If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that governing a country in the 21st century is no simple task. Our leaders have had to face challenges on a local, national and global level the likes of which we have not seen since the Second World War. Whether it’s navigating divisive public discourse or facing a global pandemic, the task our leaders face today is well and truly unprecedented.
Yet, despite their challenging responsibilities, none of our leaders are made superhuman by virtue of their position. Amidst all the tweeting and debate it can be very easy for us to forget that the people who serve us are real human beings, with real lives. They have families, they cook dinner, they have hopes, and they have fears. Like the rest of us, they experience the ordinary limitations of the human condition.
This means that of all people, we should be especially praying for our leaders as they carry out their crucial and God-given role. It’s unsurprising then that in one of the only explicit references to politics in the New Testament, Paul makes praying for our leaders central to our witness:
'First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.'
As Christians we get the wonderful opportunity of bringing our leaders before the God of the universe. But why should we do that? What should we pray? And how should we do it?
Why should we pray?
In this passage Paul clearly wants us to see prayer as something that’s central to Christian political witness. The letter to Timothy, his true child in the faith' (1:2) is written to encourage him as he wages the 'good warfare' (1:18) of sharing the good news of Jesus. Notice though, that of all things that are involved in this great task, prayer for others comes 'first of all' (2:1).
It can be easy, as people interested in politics and social engagement, to focus our efforts solely on action. After all, sitting around never achieved policy change, and we know all too well the dangers of merely speaking the love of Christ without bearing that love out in action and service. Nevertheless, we should be careful not to be under the impression that we must choose either to spend time in prayer or to go and do good through political engagement. That would be a false dichotomy.
Because of what Jesus has done for us at the cross, we have direct access to the God of the universe. As his children, he loves for us to pray to him, and through Jesus, we can be sure that he hears us. This gives us a unique privilege as Christians that we’d be foolish not to take up, an opportunity to contribute that no one else has. What higher good can we do in our political engagement than to commit to regularly bringing 'all who are in high positions' before the God of grace? Firstly, then, we should pray for our leaders simply because we can, because we get to.
Secondly, as we discussed earlier, politicians and leaders face unique and demanding pressures; yet they are still human! We should pray for them in the task they face, that they’d have the wisdom and strength to govern us wisely and effectively.
Beyond the personal level, Paul singles out leaders for prayer from 'all people' because he knows how important a role they play for the good of wider society. Effective leadership is vital if we’re going to have healthy communities in which we can lead the 'peaceful and quiet' lives Paul is describing here. The role of leaders is a God-given one (Romans 13:1), and as Christians, we should honour and support them in this role by praying specifically for them. We pray for our leaders for their good, and for the good of wider society.
Paul also gives another reason to pray for our leaders, one that we perhaps don’t often think of here in the UK. Namely, so that believers would be able to lead a 'godly and dignified' life. Our ability as the Church to be the Church (that is, to be faithful followers of Christ) is to some degree in the hands of our leaders. Peter picks up this theme in 1 Peter where he says:
'Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people.'
Whilst civil disobedience may be appropriate in certain circumstances (e.g. Acts 4:18-19), our desire is that the Church would carry out its role for good in the world whilst also submitting to the authorities. Tragically, we know from around the world today that Gospel freedoms are far from a given. So, we should also pray for our leaders in order that the Church may flourish.
In short, we have every reason to pray for our leaders:
- Because through Jesus we can;
- Because as humans they need it;
- Because of their important role in society; and
- So that the Church may flourish
How should we pray?
It’s safe to assume that if you’re reading this article you’re probably at least somewhat interested in politics. No doubt that this also means you have an opinion or two on how the country should be run, and who it should be run by. What does this mean for the way in which we pray for our leaders? What if the government we’re praying for is run by the party we don’t vote for? What if our leaders have made and continue to make decisions with which we personally disagree?
Well, there is the obvious but important command of Jesus to 'love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you' (Matthew 5:44), which means basically everyone should be in the scope of our prayers. However, it’s important as we look at the passages from Paul and Peter for us to remember who they are, when they are writing, and who they’re writing to.
The 1st Century Roman Empire was hardly a friendly society to live in. It was even less friendly if you were a Christian. During his rule from 54-68 AD, Emperor Nero ordered the persecution and execution of Christians across the land. Some are reported to have been torn apart by dogs, while others were burnt alive.  It is likely that Paul wrote this letter sometime within Nero’s rule, so it is the leaders of this kind of government that Paul is urging Timothy to pray for.
Think about that for a minute. Paul is urging Timothy, a Christian minister, to pray for the good of (and even to give 'thanksgivings' for) those who he knew would likely be direct persecutors of the Church. This points us to a pretty radical posture of heart for Timothy’s prayers - an utterly selfless mindset, an unbegrudging and genuine plea for the good of those with whom he would profoundly disagree.
In our increasingly divisive political climate, I think we have a lot to learn from Paul on this point. I wonder, do you pray for the leaders of parties you’d never personally vote for? Are you cultivating a spirit of genuine goodwill for all of our leaders? The Gospel of the God who sought the good of the other gives us every reason as Christians to stand out and share genuine goodwill across the political divide. And to cultivate that spirit in our prayer lives. That is how we should be praying for our leaders.
What should we pray?
We’ve seen that we have every reason to pray for our leaders and that as we do so we should be praying for all our leaders. But what should we be praying? Without getting into protracted definitions of the following terms, Paul gives us a pretty extensive list. Namely, 'supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings'. In other words, we should pray earnestly and humbly for the good of our leaders, thanking God for them as we do so. That might look different for us each individually, but perhaps an easy starting point is to pray for your local MP. Find out who they are and what issues they’re involved in - think about how you can pray for them. Then, why not think about praying for the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition? However we do it, something is always better than nothing!
Whatever this might look like for you, the Bible is clear that praying for our leaders is a truly important Christian duty, and indeed our Christian privilege.
 See Tacitus (c. 56-120 AD) account of the persecution. Note that some of the particular details of the persecution are disputed. You can see a translation of Tacitus' account here: https://brians.wsu.edu/2016/11/14/tacitus-neros-persecution-of-the-christians/, and a defence of the general historicity here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/new-testament-studies/article/historicity-of-the-neronian-persecution-a-response-to-brent-shaw/72A73656C0F1372963C197F8945D38D3