Praying "to be seen by men"

In the Gospel, our Lord warns us:

"And when ye pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, that love to stand and pray in the synagogues and corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men: Amen I say to you, they have received their reward. But thou when you shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret: and thy Father who sees in secret will repay you." (Matt. 6:5-6).

How often this verse is trotted out by smug atheists whenever Christians try to make any sort of public demonstration of their faith!


Thus, a prayer chain outside an abortion clinic, a controversy over a manger scene in a public place, prayers of protest outside an adult nightclub or bookstore. Always, this verse is brought out by the opponents of the Church, as if it absolutely prohibits Christians from doing any sort of prayer or evangelizing in public.

What does the Bible say about prayer? This would be too great a topic to take up here, but it suffices to say that there is plenty of "public prayer" throughout the Scriptures, such as those at which Solomon dedicated the Temple, for example. Prayer in the New Testament is often public as well, as all the Temple liturgies that the Apostles participated in were in public (Acts 3), not to mention the greatest manifestation of the Spirit in the New Testament on the day of Pentecost saw the Apostles praying publicly in front of thousands. Not to mention that many of the most memorable prayers of the early Church were those uttered by the martyrs while they stood exposed to thousands in the arena waiting for death, and that in the coming centuries, public processions and public acts of prayer and penance were not only common, but lauded by the Church as an especially efficacious way of securing God's blessing upon a people. Clearly, Christianity, both apostolic and patristic, never understood public prayer to be forbidden by Matthew 6:5.

As with the following verse about not praying with "vain repetitions" (Matt. 6:7), where the emphasis is not so much on repetition as with the repetitions that are vain, Matthew 6:5-6 does not prohibit prayer in front of others in an absolute sense, but rather warns against people praying "that they may be seen by men." This is evident by the verse that precedes this statement where Jesus clarifies the reasoning for the prohibition, applying it this time to almsgiving:

"Take heed that you do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise you have no reward of your Father which is in heaven" (Matt. 6:1).

The same applies to the following verse about prayer - the problem is not that it is in public but that it is done for the sole purpose of being praised for it. That this is so is evident by the contrast Jesus makes between praying "as the hypocrites" and praying sincerely. The prayer of the sincere disciple is "in secret" and seen only by the Father; this contrasts with the prayer that is done to be "seen by men" and is done by the hypocrites. The structure and syntax of the verse makes it clear that was is being condemned here is not praying in front of others, but praying for the purpose of being praised by men and thought pious.

Furthermore, if we were to take this verse in the absolute sense that many atheists would like to attribute to it, it would prohibit us from every praying in front of anybody. Husbands would not be allowed to pray with or in front of their wives or children, teachers at religious schools would not pray before class in front of their students, a minister or bishop could not give an invocation at a college graduation ceremony, nor could a priest even offer the prayers of the Mass, since these occasions all involve praying in the presence of others and the words of the Gospel, if interpreted in an absolute sense, leave no exception; all prayer must be done "in thy chamber" and offered "to the Father in secret." Obviously, no Christian of any denomination has ever suggested such a scenario.

The verse does, however, stress the importance of maintaining a private prayer life and returning to a kind of vital, one-on-one encounter with the Lord that is the inner source of joy and spiritual vitality. Even Jesus was used to retreating to a "remote place" when He wished to pray (Mk. 1:35). So, we do not mean to suggest that Jesus admonition to pray in secret is to be completely interpreted away. We should all have a private, intimate prayer life, and we should never pray in front of others solely for the purpose of being thought pious. But we do need to interpret in context, and the context, coupled with a unanimous tradition, demonstrates that Matt. 6:5-6 in no way prohibits prayer in front of others, but like Christ's other injunctions in the Gospels, asks us to consider of motivations for whatever we do. Anything that we do just to be seen by men is always done out of pride and is to be avoided. But there is nothing wrong with prayer in public or prayer with others for honorable or pious motives. As in most other cases when atheists try to use the Scriptures against Christian practice, they are grossly misreading the text.