Have you ever thought that your pastor or Bible teacher had an easy job when it comes to teaching from the Bible? I remember when I was a teenager I had no real appreciation for sitting under faithful Bible teachers because I did not know how to recognize faithful teaching from unfaithful teaching. Now that I have grown in my understanding of Scripture from years of study, I am much more likely to discern what is faithful to the Bible and what is not. I now realize that one of the great temptations many preachers face is the opportunity to “water down” a biblical truth; knowing that it is more than likely going to offend the hearers.
Unfortunately, this is what has happened for many Bible translation committees and pastors alike for the Greek word “δοῦλος” (doulos). The word doulos in the original Greek text (our earliest complete copy of the New Testament in Greek being the Codex Sinaiticus) is used 130 times in the New Testament. Today, in modern English translations, including the King James Version (1611), the word is used once. So what does doulos mean? Doulos means one thing and it is to be a slave.
In the original text, the most accurate way to describe a Christian was not to proclaim one as liberated, free, or prosperous but to be considered a slave of Jesus Christ. Now you can imagine why translation committees and pastors would avoid calling Christians “slaves of Christ”. The idea of a slave for most of us takes us immediately back to our history classes, or some to their ancestors, where we remember our distasteful past specifically here in America.
Because of this past, Bible translation committees use the word “bondservant” rather than slave. The word bondservant implies willful submission or service, thus conveying the idea a Christian is a servant of Christ rather than explicitly saying we are His slave. Despite the fact that we are servants of Christ, the biblical text proclaims we are far more than that — we are slaves to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
For many Bible teachers, bondservant is a much more appropriate way of conveying the biblical truth of being a slave to Christ. The problem however is that in the original text there are 6 words for servant, and doulos is not one of them. The word doulos only means one thing and it is to be a slave, not just a servant, but one who is owned and has been purchased by God.
So where do we see this in Scripture? For most modern English translations, the translation will use the word slave when specifically talking about slavery or when talking about being in bondage to an inanimate object, like sin. One example of this is in Ephesians 6:5-6. My translation of choice is the English Standard Version (ESV) and in this translation Ephesians 6:5-6 uses the word “bondservant” rather than slave.
The problem is in the context of this passage the apostle Paul was literally speaking to slaves of earthly masters, not just “willful servants”. In verse 6 in the original text is where we see the apostle Paul use the phrase “slaves of Christ”, but my translation says “as bondservants of Christ”.
So what is the big deal about this anyway? Well, to be honest I do not think it is anything to lose sleep over, but I do believe that we as believers often miss out on a great biblical truth of being owned and purchased by Christ because of this word choice in modern English translations. I am curious, what word choice conveys a stronger sense of being surrendered to the Lordship of Christ to you, the word bondservant or slave? I believe the greatest area where we see this word choice of bondservant negatively impact the Church is in our discipleship of new converts.
How I wish when I was a young Christian in the faith that someone came alongside me and helped me understand that knowing Christ as Savior also meant knowing Christ as Lord, and that if He is Lord then He is also Master and that I am His slave; purchased in everlasting love and irresistible grace. I believe one reason why young believers struggle to obey the Lord is because they fail to understand this reality.
As I have pondered on this truth this week, I was reminded that there is never not a moment in our lives that we are not slaves. For those who do not know Christ, we are in bondage or slavery to sin (Romans 6:20) and are unable to live a life pleasing to God. But God, being rich in mercy, provided a way for sinners to be reconciled and made alive to God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:1-8).
When a sinner looks to Christ in faith by grace, he does enter freedom (Galatians 5:1), but the freedom we experience is in the Lord Jesus, not in ourselves. To be a Christian is to experience the freedom of being a slave of Christ, owned and purchased by your Creator!
As slaves of Christ we no longer have to live in the slavery to ourselves and the deceitfulness of sin. For the born-again Christian, we know the safest place we can be, the place of utmost joy (Psalm 16:11), is in abiding in our Lord and walking in obedience to His commands through the grace He provides.
So what is our daily posture as slaves of Christ? I believe the apostle Paul says it best in Philippians 1:20. He says, “as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death” (ESV). The greatest desire of a slave, a Christian slave that is, is to bring honor to our Master.
May we go forward into this new week knowing that we do not belong to ourselves and that we are not sovereign over our own lives as believers, but we belong to the Lord Jesus Christ through faith and it is our eager expectation and hope that He be honored in us through life or death.
If you would like to dive deeper into this topic, I am pleased to recommend a sermon by John MacArthur that greatly helped me in understanding this reality. The title of the video is “Slaves for Christ: Selected Scriptures”. Additionally, I am overjoyed that John MacArthur and his team at the Master’s Seminary are in the process as we speak giving an update to the already literal English Bible translation, the New American Standard Bible. This new update that should be finished in 2021 will be called the Legacy Standard Bible, and in it the word doulos will be used as slave all 130 times in the New Testament. Praise the Lord!