The country of Iran continues to experience widespread protests as the population vents its anger against the national government. Hundreds of protesters have been killed and thousands arrested. One Iranian friend told me that last week the truckers joined in, staging a nationwide strike and effectively crippling the country for days. The Iranian Church is in desperate need of our prayers to know how to navigate this season wisely. Like all Christians in every age, they live in the tension between the Romans 13 truth that every government is ordained by God and the Romans 13 tension that the God-ordained role of government is to punish evil and reward those who do good. There is some point at which a government that does the opposite – rewards evil and punishes those who do good – has ceased to be a legitimate government at all. But when is that point? This question has been the cause of countless debates of political theology among Christians for thousands of years. This tension has the potential to cause deep divisions in Iranian churches and between believers. At the same time, Iranians remain one of the most receptive people groups to the gospel in Central Asia.
This is a helpful prayer guide that provides good categories by which we can pray for the Iranian people and the Iranian Church in these days.
Two weeks ago Manuel* sat next to me on the couch, weeping. This semi-secret believer’s brother-in-law had been disappeared by one of the powerful political parties. One week he was an important local official for this same party, the next he was publicly accused by Islamists of misconduct – and summarily disappeared. For two weeks his family had no information about where he was, or even if he was still alive.
I had met this brother-in-law only once. During a particularly stressful intercity move in the fever-heat of August, he had used his connections to get our moving truck through some rival party checkpoints on the road. In the process, he had grilled me rather directly on the nature of my work here, one of the few government officials to press me so hard on my identity that I could feel my face changing color. I answered truthfully regarding my official secular work, and yet also let him know about my personal faith and how, yes, I wouldn’t be here if Jesus hadn’t changed me and given me a heart to serve others. With the help of the alternating shades of my face, I’m pretty sure he figured things out. In spite of this, he helped us – something I was deeply grateful for. Now I learned that he was at least imprisoned, perhaps even dead.
During his visit, Manuel, a respectable local man about ten years my senior, leaned on my shoulder and wept. We read Psalm 23 together, I prayed for him, and I listened as he pleaded with me to do something if at all possible through my political connections, of which I have none. For many local believers the belief runs deep that all Westerners have significant political clout that they could use if they really wanted to. Convincing our local friends that we are merely private citizens of our passport countries and strictly apolitical by choice has proven remarkably difficult. Yes, our home governments might grudgingly intervene if something happened to us – I say grudgingly because they repeatedly warn us not to live in places like this. But we have no such clout as to persuade anyone to intervene on behalf of a local political official who has been abducted, even if we thought such political intervention wise.
However, we pray every week during our church plant’s service for the local government officials. We do this to obey scripture, and because incidents like the disappearance of Manuel’s brother-in-law are stark reminders of the sudden danger that stalks almost anyone in this society should they run afoul of the powers that be. So when we gather, we pray for the government and those who wield political power to act justly, to rule wisely, and to serve their people (Micah 6:8, Romans 13:1-7). We pray for this so that the local believers may live quiet, faithful lives and that peace and stability might be granted for the sake of gospel advance (1st Timothy 2:1-4). The local believers are still getting used to this kind of prayer, regularly taking digs at the corrupt governing elite even as we ask who is ready to pray for them. We empathize, but also remind them of how bad Nero was, and then remind ourselves of the same truths when later that day we see the insane political news coming out of the West.
Tonight Manuel visited me again, requesting ahead of time that we sing some worship songs together. When he arrived, he shared the welcome news that his brother-in-law had been released. He’s much skinnier than he was before, bearing evidence of having been beaten, but alive, and back home with his family. I reminded Manuel that God had answered our prayers, and we spent an encouraging time singing together, studying John 15, and praying.
During our conversation, Manuel shared how just before his previous visit he had come very close to doing something dangerous, but suddenly felt redirected to come to our house instead for comfort and counsel. I’m thankful he did, or else he may have been summarily arrested/abducted as well. It makes me wonder how many close calls like this come down to a barely conscious obedience to subtle nudges from the Spirit. And if those nudges and responses would happen if we were not regularly praying for wisdom, and yes, praying for the corrupt local authorities.
Occasionally we make up songs with our kids as we’re reading through the Bible together and come across important passages that we don’t know any kids songs for. This song was inspired by Romans 13:1-7 and Acts 5:29. Living in a pandemic lockdown world and seeking to lead Muslims to Jesus in a country where this is illegal, these categories of obeying the government – except when they ask us to sin – are ones we want our kids to grow up chewing on. It’s complicated out there! But we hope that these big biblical categories will help them navigate a faithful posture towards government in their own families and churches someday.
Obey the government says the Lord
It's for a good reason that they bear the sword
To punish the evil and reward the good
So obey the government says the Lord
But not if they tell you to sin (no sir!)
Not if they tell you to sin (no sir!)
Not if they tell you to do bad things
Then you don't have to obey those kings