Is it okay for a woman to pray publicly in a mixed group setting?
It is certainly okay for women to pray alone – even in the house of the Lord. Hannah prayed alone at the tabernacle in Shiloh when she asked the Lord for a son ( I Sam 1: 10, 26). And when her prayer was answered she brought her son (Samuel) to the tabernacle, she prayed again (I Sam 2: 1). In fact, her prayer was recorded and became part of holy Scripture (I Sam 2: 1-10) as was the prayer of Mary (Luke 1: 46-55). It is also okay for a woman to pray with other women. In Acts 16: 3 we read how Paul, Timothy and Silas, after arriving in Philippi, because there was no synagogue in the city, went “to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made.” There they “sat down and spoke to the women who met there” – one of whom was Lydia whose heart the Lord opened when she heard Paul preach and became converted.
But when it comes to a mixed gathering (meaning when believing men are present), we need to be more careful. The Bible clearly teaches that women are not to take any kind of leadership role in the church. In 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 Paul writes “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.” Similarly, in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 Paul writes “Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. Nevertheless, she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control.”
Do not misunderstand these verses. Paul was no misogynist (someone who despises women) as many liberal “scholars” claim. Paul had a very high view of women. In fact, they played a vital role in his ministry. In Philippians 4:3 he referred to women who labored with him in the gospel and urged his “true companion” to help them. But, as mentioned, Paul would not allow them to take a leadership role in the church – not because they are inferior (they are not), but because God has assigned to men and women different roles in the family as well as in the church. Men are to be leaders. Women are not.
Does that mean (which is what the question is asking) that women cannot pray when men are present? I do not believe so. If a group of believers are gathered together for a specific purpose other than prayer (e.g. a committee meeting of the church or school, a Bible study, etc.) then men should lead in prayer. But if they are gathered together specifically to pray, then there is no reason why women cannot participate.
In fact, that seems to have been the practice in the early church. In Acts 1:14 we read that after the Lord Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples “all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.” The wording of this verse implies that women were not only present on this occasion, but they also participated. Also, in 1 Corinthians 11:5 Paul writes that “every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved.” Leaving aside the issue of whether a woman should still have her head covered in the worship service (which I personally believe they do) or whether this was a cultural practice that was limited to that time and place (which I personally believe it is not), the point of this verse is that women prayed in the worship service.
One might argue that they merely prayed along with men. But that would not explain why she would have to have her head covered since the head covering was a symbol of submission (I Cor 11: 7-10). What Paul seems to be saying is that when women pray out loud or prophesy and men are present, they should have their head covered – in order to reinforce their submission to men.
Having said that, whenever men and women gather together for prayer (e.g. at a prayer meeting), it would be advisable if it was led by men. That means a man should open the prayer meeting, lead in prayer and then also close in prayer.
Not everyone will agree with this. Some will insist that only men should pray at a prayer meeting. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that. We need to have respect for each other’s views. The most important matter is not so much who prays, but whether we pray at all.
Are you a young man, a young woman who prays? Is communion with God in prayer and a delight to you? Or is it simply an empty, even meaningless ritual? Do you pray fervently and without ceasing (as the Bible commands) or do you simply rattle off a prayer like you would send a text message to a friend? May the Lord so work among us – and especially our youth – that we may be a people who pray!