DTS Magazine

Loyalty: Reclaiming a Christian Concept

Excerpted from The Lord of the Entire World, by Joseph D. Fantin

What comes to mind when people think of loyalty? We might think of brand loyalty for anything from peanut butter to the local coffee shop. Or pets—especially dogs. And sports teams. When I lived in Sheffield, England, I observed the devotion of fans for one of the city’s soccer teams. Sometimes even family relationships were strained if one member supported the city’s other team.

Yet notice what word doesn’t immediately come to mind: “Christianity.” Our faith is not usually among the answers we give to the question. But a first-century Christian, as one who claimed Jesus as Lord, would have made the immediate connection.

Loyalty Reveals Relationship

That’s because people in the Roman world connected loyalty with lordship. And they knew a number of “lords,” using the title “lord” when addressing government officials, masters of slaves, even their fathers. That direct address always implied a relationship of some kind. And Christians in relationship with Christ claimed Jesus as nothing less than their Lord of lords, their supreme Lord. Only one could fill this position.

Unfortunately, in the context in which Christians worshipped their Lord of lords, the dominant culture had a different supreme lord—the living Caesar. We find evidence for this from an inscription dating to AD 67, which calls Emperor Nero the “Lord of the entire world.” Nero’s title left Christians in a precarious situation, as a person could have a number of lords, but only one supreme Lord.

In such a context the apostle Paul asserted, “There are many gods and lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father… and one Lord, Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 8:5–6, NASB). No Christian could accept a claim such as Nero’s. In fact a believer’s choice to call Jesus “lord” likely demanded that he or she renounce Caesar as supreme lord. Perhaps such a renunciation was implied rather than explicit, but it was real and had significant ramifications. In the same way that a groom saying “I do” to his bride implicitly says, “I don’t” to all others, the Christian who called Jesus “lord” entered an exclusive relationship. “I do” to Lord Jesus meant “I do not” to anyone else wishing to lay claim on this role and relationship.

Patronage Demands Loyalty

In addition to being based on relationships, Roman society also depended on patronage. The government provided little support for the poor and limited services for the people’s benefit. Instead, the wealthy established relationships with those who had less means than themselves. These wealthy patrons, then, provided tangible support for the daily lives of their clients. In return the clients, who could never repay their patrons in physical means, would return the favor by being loyal to the patrons. The recipients would seek ways to help their patrons achieve honor. And the benefactors would avoid doing anything or association with anyone that that might bring their patrons dishonor.

Such a relationship came with clear responsibilities. The patrons, benefactors, or lords protected and met the needs of those receiving provision. The clients were thankful, loyal, and sought to bring honor to their patron. In the highest level of Roman society, the living Caesar fulfilled the supreme role of benefactor and lord. He demanded loyalty of his subjects. Similarly, Christ did and does still demand unswerving loyalty from those who call him “Lord.”

As with a benefactor and a patron, a Christian’s choice to serve Christ two thousand years ago was decisive and public. Loyalty in the ancient world involved a relationship in which the lord provided for his people. In response, the dependent people remained loyal to their lord. And they viewed this relationship as one of debt and took it seriously. That meant avoiding flirtation with other lords.

A client could count on the one they called “lord” to meet needs. Interestingly, this relationship began with the lord’s provision and willingness to take on the client. Further, this was a vital relationship. A person rose and fell with their lord.

Loyalty as a Christian Concept

On one level, our world differs from that of first-century Rome. In our culture that stresses rugged individualism, we have no client/benefactor relationships. And such a Western mentality carries over into how we view our relationship with Christ. Even if we decide to follow Him fully, we rarely have to give up jobs, social standing, or our very lives to do so.

Yet on another level we actually do have to choose whether we will walk in exclusive, loyal relationship with Him. Many “lords” pull at each of us. One lord is the marketplace, the drive for money or the significance found in work. Another lord is a relationship—or the longing for one. Still another is sports or hobbies. Whenever we place something in the position reserved only for the supreme Lord, we break our relationship and split our indivisible loyalty.

Who or what is your supreme Lord? Once we are confident that Christ is our Lord, we must ask ourselves, “Am I truly thankful to my Lord? Do I look to Christ alone to meet my needs? Am I completely loyal to him? Do I seek to attribute honor to Him?” There is only one Lord—Jesus Christ. And He created us to worship and serve only one Supreme Lord.

Dr. Joseph D. Fantin [ThM, 1995; PhD, 2003] teaches in the New Testament Studies department at Dallas Theological Seminary. This excerpt is from his new book, The Lord of the Entire World: Lord Jesus, a Challenge to Lord Caesar? (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011). Reprinted with permission.

Joseph D. Fantin
Joseph Fantin (ThM, 1995; PhD, 2003) serves as professor of New Testament Studies at DTS. He is committed to teaching exegetical method in order to help students understand, apply, and teach the Bible. Dr. Fantin’s research interests include the first-century world, Greek language and linguistics, exegetical method and exegesis of the Prison Epistles. He and his wife, Robin, have two children, Jillian and David.
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