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Having been a minister for twenty-six years and an editor of a church magazine for some of that time, I can safely say that there is no subject more likely to get you into controversy than the troubled relationship of the gospel to politics, unless you dare to touch the modern-day idol of people’s children. So when I was asked to write this column, my heart sank; I knew the heresy antennas of many would already be raised. To make matters worse, I write this just after the re-election of President Obama, a result that caused many of my American friends to despair, although many of them did not see the alternative as being much better. But rather than despair, perhaps we should follow the Bible’s pattern for the church’s involvement in politics.
The church must be involved, but not in the way we so often have been. When the church seeks political power, the church inevitably ends up being corrupted. Creating or supporting particular political parties, policies, or philosophies is not the way of Christ. For the church to be identified with one political party is a sure-fire recipe for disaster.
Does that mean we are doomed to be pious pietists, huddling in our small groups as the world rots, just waiting for the Lord to return? God forbid. The Bible gives us very clear instructions on how we are to participate in the political process—instructions that, if we followed them today, would make an enormous difference to the politics and government of our countries. These instructions are found in 1 Timothy 2:1–4: “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (NIV).
I can hear the protests already: “That’s it? Pray? I thought you were against pietism. Is that what you call practical?” Yes, it is. Praying for our leaders is the most practical thing we can ever do. It is realistic, revolutionary, and leads to great results.
First, prayer is realistic because it recognizes our own weakness and causes us to humbly bow before God, conscious that we do not have the power to accomplish anything. With all our money, strategies, techniques, and human wisdom, there really is nothing we can do that will control or change the course of history. True prayer recognizes the sovereignty and agency of God. Prayer stops us relying on ourselves and thus stops the frustrations and panic when we and our political philosophies and strategies fail. It is important at this stage to note that prayer is not to be used as a political tool, as though by holding prayer meetings we are courting or forcing God’s vote. Prayer is not protest. It is petition, which realizes that even the hearts of President Obama or Prime Minister David Cameron are not out of God’s control. Proverbs 21:1 says: “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord. He directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases” (NLT).
Second, prayer changes the dynamics of politics by enabling the revolution of love and changing the political atmosphere. John Chrysostom, in his homily on this passage, declares, “First hatred towards those who are without is done away; for no-one can feel hatred towards those for whom he prays; and they again are made better by the prayers that are offered for them, and by losing their ferocious disposition towards us.” One of the most disturbing things in American politics recently has been the level of vitriol and hatred that has come from all quarters, sadly even from many in the church. It is not helpful to demonize those who disagree with us politically. It is surely the duty of every church in the United States (and many outwith) to pray for President Obama—and let me dare to suggest that it not be a “Smite the Amalekites” style of prayer. People may not like his politics, his view of the Christian faith, or his personality, but none of that excuses us from praying for him and for all our leaders, of whatever political hue. You will note that Paul does not distinguish between just and unjust rulers. To publically pray positively for our leaders, whether liberal or Mormon, is not an optional extra—it is a command from the Lord.
Third, we see the results. We want to be able to live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness—even under non-Christian leaders. This in turn results in the advancement of the good news and the knowledge of the truth. I know it is fashionable among Christians who live in comfortable circumstances to lament the lack of persecution and to equate persecution with growth, but here Paul equates gospel growth with peace. We should pray for this. As gospel growth continues in a peaceful and stable community, Christ the Mediator is exalted and lifted up as the testimony given in its proper time.
Let us involve ourselves politically in our churches by praying for our political leaders and crying out to the Lord to grant His blessing and peace upon them as His servants and on us as His people.