Public Prayer: Leading & Following
The Shorter Catechism defines prayer as ‘an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will’ and identifies its constituent parts as adoration, confession of sin, petition and thanksgiving. Scripture makes it clear that such prayer is to be offered as an element of private and public worship. In Matthew 6 Jesus deals with the private aspect of prayer, commanding us to enter the ‘closet’ and pray to our Father in secret. In 1 Timothy 2 Paul’s focus is on public prayer as something required of the church when she meets as a corporate body.
As a part of worship, prayer, just like singing, reading and preaching, is commanded by God. As with the other parts, prayer is also regulated by God and we must go to the Bible alone to learn what God requires. I once attended a meeting in Uganda where the pastor called the congregation to separate into groups of three, hold hands, and all offer prayer audibly at the same time. Needless to say, the result was a confused babble and the congregation sounded like a henhouse of humans. The practice seemed like a good idea to the pastor, but what does the Bible say about public prayer? Is someone to lead in prayer? Who should lead? Can anyone who likes lead? What does the congregation do when someone leads in prayer? These are some of the things that we intend to answer from Scripture in this article to establish what we do in worship and why we do it.
Who should be Present for Public Prayer?
The first issue that needs to be addressed is who should be present for public prayer. Paul answers this in 1Timothy 2 — the church should be present. He is addressing church matters so that Timothy will know how to order things in the church of God (3:15). He is to give attendance to reading (4:13) and preaching the Word (4:6, 11, 13). Elders and deacons are to be ordained, chapter 3, and he is also to see that public prayer is offered in terms of the detail of chapter 2. So in the same place and in the same body where the Word is to be read and preached, prayer is to be offered.
The church is to pray and she will do so as a part of worship in her stated services on the Lord’s Day. In addition to this she may call extra meetings for prayer, eg weekly prayer meetings, or days of prayer. These are not higher meetings of an elite within the church, or lower meetings where the rules of worship do not apply. They are meetings of the visible church and all who are members of the church are welcome and should strive to be present. The Highland tradition that the prayer meeting is only for Christians so that attendance at the meeting is equated with a profession of faith (‘following’) finds no basis in Scripture. The prayer meeting is simply a public meeting of the church for worship where there is more emphasis on the element of prayer and therefore the whole visible church, including children, should be present as far as it is possible. It is here that the rising generation will learn the discipline of public prayer, be instructed in what the church should be praying for, and have the privilege of seeing the hand of God move in answer to the cries of the congregation of the saints.
One voice leads in Public Prayer
Having established what a prayer meeting is and who should be present, we need to consider what takes place. The church is communing and fellowshipping with God in all her meetings. God speaks to her through the reading and preaching of His Word and she responds by speaking to Him in the singing of praise and prayer. In some of these elements of worship one voice is raised in the congregation whereas in others all the voices in the congregation are raised and this is significant to our understanding of what is taking place. In the singing of praise all voices are raised together as one as the congregation unites in extolling God. In prayer, however, one voice is raised in the congregation to lead all. We must understand the dynamic here: when one leads, the whole congregation is being led and prays together.
This is implied in the language of public prayer. On the Lord’s Day, the minister calls the congregation to pray in words like ‘Let us pray’. At the prayer meeting he will call on one to ‘Lead us in prayer’. He does not say ‘I’m going to pray’ nor does he ask someone to simply ‘say a prayer’. The one leading has a clear function in and for the body. The same thing is evident in Scripture. In Acts 4:23-24 the believers gathered together for prayer and Luke records, ‘They lifted up their voice to God with one accord and said...’ The content of the prayer then follows and it is not to be understood as simply a summary of the sentiments of a number of individuals. ‘The view’, says J A Alexander, ‘that has commanded the assent of most interpreters in all times and churches’ is that they are ‘all said to have lifted up their voices with one accord, because they all united in the prayer of just one, just as we now speak of a whole congregation praying, when a single voice is audible’. The whole group lifted up their hearts in united passion, with one heart and one mind through one voice and this is the pattern for the gathered church when we address God in prayer. One voice is heard but he is not praying as a private individual. The pulpit and the pew is not the closet and both those who lead in prayer and those who follow are to be sensitive to this. The language of the closet is, ‘Lord I pray ... grant me’. The cry of the gathered church is ‘we pray ... grant us!’
The same principle is at work at the close of public prayer. Here the collective voice of the congregation is to be heard in the ‘Amen’. In many evangelical churches today the one who leads in prayer may say ‘amen’, or there may be individual ‘amens’ by others as the prayer is being offered, which at least gives evidence someone is praying with the one leading! We do not excel however in uniting in a hearty ‘amen’ at the close of prayer yet this was the clear practice of the church both in the Old and New Testament (Deut. 27:15-16, 1 Chron. 16:35-36, 1 Cor. 14:14-16). This congregational ‘amen’ shows the church is praying. The united declaration ‘amen’, which means ‘so let it be’, is the congregation saying ‘we agree Lord!’ It is to this collective agreement of the gathered church that Jesus gives this encouragement: ‘Again I say unto you, that if two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Mt. 18:19-20).
It is clear that when the church gathers and prays to God we do not pray individually but collectively with one heart and lead by one voice. One voice is heard; all hearts should be praying. Understanding this will help us to deal with the more controversial issue of whose voice should be heard leading in public prayer.
Whose Voice leads in Public Prayer?
If we take the question back to 2 Timothy 2 where Paul is instructing the church about public prayer the answer is plain. Paul’s command is that men should pray. In v 8 he says, ‘I will therefore that men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands without wrath and doubting’ but the word ‘men’ is not the general word (anthropos) referring to mankind, but the specific word (andras) which distinguishes men from women (gunikas v 9). Men are to pray in the church where women are obviously to be present but the woman’s voice is not to be raised above others in the congregation in the same way as the man’s. So Paul continues, ‘let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence’ (vv 11-12). This accords with his counsel to the church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 which we will look at later.
In both instances silence is commanded for women in the context of public worship in general and of public prayer and teaching the word of God (1 Tim 2, 1 Cor 14:34-35) in particular. Some dispute this prescription of silence altogether as a relic of Paul’s 1st Century culture. Others of a more conservative strain allow that the silence applies to preaching but deny it has any reference to leading in prayer. Both these views either ignore the plain teaching of Scripture or interpret the specific passages out of their immediate and broader context. We must keep the following things in mind when making our way through this issue:
First, it should be noted that there is no example anywhere in Scripture in which a woman takes the lead in any part of the public worship of the church. In the Old Testament the prescribed order was for men to lead and the same pattern carries over into the New. In both testaments women would evidently join in the corporate singing of the body and the congregational ‘amen’ but they are never seen in a position of leadership or authority; they do not officiate or govern; they do not preach, where one voice is raised above the congregation; nor is there an example of their leading in prayer when they would be the public representative of the church leading all the congregation, including the men, in prayer.
Secondly, the practice of the church as it developed from the apostolic time does not appear to have followed any other pattern than this. This is true of the Reformation period and the centuries that followed. The agitation and change in practice seems to have come into the church in correlation with the rise of feminism in the 20th Century. In other words, it appears to have been motivated by cultural not Scriptural considerations.
Thirdly, where Scriptural arguments have been offered to support the view that women can lead in public prayer, these arguments are taken out of the context of the rest of Scripture and when examined closely they do not support the case at all.
- Hannah has been used as an example of women leading in public prayer (1 Sam. 1:9-18). However, while Hannah was in the Tabernacle she was not attending an assembly of public worship. She went to offer her own private supplication to God in which she was leading no-one else to God in prayer. Furthermore, the passage clearly makes the point that she was not praying audibly but inaudibly (v 13).
- Acts 1:14 is also appealed to in order to justify women leading in public prayer due to the presence of women in the upper room when the believers were engaged in prayer. No-one disputes that women were present on this occasion; nor is our position that women should not attend upon public prayer. Our position is that the church should be present at prayer meetings and that men should lead in prayer. Acts 1 gives no evidence to contradict this but only proves that women were present (not leading) on this occasion of corporate prayer.
- 1 Corinthians 11:5 is also appealed to in support of women leading in public prayer and at first reading it may appear to justify the practice. Paul says, ‘But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head…’ From this some conclude that as long as the woman covers her head she is permitted to lead in prayer, but this does not necessarily follow. We cannot conclude from Paul’s forbidding the one thing that he commends the other. For example, if a policeman said to you, ‘Anyone speeding through a red light will be prosecuted’, does it then follow that to drive slowly through a red light is permitted? That is the kind of logic employed in concluding women can lead in prayer from 1 Corinthians 11:5. In addition, there is no explicit reference to leading in prayer in the text, though we admit the inclusion of ‘prophesying’ would indicate the raising of one voice above others.
This reference to prophesying in 11:5 further weakens the argument which would justify women leading in prayer because when Paul comes to 1 Corinthians 14 and is dealing specifically with prophesying and speaking in tongues (vv 23-24, 26-27, 31-32) and appealing for Biblical order (v 33), he immediately says, ‘Let your women keep silence in the churches’, going on to exclude even the public asking of questions in the worship service. If he is forbidding women from prophesying in chapter 14, he cannot be permitting it in 11:5 where it stands beside prayer; and if he disallows even the asking of questions — which is usually a submissive act, how then could he be advocating women taking the position of leading the congregation in prayer? Again we find no warrant for the practice of women leading in public prayer from 1 Corinthians.
We have considered the nature of a prayer meeting as a diet of worship in which the whole church should be present. We then established that in public prayer one voice is raised above all to lead the congregation with one heart to God. We noted also that the Scriptures make clear that the person leading the congregation in this way is to be male — this is the order the Lord has ordained for the church and therefore we are duty bound to submit to and delight in His will in this matter. Men should lead in public prayer, but we are foolish to think that simply knowing this will translate into obeying it. As with all obedience, this is a spiritual matter. When God calls men to headship and leadership, their besetting sins will tend toward tyrannical leadership on the one hand or abdication of responsibility on the other. One result of this will be that men don’t want to lead in prayer and are happy for women to do it. This can be observed in many churches where women are permitted to lead in prayer in open prayer meetings, men’s voices increasingly growing silent while more and more female voices are heard. On one occasion a woman in such a church said to me she did not believe women should lead in prayer, but she prayed because the men wouldn’t pray! Another problem we may face is that in churches where men are required to lead in public prayer, some men will not profess faith out of a fear of being called to lead. Neither of these things should surprise us in the battle for obedience; nevertheless, men must resist the cowardice that would allow such abdication and instead spiritually ‘man up’. Then we must teach our boys and young men by precept and example in preparation for their leadership roles in the church of the next generation.
It also follows that women should desire men to lead in public prayer. If men are tempted to abdicate the responsibility that God has laid on them to lead, the women’s temptation will be to usurp this responsibility — not only at home but in church. Women should strive instead to love the will of God in this whole matter, not viewing it as harsh or a put down against their sex. Then they should do all in their power to encourage men to pray. If a husband struggles at home to lead the family in prayer, she should let him struggle on and encourage him; likewise she should encourage her sons and pray for the men of her congregation that they might be led to proficiency in this great work of leading the church of God to the throne of grace in prayer.