Tuesday, April 10, 2018

TTT #9 Christians Must Be Careful When They Call Jesus “Lord”

Once again I am sharing content only from the first part of a chapter in my unpublished book Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now (TTT). (Readers who have the time and interest are invited to click here in order to read the entire chapter.)
Confessing Jesus as Lord
“Jesus is Lord” is the first and oldest confession of faith by Christians. To present times, that has been a common declaration of faith—and one wonders how different things would be if Christian believers had stuck with that concise confession rather than crafting more complicated creeds.
Back in 1960 when I was a seminary student, June and I became the proud owners of a 1958 Hillman Minx, a British car that looked a lot better than it started in the wintertime. At some point, we pasted a Jesus is Lord sticker on the trunk (or I guess I should say the boot) of our pretty little red and grey car.
In addition to being a seminary student, I was also pastor of the Ekron Baptist Church in Meade County, south of Louisville, and I was happy to witness to Jesus as I drove around the Ekron community.
I had no idea then, and have not realized until fairly recently, that proclaiming that Jesus is Lord can be offensive to some people. But now I understand that Christians must be careful when they call Jesus Lord.
Objecting to Calling Jesus Lord
"Tink" Tinker (b. 1944)
American Indian Liberation (2008) is a challenging book by George E. (“Tink”) Tinker, a professor at Iliff School of Theology in Colorado. Dr. Tinker specifically objects to calling Jesus Lord
While the original meaning of that term was an indication of a believer’s commitment to Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world, it came to be experienced by American Indians, as well as by aboriginal people in other countries around the world, as a term of conquest and colonization.
What was meant to be a term designating, among other things, the humble submission of believers to Christ eventually came to be a term even Christian missionaries used to lord it over other people.
Proclaiming Jesus as Lord led an imperialistic church to exude triumphalism in contact with American Indians and with many ethnic groups around the world.
That triumphalistic spirit is seen in hymns such as “Jesus Shall Reign” (1719). The first verse of that hymn by Isaac Watts says, “Jesus shall reign where'er the sun / does its successive journeys run; / his kingdom spread from shore to shore, / till moons shall wax and wane no more.”
And then the third verse of Watts’s hymn, one that is not usually found in modern hymnals, proclaims, “There Persia, glorious to behold, / There India shines in eastern gold; / And barb’rous nations at His word / Submit, and bow, and own their Lord.”
The triumphalism of the hymn becomes more problematic when one considers how Persia at that time was ruled by a Shi’a Islamic dynasty.
Confessing Jesus as Lord Today
The preaching of Paul and the early missionaries was clearly about the lordship of Christ. But as Christianity then was a small movement without power or prestige, there was no way that it could lord it over other people the way some missionaries and other Christians did later when Christianity was linked to imperialistic activities of powerful Western nations.
Because of that misuse of the concept of lordship, Christians today need to be careful how they use the words “Jesus is Lord.” That confession must be only a statement of one’s faith in and personal commitment to Christ and never as suggesting or approving domination of others.


  1. Thank you Leroy for shedding light on this phrase and helping us all understand its implications.

  2. Thank you, Lonnie, for reading and responding!

  3. Local Thinking Friend Andrew Bolton sent the following comments, which I am happy to share, and to comment on, here:

    "I have been thinking recently about the term, Jesus is Lord, so I am glad you have tackled it. What is good about the term is that it politically implies Jesus is greater that Caesar and if we say Jesus is President, greater than . . . Donald Trump.

    "So Jesus is Lord is subversive; it is a switching of loyalty. What do you suggest is a better term that gets at the radicality of Jesus is Lord but avoids the imperialism of its application in Christian history? Also a term that is gender neutral."

    1. Thanks, Andrew, for your perceptive comments. I dealt with the subversive nature of "lord" to some extent in the ninth chapter of TTT, which you probably haven't had time to read yet.

      But I don't know how to answer the questions you raise. I don't know that there is a term that avoids the imperialism in the way the lordship of Christ has often been used. I guess that is why I could only suggest that care be taken--and that we have the type of attitude I wrote about at the end of the chapter.

      Further, I don't know that there is any suitable "gender neutral" term. (I found that the feminine form of "lord" is "lady," but that certainly doesn't suggest any solution!) "Master," of course, is a synonym, but that also is equally masculine. Sometimes I guess we just have to go with the terminology that is available and describe or define what is meant by the terms used.

      When (or if) you have time to read the whole chapter, I would appreciate hearing from you again about this important matter.

  4. Philip Freeman in his book "Julius Caesar" translates an inscription erected by the Ephesians as "The cities, people, and tribes of Asia honor Gaius Julius Caesar, son of Gaius, high priest and twice consul of Rome, a descendant of Ares and Aphrodite, a god who has appeared among us for the salvation of all mankind." (page 283) Before Christianity can clear the air about what we mean by "Lord" we need to come to terms with the whole constellation of issues swirling around the term, and how these concepts intersect and interact with the ancient pagan understanding of those terms, and the imperial heritage Christian history has embraced. We will not understand Christ until we understand Caesar. We will not know what "Lord" means until we understand the subversive way we are called to use it. In the meantime, perhaps we owe it to others to find a new English word to express our faith.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Craig.

      Here is a brief paragraph in the third part of the ninth chapter of TTT:

      "In the Roman world, Caesar had come to view himself as 'lord' and was not open to having rivals. The statement that 'Jesus is Lord' in the context of the Roman world, then, was viewed as political subversion, a direct challenge to the prevailing establishment."

      I am not sure that we can find a better English word, but I am quite sure we need to promote a better understanding of what "Lord" meant to the early Christians and what that implies for us today.

  5. Yesterday, Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky sent the following comments:

    "I think Dr. Tinker overstates the effect of that confession, Leroy. That was not a part of the debate at the ecumenical councils. At Nicea Constantine supplied the word 'homoousios.' Debate raged on from there."

    1. Certainly, the debate at Nicea (in 325) was over "homoousios" and "homoiousios," but Dr. Tinker was not writing about that important theological difference.

      His concern is with how many Christians thought that their belief in Jesus as Lord was linked to a manifest destiny that included bringing the American Indians (and other "heathen") to acknowledge the lordship of Jesus and subject to the dominance of those who identified with the Lord, Jesus.

  6. Leroy, Thanks, as always, for sharing not only your convictions but the thinking and way you have arrived at those convictions.
    The cautions about “Lord” can, in some ways, can be extended other critical words in our Christian creeds was well as our basic affirmations of faith. Words are always colored by cultures.
    We are dealing with “mysteries” of faith”, the inexplicable or very difficult to explain, when we deal with “divine” and “human”, “nature” and “person” in their Greek and translated terms.
    I find it helpful to understand how or why early Christians proclaimed Jesus as “divine”, “God” or “Lord” in the context of the Roman emperor being a “god” and “divine”. Now move to another time and other cultures we need to make shifts of our terms or do a lot of explaining

    1. Thanks, Larry for reading and commenting on my blog article.

      I certainly agree that the language we use is constantly a problem, especially when in our day we use terms that were developed in a completely different historical context.

      As I deal with in the ninth chapter of TTT, the use of "Lord" for Jesus was important, and a problem, not only because of the link of that term with the Roman emperor but also because of its connection with use in the monotheistic faith of the Jewish people as they used "Lord" ("adonai") to refer to the God whose name was too sacred to speak.