One of the most blatant and common ways Bible-believing people sin is when they (we/I) fail to pray for governing authorities. The Apostle Paul urges, as a matter of priority, to pray for kings and all in authority (1 Tim. 2:1-2). Later in the same passage he says, “I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting holy hands (suggesting sincerity, passion, urgency) without anger or disputing,” (v. 6).
As I say, most Bible-loving Christians I know—myself included—disobey at this point with regularity. Most of us do not pray consistently for leaders, but many of us do regularly express our anger and disagreement, and so lift up (un)holy hands in disgust over the outrageous things the government is doing now. We don’t pray for, but are angry at, the governing authorities. But it’s even worse than that.
When we do pray and thus obey the clear apostolic command, we often pray differently than commanded. When we do pray, we are prone to pray that God will stop them or change them. We pray this way so they will act like good Christians should or we will have an easier time doing what Jesus has called us to do. This happens in ways that are subtle and hard to discern. But I’m convinced it does happen often when we do obey and pray for the leaders over us. It is not wrong per se to pray for God to intervene and prevent leaders from doing the wrong things. Nor is it wrong to pray that government would work in ways that facilitate our following after Jesus. But to pray exclusively in such ways falls short of what I am suggesting is Paul’s call to missional prayers for the authorities. Note the following features of “missional praying.”
First, we must recognize the humanity of our leaders as an initial step. Paul says, “pray for all people” in general; then, more specifically, “for kings and all who are in authority,” (1 Tim. 2:2). All authorities—good and evil—are first human beings. This is critical for us to keep in mind. It will keep us from demonizing them, especially when we believe their policies are wrong and even advance evil. They are not demons. They are human beings. Pray for them as such. Noting their humanity will also keep us from divinizing them. They are not gods, even if others or they think so. They are human beings, just as we are. Put these two together now and realize they are not the source of evil and they are capable of incredible good, especially if God’s grace works with them and on them and through them, whether they know it or not.
Now, we in the so-called free world hear this command differently than first century listeners did. We feel fully empowered to critique and call our leaders to account. We feel deprived and unjustly denied if we should be hindered from doing so. Our tendency is to play God with respect to leaders, condemning them and even demonizing them. In this our world the Apostle says, “they are human (no less than you)” and you must treat them as such and pray for them!”
In the first century world leaders were often regarded as gods and were offered god-like deference. Paul deliberately down-sizes their status when he says that leaders are among “all people” for whom you should pray. The Apostle tells them “they are not God, but human as you are. So, pray for them first as you would for anyone else.”
In our day Paul says leaders are human, not demons. To his own day he says they are human, not God. In both days, Paul says, pray for them first as you would for anyone!
Second, we pray for them with the mind and spirit of Jesus, the one who accomplishes God’s plan for the world. Pray for leaders with God’s heart. God is love and love reaches for all and seeks the well-being of all. Pray Accordingly. Out of God’s heart this love leads to the expression of a “mind-set,” which Paul elsewhere describes as love that empties self, humbles self, obeys and surrenders self and dies (Phil. 2:5-12). Pray for leaders in light of the mind of Jesus, as an expression of your own following of Jesus in humbling, obeying, surrendering, suffering, dying and rising. Pray that the authorities sense God’s presence, see and feel God’s love, experience the power of God’s love in Jesus appealing to them and drawing them to God’s embrace. Pray missionally in this sense for the leaders—who are not gods and not demons, but humans designed to bear the Image of God in their world and destined to lead like Jesus.
Third, pray for all authorities and their governance so that we may live out our calling as followers of Jesus. Specifically, to live in peace, tranquility, godliness and dignity (v. 2). It has been common for some scripture scholars to dismiss this description as a cop-out or watering down of the original passion of the Jesus movement. They suggest that here is evidence that the church has moved from passionate mission to placid complacency. But it is not necessary or likely appropriate to read it in this way. I say this because of what Paul says next. “This is good and pleasing to God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and come to know the truth,” (vv. 3-4). That is, to live in peace, tranquility, and so on, pleases the God who saves (us and others) and who wants all people to experience the same. We are, therefore, as we pray for leaders, pleasing God and participating in God’s plan for all to know and live the truth in saving ways. Different language but same commitment to live on mission, to embody the person of Jesus who is the way and truth, and to be people though whom God’s plan for all bears fruit. Pray for leaders not as an add-on to a growing list of “prayer concerns,” but as our missional response to God’s plan to rescue, redeem and save all. Pray with awareness God is working not least through those very prayers.
Fourth, I think Paul’s command to pray for leaders also has a deeper connection to God’s way of providing salvation for all people. Follow what Paul says: In God’s plan a mediator stands between God and humanity—the Messiah who embodies God’s love for all, whose sacrifice on the cross provides “ransom” for all, and whose people follow his lead and witness to how God works in the world (vv. 5-6). Paul then testifies, “I am appointed and sent to bear witness and teach the nations (or Gentiles, v. 7). In other words, while Jesus is the ultimate mediator, Jesus’ followers are the community that embodies and witnesses to this mediator in their world. It is in this context that Paul is urging: Pray for all authorities. As Jesus is the one and only mediator through whom ransom comes, Jesus’ followers are the one and only community that connects their world to its redeemer. And not least through prayer.
In our day, there is need to repent for our disobedience, and to obey the call to missional prayers for the authorities. Let us not neglect the call. Beware becoming angry at them, as though they were demons, or for letting us down because we have thought them godlike. Rather, let us pray for them. Specifically, let us pray for them in light of and as an expression of our mission. That on their watch as leaders God’s plan would advance, perhaps because they come to know Jesus, perhaps because their governance facilitates the good we know to do, perhaps because their governance opposes and serves as foil against which the good we know to do works despite them, or perhaps because in our praying we join Jesus in his own intercessory work that ultimately accomplishes all that love can do for the world.