This question is one that Scripture alone must answer for us. There are two very clear passages in the New Testament that deal with the subject. We must always use passages like these that are abundantly plain, and then proceed to interpret any references that may be comparatively less clear.
1 Timothy chapter 2
Paul makes the following positive requirement in 1 Timothy 2:8: “I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting”. This comes within a context of teaching about public prayer in which the apostle has dealt with: kinds of prayer; what we are to pray for; the reason we should engage in particular kinds of intercession; and the very basis for prayer itself in the mediatorial work of Christ (1 Tim. 2:1-7). The broader context for the following chapters relates to the ordering of matters in the Church of God (1 Tim. 3:15) and especially the roles and qualifications of men and women.
Verse 8 defines the location of public prayer: it is “every where” or literally “in every place”. The Church in Ephesus (where Timothy was labouring) was apparently made up of a number of congregations, and the reference seems to be to the public gatherings in each place. It is therefore a very categorical statement that must apply universally in every place where public prayer is offered. This is the Apostle’s express instruction and requirement for every assembly. Paul would have been aware that these words would go beyond Ephesus as authoritative. Perhaps he was also thinking of the fulfilment of Malachi 1:11, “In every place incense shall be offered unto My name”.
After speaking of where it takes place, the Apostle is equally categorical about who should lead in public prayer. It is “men”, literally “the men” (tous andras in Greek). This Greek word for men exclusively means males as opposed to females, in contrast to the more general word that refers to all mankind (anthropos), as in verses 1, 4 and 5.
After addressing the manner of public prayer, “lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting”, the apostle further establishes the contrast between men and women in the matter of public prayer. He proceeds to deal expressly with how women ought to conduct themselves in public gatherings. In 1 Timothy 2:9, he sets up the counterpart: “In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel . . .” Not only must they dress in the right way for public worship, but also they must learn in silence, with submission to what is taught: “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection” (1 Tim. 2:11). There is a connection between the two because how we dress reveals our attitudes and our thinking. Paul explains that the basis for this comes from the creation order: “For Adam was first formed, then Eve” (1 Tim. 2:13). It is evident that leading in public prayer is in no way consistent with silence and subjection. Paul very clearly says, “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” (1 Tim. 2:12).
1 Corinthians 14:34-36
This passage is very similar to the one we have just looked at. The wider context of this passage is likewise related to prayer (specifically in relation to speaking with tongues) and conduct in public worship. These verses also speak of silence and subjection as the appropriate role for women during public worship, in harmony with the principle of male headship. “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law” (v. 34).
The reference to “the churches” could well be equivalent to “in every place”. Evidently there were a number of congregations in Corinth also. It also expresses the fact that these are requirements not only for Corinth but for every church. This seems evident in the words that precede verse 34: “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints”. Verse 36 appears to pick up this theme again, rejecting any lack of uniformity on this point between Corinth and all other churches: “What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only?” In order to further underline the authoritative requirement Paul goes on then to write: “If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord”.
These two passages are very clear, despite many unsuccessful efforts to contort their meaning or introduce forced interpretations. It is in the light of these clear passages that we can examine a further pertinent portion of Scripture.
1 Corinthians 11:4-6
“Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered”.
This passage also deals with conduct in public worship. It also speaks of shameful conduct in public worship. For a woman to remove her head covering in public worship is like having her head shaved – a “shame” (1 Cor. 11:6). This same word rendered “shame” ( aischron in Greek) appears in “it is a shame for women to speak in the church” (1 Cor. 14:35). Paul is therefore implicitly condemning the public speaking of women even in chapter 11, though this is not fully detailed at this stage. This is not necessary, because he will address it more fully in its own right in chapter 14. Simply describing a practice cannot be considered approval, especially when it is described in these terms. In fact he is describing a dishonourable practice, and it is entirely unwarrantable to make the inference that public speaking would be acceptable if a head covering was used.
John Calvin expresses this well:
It may seem, however, to be superfluous for Paul to forbid the woman to prophesy with her head uncovered, while elsewhere he wholly prohibits women from speaking in the Church (1 Tim. 2:12). It would not, therefore, be allowable for them to prophesy even with a covering upon their head, and hence it follows that it is to no purpose that he argues here as to a covering. It may be replied, that the Apostle, by here condemning the one, does not commend the other. For when he reproves them for prophesying with their head uncovered, he at the same time does not give them permission to prophesy in some other way, but rather delays his condemnation of that vice to another passage, namely in 1 Corinthians 14. In this reply there is nothing amiss, though at the same time it might suit sufficiently well to say, that the Apostle requires women to show their modesty – not merely in a place in which the whole Church is assembled, but also in any more dignified assembly, either of matrons or of men, such as are sometimes convened in private houses.
We have seen that the New Testament very clearly requires that only men lead in public prayer. It is worth our further noting that there are no recorded examples anywhere in Scripture of women leading in public prayer even though they were present. Prior to the law of Moses it appears that the head of the household would lead in worship and “call upon the name of the Lord”. None of this should lead us to undervalue or demean in any way Scripture’s commendation of the private prayers offered by many a Hannah, Anna and others continuing “in supplications and prayers night and day” (1 Tim. 5:5).
The presence of women at prayer meetings and public gatherings is vital, for we all join together in prayer, though one only leads. We read in Acts 1:14 that the apostles “all continued in one accord with prayer and supplication, with the women”. There is an honoured mention for the presence of the faithful women, but we see from verses 24 to 25 that while it is said “they prayed”, that is, the whole company, it was evidently one of the apostles who led in prayer. In Acts 4:24 there was a gathering for prayer and “they lifted up their voice to God with one accord”, although it must clearly have been but one person who led in prayer. The point here is that although one was the mouth of the congregation, they all with one accord entered into it and made the prayer their own. “And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost” (v. 31). None of what we have noticed upon the point of male leadership is in any way intended to exclude women from this type of participating, nor from the power and blessing that may come from public prayer. What women must not do is to lead in public prayer.
Matthew A Vogan