Friends of the Court: Christians in Post-Christian Society
The book of Acts represents the quintessential biblical guide to evangelism and mission, with Acts 1:8 serving as the preview of the book's tracing of the advance of the gospel from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. One of the theories that scholars and other interpreters have proposed for the author's purpose imagines Luke–Acts as an amicus curiae brief for Paul's trial in Rome.1 Written to an otherwise unknown "most excellent Theophilus," (Luke 1:3) who attorney and author John Mauck theorizes to have been Paul's lawyer, the introduction to Luke offers such legal terminology as "eyewitnesses," "account," and "carefully investigated." The books are considerably pro-Roman, showing the Roman authorities and soldiers as never attacking Christians unless provoked by provincial religious leaders, and were even depicted as supporting Jesus and Paul.
Note especially the centurion who inspired Jesus with faith in His authority (Luke 7:5); the Roman soldier who declared Jesus "righteous" or "innocent" (Luke 23:47); and Cornelius, the centurion whose household was saved and filled with the Spirit (Acts 10-11). Consider among the many sympathetic Roman officials in the book of Acts such persons as the proconsul Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:6-12) who put his faith in Christ through Paul's teaching. Or the Roman magistrates in Philippi who released Paul from prison and escorted him from there after the conversion of the jailor (Acts 16:38). Or Publius (Acts 28:7-10) who received Paul with hospitality and honor after he healed his father. With the exception of Pontius Pilate, who the Romans had repudiated and ordered to commit suicide after his conviction on charges of executing men without proper trial, the Romans in Luke–Acts treat Jesus and Paul with considerable sympathy.
Did Luke–Acts, then, serve as a trial brief for the apostle Paul? Most scholars ultimately reject this theory, however effective its defense of Christianity and Rome. But considering the theory offers a category for Paul's attitude toward Rome—being a "friend of the court," it provides a remarkable example for 21st-century Christians. After centuries of Christendom—Christianity combined with secular power and prestige—Christians find themselves in a position very similar to that of Paul. The moral ambiguities of the post-Christian world are strikingly similar to those of Rome. Yet despite the contradictions between Christian morality and Roman society, Paul never despaired of reaching Romans for Christ. In Romans 1:16, Paul avers that he was "not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes." In Romans 13:1 Paul urges Christians to "be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established." Nero's reign as Caesar did not shake Paul's confidence that God stood above the government in authority. Throughout the book of Acts, Paul proudly proclaimed his Roman citizenship and leaned on its privileges (Acts 16:37-38, 21:39, and 22:26-27). He preached the gospel to the highest Roman officials he could get in front of, confident that they too could turn to Christ in faith. Although he had used the Hebrew name Saul at all times before the proconsul Sergius Paulus accepted Christ (Acts 13:7), he never uses that name afterward—adopting the Roman name of his most illustrious convert thenceforth. Even though he would certainly have won his freedom in lower-level Roman courts after his appearance before Festus and Agrippa (Acts 26:32), Paul appealed his case to Caesar for no apparent reason except to gain an opportunity to appear before Nero and share the gospel with him. Undoubtedly, Paul believed that even so depraved a character as Nero could turn to Christ and be saved.
Despite the many contradictions between Judeo-Christian culture and Roman culture, Paul believed that the gospel could overcome them. He preached the gospel with total confidence in its efficacy. He believed that the Roman officials would turn to God in faith, and often they did. He remained a good citizen and believed in the best from government. He always remained, if you will, "a friend of the court." Sometimes "the court" lived up to his best hopes; ultimately it did not. But in the long run, Paul achieved a level of evangelistic success that still inspires and instructs us in our struggle to navigate the contradictions, ambiguities, and fears that confront our ministry to post-Christian societies. We can do no better than to follow his model. We do not need to despair of receiving a just hearing, nor do we need to adjust the essentials of our faith to match the culture around us. Indeed, we must not do so. But we have every reason to trust the power of the gospel unto salvation as we carry it into the fog of our contemporary society.
1 John Mauck, Paul on Trial: The Book of Acts as a Defense of Christianity, Nelson Reference & Electronic Pub, 2001).