December 15, A.D. 37 marks the entry into this world of Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. Later in life, Nero, as he became known, was not the owner of a franchise of coffee houses, but his reign of tyranny over the Roman Empire from 54-68 proved especially detrimental to the early Christian church. If Roman citizen Saul of Tarsus had been able to cast a ballot, I doubt seriously that he would have given the nod to Nero, even before Saul became a believer. Perhaps if the cast of candidates had included Caligula and Domitian, Saul might have toyed with the idea, but in the end I think he probably would have chosen a write-in candidate.
So what exactly is a Christian supposed to do when Nero is on the throne? Paul, the missionary, could certainly find little to commend in Nero’s decadent and extravagant lifestyle. What can we as contemporary believers learn about how to respond when political leaders propose laws and programs that oppose the morality of the Bible and promote injustice in the legal system and elsewhere? The Bible and the Apostles, whether by command or by example, do not leave us in a lurch on this question.
First, political leaders – regardless of platform – are to be the objects of our concerted prayer (1 Timothy 2:1-2). So much is obvious, but for what do we intercede? Here are some safe suggestions. First, pray for their salvation (1 Corinthians 10:33). While difficulty awaits civil servants who might consider the state of their souls, such a scenario is not without precedent. In the Scriptures, the treasurer of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia, hears the evangelist Philip (Acts 8:26ff). Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon says of Daniel’s God, “Truly your God is the God of gods, the Lord of kings…” (Daniel 2:47ff). In modernity I think of Rodney Masona and Baptist missionaries who faithfully prayed for and witnessed to president Levy Mawanawasa of Zambia until the president received Christ and followed the Lord in baptism. We are to pray for our leaders to be saved.
Second, we are to pray for their physical well-being. Assassins and violent men are not restricted to the medieval era. To lead people involves risk, and we owe it to our leaders to intercede with God for their safety.
Third, we should seek the wisdom of God for each leader. Daily he must make decisions for which he often has little competency. Dear God, grant this leader insight for this moment. Fourth, we are specifically to pray that God might use leaders to protect our freedom to serve and worship God through living in peace (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Each of these prayers gains specificity as unique situations arise.
While I sincerely doubt that Paul would ever have voted for Nero, neither did he join with the hungry brigands who determined not to eat again until they had assassinated him (Acts 23:11ff). Paul left the judgment of life and death in the hands of God who alone knows enough to make those kinds of calls. Where appropriate, Paul appealed to the protections accorded him by Roman citizenship (Acts 16:17). But he openly demonstrated disapproval toward hostility on the part of humans.
What about injustices and inequities in the world? Was Paul oblivious to these? Philemon in the New Testament shows us the way. Slavery was prominent in the Roman Empire and the origin of incredible evil. Paul knew two things. First, many injustices in the Roman Empire were not going to change in his lifetime. His own execution at the hands of Rome would be exhibit A. But while he could not become a “justice warrior,” he could change the hearts of men with the gospel of Christ. Paul appeals to Philemon of Colosse to receive his former slave Onesimus, no longer as a slave but as a brother (Philemon 15-16). God had changed the heart of Onesimus and now Philemon must follow. And while slavery still tragically remains in our world, make no mistake, the Christian faith with its adherence to truth eventually brought monumental change to the way slavery is viewed in the social order. But this was effected one heart at a time.
In short, Paul would not vote for Nero. But much of his missionary work happened under the shadow of Neronic threat and persecution. What the government does may often be wrong, but whatever transpires becomes a stepping stone to the spread of the Gospel, which will change the attitudes of all.