This last Sunday, President Trump showed up at a church in northern Virginia—specifically the one where David Platt ministers. Platt himself is on the board of The Gospel Coalition as well as missions with the Southern Baptist Convention. Whereas a few days earlier Franklin Graham urged for what appeared to be partisan prayers for the President, Platt exemplified how a Christian should pray for a President or anyone in authority. You can read about it at “David Platt Models How to Pray for a President.”
Because higher churches (e.g., Anglican, Orthodox) include prayers for national leaders as a part of their liturgy, such invocations aren’t oddly placed or even ever misconstrued as partisan. This is a lesson we can learn from them because Scripture commands prayer for governing leaders, and it should be done at all gatherings regardless of who’s in office. Paul enumerated the various types of prayer one should offer for such persons in authority: supplications (entreaties), prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings. I particularly appreciate Origen’s (ca. 200–54) insight on these different prayers:
I think that supplication is a prayer offered with a special request for something a person lacks. From this is distinguished prayer which is more plainly offered with simple praise, not to obtain a request but simply to praise the nobility of great things. And I think that intercession is a petition for certain things addressed to God by someone who has some greater boldness, while thanksgiving is a statement of gratitude made with prayers for receiving good things from God, either when it is a great thing that is received and acknowledged with gratitude or when the greatness of the benefit is apparent only to the one who has benefited. (On Prayer 14.2)
In congregational prayers today we typically reserve a more significant part of our praying to ask God for things, and this is an aspect of prayer (cf. James 5:13–16; 1 Peter 5:7), but there’s also the focus, as Paul points out in 1 Tim 2:1–4, of praying for specific things for others as well as simply giving thanks.
The focus of these categories of prayer is “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence” (1 Tim. 2:2). Therefore, the subject of such prayers was to have been everyone, even those in authority. Perhaps Paul has in mind those who incorrectly taught the Law as well as Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom he mentions in this same letter to Timothy. Praying for those who we find troublesome is an excellent way to rightly order our hearts toward them. Paul isn’t saying anything new, but admonishing Timothy as Jesus would have: “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:44–45; cf. Rom. 12:7–21). Timothy was to have prayed for all people because God wants all to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), Christ is the mediator of people (1 Tim. 2:5), He gave Himself a ransom for all (1 Tim. 2:6), and Paul preached Him to the nations (1 Tim. 2:7). There’s a universality that accompanies remembering everyone in prayer, the unsaved, the heretical and wayward, and the dissenter. Our frustrations with such people often lead us to revile them, but Paul would have us pray for them in various ways not only for their benefit but also for our spiritual formation.
In addition to remembering everyone in prayer, there’s also the mention of kings and all in authority. The climate of our American society is so politically charged that I doubt very much that we Christians are prayerful of our governing leaders as we should be. Instead, we embroil ourselves in “gotcha” politics wherein we are the most ungracious and partisan of all. If I were to judge by what so many brethren post on Facebook and Twitter, we follow not the Prince of Peace, but the Devil of Division. Were we to actually pray for our governing leaders as God would have us, we would likely not be so vitriolic against them despite agreeing or disagreeing with policy decisions. Let’s face it, we’re a prosperous nation the likes of which the world had not seen until our country became what it is. Any discomfort we experience is actually a high-class problem that a decent portion of the world will never aspire to, but we moan and groan as if it’s the end of the world.
Our current and previous administrations (Obama and Trump) have seen a divide in our country that has birthed fringe groups who always find something over which to be offended and protest. I can’t help but think that a lot of this began, at least as far as I can remember when Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed and what was socially unacceptable became viewed as an alternative lifestyle given privileges equal to that of which it had never known. What we as Christians see as sin has been turned into alternative lifestyles that are celebrated by pride rallies. Now, I believe that each person, regardless of their temptation and sin is made in God’s image and possess intrinsic worth on this basis, and we can celebrate a person’s quality on this virtue. However, I cannot believe that so many are celebrating and having pride in what is a sin. Nevertheless, with as much as I’ve disagreed with each President on various issues, I have never forgotten that I too am a sinner and need Christ’s salvation. I have striven to pray for each of these men and reserve revelry so as not to confuse any hearer of where my complete trust is—in Christ.
As we think about rulers who are corrupt, unjust, and who most would say deserve what they got coming to them, let’s remember that as Paul has already said, “Jesus came to save sinners.” He desires all men to be saved, and we should have that same desire too. Think about when David was fleeing the murderous intentions of King Saul. On a couple of occasions, David could have murdered Saul quickly. After all, Saul was a sinful man whom the Lord had rejected as king. God gave him an evil spirit to torment him, but when David had those chances to take Saul’s life, he refused to do so saying, “The LORD forbid that I should do this thing to my master, the LORD’s anointed, to stretch out my hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the LORD” (1 Sam. 24:6). All that David had done was to cut the corner off of Saul’s robe because he’d gotten that close, but since he did that, his heart troubled him. David said pretty much the same thing on another occasion affirming that he would not harm Saul despite how evil and rejected he was because he had been anointed by God (1 Sam. 26:11). No one would have blamed David had he done such, but he didn’t because Saul was God’s anointed no matter how sinful he’d been.
I think it rather striking that David maintained respect and reverence towards the man who occupied the very position that God had rejected him from being and who also sought to end his life. Nevertheless, David took God’s anointing seriously so that even after having been rejected by God, Saul was still one worthy of, in David’s mind, a level of respect. We see Paul later acting similarly when he was on trial before the Sanhedrin. After beginning to address those present, the high priest ordered him stricken, and Paul replied by reviling the high priest. After it was disclosed to Paul that he’d slandered the high priest, Paul repented with the invocation of a passage from Exodus, “You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people” (Acts 23:1–5). Despite the high priest acting contrary to the law, Paul still knew that he was worthy of a level of respect because of his position. Perhaps instead of saying that we respect the office but not the person, we could look at the one occupying the office and, as Paul instructs Timothy, pray for those holding it and not separate the occupier from the station itself.
God is not so detached from creation that He doesn’t play any part in it. It is He who establishes and tears down kingdoms (Jer. 18:7–10). Interestingly enough, the hearts of kings are like streams in the Lord’s hands, and He turns them wherever He wants (Prov. 21:1). God can divert the channels wherever He chooses, so regardless of whoever is in power, He can do with them what He wishes for His ultimate purpose. If we spent our time prayerfully beseeching God’s blessings and best for our governing leaders (cf. 1 Peter 2:13–17; Rom. 13:1–7), we might not speak so unkindly of them. It would be somewhat hypocritical to pray for God to use those in authority for His great while at the same time criticizing them and everything they do.