Pray for Presidents: On David Platt and Donald Trump

Believers: pray to God for the king—in American terms, for the President. Pray for salvation for sinners like us, whether they are mighty or lowly, famous or anonymous, thousands of miles away or standing right beside you.

This past weekend, President Trump showed up at McLean Bible Church in the Washington, D. C. area. David Platt, one of the pastors at McLean, took the opportunity to pray for President Trump in the public service. This decision drew a largely positive response, and was covered widely in the U. S. media. Some, however, wondered if Platt’s prayer constituted a partisan act or an endorsement of Trump. Trump, as you may know, is a controversial President, one who has stirred both thankfulness and resentment in the American polis.

This occasion provides a good opportunity to reiterate what Scripture teaches about the Christian theology of the public square. Writing in the context of pagan Roman leadership, the apostle Paul gave Timothy—a young pastor—the following instruction:

First of all, then, I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, 2 for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. 3 This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:1-4 CSB).

The fledgling shepherd is not given here the option of praying for “kings” and civic leaders. Timothy needs to pray for the sovereign. He would need to do so in all his life, but also to lead in praying for public authorities in the public gathering. He would do so regardless of the relative godliness of the leader in question; Paul gives no qualifier here about praying only for non-divisive leaders, praying only for morally upright leaders, praying only for Christian leaders. Instead, Timothy is to put into practical form one of the most important doctrinal truths of the Christian faith: God reigns over every authority, whether they acknowledge divine rulership or not. In praying for the king, the Christian pastor—and every believer—honors and actualizes this truth. Such petition, then, does not signal acquiescence to the state, nor approval of the one who leads it. It actually signals faith and trust in God alone.

Lifting up the earthly ruler has a goal in the Pauline mind: that Christians ἤρεμον αὶ ἡσύχιον βίον διάγωμεν, “would lead a tranquil and quiet life” (1 Timothy 2:2). We know from church history that the early church did not always get to lead such a life, to be sure. They suffered under Roman persecution in the church’s first several centuries of existence. Nonetheless, a Spirit-empowered apostle instructed the people of God to pray not for disruption and rancor, but for tranquility and calm. Christianity is inherently peaceable and reasonable, much as a fallen world often sees it as the opposite.

In his own prayer, David Platt prayed for President Trump in Pauline terms. He prayed a gospel-focused prayer; he included reference to the saving nature of Christ’s cross; he asked for justice and good to come under the administration of President Trump. Not a word of his prayer that I heard was partisan; none of it was objectionable; it did not signal agreement or disagreement with President Trump’s policies. Instead, Platt’s petition honored the words of the apostle Paul. Given an unexpected chance to lift up a hugely influential world leader, Platt seized the moment, albeit in a gracious, pastoral, and non-partisan way. (Platt spoke to his intentions here; I did not read this as an “apology,” despite what some have said—though Platt alone knows his purpose.)

There is no sub-current of political commentary running through my remarks here. If President Obama, a ruler who held to very different core convictions than President Trump, showed up at McLean, I would imagine Platt would pray in a very similar way. I would certainly expect him to do so, much as I myself would pray in such a way for either President. Unlike so many things today, praying for a President or “king” or civic “authority” is not an inherently political act. It is actually the very opposite: it is a spiritual move grounded in the theology that God rules every king and God summons every king to rule with wisdom, equity, and justice.

We may indeed boggle at moments like this. Yet we may find in them opportunities for gospel witness and public recognition of the absolute cosmic sovereignty of Almighty God. President Trump, however one sees him, is no different than any of us. He needs Christ. He needs the Lord. He needs something more than this world can give. If we view praying for God to work in his life as wrong, and view a pastor leading a church to pray such a prayer as wrong, then we are in danger not only of disobeying a direct apostolic command, but of losing the very essence of the mercy-drenched gospel of Jesus Christ.

So, believers: pray to God for the king—in American terms, for the President. Pray for salvation for sinners like us, whether they are mighty or lowly, famous or anonymous, thousands of miles away or standing right beside you. And trust that the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth has not abandoned his millennia-long work of saving the wicked, the depraved, and the guilty. In a fractured world, God is still king—and God still saves.

For more on evangelical public theology, see the brand-new journal Permanent Things, produced by the Center for Public Theology.