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In Defense of “Lord” in Liturgy

by James R. Adams

James R. Adams is President, The Center for Progressive Christianity, which sponsors the Jesus Seminar. This article appears as a resource on The Center for Progressive Christianity web site, copyright 2001 and used by permission. It originally was printed in the TCPC May 2002 Newsletter. Additional resources and information about The Center may be found at http://www.tcpc.org/ .


As an occasional celebrant and preacher in parish churches and in the Episcopal Divinity School chapel, I am aware that the word "Lord" offends some people whenever they encounter the term in a service of worship. For them, using "Lord" can make either the deity or Jesus of Nazareth seem terribly remote, excessively masculine, and probably oppressive. In an attempt to emphasize the inclusive quality of divine love, some planners of worship have decided that "Lord" must be deleted from all prayers, hymns, and salutations. I think I understand the reasoning, but I feel that discarding "Lord" is a mistake. For me, substituting "God" for "Lord", as some liturgists are doing, compounds the error.

In my upbringing, I learned that the first Christian statement of faith was probably "Jesus is Lord." The context in which St. Paul used the affirmation sounds as if he were quoting something that his readers would immediately recognize: "No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit" (I Corinthians 12:3). To call Jesus "Lord" is to say that I have a relationship with Jesus. I am declaring my loyalty and acknowledging his authority in my life. That is very different from saying that "Jesus is God", a statement that does not appear in the Bible.

I find the substitution of "God" for "Lord" particularly inappropriate in the salutation "God be with you." Being greeted with an abstraction alienates me from the act of worship. The purpose of the greeting is the acknowledgment of the loyalty that binds us together as we pray. That particular salutation can be traced to the Hebrew scriptures, the original reference being to the particular god of the Hebrew-speaking people. When the name of their tribal god became so sacred that they refrained from saying it aloud, they substituted the equivalent of our word "Lord". In the story of Ruth, her future husband Boaz greeted his reapers with the words, "The Lord be with you," and they responded in kind. In this brief exchange of greetings they were acknowledging that they were bound together by a common loyalty and trust (Ruth 2:4). When Saul used the same words to send David out to meet Goliath, he was not referring to a generic deity but to the one they both had sworn to serve (I Samuel 17:37). Using "God be with you" in similar circumstances is simply being polite. Even atheists can use the short form of "God be with you", goodbye, and think nothing of it.

The English word "Lord" seems to be particularly appropriate as a translation for both the Hebrew and Greek titles found in the Bible. In old English the word was hlaford, a contraction of loaf and warden. A lord is the keeper of the bread. In the early English social structure, the lord provided protection to the farmers so that they could raise their crops in peace. At the time of the harvest, they brought the grain to the lord’s mill for the grinding of the flour that would become their bread. They gave their loyalty to the lord and trusted the lord to protect them and to see that they were fed. From the perspective the twenty-first century, we might find fault with the early English social system, but we can understand why "Lord" made sense to them as a way of addressing Jesus and the God to whom Jesus had led them.

I find it somehow curious that people are willing to give up the emphasis on the trust and loyalty essential to the formation of community in order to avoid what they perceive to be a masculine word. In the United States, we do not have lords as part of our social system so for our understanding of the word in modern usage we have to look across the sea to the United Kingdom where they still have parliament that includes a House of Lords. As anyone who follows the news realizes, the House of Lords is not an exclusively male domain. Women, such as Margaret Thatcher, can be and are lords.

I find it equally curious that people who are sensitive to gender issues prefer to use the word "god", which is clearly a masculine form. Many masculine words in the English language have completely absorbed their feminine forms to the extent that using the feminine is thought to be rude or insulting. We no longer say: waitress, stewardess, poetess, authoress, patroness, tailoress, murderess, quakeress, priestess, deaconess, or entertainess. But the feminine form "goddess" is very much in vogue. Interest in the goddess cults and imagery has heightened the masculine connotations of "god" to the point that I wonder why it is the preferred name for the deity.

To me, an appreciation of both logic and language suggests that we retain the use of "Lord" in liturgy until we can find a better word than "God" as a substitute.


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