23 May

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 benefit.

Here’s where slavery was key. The Romans despised labor. They felt it was beneath them. So to get anything done, they used slaves. Often these slaves were imported from conquered nations. These slaves weren’t always cheap and they weren’t always unskilled. In fact, it was common to have slaves as the teachers. Slaves even taught medicine. Some of ancient history’s most well-known writers were once slaves—such as Dionysius and Eutychides. Some of our most beloved Bible characters were once slaves—heroes like Joseph and Daniel are inspirational examples to us.

Another reason for slaves is a way of handling masses of people. Their society did not have a safety net of welfare and food stamps. A person in dire straights had no way of receiving care. Working in the home of a slave owner granted them food, clothing and a roof over their heads. In an odd way, slavery actually helped to  extended the lives of many millions of people.

In many cases the slaves were living in better conditions than a free person. Often, a slave walking down the street was dressed as well as a freeman. If they came from wealthy homes, they were often dressed better than some freemen. Slaves and freemen were so much alike the Romans instituted a law that slaves needed to wear a designation so they could be distinguish from free citizens. Thus, many times individuals sold themselves into slavery.

This is not to gloss over the evils of slavery. By far the most common way a person entered slavery was to be the unfortunate citizen of a conquered nation. As the occupiers entered into a city they gave the residents two choices: slavery or death. Many chose death, but even more chose slavery. No doubt the conquering nation felt they were being merciful in granting life to these people. This is even more astounding when we understand many served in a family business and eventually earned their citizenship.

When we think of the American abuses of slavery; we think of permanent ownership. Roman slavery was not this way. Roman slaves were not without hope, and for diligent slaves, it was a path to Roman citizenship. The Romans learned early on that if a slave had no incentive of freedom, he also had no incentive to work hard. Slaves needed to work hard because an owner might have hundreds of slaves. Thus, he needed each one to justify his room and board. This was a motivation for slaves: they could eventually purchase their citizenship (Hopkins, Conquerors and Slaves, 126).

Slaves would receive 5 denarii a month. Because their living expenses were already paid for, 5 denarii a month would have been twice the discretionary spending of the average freeman. Thus, if they saved their allowance, they could soon purchase their freedom. Cicero wrote a diligent slave could earn his freedom in seven years (Cicero, Philippic, 8.32).

There was both a humanitarian and economic reason for the freeing of slaves. As slaves became older, their skill would increase and therefore they were “worth” more. But on the other hand, as they became older, the cost to keep them healthy also grew. Therefore, their owner could sell them their freedom at a high price because of their skill, and then with the profit buy a cheaper, younger slave and still have money left over (Hopkins, Conquerors and Slaves, 118). It was said most diligent slaves purchased their freedom by 30 years old.

When slaves of Roman citizens became free, they also became Roman citizens. Likewise, freed slaves were not permanently relegated to the lower classes. Slaves themselves could own property and even other slaves (Hopkins, Conquerors and Slaves, 126). Likewise, the potential wealth of ex-slaves was limitless—ancient Roman philosopher Pliny spoke of an ex-slave who had amassed a fortune of 4,000 slaves, 7,200 oxen, and a cash savings of 60 times the fortune of some senators (Pliny, Natural History, 33.135).

Finally, when a Roman slave owner died it was common to free all his slaves. This was so common that eventually the government began to regulate this practice to not flood the society with 500-1000 slaves in a day. The book Conquerors and Slaves by Keith Hopkins, has an section of a chapter titled, Why did the Romans free so many slaves? The freeing of slaves in the Roman empire was designed, among other reasons, to reduce the natural repugnance of such a system.

We must not gloss over the evils of slavery but we do need to understand the world of slavery in biblical times. It has been said that no other book has done more to free slaves than the Bible. At the same time, the Bible tells us we are Christ’s slaves. Likewise, Jesus says we are to love God and serve Him  as our Master (Matthew 6:24). Furthermore, He Himself became a “doulos” to show us how to fully obey our Heavenly Father. Thus, when Paul and the other biblical authors teach this principle; they do not envision a Master who cruelly beats his slaves, but rather a kind and gracious Lord who loves and cares for His servants. Now let’s discuss what it means to be slaves of God.

Our Slavery

As we began, the Bible teaches that all true believers are slaves of Christ. Sometimes you’ll hear a person say, “I’m not a slave of anyone!” One of the principles we have to understand is we are all slaves. It’s not as though we used to live as free people, but then became slaves of Christ. Instead, the Bible says we were always slaves, except that now our ownership has transferred from an evil master to a righteous Master.

The Bible is very direct in saying all people are slaves—we are either slaves of sin or slaves of Christ. Romans 6 makes this abundantly clear. Let’s quickly look at some key verses from Romans 6.

Romans 6:16 says, “Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?” Paul’s point here is when we are captive to a certain behavior, we are enslaved to it. Keep in mind, all the words “slave” in Romans 6 are from the Greek word “doulos.”

So what were we slaves to? The next verse in Romans 6 makes this clearer. Verse 17 says, “But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed”. Likewise, Jesus said in John 8:34, “Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.” If we sin, we are slaves of sin.

When Romans 6:16 says, “…you were slaves of sin…” this is the condition of every person outside of Christ. Ephesians 2:1–2 states this idea in slightly different words: "And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience." We all formerly walked according to the course of this world and Satan. Why? Because we were slaves. No one is free. We are all slaves.

Praise God we have been set free from this evil master by Jesus Christ. Romans 6:18 goes on to say, “and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” Again, notice we have been “...freed from sin…” How were we set free? By Christ.

This is what the term “redemption” means. Redemption means to purchase something. It has the idea of us being on a slave block, under the evil master and ownership of sin and Christ comes up, pays our price and purchases our freedom from that old master of sin. Ephesians 1:7 explains this when it says, "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace." Christ has redeemed us and wiped away the former deeds we engaged in while we obeyed our former master of sin.

Does this mean Christ has bought us, paid for our forgiveness and now we’re free to go off and wander the fields of life on our own? No. We were bought by Christ and now we have been taken to His home—our new home. Our old home was a vile dungeon where we were engaged in sin and being tortured and tormented. Now we are brought to a new home and treated as princes. We are not treated as galley slaves. We are not treated as field workers. We are treated as sons and we live as sons.

Here’s what we need to understand—even though we are sons, we still must obey our Heavenly Father. Ultimately, He is still our Master. Just because He is loving and gracious and good to us as adopted sons, does not mean we are free to disregard Him and disobey Him. He still calls the shots. We still must obey.

Going back to Romans 6, verse 18 says: “and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” We are still slaves, but we are slaves of righteousness. Verse 22 rounds out the thought by saying: “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.” Again, we are slaves of God who now obey God.

You see, we are no longer bound to the master of sin, we no longer have to obey it. We’re set free. We’re liberated. However, we are still bound to obey God. Remember when we read Ephesians 1:7 which says, “In Him we have redemption through His blood…” A few verses later, in verse 14 it says we are “God’s own possession.” As God’s own possession, our will is now captive to our Father’s. He is still the Master. We are still His servant.

This means we must do what is right and pleases Him. Once we have been set free from sin, we are no longer slaves to it. We no longer are bound to do what is wrong. Now our default orientation is to do right. We seek what is right. We long for what is right. We are grieved when we do wrong. We sometimes still sin, but at the end of the day, our heart’s desire is to do the right thing.

And here’s what we need to understand about our new slavery. Since we are free from sin; that means we are now bound to do what is right—and the right thing is always to obey Jesus. There is no such thing as being freed from sin into a condition of doing whatever we want. If God is our Master, we will want to obey Him. If we still want to sin, then sin is still our master. It’s that simple. We can’t thirst for righteousness while at the same time thirst for something Jesus doesn’t want for us. We either obey sin or we obey God. Romans 6:16 gives us no other options.

Therefore, by definition, being set free from sin means we are finally free to pursue holiness and righteousness. We are finally able to obey the Lord. That’s why Romans 6:22 says, “now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness.” It leads to holiness because we can now actually pursue what pleases the Lord.

Practical Application:

The application of this principle is obvious—when Jesus is our Master, we will obey Him. We will seek to know His will through His Word. We will read it, study it, learn it, know it, and live it. It will become the guide for how we live life. Like a slave listening to his Master, His Word will mark and decide our actions, our decisions, our goals, and our objectives.

Our lives will begin to look different from before. For instance, there will be times when we may not “want” to have our daily devotions, but because Jesus is our Lord, we will. There will be times when we may not “want” to go to church, but because Jesus is our Lord, we will. There will be times when we won’t “want” to engage in the acts of righteousness God calls us to, but because He is our Lord, we will.

Yet, even in this new condition, there will be times when our old nature rises up against our new nature. Even the eminent apostle Paul struggled with sin. He said in Romans 7:14 “…I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.” The fact remains, even though we have been set free from sin, our flesh keeps going back to our old master. Like an old horse that continues to follow familiar paths, our flesh will always want to go back to our old habits. That’s why we need to keep reminding ourselves of these truths throughout all our days. If we have been set free, even though we may be riding a horse that wants to go the old way, we can control it and guide it to righteousness. And we can say with Paul a few verses later, “I joyfully concur with the Law of God… (Romans 7:22).” We will always struggle with our flesh, but if we are born-again, we have received the Spirit of God that crucifies our flesh (Romans 8:13) we might live and walk with Him.

Although we’ve stated it several different ways; in all of this, we need to understand our freedom from sin, and our freedom in Christ, does not mean we have the freedom to do whatever we want. Why not? Because that would be sin! If we just go off and live life any way we want; in complete disregard for Christ, then we are engaging in sin. Romans 14:23 says, “Whatever is not of faith is sin.” To live a life unconcerned with God would be to live a life without faith; and this would be sin. As we mentioned earlier, Jesus said in John 8:34, “…everyone who sins is a slave of sin.” Therefore, to engage in habitual disregard for Christ means to sin and to habitually sin means to be enslaved to sin. So, tying this back to Romans 8:13 if we live in sin; we will die. Why? Because we have demonstrated Christ is not our Lord and Master and we are still in bondage to sin.


Having said all of this, there are a couple of questions that might be asked.

For instance, “What kind of person enslaves their own children?” The heart of this question is rooted in the wrong perception of slavery. Remember in our discussion of slavery earlier, God graciously brings us into His home and His family. He lavishes His grace upon us (Ephesians 1:8) and treats us as adopted sons (Ephesians 1:5). He even extends to us an inheritance in Christ (Ephesians 1:11). In all these ways, He abundantly and graciously blesses us. Perhaps a similar question could also be asked—“What kind of person who has been bought out of a horrible enslavement would question the goodness of a Master who takes us from a dungeon of slime and puts us into a palace of blessings?”

Similarly, another question might be asked, “If I am set free from slavery, why do I have to now obey Jesus?” There are a couple of verses that seem to teach contradictory thoughts. For instance, in John 15:15 Jesus says, “No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends.” Galatians 4:7 says, “Therefore, you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.” In light of everything we’ve discussed, what do these verses mean?

Well, for one thing—they do not mean we have to choose one principle and reject the other. We are not to approach the Word of God as a salad bar where we only agree with the things that we like.

As we’ve already demonstrated, the Bible clearly states our condition as slaves of God. But it also states our condition as sons of God. Both are true and neither is mutually exclusive. How do we understand this?

In the biblical world, children obeyed their parents. The Ten Commandments even say, “Honor your father and your mother.” This principle was so serious Deuteronomy 21:18-21 says rebellious children could even be stoned. The principle is clear—God took obedience seriously. If a child did not to obey his or her parents, they could be cut off. And while the New Testament does not reinstitute the death penalty for disobedient kids, it does not remove the command. Instead, passages like Ephesians 6:1-3 reiterate it. The principle continues: children, obey your parents.

Thus, when we are reconciled to God through Christ, He adopts us as children. We have the rights and privileges of children. We have a status as children. This does not remove our requirement to obey. We are still captive to do the will of the father. Even in John 15:15 where Christ calls us “friends,” the full thought begins in the preceding verse which says, “You are My friends if you do what I command you.” We are friends, but we are required to obey. Likewise, we are sons, but we are required to obey.

Moreover, these passages (John 15:15 and Galatians 4:7) speak to the Father’s disposition to us. They are both given to demonstrate the heartbeat of God is not as a harsh, uncaring Master. God knows us as His children. Christ knows us as His friends. He knows us like sons. He knows us like family. So, when He commands us to obey Him in any situation He allows into our lives, He knows what we can bear. His disposition is not to mercilessly make us miserable, but to lovingly lead us to the place of our greatest fulfilment and joy in submission to Him.

Final Thoughts

At this point, we still may not be thrilled with this concept. The question is not to figure out if we agree with this doctrine. The question is, “Does the Bible teach this?” The undeniable answer is, “Yes, it does.” I may not have expressed these thoughts fully or the most eloquently, but we cannot deny the Bible teaches we are slaves to Christ. Like every other tenet of scripture, we need to let the Bible tell us what is true—and we need to likewise come humbly to these texts and submit to them. This is what it means to have Jesus as our Lord and Master.

So, now one final question remains: Is Jesus your Master? If not, it is time for you to surrender to Him. Romans 10:13 says, “Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” To call upon Jesus as Lord means to surrender to Him and obey Him as your Master. We should regularly acknowledge this to Christ. If you have not done this recently, I encourage you to begin today.

Thanks for reading, and may we together press on to love and serve our Lord Jesus Christ.

Together in Christ,

Russ Brewer

Last modified on Friday, 23 May 2014 18:13
Russ Brewer

Russ Brewer

Rescued from the domain of darkness, transferred to the kingdom of the Son. Undershepherd of Grace. Husband of Corinne. Father of three. Chew-toy to Zeke...

Website: www.thegracetabernacle.org
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