When we read the Bible, it is important that we don’t overlook any of its major themes. Even to overlook something that is only mentioned a few times is not good. But we certainly don’t want to miss any of the things that God repeats over and over again.
There is, however, one major biblical theme that large numbers of English-speaking Christians don’t even know exists. Even devout believers who have faithfully read the Bible for many years are often unaware of it.
The theme I have in mind is that of Christians being the slaves of God and of Jesus. Time and time again, Scripture refers to Christians in this way. Yet there are many English-speaking readers who are not aware of this.
It is important to say that this is not their fault. Rather, the problem comes from mistranslation of the Bible, which has led to many Christians not knowing about this biblical theme.
Greek words to do with slavery
When the New Testament was written, slavery was a massive part of Greco-Roman society. So people often talked about slaves. And the main Greek noun of the time that was used to refer to them was doulos.
Importantly, this word was not used to refer to other kinds of people as well as slaves. There is wide agreement among New Testament scholars that in the first century doulos always involved the concept of slavery.
That is not to say that doulos always referred to literal slaves. It was sometimes used metaphorically as a way of portraying people as slaves. But this word always involved the idea of being a slave.
Another noun in use in first century Greek was sundoulos. This meant ‘fellow slave’ as scholars also agree. And the verb douloo meant ‘enslave’ as is agreed too.
These words in the New Testament
When we turn to the New Testament, we find that doulos is often used to describe the relationship of Christians to God or Christ. On a few occasions we also find sundoulos being used in this way. And douloo is used once to refer to the enslavement of Christians to God.
In what follows I will quote a selection of New Testament texts, leaving the relevant Greek words untranslated. The plurals of doulos and sundoulos are douloi and sundouloi respectively.
The idea of Christians being slaves is taught by Jesus Himself.
In Luke 17:7-10 He says to the apostles, and by implication to all Christians:
‘Which of you who has a doulos ploughing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come straight away and sit down to eat’?
Won’t he say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat, and put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; and then you can eat and drink’?
He isn’t grateful to the doulos for doing what he was told, is he?
So you too, when you do everything that you are told, say, ‘We are unworthy douloi. We have only done what we had to.’’
According to Jesus, then, all Christians are unworthy slaves. He isn’t clear whether He means that we are His slaves or the slaves of God. However, because Jesus is God incarnate, the God-Man, it would be right to say that this passage teaches that we are both the slaves of God and of Christ.
Another Gospel passage that has this theme is Luke 2:29. Here the aged Simeon begins his praise of God by saying:
‘Now, Master, you are dismissing Your doulos in peace, according to Your word.’
Simeon regards himself as God’s slave. And there is no doubt that Christian readers of Luke’s Gospel are being encouraged to view themselves in the same way.
In Acts 4:29, the early Christians pray:
‘And now, Lord, consider their threats, and enable your douloi to speak Your word with all boldness . . .’
This verse may be referring to the apostles as God’s slaves or it may be saying that Christians generally are His slaves. Even if it is just referring to the apostles, however, there is no doubt that the early Christians would all have seen themselves likewise as God’s slaves.
In Acts a demonised woman cries out:
‘These people are douloi of the most high God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation.’
Although this woman’s prophecy is inspired by an evil spirit, she is clearly saying what is true. Paul and his companions are God’s slaves.
Acts also uses doulos to refer to Christians as slaves of God.
The letters of Paul
On a number of occasions the apostle Paul refers to himself and other Christians as slaves of God or Jesus.
In Philippians 1:1 he begins his letter to
'Paul and Timothy, douloi of Christ Jesus . . .’
Romans 1:1 and Titus 1:1 are also very similar.
In Colossians 4:7 Paul describes Tychicus as:
‘our beloved brother, faithful minister and sundoulos in the Lord’
And in Colossians 1:7 and Epaphras is similarly described.
In Galatians Paul says:
‘If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a doulos of Christ.’
And in 2 Timothy he instructs Timothy:
‘But a doulos of the Lord must not be quarrelsome, but must be kind to everyone . . .’
In 1 Corinthians Paul mixes the literal and the metaphorical beautifully:
‘For he who was called in the Lord while a doulos is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who was called while free is a doulos of Christ.’
Paul is clearly implying here that all Christians, both those who are literally slaves and those who aren’t, are in a sense free and in a sense slaves of Christ.
In Ephesians 6:5-6 Paul tells literal slaves:
‘Douloi, with fear and trembling obey those who are humanly speaking your masters, in sincerity of heart as you would obey Christ . . . as douloi of Christ doing the will of God from your heart.’
In this passage Paul describes all Christians who are literal slaves as slaves of Christ in a metaphorical sense. And he is certainly implying that all other Christians are slaves of Christ too.
Finally, in Romans Paul uses the verb douloo, when he says:
‘But now, having been set free from sin and enslaved to God, you have fruit that results in holiness . . .’
Again, Paul understands all Christians to be God’s slaves.
The book of Revelation is another part of the New Testament that often refers to the relationship between Christians and God or Jesus in terms of slavery.
In Revelation 1:1 John begins this book with the words:
‘The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His douloi what must soon take place. He made it known by sending His angel to His doulos John.’
We can see that John refers to himself explicitly as a slave. And the slaves in the first sentence must be all Christians. No other interpretation is at all plausible.
The Greek text is not clear whether John and Christians are the slaves of God or Christ. The former is probably to be preferred, but the difference is not important.
In Revelation the risen Jesus sharply criticises the church in Thyatira with these words:
‘But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and who teaches and deceives my douloi . . .’
The clear implication of this verse is that all Christians are slaves of Christ.
In Revelation -18 John tells us that the 24 elders praised God with these words:
‘We give You thanks, Oh Lord God, the Almighty . . . and the time came for the dead to be judged and to reward Your douloi the prophets and the saints and those who fear Your name . . .’
Again, all Christians are said to be God’s slaves.
In Revelation 19:1-2 John says that he heard the voice of a large crowd, saying:
‘Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, . . . because He has judged the great prostitute . . . and has avenged the blood of His douloi on her.’
And then in Revelation 19:5 he refers to a voice that came from the throne of God, saying:
‘Praise our God, all you His douloi, you who fear Him, the small and the great.’
These verses in chapter 19 imply that all Christians are the slaves of God.
In Revelation 22:3 John prophesies about heaven:
‘And there will no longer be any curse. And the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His douloi will serve Him.’
All those who reach heaven are referred to in this verse as slaves, probably of Jesus rather than of God, although the difference is not important.
In addition to the above passages, doulos or sundoulos are also used to refer to the relationship of Christians to God or Christ in Revelation ; 7:3; 10:7; ; 22:6, 9.
Other passages that have the same theme are James 1:1; 1 Peter 2:16; 2 Peter 1:1; and Jude 1:1.
The above list of passages shows clearly that the term doulos is often used in the New Testament to describe the relationship between Christians and God or Jesus. And it shows that sundoulos and douloo are also used in this way.
I have already noted that there is wide agreement among New Testament scholars that in the first century these words were always used to refer to slavery, whether literal or metaphorical.
This means that the concept of Christians being the slaves of God and Christ is a major biblical theme.
Modern English translations
If you look up the above passages in most English translations of the Bible, however, you will find the word ‘servant’ used to translate doulos instead of ‘slave’. Similarly, ‘fellow servant’ is a typical translation of sundoulos instead of ‘fellow slave’.
So why is this? If scholars are agreed that these Greek words connote slavery, then why don’t they translate accordingly?
Well, firstly, I know that some translators are concerned that if they refer to Christians as slaves, this has the potential to be misunderstood. They fear it could give the impression that we are the mere property of an unloving God.
And secondly, I am fairly sure that some translators find the idea of Christians being slaves offensive and therefore prefer to avoid it.
We should allow the Bible to speak
These reasons are very inadequate, and there are a few points to make here.
First, it is true that the slavery of Christians to God and Jesus has the potential to be misunderstood. But the same would have been true in the first century. Yet that didn’t put off many biblical authors, and Jesus Himself, referring to Christians as slaves.
There is much in Scripture that is in danger of being misunderstood in one way or another. But that doesn’t mean that we should deliberately mistranslate what it says.
Besides, anyone who knows anything about the Christian faith would surely know that Christians are not the mere property of an unloving God. The love of God is right at the heart of our faith. And anyone with any sense should be able to see that the image of slavery has to be understood within a context of relating to our loving Father and our loving Lord Jesus.
Second, translators of the Bible should never alter the meaning of a passage because they find it offensive or because they think others might be offended by it. There is much in Scripture that people find offensive, but we should let it speak nevertheless.
Third, I think doulos in the above passages is actually meant to startle us slightly. In a real sense we Christians are the property of God and Christ! We are so under the authority of God that we are His slaves! Jesus is our Lord to such an extent that we are His slaves!
Fourth, ‘servant’ in modern English does a poor job of giving the meaning of doulos and sundoulos. Servants remind us of people in places like Downton Abbey, paid employees of a very low social class. However, these servants were far from being slaves. For example, they could choose to leave their place of employment and get a job elsewhere if they wanted. By contrast, a doulos or sundoulos was regarded as the unpaid legal property of his or her owner and had no legal right to leave whatsoever.
Why this is important
According to the Bible, being a Christian is a radical thing. It is about having one all-consuming purpose in our lives, which is to follow Jesus as Lord.
However, most Christians in Western countries have a poor understanding of this. Wherever you look, you will find half-hearted, lukewarm Christians, who are making no real attempt to use their whole lives in God’s service.
In this context, the theme of Christians being the slaves of God and Christ is one that needs to be stressed. It helps to make clear what a radical thing being a follower of Jesus is all about.
I would therefore encourage Christian pastors and teachers not to shy away from this biblical theme. Anyone who wants to faithfully teach what the Bible says should make it clear that Christians are God’s and Jesus’ slaves.
Of course, God loves His slaves deeply, so this kind of slavery involves no abuse on the part of the slave owner. And paradoxically, to be God’s slave is to be truly free. Living under the all-encompassing authority of God is exactly how humans are designed to exist. So being the slaves of God and of Christ makes us free to be who we are really meant to be.