Jesus in Public Prayer

Introduction. Occasionally pastors are asked to offer a prayer—usually an invocation or benediction—in a public, secular environment. This is especially true in government settings and a typical duty of a military chaplain. This raises some questions for the Christian minister. Does the Christian minister have the right to pray a specifically “Christian” prayer in these settings? Can a Christian pray without closing the prayer in Jesus’ name? And finally, is there any reason a Christian minister or chaplain should agree to publicly praying in an ecumenical environment where the mention of Jesus is frowned upon or prohibited? These are good questions for the American pastor or chaplain serving in the environment of recent court decisions, the Establishment Clause, the high wall of separation between church and state, and the courts of pubic appeal.

The Minister’s Right. In light of Supreme Court cases like ENGLE v. VITELE, the Christian minister should not assume the right to pray however he wishes when invited to pray in a secular government setting. If the minister is unwilling to remain ecumenical (if requested or expected to do so), he should decline the invitation to pray. The military requires a chaplain to agree to these terms before accepting a commission. Despite how the minister may feel about this, he must remember the words of Jesus, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20, ESV). The minister should be thankful that he is invited to pray in a secular, government environment at all; but he should also pray that one day all will pray in Jesus’ name. The minister’s focus should be on prayer, teaching, evangelism, and service, leaving the distractions of these societal difficulties to the lawyers and politicians (unless of course it comes up for a vote). However, if the minister is invited to pray, he should always feel that he has the right to clarification; and a minister should never be required to pray in this fashion if he is uncomfortable doing so. The military chaplain however, should be prepared to face persecution if he chooses to take this stand.

In Jesus’ Name. Many times throughout the Bible, Jesus instructs his disciples to pray in his name (John 14:13-14, 15:16, 16:23, Ephesians 5:20). But as Grudem says, this instruction “does not simply mean adding the phrase ‘in Jesus’ name’ after every prayer” (Grudem 1994, 379). He continues by arguing that it is not a magic formula for our prayers (Ibid, 379). Instead, praying in Jesus’ name is praying in and with Jesus’ authority. While it is wise to verbally declare that a prayer is said in the authority of Jesus, it is not a Biblical requirement. In fact, of the prayers recorded in the Bible (Matthew 6:9-13, Acts 1:24-25, 4:24-30, 7:59, 9:13-14, 10:14, Revelations 6:10, 22:20), none of them end “in Jesus’ name” (Ibid, 379). In light of these biblical prayers, it seems that an occasional prayer (in a non-Christian government setting) that ends with a simple “Amen” is acceptable.

Why Would a Minister Agree? While ministers and chaplains should hope and pray for a day when everybody makes specifically Christian prayers, reality says this is not the case today. The advantages of accepting an invitation to pray in a non-Christian environment are proximity and presence. Ministers do not often have the access they might have by accepting the invitation to pray. Later, someone the Holy Spirit is convicting may approach the minister for help. And by praying, a reminder is posted that there is indeed a higher power whom which we make supplication. Given title or introduction, people will likely know that the minister is Christian. Chaplains are granted an all-important proximity to soldiers, but only because they are willing to occasionally restrict their language choices in order to pray in the public non-Christian setting. The same is expected of non-Christian chaplains. If Christians refused to pray in this manner, they would be barred access to soldiers, the more significant ministry for the chaplain. The weakness however, is that many will hear this prayer and not understand the importance or necessity of Jesus. This work will likely take more than this single occasion. And a threat comes in the form of compliancy. As the Christian minister makes one concession, there could be expectations that others will be made too. The Christians of the first century went to their deaths for the name of Jesus and actually became a greater witness than if they were to make concessions for access. This should be weighted when making the decision to pray or not, when contemplating the acceptance of a chaplaincy or not.

Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester,
England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.

* This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.  
** Photo of  Stained Glass by Toby Hudson and is registered under a Creative Commons License.