“Jesus is Lord!!!”...
This is a common refrain in the Christian world. It usually refers to putting Jesus first in one’s life, serving God’s agenda for making more disciples and leading a holy life above all human desires. It can be used to mean a forsaking of oneself, picking up our crosses daily so that we might follow Jesus; a denial of everything immoral that may tempt us, of putting God’s holy way above our own sinful desires, that God’s glory may be known and his kingdom may grow.
It is also generally misunderstood by many throughout Church history who have used their particular appropriations to justify “holy” and not-so-holy wars, excommunications, inquisitions and persecutions and generally all other exclusions from faith communities. Too many people have been killed by the Church throughout history - directly and indirectly; physically, socially and emotionally - in defence of Jesus’ lordship. It is amazing the lengths we will go to, and the pain we will deliberately and unknowingly inflict on others even today, in order to preserve Jesus Christ’s position and authority as ruler and judge over all the world.
The end justifies the means
We’ll excuse such behaviour though, justifying it with a “biblical” worldview that places concern for someone’s eternal future over any concern for what will result from our words and actions in the here and now. Our desire for them to submit to Jesus’ “lordship” and be spared an eternity of torment is seen as more the loving thing, and justifies – in our minds – what those outside of the church see as terribly harmful words and actions.
We will disown our gay and trans children for example, telling them they are an abomination to the Lord. We do this out of “love” in order to stimulate a repentance on their part, so they might enjoy our notion of heaven in the next life. It matters not that our words and actions have led to the tragic and extremely disproportionate rate of suicide amongst the lgbtqi+ community. The end justifies the means...
Lord of all
For many Christians, Jesus is omnipotent, all-powerful. He has mercifully provided a way for those who believe in him to be saved, but for those who refuse to accept the gift of his sacrifice, he will exercise justice on judgment day. “Jesus is Lord” and he will return to judge the living and the dead. As Lord of creation, Jesus stands above the Buddha, Krishna, Mohammed and Moses as the only way to be saved and made whole, and the followers of any and all others will also be relegated to an eternity of damnation.
But what does it really mean?
Let’s take a moment to examine the origin of the phrase in Christian culture and how it relates to Jesus’ own message and legacy. At the time of Jesus, Rome ruled the known world. The Roman Emperors had set themselves up as gods, and the phrase “Caesar is Lord” was a common expression, meant to guarantee subservience in the hearts and minds of the common folk through repetition and violent enforcement. For Rome, its citizens and its subjugates, the Caesar’s way was the only way, and deviation from or denouncement of, the dictated way of life was to defy “God” himself, and to accept the inevitable death penalty that came with such a course of action.
So when the early followers of “The Way” began declaring that “Jesus is Lord”, it was a direct indictment of the Caesars and the violence-fueled empire that they reigned over. But the early believers weren’t raising Jesus up as someone to be worshiped or to follow into battle to violently conquer other people. Jesus asked for none of these things, and even specifically requested to not be treated as such.
Nor were they raising up a violent opposition to the Caesars’ cause. And yet, for the early church, “Jesus is Lord” meant that the way of Jesus was superior to the way of Caesar. But what they were declaring was that the path of service and servitude, of humility and grace, of love and compassion for the lowly – and of non-violence – was a much more beautiful, fulfilling and godly way to live than the fear and anger-driven, domination-and-violence model that was embraced in Rome and has been by every other culture before Christ and since.
A shift in meaning
Yet once Christianity was universally adopted by the Roman Empire the notion of “Jesus is Lord” changed dramatically, from a humble way of service and love, to the exact expression of violent control and subjugation that the phrase was designed to subvert. It became synonymous with the Roman control of the empire, that required everyone - under threat of force if necessary - to bow down to its new state-sanctioned mantra.
In the modern age we have watered down much of the physical violence, yet that domination perspective still monopolises the meaning of the phrase. We Christians still largely believe that we are meant to go and make converts for Christ, conquering lands, cities and peoples for the glory of God. For us it is about ensuring that Jesus gets the biggest slice of the global worship pie, defending his honour against the “scourge” of false religions.
Military metaphors still abound in worship circles and many Christians feel the weight of being “under attack” by unseen enemies who spiritually manipulate people, things and events in order to thwart God’s plans for his own advancing kingdom, ultimately revealing our lack of trust in God's omnipotence and goodness.
We circle the wagons, closing ranks and church doors to anyone who doesn’t accept God exactly as we see *him*. We fire out our arrows at everything we are against – same sex marriage and the LGBTQI+ community in general, abortion, “lefties”, people who have different religious beliefs (even within the Christian world), evolution and science – little realising that the tighter we close our ranks, the smaller our circle of wagons becomes.
To side with power or critique it?
God’s kingdom was never meant to work this way. Jesus meant for his followers to be a critique of power and those who would desire it; to slowly permeate the world’s systems by filling our whole world with grace, love, acceptance and humility. Not to wield power ourselves, holding the gates of heaven shut to all who believe or live differently - but to willingly accept, and even ask for, the lowest seat of honour at the banquet table of life so that we may better love and serve the world.
It doesn’t matter to God how many people call themselves “Christian”, or how big *his* 'kingdom' is in any part of this planet. What matters is how attune we are to God’s willfully humiliated spirit of service, forgiveness and grace - and if we choose to engage with it or not. And many outside of the Christian wagon-circle are doing just that.
The “Lordship of Jesus” is not found in worshipping a god-man on a heavenly throne like some sort of Caesar with a fragile ego, it is found in allowing your holy feet to be washed by someone more lowly than you; discovering Christ in them regardless of who they are. Maybe then, we might be equipped to do the same for a broken and hurting world.
Russell has a heart for community and reaching out to the marginalised and forgotten. He is getting to know the God of infinite goodness and is living a joy-filled life with his wife Belinda and three children in South-East Queensland, Australia.
See all previous articles by Russell Croft