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 they not go beyond their rightful place as the church says “we’ll take it from here,” are then to be turned outwards, with 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 quite 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” (1 Timothy 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 that looks to the renewal of the whole of creation (not an escape to 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 it is now to be found 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 the Creator 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 the Creator 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 Israel’s 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 their God’s blessings to Israel alone, 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 their God’s covenant.