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

“JESUS IS LORD” IS the first and oldest confession of faith for Christians. In his letter to the church in Rome, the Apostle Paul wrote, “. . . if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (10:9). And then in his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul declared that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (12:3).

Confessing “Jesus is Lord” was, it seems, essential for the identity of Christians in New Testament times—and those words have been used by multitudes of Christians down to the present time. For example, the 1990 World Council of Churches conference on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation was held in Seoul, Korea. At that gathering, the words “Jesus Christ is Lord” were emblazoned on a huge banner above the dais.

More personally, in 1960 when I was in seminary, 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 at the time, 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 recently, that calling Jesus Lord can be offensive to some people. But now I understand that Christians must be careful when they call Jesus “Lord.”

What’s Wrong with Saying “Jesus is Lord”?

In the previous chapter, I introduced the challenging book American Indian Liberation by George E. “Tink” Tinker, and I mentioned that Dr. Tinker objects to calling Jesus Lord. While the original meaning of that term was an indication of a believer’s commitment to Jesus Christ, it came to be experienced by the Native Americans in this country, 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. The concept of lordship became, according to Tinker, the basis for establishing hierarchies among people whose cultures and social structures were “fundamentally marked by their egalitarian nature.”[1]

Proclaiming Jesus as Lord became linked to a colonialistic church adopting a position of triumphalism in relation to American Indians and to many ethnic groups around the world. The emphasis in the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers,” to greater or lesser degrees, became for some not just striving against Satan and the forces of evil in the world, but also against all nations, cultures, and people groups who did not acknowledge the lordship of Jesus.

Underlying the same triumphal spirit are hymns such as “Jesus Shall Reign.” The first verse of that old 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.”[2]

The triumphalism of the hymn becomes more problematic when one considers how Persia at that time was ruled by a Shi’a Islamic dynasty.

It is tragic that through the years Christians, and especially Christian missionaries, did not conduct their evangelistic activities in the way the first missionary, the Apostle Paul, did. In his second letter to the church in Corinth, he declared: “. . . we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake” (4:5).

The preaching of Paul and the early missionaries was about the lordship of Christ, but as Christianity was a small movement without power or prestige, there was no way that they could lord it over other people the way latter missionaries and other Christians tended to do when Christianity was tied to the imperialistic activities of powerful nations. But because of that misuse of the concept of lordship, Christians must be careful how they used the words “Jesus is Lord” today, especially among people that have been oppressed by “Christian” nations.

“Jesus Is Lord” as Affirmation of Jesus’ Divinity

While the way “Jesus is Lord” has sometimes been used from the fourth century to recent times is a problem especially for those who are members of a people group that has been colonized and forced to submit to the lordship of the conquering Christians, in the first years of Christianity the affirmation that Jesus is Lord was a confession of faith about the divinity of Jesus.

Through the centuries, the Jewish people—and don’t forget, Jesus and most of his earliest followers were Jews—confessed that God is the one and only Lord. The Shema was a liturgical prayer recited twice daily by adult Jewish males to reaffirm their faith. It consisted of three scriptural passages: Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41. The first of these begins with these familiar words: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.”

One of the main conflicts between the early followers of Jesus and the Jewish religious establishment of the day was over this very issue: if there is one Lord, the creator God that the Jewish people had worshipped exclusively, how could Jesus possibly be called Lord in the religious sense? There were multiple reasons why the Jewish leaders began to oppose Jesus and his followers, but the latter’s insistence that Jesus is Lord was one of the most significant of those reasons. It seemed to fly in the face of their central confession of one true God.

To be sure, it is not easy to understand how Jesus Christ could at one and the same time be both a human being and God. That conundrum was a central issue in the early church for a long time, and it was the subject of the First Ecumenical Council held in Nicaea, a city in what is now the country of Turkey, in A. D. 325.

The nature of Jesus and his relation to God was the central issue dealt with at that Council, and the conclusion of the bishops who convened was expressed in what is called the Nicene Creed. That Creed makes this statement about Jesus Christ:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made.[3]

Note the use of the words “one Lord.” Christ was fully identified as being fully God, so the oneness of God was affirmed. This did not mean there was no more problem in understanding the relationship between Jesus and God. More than a century later, in 451, the Third Ecumenical Council was held in Chalcedon, and the creed that was produced at that conclave declared that Jesus was “truly God and truly man.”

The same creed also stated clearly that the Son was “our Lord Jesus Christ.” Consequently, most Christians at the time and in the centuries since have identified Jesus with God. Jesus is seen as being divine, in spite of the objections of the Jewish people who could not accept that claim. And he is also acknowledged as Lord, in spite of those who find the concept of lordship to be problematic.

“Jesus is Lord” as a Political Statement

Not only did the early Christians’ calling Jesus Lord elicit opposition from the Jews, there was also conflict with the Romans because of that same affirmation. During the first century, the words “Jesus is Lord” constituted a political statement which conflicted with “Caesar is Lord,” a popular greeting among Roman citizens. Thus, Christians increasingly came to be seen as a political threat to the Roman Empire.

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.

For Christians to confess Jesus as Lord means that their allegiance is being pledged primarily to Jesus Christ, not to any earthly ruler such as Caesar. That was what got many of the early Christians in trouble with the Roman Empire—and that was also the dangerous position taken by some German Christians in the 1930s after Hitler came into power as the Führer or supreme ruler of the country.

In 1934, leaders of what came to be known as the “Confessing Church” adopted “The Theological Declaration of Barmen” (often called just the Barmen Declaration). Its central doctrines were about the sin of idolatry and the lordship of Christ, and, naturally, opposed the Nazification of German Protestant churches. One of the key leaders of the Confessing Church was Martin Niemöller. It was largely out of his commitment to Jesus, rather than to Hitler, as Lord (or Führer) that eventually led to his imprisonment, from 1937 to 1945, and nearly to his execution.[4]

Most people now, at least here in the United States, don’t have to worry about suffering such dire results. But the question remains: to whom do Christians pledge allegiance? While it is not necessarily a choice between country and Christ, I see a problem with Christians pledging allegiance to the United States, for people give their primary allegiance to that person or power that is most important in their lives.

Stephen Decatur (1779-1820) was a heroic naval officer in the War of 1812. Later in that decade he offered a toast with words that have often been repeated ever since: “Our Country! . . . may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!” It is this kind of allegiance that is questionable for a Christian. A Christian’s loyalty must always be primarily to Jesus as Lord.

How Should We Think about Philippians 2:9-11?

New Testament scholars are agreed that Philippians 2:6-11 was an early Christian hymn. (That is the reason it is printed as a poem in the New Testament rather than as prose.) The second half of that poem/hymn says,

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

These words seem clearly to proclaim a universal lordship of Jesus which moves far beyond the idea of individuals choosing to confess Jesus as their lord. That passage, as much as any other, can be, and has been, used to support a triumphalistic view of those who believe in Jesus Christ.[5]

Two things, without fail need, to be noted in this passage. First, it begins with statements about Christ being humble, emptying himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and becoming “obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (vv. 7-8). Further, this hymn is preceded by these words of admonition: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (vv. 3-4). Then, the words of the hymn are given after the command, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (v. 5).

If these verses in the first part of Philippians 2 are taken seriously, as certainly they ought to be by Christians, it is hard to see how the words expressing God’s desired outcome for the human race expressed in verses 9-11 can be used in a high-handed, imperialistic manner.

It is, however, unfortunately true that Christian rulers, explorers, colonialists, and even Christian missionaries, at times, have used the concept of the Lordship of Jesus to pressure people of non-Christian tribes and nations to subjection and even to nominal conversion to Christianity. Without doubt, there are legitimate complaints about the use of the words “Jesus is Lord” to justify oppression of those who were not or are not Christians.

Thus, and this is the point of the present chapter, Christians must be careful when they call Jesus “Lord.” They must be careful because that concept has been misused. It has been inappropriately, and sometimes disastrously, used through mistakenly seeking to force obedience to Jesus as Lord by peoples of cultures or societies who did not know Jesus and who had other religious commitments and loyalties.

The hymn of Philippians 2:6-11 ends with the words, “and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” If, as I have argued in earlier chapters, God is primarily a God of love, and if, as surely is the case, God uses only love and never coercion to draw people to faith, then surely those who seek to bring glory to God the Father must use only loving means to bring others to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord.

Because of the errors and excesses of missionary and evangelistic activities in the past, there is reluctance among many Christians now to engage in or to support direct and/or intercultural evangelism. But isn’t perhaps doing nothing to share the message of God’s love an unacceptable extreme as much as doing that in oppressive ways? The proper response to evangelism or mission activity done in the wrong way is evangelism and missionary activity done in the right way, not giving it up altogether.

So, yes, Christians must be careful when they call Jesus “Lord.” But they must not lose confidence in the Gospel nor be lax in their efforts to woo others to faith in God by the love of God, praying that the day will come in which “every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

[1] George E. “Tink” Tinker, American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty (Orbis Books, 2008), p. 96.

[2] Watts (1674-1748) is recognized as the “Father of English Hymnody,” as he was the first prolific and popular English hymn writer, credited with some 750 hymns. “Jesus Shall Reign” was first published in 1719. When I was a boy and a member of the Royal Ambassadors missions organization, I had to memorize the words of that hymn for advancement to the next rank. Of course, at that time I had no idea about the problem of triumphalism.

[3] These words are from the 1988 Ecumenical Version of the Nicene Creed.

[4] After being released, Niemöller (1892-1984) expressed his deep regret about not having done enough to help the victims of the Nazis.

[5] In addition to this passage, the two references in the book of Revelation that refer to Jesus as “Lord of lords” and “King of kings” (17:14 and 19:16) can be used to foster a triumphalistic view of Christianity.