DID THE LORD FORBID PUBLIC PRAYER?
by Shawn Brasseaux
No. We should not misunderstand His words as found in Matthew 6:5-6: “ 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.”
Please be sure to recognize the context. The type of prayer Christ is condemning here is not praying in public per se BUT RATHER praying for the sake of generating publicity. People—particularly Jewish religious leaders—were utilizing prayer as means to draw attention to themselves. Their motivation was nothing more than to advertise their piety: “Look at how religious I am! Do you see my spirituality?! Look at how devoted I am to God! What do you think of my ability to recite such elaborate, drawn-out prayers?!” Not only did they do this in the “synagogues” (Jewish houses of worship), the Lord also indicates “corners of the streets” (that is, at crossroads, where innumerable passersby would certainly notice them). Such empty religious works and “hypocrisy!” They were pretending to serve God when all they were really doing was serving self! (Works-religion people are no different today.)
Pay attention to “pretence” (the King James / British spelling of “pretense”) in the following two verses. “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence [intended for display] make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation” (Matthew 23:14). “Which devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence [intended for display] make long prayers: these shall receive greater damnation” (Mark 12:40). The parallel verse, Luke 20:47, makes it even plainer: “Which devour widows’ houses, and for a shew [intended for display] make long prayers: the same shall receive greater damnation” (Luke 20:47). Such behavior—frankly, these are prayers made for dead people (!)—can be summarized as thus: “praying ostensibly,” or “praying to all outward appearances.”
The goal of prayer (regardless of the dispensation) is not to be seen of men, impress them, or gain their applause. Prayer is personal communion with the God of the Bible, we speaking to Him in light of His Word to us. It is the Holy Spirit better adjusting our minds as we walk by faith in what we do understand in His Book (see Romans 8:26-27). We really are praying for the wrong reasons if we are purposing to have people notice or praise us.
Continue reading Jesus’ instructions to His Jewish believers as found in Matthew chapter 6: “ 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.  But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.  Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.” Instead of praying to be “seen of men,” the members of the Little Flock were encouraged to enter a private closet and pray there. Found in the houses of Palestine, this room had one door and no windows (thereby limiting spectators, thus reducing the temptation to become the praying hypocrite defined earlier).
However, even in Israel’s program, the aforementioned instructions do not prohibit all public prayer. Read below about Jewish believers in Christ whom the Holy Spirit led in early Acts. Surely, these were public prayers—not individuals hiding in personal prayer closets! Once again, Jesus did not forbid public prayer in and of itself, just hypocritical prayer (prayer designed to generate publicity as opposed to fellowshipping with God).
“These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren” (Acts 1:14). “Now Peter and John went up together into the temple at the hour of prayer, being the ninth hour” (Acts 3:1). “And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). “Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them” (Acts 6:6).
Now, lest there be more misunderstanding, we issue some final remarks about public prayer and us today. When a local Bible assembly meets, or a Christian group eats together, public praying is wholly in order. If present, a Christian man should lead the prayer! His job is to guide the listeners’ hearts and minds into God’s truth for us today. In a true sense, the prayer leader is a teacher: he is instructing people to see how Bible verses apply to specific life situations. What is God doing today? How does that Divine work relate to us? Prayer is the way whereby we determine how informed (or how ignorant) we are concerning those truths of Scripture. Get into Paul’s epistles, Romans through Philemon, and pray in accordance with them. This is how we guard against falling into the trap of the silly, empty, worthless, hypocritical prayers of religionists!