A pulpit is an elevated platform or high reading desk used in preaching or conducting a worship service. A pulpit was a standard furnishing in most Christian churches until recent years when many pastors began trading heavy wooden pulpits for high stools, small tables, transparent podiums, or no furniture at all. Some modern churches have discontinued all traditional “churchy” symbols like pulpits and steeples in an effort to connect with the unchurched. Pulpits can seem imposing and create a natural barrier between speaker and congregation. While churches may keep elevated platforms to make those on it more visible, many have abandoned the use of traditional wooden pulpits in favor of less religious-looking fixtures.
The use of some sort of pulpit dates back to Old Testament times. The King James Version of Nehemiah 8:4 reads, “And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose.” The first-century Christian churches did not use pulpits at all. They met in homes. So, despite a pulpit’s expected presence in a church sanctuary, they are a manmade addition to Christian corporate worship and are not a scriptural requirement.
Early pulpits were tall, made of heavy wood, and ornately designed. Some historians suggest that the imposing nature of such pulpits was an effort to minimize the presence of the person behind them. It was thought that the size and grandeur of the pulpit would draw attention to the words being spoken rather than the human vessel. Pulpits became standard in most designated church buildings because they were useful for holding the speaker’s Bible and notes and because they represented the authority of the one speaking. The earliest known reference to a pulpit in the church comes from a letter from Cyrpian of Carthage, who wrote of placing a man “on the pulpit” where he would be honored and visible to the whole congregation as he read the gospel (Epistle XXXIII). What Cyprian describes is obviously a raised platform rather than a piece of furniture. In the Middle Ages, churches began using a three-tiered platform called an ambo, which was eventually replaced by the pulpit. Catholic churches place a pulpit (or pulpits) to the side of the platform—the altar and associated rituals being central to the service; most Reformed and evangelical churches place the pulpit in the center of the platform to emphasize the centrality of the reading and preaching of the Word.
Whether a pastor uses a pulpit, a table, or nothing at all to preach from, God’s Word must take front and center, or the church is failing in its mission.