The Christian is Not Just a Servant, But a Slave: The Tricky Business of Living Out Our True Identity
We are all slaves. Such is what Paul calls us. No other identity suits as well. Constantly he calls himself the doulos of Christ. Too often this term has been translated as servant. But we are not servants; we are slaves—those obligated, owned, and bent toward their master’s will.
Calling the Christian a slave is certainly offensive to many but is in reality the most beautiful description. For generations, the term “doulos” (δοῦλος) has been translated as servant, no doubt born from a desire to be sensitive on an offensive subject. The avoidance of the term slave, though rich in theological and practical meaning, carries a lot of baggage. With the term “slave,” images of emaciated, broken, mistreated, and denegraded people are conjured. This image is the result of a western and American context in which an entire group of people were maligned and mistreated in shameful ways.
Slavery in the Roman world, however, was far different from the sort practiced in the modern world. Slavery was not based on race. To be sure, “barbarians” (non-Romans) were considered less than the civilized citizens of the glorious Roman Empire. Slaves were taken from conquered people throughout the world—Syria, Africa, Greece, Gaul, and among the Germanic tribes. If freed, no qualm or cry of rage would be made when one of these people walked down the street. The line between slave and freeman was rather thin—a financial line. One could buy or earn their freedom, but the cost was well beyond the means of a common slave.
Any person in this social standing loses much of their own identity. Certainly they had their own personality, beliefs, cultural norms, and customs. But their entire lives, actions, and will were molded to that of their master’s. Whatever the task asked of them, whatever instructions given, the slave gave one common response: “Your will, my hands.”
The will and thoughts of the master were acted out in the lives of his slaves. Whether asked to work in the home or fight in the gladiatorial arena, the doulos’ lived and represented the mind and heart of his master.
This social image which Paul draws upon is a powerful one. He most famously used this image in Titus 1:1-3.
“Paul, a slave of God, and an apostle of Jesus Christ for the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness, in the hope of eternal life that God, who cannot lie, promised before time began, and has in His own time revealed His message in the proclamation that I was entrusted with by the command of God our Savior”
The slave of Christ depicts a certain identity which we hold in our savior and an image of which we must fulfill in action. We are to respond to his calling and command, “Your will, my hands.” It is not my will and my hands—as if to claim that the works which are done and done so through me and my effort. It is not my will, his hands—as if to force and twist God’s providing arm to release for me the things which I most desire.
It is HIS WILL acted out through my hands. May these hands be a useful tool. And may we be as submissive and desire to reflect His identity rather than out own.
Why do you think the concept of the Christian Slave might be offensive?
What does a Christian Slave actually look like and how might we live this out in our respective communities?
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