To say that Jesus is Lord is to echo one the earliest and most basic Christian confessions. Lordship language came right out of the Roman culture: Caesar claimed for himself the titles “son of God” and “Lord.” To claim the Lordship of Jesus flew in the face of the powerful Roman Empire. No wonder Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3b). Of course, anyone might say it and not mean it, but in the context of the Roman empire why would you make such a claim and put your self, your family, and your faith community in danger unless you were serious?
But even before the Roman emperor was called “Lord,” this was a title ascribed to God. The Greek word kyrios was employed in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) as a substitute for the unspeakable name of God. The early Christians did not claim that Jesus was God, but they believed as the “Son of God” he acted as God’s mediator and representative incarnating the character of God, which is why Paul talks about seeing “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
When I confess that Jesus is Lord I am not confessing belief in some theoretical or doctrinal belief about Jesus. Rather, I am confessing my allegiance to the way of Jesus: the way of forgiveness, grace, peace, and compassion, as opposed to the way of empire: the way of retribution, greed, and rule by force. When I say Jesus is Lord I am saying that my first priority and central commitment is to emulate the life of Jesus and embody the teachings of Jesus. Brother David Steindl-Rast captures this well,
Faith in Jesus Christ as Lord means ultimate trust in the power of God’s love shining forth in him. It implies facing up to the demands of such love by living accordingly. A world in which the sovereignty of love determines relationships and events is diametrically opposed to the alienated dog-eat-dog world we have created. The divine lordship of love will inevitable clash with the authoritarian claims of power structures in the world in which we live. Faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord implies courage to engage in this struggle.
What I don’t mean when I confess that Jesus is Lord is that Jesus is the only way I or anyone else can experience and know God. A person who has never been taught about Jesus may know God through other means and mediators, but inevitably the consequence of such encounters will reflect something of the way of Jesus, which is the way of love.
In the very passage where Paul says that no one can confess that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit he says also, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). Here, I believe, is what the appropriation of the Lordship of Jesus looks like. Paul clearly has the local church in mind, but the principle applies individually as well as communally and globally.
What if all Christians who confessed Jesus as Lord were committed to the common good? We would be living in a different world wouldn’t we? In fact, if just a small percentage of Christians connected the Lordship of Jesus not to some theological or doctrinal affirmation, but to the common good of all people I have no doubt it would make a profound difference. Surely we would be living in a more just, equitable, and compassionate society.
Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. Chuck blogs at A Fresh Perspective, and is also a contributor to the blog Faith Forward and Baptist News Global.