Servant or Slave?
I was asked the other day about the translation of the word doulos in our Greek New Testament. The word is variously translated “slave,” or “servant,” or “bondservant” in our English Bibles. I think this is an important issue to consider, as we so often find it throughout our New Testament. It’s particularly interesting how often and in what ways Paul employs the term. Consider with me how Paul uses it in his letters:
“Paul, a doulos of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, and separated unto the gospel of God…” (Romans 1:1)
“…having been set free from sin, you have become enslaved to righteousness.” (Romans 6:18)
“for when you were doulos of sin, you were free from righteousness…. But now, having been set free from sin you are enslaved to God…” (Romans 6:20, 22)
“For the one who is called as a doulos is the Lord’s freedman. Similarly, the one who is called as a freedman is Christ’s doulos.” (1 Corinthians 7:22)
“If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a doulos of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10)
And in a world where we’re mildly embarrassed by the slavery in our American past, now 150 years removed, in Paul’s world it was a ready and vivid metaphor for our relationship to God and His Son. If we’d stumble over it to refer to ourselves as “slaves of Christ,” it was a mark of Paul’s self-identity in a world where two types existed: Romans (or Jews) and everyone else. We know the tragedy of slavery in our history, black-and-white pictures in a book. Paul knew the tragedy of slavery in vivid technicolor. And remarkably, to a people whom he had never even met, to a people who lived in Rome where slaves were the dirt of the world, Paul introduced himself as a “slave of Jesus Christ” before any other moniker. (Romans 1:1)
You see, in our American experience we’re ready to call ourselves “children,” and “sons and daughters,” and “beloved” of God. Perhaps we’ll say we're God’s people, heirs of God’s promises. We might even say we’re servants.
But are we ready to call ourselves slaves of Christ?
And really, what’s the difference and why does it matter? I suggest at least two important issues that our understanding of “slavery to Christ” affects. (1) What does my freedom amount to? And (2) How does this relate to “redemption”?
Freedom from or Freedom to?
In our American Christian experience, we frequently regard our freedom from sin and death. We celebrate our freedom in our songs. We think on it when we receive baptism. We remember it in our Lord’s death at the Lord’s Table. And it’s enculturated in America: if we celebrate nothing else in our country, we certainly celebrate what we call “freedom”.
But for us, we tend to think of freedom in terms of “freedom from.” We’re free from the Law, and thank God. We’re free from sin and death. We’re free from the penalty for our sin. Sometimes this makes us think we’re free from any law, free from anything that smacks of service to another, free from anything other than our heart’s desire. What we call “freedom” in America so often amounts to nothing more than license to apathy.
But that is not the way you learned Christ, assuming that you heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs (is enslaved?) to your former manner of life . . . and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:20-24)
Yes, Christ did set us free from sin. But all of us, believer and unbeliever, belong to a master. Our “freedom from” one master must mean a service to another:
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? (Romans 6:16)
We might be comfortable with being Christ’s servant, but are we privileged to be Christ’s slave? One amounts to keeping some rights for myself. The other amounts to giving all my rights up because someone else has a prior right to my life.
To Whom Do we Belong, Really?
We use the word “redemption” in Christian lingo. We say things like “you were bought with a price” or “Jesus paid it all.” We don’t like hearing things like “you are not your own.” (1 Corinthians 6:20)
Paul begins and ends his letter to the Ephesians with references to this slavery, references to the purchase price of a slave:
“In Him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight” (Ephesians 1:7) … “Slaves, obey your earthly masters . . . as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.” (Ephesians 6:6)
We’ve been purchased from slavery. And in one sense, amazingly, God has made this slave a son and heir of His promises (Galatians 4:1-4). But in another sense, we must carefully note that Paul tells us the purchase price of a slave was given for me, the high price of His blood. So this redemption has purchased me, not from slavery to being a freedman, but to give me a Master whose good purposes I can trust, whose discipline isn’t always welcome, but is always wise, and gracious.
Our Lord and Master has truly lavished His grace upon me, a purchased slave of Christ.