Question: Is it scriptural for a sister in Christ to lead a brother in Christ in a prayer?
Answer: First of all, I appreciate your question’s underpinnings, “Is it scriptural…?” Although there are (and famously so) women who take primacy over men in the Bible, these are rare. These also tend to be encapsulated moments and not springboards for social parity. Feminist dislike the Bible for just this reason: it teaches and models the submission of women, but I insist that it only does this on some levels. For instance, it teaches that godliness is manifested in modest appearance, and that there are some moments when women should not speak, but nowhere does it forbid them to pray.
In fact, Paul instructs women how to prophesy and pray in 1 Corinthians 11:5—not how to refrain from it. This should temper what we later read in 1 Corinthians 14:34 which is the famous (“infamous”) section on women keeping silent in the churches. Paul would never teach that it is both right and wrong for women to pray. Yet some churches insist that their women keep silent. Every church has a right to run its own affairs, but a church like that would never be my personal choice.
The fact that there are choices—that this issue is much debated in the contemporary Church—tells us that this is a secondary issue. Every church that keeps the primacy of Christ will likely handle the Scriptures well, but we will also likely be apart on a few issues. Got Questions Ministries takes a sensible stand on this issue:
“God has ordained that only men are to serve in positions of spiritual teaching authority in the church. This is not because men are necessarily better teachers, or because women are inferior or less intelligent (which is not the case). It is simply the way God designed the church to function. Men are to set the example in spiritual leadership—in their lives and through their words. Women are to take a less authoritative role.”
All of the above speaks to a corporate worship. But you are asking about a one-on-one conclave of believers. This is a different matter—one upon which the New Testament gives us no particular instruction. When this happens, all we can do is find relevant Scripture and see if we can come to the answer indirectly.
First, the same revelator who gave us all the business about women keeping silent, covering heads etc. gave us this: Whether male or female, we are equal in Christ.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28, ESV).
So, why does Paul go on to teach about restrictions for women? Galatians 3:28 is a very clear statement of our position in Christ, but it is not a statement of our experience in Christ. Why not? Our current experience is limited by sin. Yes, we have already been saved! Yes, we’re on our way to heaven! Yes, we are free from sin’s condemnation! But since Christ has not yet fully dealt with sin (he has defeated it, but has not yet dispatched it), we are still a work in progress.
And Paul knew the Church to be a work in progress—perfect in positional qualities—yet imperfect in experience. As such, we should honor the Christ until he comes by using our gender roles to reflect his headship in the Church. When Christ returns physically as the head, then we shall no longer need to do things like take the Lord’s Supper to remember his sacrifice—because he will be with us! In like manner after he returns, there shall be no reason to maintain the male headship roles in the Church. Why not? Because those roles only symbolized Jesus’ headship—and the fulfillment of the symbol will be with us in the flesh. But until then we must take the Lord’s Supper and continue to reflect Christ’s headship in the Church while performing its reasonable social and sacerdotal functions.
This answers the objection that Paul was writing to a different culture at a different time, so these restrictions upon women do not apply to us today. This is both true and not true. He did indeed write to an ancient culture in a different time—but we share a critical similarity with our ancient brethren: We all live(d) in the Church Age—the time between the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 and Jesus’ second coming. All the Church is the same in that, and none of us are off the hook for keeping up the symbolism during this period.
With all that in place, what about your two people praying? The tipping point for me (and you would probably get differing answers from a sampling of respondents) would be if a judical headship was apparent for the woman at the moment. This might seem like a technical point—especially when compared to the tenderness of such an activity—but a woman leading a man in prayer is not a problem in itself; it would be a problem if she had an official or perceived authority because of the moment.
As you can see, I offered no crisp answer to your question. If anything, I put the onus back on you to evaluate the essential part of the relationship. Are these just two people praying where the woman happens to be the one in voice, or is this a moment of authority for the woman? Since my answer requires us to peer into a place we cannot see (the woman’s heart), such an activity will always raise a red flag.
Is prayer worth the risk then? I think so…and I think Paul thinks so…but he commends us towards patience until Christ returns.
“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:9–10, ESV)
Let me recommend two articles to help round-out your thinking.