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Slaves of Christ


The concept of slavery always has and always will be one of the most repugnant social institutions humanity has ever seen. It violates every sensibility in us. The idea of one person “owning” another cuts to the very core of justice. While much can be said about slavery (and we will in a few minutes), the fact remains that the Bible says in numerous places we are slaves of God, righteousness and Christ.

Consider these following verses (all verses are from the New American Standard Bible unless otherwise noted):

· 1 Corinthians 7:22  "For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave."

· Romans 6:22  "But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life."

· 1 Peter 2:16  "Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God."

· Acts 27:23  "For this very night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood before me."

· Revelation 22:3  "There will no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His bond-servants will serve Him."

As we consider these verses and what they teach, we will address what it means to be a slave, what it means to be Christ’s slave, and the impact on our lives.

Slavery Defined

In the New Testament, each of the occurrences of the word “slave” is the Greek word “doulos” (or a variation of it). Doulos comes from the word “deo” meaning to bind (Strongs, 1401). It was the term for a slave (Liddel/Scott, 210). It referred to one who was completely controlled by someone else, or something else (Luow & Nida, 1:472). The ancient Greek writer, Xenophon, explained that “doulos” speaks of one who is in a permanent relation of servitude to another (Trench, citing Xenophon, 30). Likewise, to be a slave means one person’s will is completely bound to the will of another. It requires complete dependence and undivided allegiance.  (Zodiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary, 1401).

The word “doulos” occurs 182 times in the Greek New Testament. It’s the run of the mill term for slave. Actually, in most places in the New Testament where the word “servant” is used, it’s the word “doulos.” Thus, rather than being a rare word, it’s occurs throughout the New Testament.

Much confusion in the Christian life can be resolved by understanding the principle that we are slaves of Christ, rather than his servants. The word “servant” implies we have a will; we have a “say” in the matter; that we could tell the Lord we’d rather not obey Him right now. However, if we realize all those “servant” verses should be translated as “slave,” suddenly the scriptures come alive with what it means to live for Christ and follow Him.

To make this clearer, we need to understand the other Greek words that could have been used to describe our service. For instance, the standard Greek word for “servant” is the word “diakonos” from which we get the word “Deacon.” It’s from the root word “runner” and means someone who runs around serving others. If “diakanos” had been used those 182 times, we could easily make the case that we are servants of God as opposed to slaves. And while “diakanos” does occasionally speak of our service to Christ; usually it has the focus of serving other people.

There was the Greek word “therapone” from which we get the word ‘therapy.’ This was the idea of serving another person voluntarily.

Another word, “oiketes,” was a house slave. Although this person was a full slave too, their status was higher than the “doulos.” The “oiketes” lived in homes. They weren’t work animals to be used up and discarded.

Finally, there was one more word for slave called “uperetes.” This was a galley slave. They probably had an even lower status than “doulos”—and Paul even describes himself as an “uperetes” in 1 Corinthians 4:1, “Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants (uperetes) of Christ.”

So, when the New Testament describes our relationship with Christ, it often uses the term “doulos.” For instance, one of our favorite verses is Matthew 25:23 which says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Yet the word there is “doulos” and the NAS even correctly translates this verse as, “Well done, good and faithful slave.”

Likewise, in Philippians 2:7, Paul speaks of Jesus and says, “but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant.” The actual word there is “doulos” and thus Jesus Himself took the form of a slave.

Just as a person was a slave in their era, and required to fully obey the will of his master, Christ was a slave of His Father. In the same way, we are slaves of Christ and obligated to do his will.

To understand this point further, let’s talk about slavery in the New Testament times.

Slavery in the New Testament Times

The life of a slave in the ancient world was different than many of us might realize. On the one hand, it was an abusive and oppressive system. For instance, according to the Roman law of Patria Potestas, a slave owner essentially had life and death power over the life of his slave. During the ancient world slaves were so common they were often treated with disregard.

It has been estimated that at any given time, half of the empire were slaves—that’s 60,000,000 people (Wight, Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, 292). The entire economy ran on the system of slavery. In fact, a person who had no slaves was considered as poor as a homeless person. It has been said in those days, having only three or four slaves was considered poverty. Having ten slaves was scarcely sufficient. Having 200 slaves was a good amount. But someone who wanted to count in society needed to have 1,000 slaves working for him. Wealthy Romans might possess as many as 20,000 slaves (The NT Milieu, ed by Du Toit, Section 5.3.3-514).

Slavery was certainly an evil system. The church father Chrysostom said, “Slavery is the fruit of covetousness, or degradation, of savagery.” People were often forced into slavery against their will (though we’ll see in a moment many actually chose slavery because of its potential benefits). Likewise, it is true that in many situations, slaves had no rights. They could be crucified, sold, branded and emasculated against their will.

The entire Roman economy was based on slavery. In terms of market principles, the ancient Roman economy was somewhat similar to ours. No doubt, there are massive differences between our two economies, but generally speaking, Rome was based on market economics. There were elected leaders, there were taxes, and there was trading and shipping.

Thus, part of the reason for slavery was simply to drive the economy.

The Romans engaged in business ventures somewhat like we might today, except typically these businesses were run by households. Whole households would own farms, mines, ships, pottery works, etc. Obviously, these business ventures would produce goods to sell and the whole house would