When we think about the Christian’s responsibility to be an agent of change in countering the culture, it is almost inevitable that our first thoughts run to laws and to government. In many ways, we are brought up to think in such ways, believing governments to be either the source of problems or of solutions to problems, and having an almost unshakeable desire to effect changes that we would like to see through the coercive power of laws and regulations. We see governments as the locus of power for the enforcement of laws, and by extension, an entity that has the power to regulate behavioral changes. This was probably just as true in the days of Paul and Timothy as it is now.
As the church presented a counter-imperial and counter-cultural ethic, it would be quite easy for the members of the body of Christ, who saw themselves (and should still see themselves) as representative of a kingdom to which all other kingdoms are subservient, to slip into a mindset that being counter-imperial or counter-cultural also meant that they were to be anti-government, especially if that government was actively oppressive towards Christians. It is quite understandable why their Roman rulers were suspicious of so many Christians, considering the fact that Christians claimed to serve a Lord that was far superior to the emperor, while at the same time affirming their loyalty to a kingdom that was not Rome. It was one thing to maintain loyalty to tribal deities and to long-standing territorial power structures that could be taken advantage of by Rome as a means of preserving order and extending its reach, and which could stand side-by-side with Roman imperial ideology and worship, but it was quite another to take a position that ran contrary to that ideology that also served to discount the worship of Caesar, and even going so far as to place a criminal that was executed by Rome at the center of its worship and allegiance. This was a direct affront to the power of Rome and to all community and civic sensibilities.
Not only would the Roman governors look upon Christians with suspicious eyes, it would be difficult to doubt that Christians would happily return the favor. While there is certainly an element of Christianity that rightly and responsibly challenges the power of governments, calls the world’s rulers to account, challenges arrogant actions and arrogations of power, and regularly holds up restraining hands that tell governments that “you go here and no further,” there is, of course, a legitimate role for governments. For balance and a response, those same hands that are held up in attempts to restrain governments, insisting that it not go beyond its rightful place as the church says “we’ll take it from here,” are then to be turned outwards, arms extended wide to embrace and deal with the issues to which the church of Christ must address itself.
Naturally, Paul recognizes the potential for unhelpful and unhealthy conflict between the members of the church and temporal powers. Concordantly, he urges that ‘requests, prayers, intercessions, and thanks be offered on behalf of all people, even for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. Such prayer for all is good and welcomed before God our Savior, since He wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2:1a-4). Though at one level this may appear to be an acquiescence, is it not an effective counter-cultural witness? Christians, of course, are to be the greatest of earthly citizens because they are also citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
Now, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the Christians, who, owing to their “atheism” (because they did not worship the Roman gods or Caesar), their “cannibalism” (for the words that accompanied their communal meals), and their lack of participation at the temples (which were also the markets and the center of public activity) that was taken to portend a destruction of social cohesiveness, experienced persecution at the hands of governing authorities, would look upon those persecutors as their enemies. Therefore, this prayer for all people, including kings and governing authorities, was a strict following of the teachings of Jesus, who demanded His disciples to “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45a – realizing that Matthew was probably not in circulation and may not yet have taken the shape in which we have it at the time of the composition of the letter, and therefore, the passing along of the words of Jesus would have been based upon Paul’s knowledge of the Jesus tradition).
These words reach a second level in the face of the Jew and Gentile divisions in Ephesus (and other cities whose churches may have been recipients of the letter now called Ephesians), with these divisions addressed in the second chapter of Ephesians. The insistence that God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” speaks to the lingering hesitation on the part of ethnic Israel to grant Gentiles status as full and legitimate members of the covenant people of God. So while praying for those that may potentially be perceived or actually be enemies is counter-cultural, so too is Paul’s insistence that God wants all people groups to be saved (come under the provisions of His covenant), with this running counter to the Jewish culture that wanted to continue to reserve God’s blessings to Israel, and who attempted to enforce this restriction by insisting that Gentiles needed to adopt the covenant markers of Judaism (primarily circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath-keeping) to indicate their participation under God’s covenant.
To this way of thinking, Paul insists that “there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, revealing God’s purpose at His appointed time” (2:5-6). Therefore, it is faith in Jesus (fides/pistis/loyalty) that makes He and He alone the intermediary between God and man, rather than the works of the law (those previously mentioned covenant markers that then served to set God’s covenant people apart from all other peoples). Just in case there may be a thought that this ongoing disputation between Jew and Gentile is a component of Paul’s address here when he makes mention of “all people,” we can look to what follows the sixth verse, which is “For this I was appointed a preacher and apostle---I am telling the truth; I am not lying---and a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. So I want the men to pray in every place, lifting up holy hands without anger or dispute” (2:7-8).