Is Prayer in the Worship Service the Work of the Pastor?
May the various tasks in the worship service be shared? Or is it absolutely necessary that the minister does everything? These are topical questions, which regularly lead to the fact that the tasks are (in fact) shared by others. The “amen” is given back to the congregation, sometimes followed by the votum (Ps. 124:8). And the question is also asked whether members of the congregation can play a role in the prayer during the worship services. After all, praying is certainly not the work of a minister alone...?
Quite a bit might need to be said about that final question. For whoever reads the Form for the Ordination of Ministers of the Word will come across the following passage: “Third, it is his duty as pastor and teacher of the congregation to call upon the name of the Lord in public worship with supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” And our Church Order states: “The task of ministers is to lead faithfully in prayer and in the ministry of the Word and the sacraments.”
A Discussion about the Doctrine of the Offices in the Church
Both the Form for Ordination of ministers as well as the Church Order appear to speak clear language: prayers in the worship service belong to the task of the ministers. And yet, things are not as clear-cut as they may seem. This is already apparent when we look at Article 30 of the Belgic Confession of Faith, where we read: “There should be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and to administer the sacraments.” In other words, here prayer is not mentioned as a task of pastors!
The confusion at this point can be traced back to a discussion on the doctrine of the ministry (or: the offices). For many years there has been a debate about the office of the minister of the Word. Is this in fact an independent ministry that can be traced back to Scripture, or is the minister more of a special kind of elder? And if his office is more of the latter, what constitutes the “special” aspect of it? Is it the fact that he is set apart for the ministry or is it (also) his field of activity? It seems to be a discussion where the final word has not yet been heard.
You will understand that, when there is already so much uncertainty concerning the office of the minister of the Word, it becomes even more difficult to precisely define his task. And yet there are some things to be said about it. Indeed, as early as 1568 the churches pronounced: “It is beyond dispute that the office of the ministers, whom Scripture calls shepherds and overseers and sometimes elders or presbyters, consists primarily in proclaiming the Word of God, and in doing justice to it. They are to apply the Word both publicly and in the homes to teach, admonish and comfort as the circumstances may require, and to serve in the administration of the sacraments ad the maintenance of the discipline of the church. In other words, there is a threefold task: the ministry of the Word, the ministry of the sacraments and (together with the elders) the government of the church.
But what about the prayers...? After all, we already learned that both the Form of Ordination and the Church Order include these among the tasks of the ministers? True — but these are often seen as some kind of “extension” of the ministry of the Word. This is also understood by Dr. Bouwman, who says: “The minister is charged with bringing the Word of God into the public assemblies of the congregation and publicly invoking the name of God on behalf of the entire congregation” (Acts 6:4; 1 Tim. 2:1). Or in other words: just as he addresses the entire congregation on behalf of God, he conversely also invokes God on behalf of the entire congregation.
The texts quoted by Bouwman make it clear that after the appointment of the seven, the apostles continued to devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4), and that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for all people (1 Tim. 2:1). The latter is further confirmed by Genesis 4:26, where worship is described as “calling upon the name of the LORD”. In the meantime, I do not think it is possible to derive from this a “firm” conclusion that, on the basis of Scripture, prayer in the worship service must always be a pastor’s task.
No “firm” or “principled” conclusions therefore appear in this matter. And yet there is evidence of wisdom in the way the Form for Ordination divides the tasks. After all, the distinctive element of prayer in the worship service is that it is prayed on behalf of the entire congregation. Practice has shown that this requires a proper knowledge of what is going on in the congregation. Especially when it comes to intercession. For which special “needs” should be mentioned concretely at this moment, and which matters should be referred to in an indirect way or in “general terms”? These can be quite difficult questions, and is it really such a strange thing when the Form for Ordination looks first of all to the one who has the entire congregation as his field of activity? And that he knows what words are required in a prayer or what the situation requires?
There is something more to this. The Catechism says in Lord’s Day 45, QA 117, that “in prayer we call from the heart upon the one true God...for all that he has commanded us to pray”. In other words, prayer is pleading on God’s promises, on God’s Word. And is it really such a strange thought then when the Form for Ordination looks first of all to the person who, based on his office, also has to proclaim that Word and those promises of God “according to the circumstances”?
In short, if you ask me whether there are any principled objections to allowing anyone other than the minister to lead the congregation in the service of prayers, my answer is “no”. And then I also want to point out that this has also been happening for years. After all, when we ask someone to read a sermon, we give him every opportunity to lead the service of prayer himself. “Reading a sermon” does not necessarily mean “reading the prayer” as well.
In principle, therefore, in my opinion, there is indeed room and opportunity for others to lead in prayers. But if you then ask me what I think of the way the Form for Ordination of ministers divides the tasks, my response would be that I do think that it testifies of wisdom and that I regard it as a proper general rule.