Is All Prayer Necessarily Worship? (vs. Jordan Cooper)

Is All Prayer Necessarily Worship? (vs. Jordan Cooper) March 20, 2024

Including the Non-Worship Biblical Usage of “I Pray You” (RSV) / “I Pray Thee” (KJV)

Rev. Dr. Jordan B. Cooper is a Lutheran pastor, adjunct professor of Systematic Theology, Executive Director of the popular Just & Sinner YouTube channel, and the President of the American Lutheran Theological Seminary (which holds to a doctrinally traditional Lutheranism, similar to the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod). He has authored several books, as well as theological articles in a variety of publications. All my Bible citations are from RSV, unless otherwise indicated. Jordan’s words will be in blue.

This is my 12th reply to Jordan (many more to come, because I want to interact with the best, most informed Protestant opponents). All of these respectful critiques can be found in the “Replies to Jordan Cooper” section at the top of my Lutheranism web page.

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This is a response to a portion of Jordan’s YouTube video, “A Critique of Prayer to the Saints” (4-19-20).

28:44 what you need to have in order to have the the Roman Catholic doctrine of prayers to the saints is something very different and . . . very unbiblical . . . [such as] that there is such a thing as a prayer that is not worship. Now, Scripture says a lot about prayer. Scripture is very explicit about prayer . . . One of the major themes of Scripture from the very beginning to the very end and everywhere we see . . . prayer that is given directly to God as an act of worship. . . .  all we have is prayer that is an act of worship . . . Scripture is very clear every time it speaks about prayer, that it is in the context of worship . . . the category of prayer that is not worship does not exist . . . [my italics and bolding]

I find this to be utterly remarkable, and I would if I was a Protestant, too (as I was for my first 32 years). To me it’s obvious that not all prayer is worship. Yet Jordan won’t allow a single exception to this supposedly never-varying biblical presentation of prayer as worship. How is asking God for a request (supplication or petition) or interceding for someone else, or pouring out our heart or our doubts to God, or just sharing our thoughts and feelings, or being still and listening to His answer to a prayer, or guidance, worship? Petitions are much more like requests that we would make of another person. The difference is that God is all-powerful and all-loving; that is, in His capacity and willingness to fulfill the request.

But I don’t see how it is always worship to ask God for something or to do these other things. To make a bad analogy, we husbands love our wives (and sometimes we say we “adore” them). But is asking them “could you make me dinner?” or “can you hand me the yellow highlighter?” part of that love (analogous to “worship”) per se? Clearly not. Nor do we praise our spouses 24-7. We talk about many other things in the course of daily life. Praising God in prayer or in a hymn is worship, but I submit that making a request of Him is not, or at least primarily not.

I looked up the phrase “prayed to the LORD” in the [Protestant] Old Testament (RSV). Surprisingly, there were only sixteen instances (and it doesn’t appear in the New Testament). Many of them do not strike me as being “acts of worship” at all:

Genesis 25:21 And Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived.

Exodus 8:30-31 So Moses . . .  prayed to the LORD. And the LORD did as Moses asked, and removed the swarms of flies . . .

Numbers 11:2 Then the people cried to Moses; and Moses prayed to the LORD, and the fire abated.

2 Kings 6:18 And when the Syrians came down against him, Eli’sha prayed to the LORD, and said, “Strike this people, I pray thee, with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness in accordance with the prayer of Eli’sha.

Sometimes (not all the time), the elements of a petitionary request and worship are together in a prayer:

Isaiah 37:15-17, 20 And Hezeki’ah prayed to the LORD: [16] “O LORD of hosts, God of Israel, who art enthroned above the cherubim, thou art the God, thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; thou hast made heaven and earth. [17] Incline thy ear, O LORD, and hear; open thy eyes, O LORD, and see; and hear all the words of Sennach’erib, which he has sent to mock the living God. . . . [20] So now, O LORD our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that thou alone art the LORD.”

Sometimes (not all the time; Jordan claims it is every time), a prayer is entirely praise and worship:

Jeremiah 32:16-22 . . . I prayed to the LORD, saying: [17] `Ah Lord GOD! It is thou who hast made the heavens and the earth by thy great power and by thy outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for thee, [18] who showest steadfast love to thousands, but dost requite the guilt of fathers to their children after them, O great and mighty God whose name is the LORD of hosts, [19] great in counsel and mighty in deed; whose eyes are open to all the ways of men, rewarding every man according to his ways and according to the fruit of his doings; [20] who hast shown signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, and to this day in Israel and among all mankind, and hast made thee a name, as at this day. [21] Thou didst bring thy people Israel out of the land of Egypt with signs and wonders, with a strong hand and outstretched arm, and with great terror; [22] and thou gavest them this land, which thou didst swear to their fathers to give them, a land flowing with milk and honey;

Sometimes prayer is a confession (either individual or corporate):

Daniel 9:3-11 Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and supplications with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. [4] I prayed to the LORD my God and made confession, saying, “O Lord, the great and terrible God, who keepest covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, [5] we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from thy commandments and ordinances; [6] we have not listened to thy servants the prophets, who spoke in thy name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. [7] To thee, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us confusion of face, as at this day, to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel, those that are near and those that are far away, in all the lands to which thou hast driven them, because of the treachery which they have committed against thee. [8] To us, O Lord, belongs confusion of face, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against thee. [9] To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness; because we have rebelled against him, [10] and have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God by following his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets. [11] All Israel has transgressed thy law and turned aside, refusing to obey thy voice. . . .

The most well-known prayer in the Bible is, of course, The Lord’s Prayer, or Our Father. It has many different elements together. It’s not only worship:

Our Father, who art in heaven, [declaration of a personal relationship with the transcendent God]

hallowed be thy name; [praise or worship]

thy kingdom come; thy will be done; on earth as it is in heaven. [belief and faith and discipleship, and a resolve to do His will]

Give us this day our daily bread. [petition of sustenance for daily needs]

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. [confession of sin, and resolve to humbly apply the golden rule]

And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil. [petition for the strength to conquer sin in our lives]

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen [worship and proclamation of God’s greatness]

An Anglican site on the prayer reflects its multi-faceted nature in its description:

The Lord’s Prayer is the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, when they asked him how they should pray. . . . It . . . forms a pattern for prayer for Christians:

 We bless God and pray for our world, our communities and our lives to be shaped by God’s will;
 We pray for daily needs to be met,
 For forgiveness for wrongdoings, strength to resist temptation and protection from danger.

Probably my favorite prayer in the Bible is where Abraham virtually “negotiates” with God, repeatedly begging Him not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:22-33). The chutzpah (and love) of the guy! I absolutely love it. But I don’t see how this is adoration or worship. He’s reverent (18:27, 31) and certainly knows his place in the scheme of things, but it reads far more like the minutes of a business or diplomatic meeting than Sunday worship.

“Prayed to God” appears once in the OT, and not in the NT:

Genesis 20:17 Then Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abim’elech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. (“Pray to God” appears once in the entire Bible, in 1 Cor 11:13)

“Pray to the LORD” appears seven times in the OT, including these:

Numbers 21:7 And the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

Jeremiah 29:7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Jeremiah 42:4 Jeremiah the prophet said to them, “I have heard you; behold, I will pray to the LORD your God according to your request, and whatever the LORD answers you I will tell you; I will keep nothing back from you.” (Acts 8:22: “pray to the Lord”: only time in the NT)

Since Jordan said that every prayer was an act of worship, I was curious if the Bible associated them this closely, or at all. A proximity search of “pray[er]” and “worship” yielded only one result:

Luke 2:37 . . . She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.

A search of “worship” in the NT came up with 82 results; but only one also mentioned “prayer” (Lk 2:37 above). Conversely, if we search “pray[er]” in the NT, we get 161 hits, and again, Luke 2:37 is the only verse that directly connects it with “worship.” The phrase “worship God in prayer” never appears in the Bible. Nor does the phrase, “worship him in prayer.” I looked up instances of “pray[er]” and “praise” together and in the sole appearance, they were differentiated:

James 5:13 Is any one among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise.

Jesus compares prayer to the request made by a son to a father (itself obviously not worship):

Matthew 7:7-11 “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. [8] For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. [9] Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? [10] Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? [11] If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (cf. 6:8; 18:19; 21:22; Mk 11:24; Lk 11:9-13; Jn 11:22; 14:13-14; 15:7, 16; 16:23-24, 26)

James expands upon the concept of prayer as “asking” that Jesus had established:

James 4:2-3 You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. You do not have, because you do not ask. [3] You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. (cf. 1:5-6; Col 1:9; 1 Jn 3:22; 5:14-16)

None of this proves that there is an inexorable connection between prayer and worship. Quite the contrary. It seems to be almost wholly a Protestant man-made tradition, to make such a close and unbiblical association. Again, the two may, of course be together in a particular prayer / act of worship, but it’s certainly not every time prayer is mentioned in the Bible. My friend, Catholic apologist Tim Staples makes a great point about this:

When Catholics say we are praying to God and praying to saints we are talking about qualitatively different things as different as a monkey is to a man. The Protestant generally only has one species in mind when he thinks of prayer—prayer to God that necessarily includes adoration. But one need only pick up a dictionary to discover there are in truth different definitions and therefore different usages of the same word in English.

Prayer:

The act or practice of praying.

  1. An earnest request; entreaty; supplication
  2. (a) humble entreaty addressed to God, to a god, etc.: (b) a request made to God, etc.; as, her prayer for his safe return; (c) any set formula for praying, as to God.

Prayer is not, by definition, necessarily equated with the adoration that is due God alone. Prayer can certainly involve an act of adoration when it is directed to God, but the term does not necessarily denote adoration. It can simply mean “an entreaty.”

In Old English we did not have so much of a difficulty here. One could say to another, “Pray tell…” or, “I pray thee my lord…” In fact, the King James Bible gives us many examples of the term “prayer” being used analogous to the way Catholics use it when we “pray” to saints. With a touch of Old English, when Bathsheba makes a request of King Solomon in I Kings 2:20, the KJV has her say: “I pray thee, say me not nay.” There was never a question here of whether the King James Bible was presenting Bathsheba as adoring her son as God, or praying to him in a way that is forbidden. It was not. Nor are Catholics when we pray to saints. We certainly honor them when we pray to them. In other words, we do not talk to them like we talk to the boys at the local bar and grill. We show great respect and reverence for them. But we do not adore them as we adore God alone. And we also petition them for their prayers because Scripture makes very clear that we need each other as members of the body of Christ (see I Cor. 12:12-27). (“Is Prayer Synonymous with Worship?,” Catholic Answers Magazine, 3-31-13)

I love this because it’s an examination of biblical usage. Even in RSV, which is modern English, the phrase, “I pray you” appears 32 times, including twice in the NT (Lk 14:18-19): almost all referring to other human beings. This is clearly not “worship.” If it is, then the Bible explicitly and frequently supports creature-worship. Both sides agree that it does not. So this is a use of the word “pray” that can’t possibly mean “worship.” Likewise, with God Himself.

In the King James Version from 1611, “I pray thee” appears 164 times, with the same general meaning, including eight times in the NT, and “I pray you” another 35 times, including in Acts 27:34. My favorite instance is the rich man praying to Abraham. We know this is literally a prayer, because he makes three petitionary requests — all turned down by Abraham, but without any rebuke such as, “why are you praying to me? Pray only to God!” And this is a true story, straight from the lips of our Lord Jesus:

Luke 16:22-25, 27-31 (KJV) And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; [23] And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. [24] And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. [25] But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. . . . [27] Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house: [28] For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. [29] Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. [30] And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. [31] And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.

Was the rich man worshiping Abraham, because he prayed to him, and made (count ’em!) three prayer requests? Clearly not. This is an explicit biblical proof of invocation of a man in prayer, and of such prayer not being worship. But I have maintained that this is usually true of prayers to God, too. Most are not worship or adoration or praise, as we have seen. It’s a very weak Protestant argument, but it’s used against Catholic invocation of saints. The problem is that it’s insufficiently biblical, as so often happens in Protestant apologetics (ironically enough).

Lastly, not all Protestants agree with Jordan on this matter. An article on the Protestant site, JustDisciple stated:

What are worship and prayer? Worship and prayer are two different spiritual disciplines that help you develop spiritual maturity in your relationship with God. Prayer is primarily a vehicle for communicating with God and allowing him to communicate with you. Worship is primarily an action focused on glorifying God. . . .

While there is some overlap between prayer and worship, they are still two distinct disciplines. This is largely due to their goals. The goal of worship is the glory of God. The goal of prayer is communication with God. While prayer can achieve the goal of bringing glory to God it is not the primary focus. (“Worship & Prayer: The Similarities And Differences Explained”)

So again, it ain’t just a “Catholic thing”. It’s a biblical thing that we can agree on. Invocation of saints is more controversial, but it’s explicitly biblical as well. See Luke 16 above; and there are several other biblical indications.

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Photo credit: [Wallpaper Flare / public domain]

Summary: Lutheran apologist Jordan Cooper says that “every” prayer in the Bible is necessarily worship. I say that it can be but usually is not; it’s a request or an intercession.

 

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