One at a time, please

Back in the early days of our work in Brazil, we did research into the culture and religion of the area where we worked. Among other things we did, several of our mission team visited different religions and denominations for a better sense of their teachings and practices.

One day several of us visited a large denominational church near the downtown area of our city. I think I sustained permanent hearing impairment there.

At one point, I recall all of the denomination’s adherents praying at the same time. Four hundred people speaking simultaneously — and most of them did not speak in a low volume — made it impossible to understand anything.

The apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14, gave a rule that still applies today. All should be done for the edification of the church. In order to do that, people must understand what it said. So that people can understand what is said, those who direct the acts of worship must speak one at a time.

There is support for this rule elsewhere as well. The context is prayer in the meetings of the congregation. Paul tells Timothy what kind of prayers should be said, for whom they should be offered, why God wants prayers, and how those prayers tie in to the proclamation of the gospel, 1 Timothy 2.1-7.

Then he states who ought to lead the prayers: Men, not women, 1 Timothy 2.8-9ff. (Funny how that double-gender definition always pops up in Scripture.) The word for “men” in verse 8 means “members of the masculine sex.” And not just any man can lead a prayer. It has to be one who is holy, not irascible, and not quarrelsome.

So the CEV misses it entirely, completely, deliberately, when it translates the verse this way: “I want everyone everywhere to lift innocent hands toward heaven and pray, without being angry or arguing with each other.” (You think translators don’t have their biases? Think again! Ask me for one shocking example.)

The REB comes closest among the major versions to getting it right: “It is my desire, therefore, that everywhere prayers be said by the men of the congregation, …”

We’ve yet to see a version really get at the apostle’s point: “I want men to be the ones to lead the prayers of all the meetings of the church.”

This is not politically correct, but then the Lord Jesus Christ was never one to bend to winds of culture.

Now the verse has more to say to modern religious practices. If some are to lead the prayers, the others are to listen to the prayers being said, so that they can say amen at the end. God’s plan is for one man to word a prayer, for everyone to follow along with what the prayer leader is saying, and for all to give their hearty amen when the prayer is done. (Aside: Why don’t our people say amen at the end of prayers? It’s a shameful omission!)

When the whole congregation joins together to say a single prayer, God hears in a special way. Else, there would be little reason for us to pray together.

Praying together isn’t about improving your mood, as one writer suggested. It’s about putting before the Lord as a congregation a single, well-worded petition, in order for him to move among us and through us. That is done when one qualified man expresses to the Lord what it is that the congregation needs to ask.

So one man at a time, please, to pray a well-prepared prayer in our meetings. The Lord is listening.

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