Lord has always been one of my favorite names for God. But as a part of The Mother God Experiment, I have been reading translations that avoid the title, Lord, leading me to think more objectively about it. Is Lord a helpful and truly Biblical way to speak of God in the 21st century?
No More Lords and Ladies
It’s not just that Lord means something that no longer applies to our common culture among most English speakers. We don’t have a feudal system, and lords aren’t a part of our economic life. (The term is likely used more often by Brits, but still.)
It’s that Lord focuses narrowly on power, authority and rulership. And white power at that. A lord is always going to be caucasian (and upper class) in our image-banks.
Synonyms for lord from Oxforddictionaries.com include: magnate, tycoon, mogul, captain, baron, king, industrialist, proprietor, big shot, and (head) honcho. Those word make me think of Donald Trump. Is God simply someone extremely powerful and privileged, to be feared and obeyed? And do power-titles lead us to a better relationship with God or do we stand back a bit when we hear them?
The word is also intrinsically male, focusing on male power in particular. How do I know this about Lord describing a male? When I whip out the counterpart term Lady as a term for God, every one drops their powdered wig.
But Ladies had power, too, in the Middle Ages. (See my Lady God post here). The Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament refers to God as The Lady at times. And it’s a real mind-blower, but in a healthy way. It has helped me finally get a realistic hold on how antiquated and male-centered Lord is. We need some re-education.
Why Do We Call God the Lord?
We tend to believe that the title Lord leaped from the pages of the Bible. But the original languages reveal some important truths about God that translators have missed. The Old Testament writers refer to God as Yahweh 6087 times! It’s the predominant way of speaking of God.
Yahweh provides the foundation of our pre-Jesus understanding of God, having its roots in God’s own revelation of Herself to Moses in Exodus 3:14. Many have opinions on the translation, but ultimately the title Yahweh relates to primordial being: “I am who I am” and/or “I will be who I will be.”
The name Yahweh is not male-authority based. It is God-based.
Similarly, Elohim is the plural of El (god) and is most basically translated “God” or “gods.” Elohim appears 2340 times.
Finally, Adonai is used for God only 428 times. This term does mean “lord.” But throughout the Old Testament, English-speaking translators use “Lord” for Yahweh (though often in all caps: LORD, as my friend JoMae reminded me), and not only for Adonai. So the overwhelming feeling an English speaker has is that God’s primary, most revelatory name is Lord. But God has actually shown Herself through a name referring to foundational Being and Presence and not to male-only authority.
But What About Jesus?
Kyrios is Greek for “mister” and referred to the head of the household in Classical Athens. It appears 740 times in the New Testament. It was a natural Greek substitute for Adonai, which Jewish people have used to avoid speaking out loud the holy name of Yahweh.
Jesus preferred Human One (traditionally translated Son of Man) to speak of Himself. Indeed, he came as a servant to humanity (Luke 22:7) and called His followers His friends (John 15:15). He uses Kyrios sparingly–once to explain that “The Human One is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8; Luke 6:5), and another time to speak about the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 7:21). He actually challenges those who call Him Kyrie (the vocative tense of Kyrios), but who do not do what He says (Luke 6:46), and implicitly warns that both the goats and the sheep call Him “Lord” but that their actions differentiate them (Matt. 25:31-46). And Jesus shockingly identified with Yahweh when He said, “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).
Nonetheless as Christians, when we say “Jesus is Lord” we are making an important statement of faith that Jesus is more than human. Jesus as Kyrios (the head, the leader, the master) was fundamental for the early Christians developing their theology, despite the fact that Jesus rarely called Himself this.
But there are other ways to say the same thing that do not use “Lord.” The introduction of The Inclusive Bible agrees:
The title ‘Lord,’ especially when it refers to Jesus, is hard to replace because it is confessional–that is, to call Jesus Lord is to both recognize in him a divinity and to make a commitment to him. To confess that Jesus is Lord is to confess, for example, Caesar is not Lord. To avoid sexist and classist connotations, we use substitutes for Lord that are meaningful in our own confession of Jesus, such as Sovereign, Savior and Jesus Reigns.
Even with the centrality of declaring Jesus as God, we do not have to use the English word Lord. Jesus is no longer a human male walking the earth, though His humanity mattered to Jesus. (His maleness did not seem important, however).
Jesus is Spirit. We may confess Christ’s divinity, and our commitment to do what Jesus says, without needing to emphasize gender.
El Shaddai is one of seven titles for God that modern Jews continue to revere by never saying the names out loud. It refers to God only seven times in the Old Testament (but 48 times as Shaddai alone).
El means “God” but “Shaddai” is up for debate. English translators again always choose a power-title, God Almighty. However, the Hebrew root “shad” means breast, with the ending “ai” indicating two breasts.
Often when I see an article on feminine language for God, the writer will say that it’s “rare” or “unusual” for God to be referred to in feminine terms. But that’s not true, when one takes time to really notice every verse (go to my page for the evidence). An explicitly feminine title for God therefore seems reasonable.
One could take a risk and call God “The Two-Breasted One” sometimes. But as a more comfortable alternative, using the title Mother for God is one way to refer to God in English that avoids masculine power-centered words but has Biblical roots.
Moving Beyond Lord to Servant
The ineffable God is not attached to our antiquated words for Her. She sent Jesus to reveal a new definition of power, one that is about servanthood and love rather than “lord[ing] it over” others (Mt. 20:25).
It will take some courage, but we can leave “Lord” behind as our primary way of thinking about God. And we will have a clearer vision of God if we do.