There has been diversity of thought on whether women ought to pray or not in public worship. The pendulum of scriptural evidence, in my judgement, rests on the side of permitting women to pray. Five arguments can be given.

  1. The intrinsic nature of prayer

“Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God in the name of Christ, by the help of his Spirit, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies” (W.M. Larger Catechism). This means that prayer is not a gift to be exercised by some and not others. Rather: (a) It is a conduit through which all believers with desires, with sins to confess and debts of praise to pay, must express themselves both individually and corporately. (b) It is a privilege of sonship – that is, being an adopted child of God (cf. Galatians 4:5,6 cf. vs. 26-28). (c) Prayer is a priestly function, that function of representing man to God. Under the Levitical order, this was done exclusively by men – Aaron’s sons. But are we not all priests now (1Pt. 2:9)? In the now universal priesthood order, we can all rightfully represent each other before the throne of grace. Male or female, we can be intercessors in public worship.

  1. The inextricable relation between praying and singing – acts of worship at par

History of bible times shows that women have always worshipped the Lord in song during public worship, whether in the temple (cf. 1Chr. 25:5) or in the synagogue. James, on the other hand, equates prayer and praise as similar acts of worship responding to varying emotions, “Is any in trouble? He should pray, Is any happy? Let him sing songs of praise” (5:13). If singing in public worship can lawfully be performed by women – and there is no quarrel about this – what renders their praying unlawful? Isn’t prayer, which is much richer in originality (or spontaneity) and experience, more required of them?

  1. Biblical examples, apparently

(a) In the temple courts Hannah is seen praying, and so was Anna the daughter of Phanuel (1Sam. 1:10,12, 19; 2:1-11; Lk. 2:36-37). (b) In the makeshift synagogue on the Sabbath the Philippian sisters appear to be involved in prayer (cf. Acts 16:13). (c) In the free-church prayer meeting, Mary and other women appear to have been participating in prayer (Acts 1:14). These scriptures however, do not determine whether the women listed, prayed in the presence of men. It is assumed.

  1. Implied biblical teaching

Did women speak in tongues? If they did, as suggested from the Pentecost event (Acts 2:4,1 cf.1:14), then they did pray in public. Why do I say so? I say so because praying and singing are constituent elements of tongue-speaking (1Cor. 14:14-17 – here is scripture that offers more evidence for the parity of singing with praying). Unless Paul was forbidding tongue-speaking also (say in 1Cor. 14:34)? But this is very unlikely, because the gift of tongues was for public use and not private. I doubt if the women, upon receiving this gift on Pentecost, zoomed out of the building with their hands sealing the mouth, to avoid praying in public! Such drama does not fit the dignity of the Christian faith.

  1. The angle of interpretation

The temptation to expect scripture to single out women praying expressly in worship, or being exclusively commanded to publicly pray, is unfair. It is as unwarranted as expecting commands requiring children, old people or even men exclusively to pray. The bible does not approach issues this way. For the same reason men are never exclusively admonished to pray, we, consistently, ought not to search for feminine-tailored commands for generic duties.

There are indeed scriptures in which prayer is required of persons referred to as “brothers” (such as 1Thess. 5:25; 2Thess. 3:1; Rom. 15:30 etc.). The term “brothers,” in each of these verses, however, refers to all the believers and not the men exclusively. Their contexts confirm this. For instance, Paul says, “Brothers, pray for us.” But so does he say “Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss. I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers” (1Thess. 5:25-27).

Now, it is either this epistle was addressed to men only, and in that case all the issues addressed therein are only relevant to them, and not to women – these include instructions such as “respect those who are over you in the Lord,” “avoid every kind of evil” etc. – or it was written to the entire church referred to as brothers. The latter is obviously the case, for he clearly states that he wrote to “the church of the Thessalonians” (1:1). To these, he affectionately refers as his brothers, male and female, at the commencement of every new thought (cf. 1:4; 2:1,17; 4:1,13; 5:1,12,25. See also Rom. 8:12; 10:1; 12:1; 15:14,30; 16:17). He does so in much the same way when he refers to all saints as “Sons of God,” when in fact some of these “sons” are female (Rom. 8:14,15; 2Thess. 5:5).

We therefore see that the very nature of prayer; its similarity with song-worship; scanty biblical examples and teaching, all confirm that in the duty of prayer, there is and must be no discrimination between male and female. Surely it would have cost the apostle little to say: “I do not permit a woman to teach, rule or pray”! Where a duty or privilege is assumed, a command clearly forbidding it is the most sure way of avoiding confusion. So the only reason Paul did not include prayer among the prohibited female roles in public worship, is that it was lawful.


We must now turn our focus to two objections that can be raised against our position. The first is that based on a passage of scripture that apparently forbids women praying, and this is 1Corinthians 14:34,35. The other is one based on a passage apparently laying the duty to pray squarely on men (and not women, by implication), and this is 1Timothy 2:8.

  1. The teaching of 1Corinthians 14:34,35

“As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to enquire about something, they should ask their husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”

Preliminary observations must be made:

  1. The silence in 1Corinthians 14:34,35 must be relative and not absolute. Do you think in verse 28, where Paul says, “If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church,” silence is absolute or it is relative to the matter of speaking in tongues? Obviously the silence here, as elsewhere, must be limited or extended by the context.
  2. Since women were granted the grace to speak prophetically (Acts 2:17; 21:9; 1Cor. 11:5), to speak in tongues (Acts 1:14 cf. 2:4), and to speak melodiously (in song cf. 1Cor. 14:26), and all this during public worship, it is only logical to conclude that the women were not dumb silent, they did speak somehow. So the speaking that is shameful (in v.35), whatever it is, has nothing to do with the speech of prophecy, tongues or singing. Their silence was to be observed in a specific realm or act of public worship, other than prophecy, tongues and songs (and prayer, we would add, cf. 1Cor. 11:5).

The forbidden speaking

The forbidden speaking in the context of 1Corinthians 14, is didactic speaking, i.e. preaching or teaching. Can this be proven? No doubt it can:

(1) The word speak, as used by the apostle Paul (in 1Cor. 14:34), can mean to preach or teach. This is the sense in which it is used when describing the powerful teaching of Christ in John 7:46 – “no one ever spoke the way this man does.”

(2) The context of 1Corinthians 14 confirms almost irrefutably that Paul must have been advocating silence from didactic teaching, rather than silence from prophesying, tongue-speaking or tongue-interpretation. The statement “if they want to enquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” (v.35), clearly demonstrates that teaching is the main subject of this silence.

From this, we see that the whole essence of this silence is connected with teaching. Otherwise why the interest in asking questions, among these women? Asking questions in a meeting convened for singing and praying is totally out of place. Neither has it been usual church practice to query the prophets’ message in a meeting. The issue was and still is doctrine.

Therefore, Paul has no interest in forbidding women from praying, at least not from 1Corinthians 14.

  1. The teaching of 1Timothy 2:8

“I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.”

From this verse some have deduced that only men are exhorted to pray. But a rereading of this verse will show that the whole point is missed. The question of who should and should not pray does not and should not arise, from this text.

We need to make two valuable observations, on the face of this verse. First, there is no denial about the fact that the instruction to pray here is given to men and not to women. However, secondly, the exhortation and emphasis is not about the act of prayer perse, but the attitude in prayer. In other words, men must pray avoiding specific unhealthy attitudes, such as anger and disputing. Instead, they should do so with purity. The emphasis, quite clearly, is how to pray and not who to pray.

Similarly, the exhortation to women, in the very next verse, is not simply to dress, but to dress modestly, “I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety” (1Tim. 2:9).

Fallacy of insisting on exclusive male praying from this text

If we insist that only men must pray, from this text, we must consistently accept that only women must dress. This would imply that men must abstain from dressing, either by observing the barest minimum covering – something like Tarzan’s or a wrestler’s attire, we suppose, or by blank nudity! But what an unspeakable absurdity this would be!

The fact that women are not mentioned, in relation to the duty of prayer in verse eight, does not mean they ought not to pray, any more than the fact that men are not mentioned in connection with dressing, in verse nine, mean that they ought not to dress. Clearly Paul is neither admonishing men to simply pray, nor women to simply dress, but that both should dress and pray appropriately, respectively. This is why he begins verse nine with “similarly” or “likewise,” or “I also…” What is the similarity? The similarity is that, in the same manner men are required to be modest, in the realm they are capable of compromise, so should women be in theirs.

But why men specifically to pray, even if it be properly? Doesn’t this still suggest that only men prayed and hence risked impropriety in this area?

The answer is that though public prayer is for both male and female, it is men that have a natural tendency to extravagance in expressing anger, whether to children (Eph. 6:4) or to wives (Col. 3:19,21), perhaps due to occasional “saturation” with the headship notion.

Such poorly regulated tempers would easily spill over into prayer meetings, in form of polemical attacking prayers, or ruthless requests that revive memories of the prayer request made by the sons of thunder, for consuming fire upon their enemies. With this background, men are naturally singled out in the area of prayer.

Similarly, though both men and women are dressed up and must be dressed in public worship, it is the women who are prone to excessiveness in dressing and all outward appearance, resulting from their love for self-adornment. This is why they are singled out in the area of dressing.

So Paul is addressing the regulation of male/female excesses, as they affect worship, and not their respective roles in public worship. Experience confirms the reality of these excesses and their real danger to pure worship.

Hence, from this text, women are not forbidden from public prayer. In fact, to the contrary, elsewhere in 1Corinthians 11:5, the apostle does positively assume that they do pray during public worship. For here he says, “and every woman who prays… with her head uncovered dishonours her head.” Here too, he is addressing the manner in which this praying must be conducted in public worship. Therefore, women, like men, must pray publicly.

It is necessary, at this point, to say that all that has been said so far, does not invariably suggest that there is no relative order of prominence, by men, in public prayer. Men will be prominent. Except that if and when women are to submit to the prominence of their male counterparts, in this area, it must be on other grounds than prohibition, grounds such as general male headship (cf. 1Cor. 11:3 – “and the head of the woman is man”). Naturally one in a position of headship will be allowed more initiative and time to express himself, in any decent setting. This, on the part of women, however, would not be silence but deference in prayer. It would not mean not praying where men are present, but voluntarily allowing men the prominence, or the lead. This is fitting. And any woman having a quarrel with such decent behaviour, in God’s presence, has a problem.

* This article is extracted from that published in Sola Scriptura, Volume 6, 1997