When the dust settles following an election, it is not unusual to hear Christian leaders exhort the faithful to be in prayer for our leaders, regardless of how we voted, our party preference, or any of a number of factors that might otherwise lead us to neglect such prayer.
For Anglicans, the form and manner of prayer for our leaders is enshrined in our Prayer Book:
- the Prayers of the People and the Great Litany both give concrete examples of how to pray for those in authority.
- And the “Occasional Prayers” in several local versions of the Book of Common Prayer include other forms of suggested intercession for our leaders.
The pastoral charge to pray for those in authority is not some handwringing “can’t we all just get along” measure, or a mere play at peacemaking—though God knows we need a lot of the latter these days.
We are commanded to pray for our leaders
We pray for our leaders because we are commanded to by God through the Apostle Paul.
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. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1–4, ESV)
This passage ought not to be new to anyone who has been in the Church for very long—along with Jesus’ instruction on how to pray using the Our Father, these verses undergird all traditional Christian teaching on prayer. From this passage, then, we understand why we pray for leaders, among others.
Are there limits to the command to pray for our leaders?
In a viciously contentious political climate, it can be easy to wonder just how far this instruction goes. Surely, one might ask, there is a point at which it is improper to pray for one’s leaders? Why would we want to pray for some monstrous tyrant, or a leader mired in scandal, or someone who I am told opposes the cause of Life as a good thing given by God? These questions, I believe, can only be adequately answered when we rightly understand how and what to pray for our leaders.
In seeking to understand the “limits”—if such exist—to our prayers for leaders, we must confront head-on that Paul is giving his instruction during the height of one of the most tyrannical, corrupt, and violent regimes in the Ancient Near East.
After all, it was the Romans who gifted us with crucifixion so that it was the preferred means of gruesome execution to cow would-be criminals and rebels. It was the Roman Caesars who insisted on being likened to the gods. And yet, Paul exhorts Timothy and us to pray for “kings and all who are in high positions,” which would have included the Emperor.
From this perspective, I think the only answer that is faithful to the witness of Scripture is that there is no point at which we stop praying for our leaders.
However, this does not mean that there is not a point at which our prayers should change.
What does it mean to pray “for” our leaders?
It might be helpful here to pause and address a misconception that I have observed with some regarding prayer. There are many who seem to hear “pray for” someone and automatically make the leap to “pray in favor of” that person. And if this is your view, I am sympathetic to why praying “for” someone may be problematic. Even so, I would gently suggest that this interpretation is incomplete.
Certainly, in ideal circumstances a prayer “for” someone would be to their “favor,” asking for intervention against harm, for some blessing, or that God would prosper their work. When I prayerfully intercede for someone in need, I am seeking that their circumstances would improve. However, it is not the case that this is the only way in which I can pray for someone, nor that praying in someone’s “favor” always equates to praying for an immediate outcome they might see as wholly positive.
For example, if I have a dear friend who habitually does something that endangers themselves or others (perhaps they regularly drink and drive), I might pray that God would deliver them from danger. Do I have it in mind that somehow God would do this and allow them to enjoy doing the dangerous thing? Certainly not. The unspoken element to that prayer is that they would cease to do that thing which is dangerous. It may be that part of the answer to that prayer is some consequence which spares them from physical and permanent harm or harm to others, but which is still severe enough to dissuade them from repeating the action in the future—being pulled over for drunk driving and losing their license, for instance.
Similarly, as I pray for President Donald Trump’s or President-Elect Joe Biden’s wellbeing and success as leaders, I am not asking for God to bless their misdeeds. There are things that Trump’s administration has done that I find questionable at best. There were policies under the Obama administration that I had serious reservations about, and that Biden was present for and supportive of. Both men have what seems to me to be an inconsistent ethic about the sanctity of life.
In both cases, my prayer is that, where they are leading righteously, they would be confirmed and encouraged. However, where they are in error or doing evil or leading the Nation into sin, I pray that they would be rebuked and discouraged. This is consistent with how I would pray for family and friends.
In nearly all cases, I believe that it is right to ask God to grant our leaders “wisdom and strength to know and to do [his] will…” (Occasional Prayer #37, BCP2019). However, there may be times when it is especially hard to pray this due to what we perceive as clear rejection of the graces asked for in such a prayer. What does one do when you pray for someone to be filled with “the love of truth and righteousness” only to hear them the next day reject both truth and righteousness?
Praying for our leaders as we would pray for family and friends
If this were someone I know personally, perhaps a close friend or relative whom I regularly prayed for, I would pray for repentance. As in that case, I would probably also pray for my own earnest belief in God’s ability to bring such repentance about (Lord I believe, help my unbelief!). I would pray for their repentance, not out of a desire for my own vindication, but for the sake of their soul, that they would not be condemned before the great judgment seat of Christ.
In struggling to pray for our leaders, it may be helpful to think of praying for their wellbeing with the same mind that we would pray for our family members and friends—even a tyrannical and bigoted patriarch, or my friend who struggles against alcohol addiction. I have disagreements with family members over how they live their lives, and yet I still pray that God would deliver them from distress, anxiety, strife, and danger. If in that deliverance God leads them to reform, then that is his will. Said another way: if they are in distress, anxiety, strife, and danger because of their sins and misdeeds, then deliverance from those things may mean that God by his Holy Spirit sparks a desire in them against their sin and misdeeds.
What if our leaders have wronged us? What if they are our enemies?
Now, I am aware that there are some who may read this and feel this is too high a bar. I do not think that treating your leaders the same as your family and friends is a matter of first importance in the Christian life. I do think a sincere concern for all human beings as bearers of the Imago Dei (to include our leaders) is a matter of first importance, but I’ll admit that such a concern does not necessarily lead to the “family and friends” approach I’m arguing for. It may be that you feel so wronged by your leaders through their official maltreatment, malfeasance, or mismanagement that the breach goes beyond disapproval and into the territory of being an actual enemy.
Nevertheless, the clear command of Christ is to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Mt. 5:44) And, again, the early Church during the time of official persecutions at the hands of the Roman Emperor clearly obeyed this difficult command. It is right to ask God to lead our enemies and ourselves “from prejudice to truth,” delivering both us and them from “hatred, cruelty, and revenge” (Occasional Prayer #33, BCP2019).
Pray for our leaders as the Spirit leads
It is my hope that this reflection inspires you to pray for your leaders—in whatever way the Spirit leads you to. If the Spirit calls to your attention some grievous thing that an elected official, a senior leader in your place of business, or even a church leader has done, then it may be that you are being called to pray fervently that they would realize their error and misdeed, and that they would repent. If the Spirit calls to your attention some grand and righteous thing done by one of these, it may be that you are called to pray in thanksgiving so that they may be encouraged to keep doing right.
In all things, remember that Christ is the King from whom all authority is derived, and that all who are given authority will account for their use of that authority. When we pray for our leaders, we pray that they may model Christ-like authority.
May God grant us grace to live at peace under godly leaders, and strength to rebuke and reprove ungodly wielders of authority.