Jesus as Lord, Jesus as Servant

by Diogenes Allen

Diogenes Allen teaches philosophy at Princeton Theological Seminary. This article is excerpted from his contribution to The Truth about Jesus, edited by Donald Armstrong III and published this month (March, 1998) by Eerdmans.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 18-25, pp. 295-300. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Jesus is a different kind of lord: he does not need followers. This makes him free to be a servant.

Today it is commonly said, especially by those who endorse a postmodernist creed, that all values and meaning are human or cultural projections. This means, in turn, that all social hierarchies are based on domination by the most powerful groups in various societies. This claim is also made about religious institutions and teachings.

At the core of the Christian life is the fact that people have a Lord, someone to whom they belong and to whom they are obedient. How can people be free if they have a master? How can people be free if they have someone to obey?

Jean-Paul Sartre, like so many in our culture who want to be in personal control of their lives, claimed that the two notions—freedom and God—contradict each other. To be human is to be free, to be autonomous. So the very idea of God reduces people to slavery and is essentially antihuman.

You do not need to endorse Sartre’s claim to recognize the resentment we would feel at having a boss, a ruler or anyone else telling us what to do all the time. How would that be human fulfillment? How could that be self-fulfillment? How could that be happiness? The Christian gospel claims that the spiritual life is to be one of fullness of life and blessedness. How can that develop from a relationship with one who has unquestionable authority over us, especially if we think that blessedness includes a significant degree of self-direction?

So the spiritual life has at its center the question, How can we be free, when we are ruled by a master? I want to approach this question by examining Hegel’s analysis of the relationship between master and slave and then comparing that relationship to Jesus’ treatment of his disciples.

Hegel tells us that in human life there is conflict, with each person seeking to get his or her own way. One resolution of the conflict is the master-slave relation. One person dominates the other completely. From the point of view of one of the people—the master—this is the optimal resolution, for that person’s will is obeyed and hence his personhood is fully realized.

But there is an irony in the situation. The master cannot be truly independent or free. To assert his independence, his mastery, he must have something that is not himself. He must have something to pay him deference, something to subordinate. He has status as master only as long as he has a slave. Thus he does not have perfect independence.

The master tries to keep this truth hidden, to suppress it, by making his control more and more arbitrary, so there is no recourse beyond his will as to how he treats the slave. The more arbitrary his control, the stronger the slave’s dependence, and hence the greater the master’s sense of independence. But clearly this approach is self-defeating; for this consciousness of independence requires the existence of something to subordinate and something that can recognize the master’s dominance.

Another feature of the master-slave relation is the master’s contempt for the slave. By becoming subservient to him, the slave is debased and so is odious. The slave is debased and odious because he really is a person, just like the master. They are essentially the same. Were the slave not a person, there would be no contempt. Why be contemptuous of a river that yields to a dam? Nor do we hold dogs in contempt because they obey us. To call a person a "dog" shows that we have contempt for such obedience when it is exhibited by a person. So the master’s very contempt is an implicit recognition that the slave is a person, and that the relation is an improper one.

The relation is also marked by resentment. The master resents the slave because he needs the slave in order to have the status of master. The slave resents the master because he must obey him. Finally there is envy. The slave wishes that he had power like the master. He envies and secretly admires what the master can do and wants to do it as well. He wants to be a master himself.

It is very clear in the four Gospels that the relation of Jesus to his disciples, though one of dominance and subordination, is very different from the one Hegel describes. Jesus does not gain or hold subordinates by force. He calls disciples—there is an element of choice on their part in becoming subordinate to him. He seeks to confer benefits on them by teaching them. He even performs an act of a servant when he washes their feet. We perceive no resentment or contempt in his treatment of his disciples. Why is this so? What enables Jesus to be a different kind of lord?

Let us approach this by looking at a relation I live with all the time: that of teacher to students. In this relation teachers are in the role of superiors. Within certain limits, we tell our students what to do. What keeps this relation from being that of a Hegelian master with slaves? How can we be the boss and the students not feel or be degraded, or feel resentful? How can we operate on the basis of being boss and not feel contempt for students as underlings?

The relation of superior-subordinate is justified if there are genuine grounds for one to be dominant and the other to be subordinate. If there is some basis for the teacher to command, to lead, and for the student to follow, then there is no violation of personality.

One ground of justification for a teacher’s superiority is that a teacher knows something the pupil does not know. The teacher has some skills, some means of getting answers and some experience which the pupil lacks. The relation is thus based on a difference.

But this is not enough to justify the relation of superior and subordinate. The goal of the teacher must be to enable the pupil to become independent of the teacher. The pupil must eventually be able to learn without the teacher. Many of us teach is such a way that the pupil is dependent on lecture notes and never masters the principles and skills of a field. Some teachers not only fail to do these things but even take a secret delight in their pupils remaining dependent, in remaining essentially inferior to themselves forever.

Each type of relation differs. Doctor-patient, lawyer-client, pastor-congregant, parent-child. Each needs to be looked at in terms of its own particularity. One cannot simply transfer what is true of the teacher-pupil relation to others, or vice versa. There may be similarities; there may be great differences. I only want to make one point: For a relation of superior and subordinate to be different from Hegel’s master-slave relation, there must be some genuine basis for the two roles. There is none in Hegel’s; there is only brute, raw power.

Now what is the basis of Jesus’ lordship? On what does it rest, so that he can indeed be our Lord, can command us, have us depend on him always, without this being destructive of our personality? What makes him a different kind of lord than Hegel’s master?

The foundation of Jesus’ relation to his disciples and to us is that he does not need us. This may sound harsh and false at first, but it is really the basis of his ability to serve us and elevate us. He does not need us in this sense: Jesus is Lord because of who he is, not because he has followers. He is Lord by his own inherent reality. He is Lord because he is the Son of God. It isn’t because of us that he is the Son of God. Hegel’s master is a master only if he has slaves. His status depends on having subordinates. He cannot afford to serve them, for then he ceases to be master. He cannot afford to have them come to any sense of fullness, for any degree of independence threatens his status.

But Jesus is the Son of the Father whether we like it or not. His position, his status, his authority do not spring from anything human. They do not depend even on our acknowledgment. Without a single disciple, he is still the Son of God.

Precisely because he does not need us, precisely because his status does not rest on us, he can serve us. He can wash his disciples’ feet and not thereby cease to be the Son. He can free people of demons and from other ailments, and this improvement in their condition does not threaten his status. He can be free to let people choose voluntarily to respond to his call to follow him; for whether they reject or accept him, he is still the Son of the Father. He can even be slain for us, bearing the awful catastrophe of human evil, without ceasing to be Lord. Precisely because he differs from us in kind, his lordship does not need to reduce our reality. Because his lordship rests on the Father, he is free to enhance us.

Because Hegel’s master does not really differ in kind from his slaves, since both are equally creatures, his lordship is destructive. Hegel’s master must deny the personality of his slaves. He must seek to absorb their reality by making them an extension of his will: "Do this, do that. Give me the product of your labor." He does everything for his own sake, in order to be a lord, in order to have the status of a master.

How different orders and commands are when they are from one who seeks not to deny our person but to enhance it. By his commands and authority Jesus does not seek to deny our person, but to free us. He seeks to free us of the need to have our person established by domination over others. He seeks to free us of the need to gain recognition at the expense of others. The basis of our freedom is that he gives us our status as people destined to share in the life of God, now and always. That is who we are, that is what we are: creatures destined for an eternal happiness. That status is conferred on us. It is not a gift of this world, for it cannot be grasped by an employment of all our talent, ingenuity, strength or wit. It cannot be attained by gaining prestige, power, or status over others. We therefore do not have to compete with each other in order to become ourselves; for what we are to become is not to be gained in the realm of earthly dominance, founded on the standards of earthly success. We can be free precisely because he is free. His lordship is not based on anything earthly. So he can serve us. It is by following him that we can enter the kingdom in which we can serve each other.

Another aspect of Jesus’ power is evident in the way he met his death at the hands of those with authority. In the face of a threat to public order, those with public power and the responsibility for maintaining peace, even if they care about justice, as Pilate did, are sometimes under pressure to sacrifice justice—and with it, all pretense of determining whose views are correct when it comes to life’s big questions. In spite of the faith of the 18th-and 19th-century political reformers such as Voltaire and Marx in the "verdict of history," the arena of political decisions is not likely to be a place where the big issues of life are discussed or decided solely or even primarily on the basis of truth and justice.

So when Pilate washed his hands in public to indicate his personal disagreement with the charges against Jesus, he made it clear that the truth of the matter in the controversy between Jesus and his adversaries had not been settled. His enemies succeeded in having Jesus condemned to death, but Pilate indicated that what they were doing was unjust and did not settle the matter of who was right. Ironically, Pilate, who had tried to get around the controversy by letting Jesus go, is the one who ordered his execution. But at least he made it clear that Jesus was executed not for political sedition, but because of what he claimed to be.

In spite of the sentence passed on Jesus and in spite of his execution, the question still remained, Is what Jesus claimed true? Pilate, who was not a Jew and was something of a cynic, as evidenced by his rhetorical question, What is Truth?, nonetheless allowed the question of the truth of what Jesus claimed to remain in the forefront. In all the confusion of arrest and accusations, in the smell, dust, heat and noise of the crowd, this crucial matter did not get lost. God’s purpose was achieved: Is what this man claims true?

Jesus’ refusal to resist arrest and his refusal to have his disciples fight to save him enabled Pilate to realize that the truth of what Jesus claimed was the real issue between Jesus and his accusers—not sedition or treason. Jesus’ behavior did not allow the threat of a cruel death by crucifixion to deflect the focus of attention. In all the confusion of history and the noise of life around us, this question still comes through today: Is what he claimed true?

Jesus, then, was a particular kind of victim of injustice. To keep the crucial issue in the forefront by a commitment to God was an active, not a passive, role. He faced death and died in such a way that people are forced to face the important questions of life. We are so familiar with Jesus’ trial and death that we frequently miss this feature. We might see it better by recalling the death of Socrates.

Socrates was accused of three things: atheism, leading young people astray and endangering the security of Athens. Those who brought the charges demanded the death penalty. This punishment was ridiculously severe. The jury of 500 citizens would have been happy to close the whole affair by imposing a minor fine. According to Athenian law, the jury had to choose between the alternatives proposed by the plaintiff and those of the defendant. Socrates’ friends begged him to propose a fine and even offered to pay it for him. But Socrates refused. He had obeyed a divine call to awaken his city to its ignorance and its need to search for a truer way to live. He said that he was of course only a minor person in the great city of Athens, no more than a gadfly, stinging a large beast in order to make it take notice of the way it was stumbling along, heedless of its direction. To carry out this mission, he had neglected his own business affairs. Now, as an old man, he was poor. He therefore proposed that the city provide him with a pension in recognition of his services.

The jury had to decide between the death penalty and a pension for services. The majority were so outraged with Socrates for making the situation so awkward that it voted for the death penalty. Everyone expected that while in prison Socrates would come to his senses and admit that he was wrong. The city officials tried to arrange for Socrates to escape, but he refused to cooperate: Either I have been a benefactor and should receive a pension, he said, or my accusers are right.

The jury had not reckoned on the seriousness of this little citizen; it was amazed at his passionate love of truth and at his deep commitment to the well-being of his fellow citizens. By his refusal to back down, even in the face of death, Socrates forced his fellow citizens to face a vital issue. Is the basis of life to go unexamined? Are we just to stumble along? Will the gods allow this to go unpunished? If he had accepted a minor fine, or, when he saw that the authorities meant business, had escaped from prison, people would have been able to slide over these questions and continue to live untroubled but superficial lives.

By accepting a grossly unjust death, Socrates did not allow the people of his city to continue to live the way they wanted scot-free; they could live that way only at the price of the death of a wise, generous citizen who had devoted his life to their betterment. To be his kind of victim is not something that just happens. Socrates’ and Jesus’ deaths differed from those of countless victims of injustice because of the way they conducted themselves. Each of them suffered from injustice in such a way that he caused people to face the big questions of life.

There is, however, a very great difference between their deaths. In Jesus’ death, God takes into himself the consequences of our evil. That is, he does not destroy us for the disobedience that harms ourselves and others. He does not try to win us over with bribes of earthly gain. He simply takes our rejection and turns it into something holy. The word "sacrifice" is made up of the Latin words meaning "sacred" or "holy" and "to do" or "to make." God takes our rejection, rebellion, hatred and indifference that leads to a judicial murder and makes it a holy act. The Father is able to do this because of the way the Son dies—willingly—for our sakes, making it clear in the way he dies that he dies for our sins.

George Herbert in his poem "The Agony" expresses this dual character of a judicial murder that is at the same time a holy action.

Philosophers have measur’d mountains,

Fathomed the depths of seas, of states, and kings,

Walk’d with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:

But there are two vast, spacious things,

The which to measure it doth more behove:

Yet few there are that sound them: Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair

Unto Mount Olivet: there shall he see

A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,

His skin, his garments bloody be,

Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain

To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay

And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike

Did set abroach; then let him say

If ever he did taste the like.

Love is that liquour sweet and most divine,

Which my God feels as blood; but I as wine.

Herbert tells us that if you want to know what sin is, look at that man on the cross. If you want to know what love is, look at the same place, to that man on the cross. Only God can make a cruel, unjust death into something holy, so that sin, which brings ruin upon us, and love, which redeems us, are to be found in the same place, united in Jesus.

Herbert makes it clear that the rejection of Christ in the crucifixion is not able to defeat God’s love. God raises Jesus from the dead, and the resurrected Lord comes back to us asking for us to receive his love. It is as if God says to us in Jesus’ resurrection: You cannot get rid of me. I keep coming back, even from the dead. Now what are you going to do about my love that continues to seek you?

Ludwig Wittgenstein, perhaps the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, recorded some reflections about Jesus’ resurrection. They are to be found in one of his private notebooks, which has recently been printed under the title Culture and Value. In 1937 he made this entry:

What inclines even me to believe in Christ’s resurrection?. . . —If he did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like any other man. He is dead and decomposed. In that case he is a teacher like any other and can no longer help and once again we are orphaned and alone. So we have to content ourselves with wisdom and speculation. We are in a sort of hell where we can do nothing but dream, roofed in, as it were, and cut off from heaven. But if I am to be REALLY saved, what I need is certainty—not wisdom, dreams or speculation—and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what is needed by my heart, my soul, not my speculative intelligence, for it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind. Perhaps we can say: Only love can believe the Resurrection. Or: it is love that believes even in the Resurrection; hold fast even to the Resurrection. What combats doubt is, as it were, redemption. Holding fast to this must be holding fast to that belief. ... So this can come about only if you no longer rest your weight on the earth but suspend yourself from heaven. Then everything will be different and it will be "no wonder" if you can do things that you cannot do now. (A man who is suspended looks the same as one who is standing, but the interplay of forces within him is nevertheless quite different, so that he can act quite differently than can a standing man.)

Once again, the issue has been put before us clearly. For all we ever do is to be witnesses. A witness is one who puts the issue clearly. The issue is that we either stand on earth on our own feet or we are suspended from above, attached to the living Lord.