Is public prayer forbidden in scripture? Is prayer a completely private matter? Should churches dispense with the practice of calling upon someone to lead in prayer during worship or Bible Study? Some Christians have taken the words of Christ in Matthew 6:5-6 as an injunction against any public prayer. “When you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”
The command of Jesus regarding prayer is — do not pray to be seen by men like the hypocrites do. The way to avoid hypocritical prayer is prayer in secret. This does not mean that public prayer does not have its place for sincere believers gathered together under the authority of our Lord Jesus.
Some Christians claim that every occurrence of Jesus praying was by Himself in private. This simply isn’t true. When Jesus performed the miracle of feeding the 5000, “He took the seven loaves and the fish; and giving thanks, he broke them and started giving them to the disciples . . .” (Matthew 15:36). That sounds like public prayer to me. When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, “Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples . . .” (Matthew 26:26). That sounds like public prayer.
The model prayer Jesus gave his listeners immediately after His instruction to pray in secret was a public prayer. “Give us this day . . .” Forgive us our debts . . .” “Deliver us from evil.” This is very reminiscent of the public worship prayers of the book of Psalms. The nation of Israel voiced a prayer together as in Psalm 80, “Oh, give ear, Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock; . . . O God, restore us and cause Your face to shine upon us, . . .” and in Psalm 90, “Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.”
Public prayer has been a part of the practice of Christians from the beginning. In the story of Acts one where we find a gathering of about 120 persons in the upper room, Peter stood up in the midst of them and called for the selection of someone to replace Judas. “So they put forward two men, . . . and they prayed and said, ‘You Lord, who know the hearts of all men, show which one of these two You have chosen.” This was public prayer. Peter and John were arrested after Peter’s second sermon in Acts 4. Beginning in verse 23 it says, “When they had been released, they went to their own companions and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with on accord and said, ‘O Lord, it is you who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, . . .”
I do not mean to minimize the importance of private prayer. But, in Matthew 6 Jesus was not condemning public prayer any more than he was condemning giving alms to the poor. He was condemning a hypocritical public display of righteousness. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them, (Matthew 6:1). I only call your attention to all of this because God’s Word Matters.