    The members of the committee [of Vatican II in charge of revising the lectionary] examined and discussed proposals for cycles of two, three, four, and five years. At first, the majority of the committee favored a four-year cycle. In time, however, the three-year proposal emerged as the solution best able to respond to the several concernes mentioned above. The committee finally accepted a three-year cycle organized around the designation of a different synoptic gospel for each year of the cycle — Matthew for Year A, Mark for Year B, and Luke for Year C. Simple and elegant, it has left its imprint as perhaps the most immediately recognizable trait of the revised Sunday Lectionary. (p. 36)

    Why not a four-year cycle, with a fourth year for John’s gospel? There were two main reasons for not doing this, one having to do with tradition, the other with the literary nature of the Fourth Gospel. Ancient tradition privileged John’s gospel during Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide. The members of [the committee] felt it was more important to respect this hallowed tradition than to assign John’s gospel its own year. Besides, one of the most distinctive features of this gospel is its long dialogues and discourses, which do not easily lend themselves to being divided into small passages. It would be very difficult, not to mention exegetically unsound, to break the gospel into a sufficient number of small pericopes to fill up an entire year of Sunday gospel readings. (p. 36)

    Finally, not only did the three-year cycle best realize the mandate of the council — offer the essential parts of scripture, foster familiarity with scripture, provide a flexible, elegant, and simple structure — it also enjoyed a favored place in many ancient and recent traditions. The Church in Milan instituted a three-year cycle of readings at the end of the fourth century. Soon after, Spain and Gaul adopted the pattern. Rome used it until the fifth century, the Byzantine Church until the seventh century. There were precedents for a three-year cycle of readings in a number of contemporary Protestant Churches, and the ancient Palestinian synagogue Lectionary cycle of Torah readings also featured a three-year cycle. Except for assigning a different synoptic gospel to each year of the cycle, the committee had in a sense invented nothing new. (pp. 36-37)

    For all the variety that a three-year cycle of readings brings, there is nonetheless a high degree of continuity from year to year. The same pattern of feasts, of festal seasons, and of Sundays in Ordinary Time is repeated every year, for the fundamental cycle of the liturgy is a yearly one during which the most important facets of the mystery of Christ are celebrated. If over the three-year Lectionary cycle the readings change, the same yearly calendar provides a stable, recurring structure. (p. 37)

  8. Johnold, thanks a bunch for these quotes — they’re really helpful!

    God’s blessings on your preaching and teaching tomorrow!


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