Who Is Jesus and What Language Do We Use in Worship?

Today’s question comes from Stevie.  She wrote: “My daughter asked this question in a theology class at her Jesuit college. (paraphrased, of course.) ‘Buddha is not considered to be divine. People who follow his teachings are called Buddhists. If I follow the teachings of Jesus, yet don’t believe he is the son of God, am I a Christian?’ The answer was ‘no’.  So my question is this: In a progressive religion, members say they “follow” Jesus. You don’t hear the words “worship Jesus” very often. Is it the belief, then, that Jesus was not divine? Or all we all divine because our souls don’t die? Or is that one of the beliefs that vary among the folks in the community?”

It’s no wonder so many people wrestle with the question of who Jesus (“Is he Divine or human?”) because even the sacred writings of our Christian faith provide different understandings of the question.  The Gospel of John, for instance, includes several “I am” statements (i.e. John 14:6 – “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”) that suggest for some that Jesus’ nature was primarily divine.  Other passages, (i.e. Luke 18:19 and Mark 10:18 – basically “Why do you call me good?  Only God is good”) suggest a different understanding of Jesus: one in which Jesus is separate from – or other than – Divine.  As you alluded to, there is even a stream of Christian theology that goes back to the Gnostics which suggests each and every human being contains a “spark of the divine”.  If you want to find material pertaining to the question: “Was Jesus Divine or human?” there are many resources on the Internet – including this from Beliefnet.

I know that some individuals are tortured by these differences and feel compelled to try to resolve those differences.  Such folks often belong to creedal traditions that teach the only way to have Christian faith is to assert a specific answer that has been approved by “the church” through one (or more) of the historic Church Councils.  Others, however, do not feel compelled to neatly resolve the difference.  They can live into the tension between these understandings and use them as a wonderful opportunities to spark spiritual growth through open (and safe!) conversations.

All of that is to say I believe an individual who relates to Jesus primarily through the lens of his humanity can be a Christian.

Before I move in to the heart of your question regarding “worship” language, I should make one point about my understanding of creedal vs. non-creedal traditions.  Some folks define creedal traditions very narrowly.  They define creedal traditions are those that require a person to assent to one of the historic Christian creeds (such as the Apostles or Nicene creeds).  That is the accepted definition of creedal.

I define creedal a bit differently.  I define it as someone who has a rigid theological agenda that they require others to hold in order for them to be considered “good” or “faithful”.  I, for instance, have met many of what I would call creedal Progressives who demand that others think like them (i.e. reject a belief in a resurrection or demand only an allegorical reading of Scripture, etc.).  Their rigidity and absolute certainty that their position – and their position alone – is the only correct position is what makes me call such folks “creedal”.

Now, on to the question about “worship” language.

As you have correctly noted, many Progressives such as myself do not use “worship Jesus” language.  They use “worship God” language instead.


The easiest way to explain this is by saying that not all Christians ascribe to a Trinitarian belief of God.  Trinitarian belief is reflected in the phrase: “God in three persons” – meaning God is present in three forms.  To use traditional language, God exists as Creator (or Father); as Redeemer (Son); and as Sustainer (Holy Spirit).

Some Christians believe such language flirts dangerously close to being polytheistic (expressing a belief in not just one God but multiple Gods).  To stress a belief in the essential unity in the Oneness of God, such folks use “worship God” language.  They are often referred to as Unitarians.

So why do I use “worship God” language in service?

While my own personal theology has been strongly shaped and formed by a Trinitarian tradition, I feel called to use language in Sunday service that captures what all Christians – Trinitarians AND Unitarians alike – can embrace and affirm during their time in community.

I hope some of what I offered today helped.

So what about you?  What is your take on all of this?

Don’t forget to keep the GREAT questions coming that spark our conversations!

About Pastor Craig

I'm a 54-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, CA with his black Labrador Retriever named Max. I'm an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ. My passions include spirituality, politics, and sports (Go Houston teams, go!). I use my blog to start conversations rather than merely spout my perspectives and opinions. I hope you'll post a question, comment, or observation for me to respond - so we can get the conversation started!
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10 Responses to Who Is Jesus and What Language Do We Use in Worship?

  1. Anne Gessert says:

    Well, Craig, I have a little trouble with your term “creedal Progresives” because it seems a little redundant. I suppose that people who believe in a physical resurrection or something other than an allegorical reading of scripture would be welcome to join an organization for Progressive Christians but why would they want to? I am a WHCC member because this church is family and it is a live and let live place; but I belong to the Center for Progressive Christianity because their belief system at least right now is close to mine. Kind of the same reason I am a Democrat and not a Republican. While I respect other viewpoints and certainly the people who hold them when I make a commitment to say I am a member of something I want that something to pretty closely reflect my beliefs. Otherwise what is the point of joining? Just my take – thanks for listening.

  2. Beverly Marshall Saling says:

    I would also say there’s a subtle difference between believing that your position is the only correct one and believing that other people must share your position to be good people. I think it’s impossible to believe your own position is correct without believing that contradictory positions are incorrect, or at least less correct. Otherwise you’re basically saying that everything else is just as correct as your own belief, which means you don’t really believe any one thing more than anything else.

    But just because you believe you are correct doesn’t mean either that you must believe it with absolute certainty or that you must believe those who don’t share your belief are bad people. Humility demands an open mind, or at least an ajar one. And basic compassion requires that we make a distinction between wrong in the sense of correctness and wrong in the sense of morality. It’s possible to have correct beliefs and still behave immorally, or incorrect beliefs but moral behavior.

  3. capete67 says:

    Anne, thanks so much for your words. They give me much to think about. I certainly resonate with the desire to be a part of groups that share/affirm common values and beliefs. Each of us shares that. Your words call to mind two things I’ve wondered about in my years in parish ministry. The first thing I wonder about is, “Is it possible to be both Progressive and inclusive?” or does being Progressive mean that a progressive community must still take on exclusive ways of being – just like other forms of community. I like to think it’s possible to be both Progressive and inclusive – but that may not be possible. The second thing I wonder is how – as a Progressive – to hold the wonderful tension between resting in one’s own existing set of beliefs but being open to the possibility of growth or evolution in those beliefs. So many times I’ve heard some Progressives be extremely critical of folks in other communities for being rigid – while at the same time being equally rigid in holding on to their own forms of expressions or belief. This dynamic confuses me greatly. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just WAY too idealistic about what being Progressive means – and perhaps it is that very idealism (that we can be radically inclusive and radically open to the continuing evolution in our beliefs rather than resting in our conclusions) that gets me into trouble. Thanks so much for being in conversation on these and other important matters!

  4. Stevie says:

    My experience with the UCC is limited. Four Sundays at WHCC and a few others. To see people with all kinds of belief systems together just being together and sharing the all inclusive love of God is something to see and feel! Don’t second guess yourself, Craig. Keep on keepin’ on!

  5. Anne Gessert says:

    I struggle with this, too, Craig. I once sent my brother, who is very Catholic, an article by Fred Plumer with the sincere intention of deepening our connection by sharing my belief system. He responded with hurt and anger, expressing that he had shared Plumer’s article with others in his faith congregation and they all agreed that not only did Plumer not have “faith” but was mocking their faith (and we are talking about gentle, caring Fred Plumer here). As Stevie expressed, it is wonderful to be at WHCC with people with all kinds of belief systems who simply want to support each other in connecting to the Sacred, however that is defined by each person, and to each other. And at the same time for people like me who more and more move into the “spiritual but not religious” category it is right and necessary (for me) to seek other connections and support in what can seem like a lonely journey sometimes. I think any institution or organization has its limitations if it is going to stand for anything at all. Planned Parenthood, for example, would probably not be a good organization for a pro-life person to support. That doesn’t mean that either the organization or the pro-life person is wrong; they just see the world differently. Beverly expressed this more articulately and beautifully than I am doing. It is lovely to be in a church that is all-inclusive and I will always gratefully be a WHCC member AND it is also lovely to be part of an organization for those who are searching and have moved or are moving beyond traditional Christian beliefs. Each necessarily has its limitations, each is beautiful.

    • Beverly Marshall Saling says:

      Anne, I understand where you are coming from, I think, because I’m facing it from the other direction. Right now I’m part of a group of atheists that is trying to build a secular-but-spiritual community in which to explore the sorts of touchy-feely, “connectedness” experiences hardcore atheism tends to reject as irrational and unnecessary. One of our members recently suggested that we might affiliate with a local UCC church that accepts atheists, and it brought up a lot of issues for me about whether being in such an inclusive community would be enough, or whether I would still crave atheist-specific space also.

  6. Stevie says:

    Anne, I am a Catholic, and my sisters are both evangelical Christians. One daughter is Reform Jewish, one attends a non denominational Christian church, and one chooses not to attend church. Then I have an honorary son who is a UCC member. Very interesting, to say the least.
    I think the reason the UCC appeals to me is that it reminds me of my family. We are all pretty established belief systems, but we all come together to celebrate what we have in common…..love and respect. We have our family arguments like anyone, but never are they about religion.
    The difference between a family setting and a church setting, is that at a church like the UCC, people choose to have discussions about differences. In former times it was hard when my sisters and I would get together. They offered me a lot of “witness” I didn’t ask for😊. Now we have an unwritten rule that, since we are 3 old ladies now with pretty definite beliefs, we only testify if the other guy asks. It works for us.
    Oh what confusion there is sometimes in these journeys we have! I know it makes God shake his head!

  7. Anne Gessert says:

    What a beautiful discussion, Beverly and Stevie. Thank you so much! I really would love to connect with you in person on a Sunday morning and Beverly I would enjoy hearing more about your atheist group. It means so much to be able to exchange ideas and journeys. Thanks, Craig, for starting this topic.

  8. Stevie says:

    Thank you, Anne. I live in Spokane, WA, and visit WHCC a couple times a year. Bless you.

  9. ybabb001 says:

    Hi, I have a question that I would like to hear your opinion on.
    Do you believe that we are in control of our destiny or is it all in the hands of God? And if we are in charge of our destiny, then why do we say “God has other plans.” or if it is in God’s hands, why does he forsake us to live with pain and loss?

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