The waves of persecution came and went, but it wasn’t easy to be a Christian in the Roman Empire. To follow Christ cost some their lives, but shame and contempt was heaped upon all who identified with Christ. Christians rejected the Roman pantheon of gods, refused to worship Caesar in some instances, but most of all, they worshiped a man who died upon a cross.
Porphyry accused Christians of undermining Roman society, being apostates who were “impious and atheistic.” Celsus mocked that Christians were altogether “wanting in sense.” The most outlandish rumors spread: Believers ingested real flesh and blood in their ceremonies, and were an incestuous cult because they called each other “brother” or “sister.” According to Eusebius, mobs threw stones at believers, assaulted, and even robbed them.
But didn’t the police do anything about it? Not as you would hope. From the Resurrection of Christ to the Edict of Milan (c. 313), only about half all these years were relatively peaceful. Of those quieter years, the government did little to help.
Under Nero (c. 54-68), Christians were routinely rounded up and martyred. Persecution subsided only until the reign of Domitian (c. 81-96).
In the second century, Trajan (c. 112-117) officially outlawed Christianity. Marcus Aurelius (c. 161-180) and Septimus Severus (c. 202-210) destroyed churches in the empire. Maximinus (c. 235-238), Decius (c. 249-251), Valerian (c. 257-259), Aurelian (c. 270-275), and Diocletian (c. 303-311) did much the same.
It wasn’t at the hands of terrorists that our ancestors in the faith suffered. They suffered often at the hands of their own government. They watched their own tax dollars go towards their own destruction. Imagine that. Yet, without a hint of bitterness, Tertullian responded in the early third century as follows…
Without ceasing, for all our emperors we offer prayer. We pray for life prolonged; for security to the empire; for protection to the imperial house; for brave armies, a faithful senate, a virtuous people, the world at rest, as man or Caesar, an emperor would wish.
For all the emperors, he prayed God’s blessings. It’s the same kind of heart that we see of Paul in 1 Timothy 2:1-4 where he exhorted Timothy to pray for the salvation of their political leaders.
Looking back on his life, we know that Paul was imprisoned and flogged more than once, hated, shipwrecked, betrayed, ever on the run, often starving, and regularly exhausted (2 Cor 11:24-27). Few have suffered like him for the sake of the gospel, and so much of his suffering was due to the Roman government. After all of this, he wrote Timothy telling him that it is of first importance to pray evangelistically for everyone… not forgetting “kings and all who are in high positions.”
Peter showed that same kind of heart as well. While in Rome, during the reign of Nero, he told believers to “honor the emperor” (1 Pet 2:17). Honor Nero?! Exactly. In the preceding verses, Peter even said to “put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander” (1 Pet 2:1). Considering the circumstances, it makes sense how believers could become filled with bitterness to the point of hating their leaders. Peter understood quite well and then said to put it away.
I believe there is a place for speaking up and confronting sin, even for lobbying against the ills of our society. The problem isn’t necessarily our actions in the political arena these days. We are centuries removed from Rome, and our government has done nothing of the sort to persecute us, yet we may have much in common with the readers of 1 Peter. We don’t want to honor our leaders any more than they did. One problem seems to be us. We often lack the kind of heart that Paul or Peter had for their leaders. They could look past the tyranny of Rome to see that Rome needs the Savior.
May we raise our voices in the political arena, but do it in a way that evidences our love for the lost. The political arena remains a mission field, my friends. Speak up, but after standing for truth, we must go on to speak of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Woe to us if we don’t (1 Cor 9:16).
It’s no surprise that our nation has shifted morally and continues on a godless course. How will you respond? May the Lord soften your heart and fill it with compassion. Pray for the salvation of your political leaders, even approach them to speak about your hope in Christ. Why? Because apart from the gospel, there is no hope for our nation, for our leaders, or for anyone else.