Have we misunderstood what the Bible says about praying for our political leaders? The most famous verses on this theme are from Paul’s first letter to Timothy, who was a church leader in Ephesus:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness (1 Timothy 2:1-2, NIV).

The way I generally hear Christians using this passage goes something like this: Those with political power can make a huge difference to the lives of Christians. They can make it easy for Christians to live out their faith, or they can make it difficult. We should pray for those in authority that they will make the right decisions, so that Christians will be unhindered in living godly lives and in sharing the gospel.

But is that the best way to understand these verses?

Bill Mounce describes two alternatives in his Word Biblical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, the first of which corresponds to what I have just described:

There are two ways to view v2. (1) Prayers should be made for all people, especially for secular authorities, and as a result of praying for these authorities the Christian will have a calm life. … (2) Prayers should be made for all people (including authorities), and as a result of praying for all people the Christian will have a calm life (p. 80).

In (1), verse 2 stands on its own, with the first half of the verse leading to the second half. I.e., we pray ‘for kings and all those in authority’, God answers our prayers, the rulers make wise decisions, and the consequence is ‘that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness’.

What is wrong with this? Mounce continues, discussing whether ‘for kings and all those in authority’ (2a) is central to the meaning of the verse, or parenthetical:

However, there are two serious problems with seeing v 2a as primary and not parenthetical. (a) The topic of the paragraph is the necessity of offering salvation to all, and this emphasis would detract from it. (b) Throughout the PE [Pastoral Epistles: 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus], Paul is concerned with secular rulers and non-Christians, but it is not a concern for peace or a desire for the rulers to allow the church to grow unimpeded. Rather, Paul is anxious that the church provide a good witness to nonbelievers (p. 81).

We get hints of the bad witness of the church in Ephesus. It seems they were becoming known for their ‘false doctrines’ (1:3), ‘controversial speculations’ (1:4), ‘meaningless talk’ (1:6), and their ‘anger and disputing’ (2:8). And what is Paul’s solution to this? How could they begin to live ‘peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness’?

Paul’s answer: they should pray. They should pray all kinds of prayers for all kinds of people. And it is that act of praying – not some change in government policy – that will lead to them living ‘peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness’.

So why add ‘for kings and all those in authority’, if those words could have been omitted? Mounce suggests that the Ephesian Christians were limiting salvation to certain kinds of people only:

This deficiency showed itself in the Ephesian practice of praying only for the select group of people who adhered to their mythological teaching, excluding among others the secular rulers and all Gentiles [see verse 7]. Therefore, Paul say that all types of prayers, especially requests for salvation, should be made on behalf of all people, even the rulers. If this is done, the church can continue to live in peace and tranquility, with reverence and godly dignity, not for the sake of avoiding necessary conflict but in order to have a good witness to non-Christians (p. 93).

So what does this mean for a Christian approach to politics?

We need to think about whether, as Christians, we are known primarily as people who argue about politics, or as people who pray about politics (and about everything else). I fear it is more often the former, particularly on social media. A couple of thoughts:

  1. Is there any value in debating politics on social media at all? My experience over the past years suggests it is rarely constructive.
  2. Even if we do argue (face to face) about politics as Christians, can we first make sure we are in the habit of praying together?

Why pray for politicians? Because praying is more important than arguing.