In the past few days, Canada’s new prime minister has been sworn in and the new Liberal government is finding its feet in Ottawa. Many Christians and morally conservative voters had hoped that Mr. Stephen Harper, a professing Christian, could have won another term of office. But the people voted for change. Harper’s Conservative party lost significantly, although it maintained enough seats to constitute an official opposition party.
The apostle Paul informs Timothy that it is the duty of the church to pray for—to contextualize the language—city councilors, MLAs, MPs, and indeed the prime minister (1 Timothy 2:1–3).
It was not new to Paul to pray for those in civil authority. As a Jew, he was aware of the practice in Israel (Ezra 9:9–10; 1 Maccabees 7:33; 12:11; 2 Maccabees 3:35; 13:23. Josephus, Wars, 2:196, and Antiquities of the Jews, 12:2). But Paul is not in Israel. The theocracy that his forebears had enjoyed had long since been destroyed and national Israel was now, in Paul’s mind, a mission field.
We are living in a post-Christian era, in a pagan culture. Murder and homosexuality—to name a few national sins—are not only decriminalized but they have been legalized. Secular Humanism is the trending religious experience and, even among the broader “Christian” community, religious pluralism is preferred. The evangelical church is being more and more marginalized.
So how should we pray? How should we accept Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party? How should we pray for a liberal government when we are opposed to the principles upon which it is built and the liberties it legislates? There are three spiritual contexts in Scripture in which prayers are made for civil authority.
First, in the context of a faithful nation (1 Kings 3:9–10). Israel’s king is not only a servant of the people but a servant of the Lord (1 Kings 3:7–10). Solomon’s prayer was a humble request to God for the proper ruling of the people in the fear of God. In this context, the people cried, (2 Kings 11:12).
Second, in the context of a post-faithful nation (Ezra 9:6–15). When Israel sinned against God, the Lord had brought them into bondage for seventy years. After this period of captivity, the Lord raised up a few men to lead the Israelites back to their land and rebuild the city of Jerusalem and the temple. In the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, there are three lengthy prayers: Ezra (Ezra 9:6–15), Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:5–11) and the people with the Levites (Nehemiah 9:6–37).
These three prayers share a number of common features. First, they all include fasting (Ezra 9:3–5; Nehemiah 1:4; 9:1). Second, they all include confession (openness before God). Third, they all recognize the justice of God in where they are at (Ezra 9:7, 9, 10, 13). Indeed Ezra was deeply ashamed of the national guilt (9: 6) but he was thankful for the goodness of God in preserving “a remnant” (verse 8) and conscious of God’s mercy (verse 13).
Third, in the context of pagan culture (Ezra 6:10; Jeremiah 29:7; 1 Timothy 2:2). This is where Paul was at and this is the culture that most resembles our own. This is also where Israel was in the Babylonian captivity, and in this context the prophet Jeremiah tells the people to seek the good of the country into which the Lord has brought them: “Pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace” (Jeremiah 29:7).
In Paul’s day, under the cruel hand of Nero, it was not safe to be a Christian. Paul was conscious that this was the culture in which he was called to minister. He was not a political agitator; he made no attempt to take on the culture or to lobby for moral-political values. Paul’s influence on the culture was exclusively through the application of the Word to the individual heart.
Obviously we should mourn over the wholesale slaughter of the unborn and pray against it. We should also pray for the restraint of flagrant sexual immorality. Paul was not indifferent towards these things. It is very significant, however, that Paul’s exhortation to pray for the kings and those in authority is ultimately for the same reason Jeremiah gave when he told the people in his day to pray for Babylon: it was for the good, the peace of the church.
Paul’s prayer was for national peace. Peace in the state meant peace for the Church to do its work within the culture. To live a “quiet and peaceable life” is not only good in the sight of God (1 Timothy 2:3) but it is also advantageous for the church’s influence in society (1 Thessalonians 4:11–12).