I am not used to being considered a heretic. Yet recently, when a colleague and I visited a friend who teaches theology at a famous British university, we found ourselves faced with this charge! In a conversation that had quickly turned to the subject of theology, we found ourselves defending the idea that the death of Jesus Christ was that of a penal substitution in which He in our place bore the wrath of God that rightfully should have been visited upon us. This understanding is both biblical and the historic confession of the church, yet it was this that earned for us the charge of heresy from one who is a self-confessed evangelical theologian. Subsequently, I have realized that this doctrine of penal substitution is increasingly being challenged both by theologians and preachers as an example of “cosmic child-abuse” with no part in an authentic proclamation of the Christian Gospel. This situation provides insight as to why it is important to pray for church leaders.
Yet it is symptomatic of a sad truth. If praying for church leaders seems to have gone out of style, perhaps an underlying reason for this is that the church often adopts the standards and ideas of the world. In our pursuit of success where the obvious mark of that success is size, influence, power, and money, church leaders are under constant pressure to produce evidence of growth, and technique and program are the obvious means by which this is achieved. In this framework there is no place given for prayer, which speaks of a supernatural framework of thought that is alien to the modern world.
In order to be successful, congregations look to their leaders to be endowed with entrepreneurial spirits and the necessary charisma to meet all expectations. Superstars are exalted and those who do not have that magnetism nor share in those gifts are compared unfavorably with those who can generate success. Thus, criticism, not prayer, becomes the norm for congregations. Nor is the blame to lie solely with congregations because often their leaders are the very ones who have reduced Christian ministry to techniques and programs, and have substituted methodology for the ministry of the Holy Spirit, looking to human plans rather than divine guidance and blessing. As a consequence, they do not look for prayer as the vital need for their ministries. Divine blessing is seen only in terms of human success.
This is a very different picture than the one offered by the apostle Paul who understood that the nature of his ministry was essentially spiritual. It was because of this understanding that he sought the prayers of the congregations to which he ministered.
His requests were marked by urgency because he knew that he both wanted and needed the prayers of God’s people. The apostle was well aware that the work in which he was engaged was spiritual and had eternal consequences. He was aware that entrusted to his care was the proclamation of the Gospel, the careful unfolding of God’s truth, and the diligent defense of that Gospel against all distortion. He recognized that such a ministry required more than human ability and could not be undertaken without prayer. The partnership with the congregations to whom he ministered was vital: “I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf” (Rom. 15:30).
Paul was aware that he needed the prayers of the congregations that he served because he was a sinner and was aware that he could be tempted and could easily give in to those temptations. Clearly Paul knew that he faced intimidation and the ever-present temptation to compromise the nature of the Gospel message in the interests of peace and tolerance, which is why he requested and needed the prayers of God’s people. He saw the role of those he served to support him with their prayers. In fact, when writing to the church at Ephesus he was clear that the role of prayerful support created a partnership in the work of the Gospel ministry. As such, he clearly regarded it as a high privilege that involved “striving,” and, far from being passive, was an active and vital ministry: “[pray] also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel” (Eph. 6:19).
He saw that the work of the Gospel is an essentially spiritual work. Paul knew nothing of being dependent upon technique or program to accomplish his work, and his appeal was for spiritual support because he knew that he was battling spiritual powers that were arrayed against Him and were hostile to God and His purpose. Today it is easy to be seduced by the secular mindset into dismissing the spiritual nature of Christian ministry and fail to see that there is a combating of dark and hostile spiritual forces that can be met only with humble dependence upon God, diligence in the study of His Word, and devotion to the Gospel of Christ.
It is the role of the church leader to keep watch over the souls of God’s people. And to be effective in this role, as in all the other aspects of ministry, he needs the prayers of God’s people.