Thursday, July 26, 2012

Praying for the World

Out of all the things the Christian church in the west is in need of, books about prayer are certainly not in short supply. There is a plethora of prayer books available, covering everything from the why and how of prayer, to the “who” and “what” to pray for. Litres of ink are spent each year detailing how to overcome blockages of prayer, or using the prayers of others as a model for contemporary prayer life. You can books on the prayers of the Puritans, the prayers of Paul, the prayer of Jabez...the prayers of the past three and a half millennia are examined and dissected in the attempt to produce rich and fruitful prayer lives.

Yet if there is one New Testament passage on prayer that is overlooked more than any other, it would have to be 1 Timothy 2.1-7. Even books that promise a spiritual revolution through the apostolic prayers pay this passage merely a courtesy visit. Perhaps it's due to the exclusion of the church from the public sphere since the enlightenment. Perhaps it's due to our inability to recognise the political nature of the gospel. Whatever the case, the instruction of 1 Tim. 2.1-2 is one we often neglect. And that is a real tragedy; the second chapter of 1 Timothy contains wisdom that, if grasped by the church, would help enable us to not only please God, but also understand God's world and mission.

Paul urges Timothy to "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." In response to false teacher having arisen amongst the church in Ephesus, Timothy is urged to pray for all people, for kings and all in authority. These false teachers have driven the church apart by their teaching, causing dissension and quarrelling within the church. In particular the teaching and interpretation of the scriptures has resulted in an elitism and introspection within the church. But what they have failed to grasp is God's ordering within his creation (from οἰκονομίαν in 1 Tim. 1.4); hence their instruction to abstain from good parts of God's creation like marriage and food (1 Timothy 4.3). As they don't understand this ordering of the world, they have disengaged from the world and society at large.

However, Paul urges that the church moves from introspection to outwards focused prayer; to turn from being disinterested and disengaged from the world to praying for all people, for kings and those in authority. From this passage we learn three things:

Firstly, the church's concern and care for the world is driven by God's concern and care for the world. This is highlighted four times: i. there is only one God, and he desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth; ii. Christ Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all people; iii. the apostle Paul is a herald of this gospel to the Gentiles (i.e. all people); so iv. it is fit and proper for the church, in every way and in all circumstances to pray for all people. The church is not only to be concerned with its own life, but the life of the world around it. Therefore the authenticity of a church’s love and service of the world will be seen in the way the church prays for the world.

Secondly, governments have been tasked by God to maintain this order, and it is right then that the church pray for those in authority. The gospel declares that Jesus Christ has been given authority other every other claimant to authority and the day will come when those in authority will lay their crowns before Christ. The Bible is painfully aware that governments are able to abuse their authority, seeking to recreate civilisation or extend their grip on power. In such cases the authorities will be held accountable for such blasphemy. Yet verse 2 is entirely consistent with how the New Testament views the role of government, as ministers and servants of God (cf. Romans 13.1-7 and 1 Peter 2.13-17). Whilst they may not have ultimate authority, they still have a divinely appointed role in maintaining peace and justice, and are therefore deserving of the church’s prayer that they would exercise that role with wisdom and equity. This is also a helpful and liberating way for Christians to engage with government. When we disagree with our governments, when they frustrate and disappoint us, when they are unaware that their authority has been instituted by God, and even when they are violently opposed to Christianity, the church is to regularly, and in every way possible, pray for those in authority.

Thirdly, the government’s role in maintaining order and stability enables the church to get on with its business of being the church. Whilst it is quite nice that good government allows Christians to lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity, this is not an end in itself. Paul links the peace and stability that come from good government to mission. As Andrew Errington has written:
“Paul urges prayers be made for government so that people will be able to live in peace – so that people can get on with normal life, uninterrupted by the chaos that flows from the absence of political authority. Interestingly, Paul sees this as right precisely because of God’s desire for everyone to be saved... This makes sense, of course: mission is not aided when people are fearful simply for their survival, or when communication and mobility are impeded. Peace and what is here called “quietness” perhaps free people up to hear the gospel and to engage in the relationships that facilitate mission."
Good government provides the social conditions for the church to freely and without impediment proclaim to all people that Jesus Christ is Lord.

When the Christian community gathers together as the church, during their time together they are to include prayers for all people and those in authority. Praying for the world is an opportunity for each of us to show our love and concern for a world that Jesus gave up his life for. It is an opportunity for each of us to move beyond our own introspection and look outwards to the world. It is an opportunity for us to pray for justice and peace in the world, and to particularly pray for those who are in authority over us who are tasked with maintaining that peace and justice. It is an invitation to move out of our holy huddles and thoughtfully engage the world in prayer. 1 Timothy 2.1-7 is a dense little passage. Paul connects the role and place of government with God’s desire for all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. Yet following Paul’s urging will allow us to discern God’s ordering of the world, and so know, love and serve the world as God does.

Postscript: One of my favourite reflections on this passage is this one by Ruth Brigden.
This post is based on a sermon I recently gave at church.

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