The idea that a human being should be treated with a certain amount of respect based on a position they hold has fallen out of fashion in Western society. We routinely complain about U.S. Presidents and some people even display banners and signs cursing their names. We say no one has the right to tell us what to do. We treat “authority” like it’s a bad thing to have, assuming it will only be misused. There are still pockets of authority we might respect–patients may respect a doctor, and students a university professor, for example–but even those are being chipped away as corruption comes to light, our faith in institutions erodes, and our sense of individualism increases.
In sharp contrast to this attitude are passages from New Testament epistles talking about how Christians ought to submit to human authority. I’ve written about this before, near the start of the pandemic when I and many people across the world were struggling with questions like whether to submit to rules forbidding church groups to gather. In that post, we talked about a sermon I heard covering the question of how a Christian can know when to obey human authorities and when to follow the apostle’s example of disobedience when they said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29, WEB)
I’m approaching this question from a different angle today. We know from scripture that we’re supposed to obey human authorities because God tells us to. Submission to authority is a way for us to honor God. We also know that that obedience to human beings only goes so far because our primary loyalty lies with God. We do not obey laws that command us to do things God forbids or that command us not to do things God requires. However, appropriate submission and respect aren’t the only things the Bible says we should do for people in authority. We’re also supposed to pray for them.
Two Reasons Why We Pray
A command to pray for authority figures shouldn’t surprise us. There aren’t many limits on who we ought to pray for. Jesus even told us, “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44, NET). If Jesus told us to love and pray for our enemies I doubt He’s going to say it’s okay to avoid praying for people in authority who might not even be enemies to the faith.
Sometimes, you might hear arguments that instructions to submit to and pray for rulers were added by translators. For example, I’ve heard people say the KJV includes verses about honoring the king because the men translating it wanted to curry favor with King James. Those men might have been happy to find they could include a verse like that, but they’re not where the idea came from. It came from Jesus, Paul, Peter, and other writers inspired by God. Paul explains why it’s so important to include authority figures in our prayers when writing to Timothy.
First of all, then, I urge that requests, prayers, intercessions, and thanks be offered on behalf of all people, even for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. Such prayer for all is good and welcomed before God our Savior, since he wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all, revealing God’s purpose at his appointed time.1 Timothy 2:1-6, NET
I like the NET translation for this verse because it acknowledges that some readers might balk at the idea that praying for “all people” includes “kings and all who are in authority.” Paul had experience living in a world where the culture and the authority figures were hostile to his faith. He knew it wasn’t easy to pray for people who’d martyred your fellow believers or kicked them out of a guild, ruining their livelihood. But we need to pray for them anyways, and he gives two main reasons why:
- It’s good for us. We pray for authorities so that we can lead “a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” Ideally, “rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad” (Rom. 13:3, NET). We pray that people in authority would be that kind of ruler, leaving us alone to worship God freely and working to keep society peaceful and safe.
- It’s good for them. God welcomes prayers for everyone, even our enemies or those in positions of power, because “he wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” That should be our desire as well. Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all,” and knowing that should motivate us to pray everyone would see His Light.
Praying for Peace
God has called us to live in peace (1 Cor. 7:15; Col. 3:15). He wants us to have peaceful lives that aren’t characterized by quarreling, tumult, fear, and other things that would destroy our inner or outer peace. We can have God’s peace inside us and cultivate lives of peace and joy even when the world around us is far from peaceful. However, we should still do everything in our power to live peacefully with all people (Rom. 12:16-21; Heb. 12:4). That includes praying for those who have the power to make things un-peaceful for others.
Yahweh of Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the captives whom I have caused to be carried away captive from Jerusalem to Babylon: … “Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to Yahweh for it; for in its peace you will have peace.”Jeremiah 29:4, 7, WEB
There’s nothing wrong with wanting peaceful lives. Paul even tells one church that it should be their “ambition to lead a quiet life, and to do your own business” (1 Thes. 4:11, WEB). Life is better for us, the Christian community, and for everyone else living here if there’s peace in our communities and countries. Peace is a good thing to pray for. We can ask God to share His peace with us and to inspire people in authority to work towards peace in their spheres of influence.
Praying for Others’ Salvation
The second reason we should pray for people in authority is because, “Such prayer for all is good and welcomed before God our Savior, since he wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:3-4, NET). We’re supposed to be praying for all people, and those with authority are included in that category.
God offers humanity two very clear choices: choose life with Him, or choose death without Him. That’s simply how the world works. There are no other options. Walking with God leads toward eternal life, and walking away/apart from God leads to nothing. God also makes it very clear that we each have individual choices, and that it’s possible for people to change the course of their lives. If someone is heading toward death, God wants that person to turn around and choose life (Ezekiel 18:1-32; 33:1-20).
The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some regard slowness, but is being patient toward you, because he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. … Since all these things are to melt away in this manner, what sort of people must you be, conducting your lives in holiness and godliness, while waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God?2 Peter 3:9, 11-12, NET
In this letter, Peter reminds us that the end of this present world is coming. While it might sometimes seem like Jesus’s return is taking an awfully long time to get here, what’s really happening is that God is being very patient with people because He wants everyone to choose life. Keeping in mind both this aspect of God’s character and the knowledge that Jesus will return, Peter asks us this: “What sort of people must you be?” He partly answers that question by saying we’ll be “conducting our lives in holiness and godliness” as we wait on God. Being holy and godly involves mimicking God’s character, including His perspective on other people. We need to love earnestly and pray sincerely for other people.
But the end of all things is near. Therefore be of sound mind, self-controlled, and sober in prayer. And above all things be earnest in your love among yourselves, for love covers a multitude of sins.1 Peter 4:7-8, WEB
Showing God Who We Are
God is never happy when someone chooses death; it’s His desire that everyone will choose life. When we pray for other people, we participate in that godly desire. We show God that we also want other people to choose life with Him because we’re learning to care about them in much the same way that He does.
By praying for those in authority, we demonstrate our character to God. We show that we care more about following His instructions than we do about our own irritations with political leaders. We show that we long for people to change, grow, and work toward peace rather than wanting them punished because they didn’t do things the way we think they should.
I don’t always remember to pray for people in power. I don’t particularly want to pray for people who plunge nations into wars, vote to continue abortions, or use their authority to avoid the consequences of wrong action. But it does no one any good if I just get angry about this and sit around fuming or refuse to pray about it.
Prayer is the best response for everyone. I can pray for God’s justice to intervene and I can pray for His mercy to soften people’s hearts. I can pray He’ll protect those in danger because of a human leader’s actions. Jesus’s example of viewing people with compassion and praying for them even while not excusing their wrong actions.
Featured image by Claudine Chaussé from Lightstock
Song Recommendation: “Blessings” by Laura Story