How do we engage our calling to honor those in civil authority during a time of political strife?
At the close of an election season, even more than on the Fourth of July or Canada Day, a worship leader or pastor can feel like they’re in a worship war with “bombs bursting in air.” The intersection of patriotism and worship is often a high-voltage collision.
In the Christian university where I teach, some students can’t carry on a civil discussion on this subject. Two sentences into arguing their perspective, logic fades, emotions rocket, and these kind, sweet, Christian students verbally accost all who disagree with them, declaring them unpatriotic miscreant scum and suggesting they move to a country they like better!
Last month a new member of our congregation said, “I tried to invite my friends back to our church, but they wouldn’t return.” When pressed about the reason, he answered, “They refuse to go to a church that doesn’t have an American flag in front.” I wonder if Canadians or Mexicans feel as strongly. A friend from the Dominican Republic says only countries with crosses on their flags should fly them proudly in church.
Some Examples to Prayer for Civil Leaders
One way to engage our calling to honor those in civil authority is to introduce (or frame) prayer offered during such a time. Sometimes we offer a bidding prayer with an introduction highlighting the Bible’s call to such prayer:
The apostle Paul encourages a young pastor to pray for civil leaders: “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:1). Today we mark this election season by doing exactly that.
We might use similar introductory (framing) words to highlight our baptism solidarity with Christians of varied backgrounds:
Our friends in the Episcopal and Orthodox churches take the Bible’s command to pray for those in authority so seriously they pray for our congressperson, our governor, and our president every week by name. Today we want to join them in prayer.
Such honoring prayer might be a special act of humble faith when the civil leader’s ideas or behavior do not match that of the majority of congregants. Our baptismal solidarity might also be highlighted by the examples of Christians from other times and places, like this saint who fiercely loved his homeland but indisputably belonged to the baptized people of every nation:
Today we pray following the example of a wise Christian writing at the time of the first apostles. In a letter to a pagan friend who was seeking to understand Christianity, he wrote words that get to the heart of a Christian’s relationship to country: we “dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners” and for us “every foreign land is . . . their native country, and every land of their birth . . . a land of strangers” (Mathetes, “Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus,” V). In this spirit, let us pray for the country we love.
Or imagine invoking the words of those considered national saints,
Today we remember what Abraham Lincoln told an associate: “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.” Today we will follow Lincoln’s example and turn to God in prayer.
During the most discouraging days of the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.” Today let us follow his wisdom and pray for our beloved country.
You might follow such an introduction (frame) by praying one of Dr. King’s prayers (see Martin Luther King Jr., “Prayers” in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume VI, 137).
All of these are ideas for a wise worship leader to adapt or use in their congregation during this volatile time. Every era has its own challenges. I wonder how the centurion whose servant Jesus healed (Matthew 8:5–13) or the one who declared at Jesus’ death, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39) prayed for their civil leaders?
- Mike Hogeterp and Karen Bokma, “Liturgy: a Public Service,” RW 86
- Richard Mouw, “The Danger of Alien Loyalties,” RW 80
- John Witvliet, “Patriotism and Politics in Worship,” RW 82
This article is adapted from the book The Gospel in a Handshake: Framing Worship for Mission by the author (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2019). For more on the confluence of baptism and national identity, see also “Scythian Worship? Nations and Cultures at Worship” at reformedworship.org/blog/scythian-worship-nations-and-cultures-worship.