Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Public and private prayer

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. Matthew 6:5-6

This is a very informative verse, but one that is open to misinterpretation. Here, Jesus is teaching a lesson about humility. Some people like to make it very clear that they are praying. The goal of these people is not to communicate with God, but to puff themselves up in front of those around them and to show how righteous they are. This is why Jesus told people to pray in private rather than to make a public spectacle of oneself.

But does this mean that public prayer is prohibited? In order to conclude that the Bible prohibits public prayer, it logically follows that every church in America is in violation of this verse every Sunday. You do not get much more "public" than Sherwood Oaks Christian Church, given the number of people in an average service. This principle could also be applied to the small Church of Christ a few blocks north of downtown.

So what does the Bible say about public prayers? 1 Kings 18:36-39 recounts the story of Elijah praying to God in a very public manner, asking Him to send down fire to consume an offering. Luke 3:21-22 has an account of a very public prayer by Jesus Christ when He was baptized by John the Baptist. In John 6:11, Jesus publicly thanks God before feeding the 5000. We see in John 11:41-42 Jesus again praying in public. If the Bible prohibits public prayer, did Jesus Christ go against His own Word? Of course not.

These verses should make it clear that the Bible does not prohibit public prayer when done in sincere desire to thank God or otherwise communicate with Him. "Praying" for the sole purpose of making yourself appear righteous or godly is forbidden. Matthew 6:5-6 is a warning against pride, something that we all have to guard against.

That God is establishing a principle rather than a rule is made clear by the verses that begin the chapter condemning those who give alms to the poor for the sake of showing what great people they are This principle is also made clear in the verses that follow about not making sure that everyone knows you are fasting during a fast.

Not everything in the Bible is to be taken literally; you have to understand the context of Scripture, especially when compared to the rest of the Word.