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. And while much can be said about slavery (and we will in a few minutes), the fact remains that the Bible says in numerous places that we are slaves of God, righteousness and Christ.
Consider these following verses:
- 1 Corinthians 7:22 (NASB95) "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 (NASB95) "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 (NASB95) "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 (NASB95) "“For this very night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood before me,"
- Revelation 22:3 (NASB95) "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;"
I trust that each of our desire is to learn and understand God’s Word and then conform our thoughts, beliefs, opinions and actions accordingly. So 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 how that impacts our lives.
In the New Testament, each of the occurrences of the word “slave” is the Greek word “doulos”. Doulos comes from the word “deo” meaning to enslave. 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, 1401).
Now the word “doulos” occurs 182 times in the Greek New Testament. It’s the run of the mill term for slave. In nearly all instances in the New Testament were the word “servant” is used, it’s “doulos”. Thus, rather than being a rare word, it’s occurs throughout the New Testament all the time. Much of our confusion in life becomes resolved by understanding the principle that we are slaves of Christ, rather than his servants. The word “servant” implies that we have a will. That we have a “say” in the matter. That we could tell the Lord that we’d rather not do His will right now. But if we realize that all those “servant” verses would be best translated as “slave” suddenly the scriptures become much more vivid about what it means to live for Christ and obey Him.
To make this clearer, we need to understand that while other Greek words could have been used to describe our service, the Bible normally chooses “slave” instead. For instance, the standard word for “servant” was “diakonos”; from which we get the word “Deacon”. It’s from the root word “runner” and means someone who runs around serving others. There was the Greek word “therapone” from which we get the word ‘therapy’. That was the idea of serving another person voluntarily. And there was the word “oiketes” was a house slave. And although this person was a full slave too, their status was higher than the “doulos”. The “oiketes” lived in homes. They weren’t chattel to be used up and discarded. 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 describes himself as an “uperetes” in 1 Corinthians 4:1, “Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants (uperetes) of Christ.”
And 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 “Well done, good and faithful servant”. Yet the word there is “doulos” and the NAS even says, “Well done, good and faithful slave.”
In Philippians 2:7, Paul speaks of Jesus and says, “but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant”. The real word there is “slave”. 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, 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 had virtual life and death power over the life of his slave. Much of what we think of slavery was absolutely true; if not more so. In the ancient world, slaves were so common, they were often treaty with disregard.
It has been estimated that half of the empire were slaves—that’s 60,000,000 people (Wight, Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, page 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. To give you an idea of the scale of this, it has been said that in those days, to have 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 1000 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 that many actually chose slavery because of its potential benefits). Likewise, it is true that in many systems of slavery, slaves had no rights. They could be crucified, sold, branded and emasculated against their will.
In ancient Rome, there was an economy that was somewhat similar to ours. No doubt, there were massive differences between our economies, and yet generally speaking, Rome was based on market economics. There were elected leaders, there were taxes, there was trading and shipping.
Thus, part of the reason for slavery was simply to get work done. In Rome, there were business ventures similar to modern businesses. Typically, these businesses were run by households. The households owned farms, mines, ships, pottery works, etc. These households would produce goods to sell.
And yet, 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 figuring out what to do with masses of people. In a society without a safety net of welfare and food stamps, slavery was a way that actually extended the lives of many millions of people. In many cases the slaves were living in better conditions than a free person. In many cases, a slave walking down the street was dressed as well as a freeman. If they came from wealthy homes, they were dressed better than some freeman.
They were so much alike that the Romans instituted a law that slaves needed to wear some kind of designation so that they could tell who were citizens and who were slaves. Working in the home of a slave owner granted them food, clothing and a roof over their heads; consequently, many times it was the individual themselves who was sold themselves into slavery.
However, by far the most common way a person entered slavery was by being 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 that they were being merciful in granting life to these rebels. All the more astounding when you think that many joined the family of the business and eventually earned their citizenship.
When we think of the American abuses of slavery; we think of permanent ownership. But Roman slavery was not this way. Roman slaves were not without hope and often, slavery 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 (when a slave owner had hundreds of slaves, he needed each one of them to produce enough to merit his room and board). So they gave incentives for slaves to be diligent. For instance, 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.
They could also earn their freedom. Therefore, 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 that a slave could expect to earn his freedom in seven years (Cicero, Philippic, 8.32). Likewise, there was a both a humanitarian and economic reason for the manumission of slaves. As slaves became older, their skill would increase. Because of their skill, they were “worth” more. Thus the owner could charge a high price because of his skill, and then using his profit he could buy a cheaper, younger slave and have money left over (Hopkins, Conquerors and Slaves, 118).
Slaves who purchased their freedom were Roman citizens. Likewise, to be a slave once did not relegate someone to the permanent 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 Greek historian 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 minimum fortune of senators (Pliny, Natural History, 33.135).
So while I don’t want to gloss over the evils of slavery, yet we have to understand why slavery has been permitted in scripture and what Paul means when he calls us slaves of God and Christ. He does not envision someone who cruelly beats his slaves, but rather a kind and gracious master. Jesus Himself says we are to love and serve God as our Master (Matthew 6:24).
Sometimes you’ll hear a person say, “I’m not a slave of anyone!” One of the principles we have to understand is that we are all slaves. The Bible does not teach that we went around as freemen, but then becomes slaves of Christ. Instead, the Bible says that from birth, we were always slaves but we have transferred our ownership from an evil master to a righteous Master.
The Bible is very direct in saying that all people are slaves. The issue is not about being free or being a slave—we are all either slaves of sin or slaves of Christ. Romans 6 makes this abundantly clear. As we look at Romans 6, we need to keep in mind that the words “slave” here is “doulos”.
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 that when we are captive to a behavior, we are enslaved to it; thus if we sin, then we are enslaved to sin. Likewise, Jesus said in John 8:34, “Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.” So what are we captive to? The next verse 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,”
Notice what it says, “…you were slaves of sin…” That is the condition of every person outside of Christ. Ephesians 2:1–2 puts this 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 walked according to the course of this world and Satan. Why? Because we were slaves to it. No one is free. They are all slaves.
But praise God that we have been set free from this evil master by Christ. Romans 6:18 goes on to say, “and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” Again, notice that we have been “...freed form sin…” How were we set free? By Christ. This is what the term “redemption” means. It’s the idea of being on a slave block, under the ownership of sin, and Christ coming up, paying our price and purchasing our freedom from the master of sin. Ephesians 1:7 explains this when it says, "In Him (that is, in Christ) 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 account of all that we did while under the mastership of sin.
So does that mean that 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—and our new home. Our old home was a vile dungeon, being forced to sin and being whipped and tortured all the while. Now we are brought to this 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.
But here’s what we need to understand—we still must obey our Heavenly Father. Ultimately, He is still our Master. His loving grace and goodness to us, His adoption of us as sons, does not mean that we are now free to disregard Him and disobey Him. He still calls the shots. We still must obey.
Going back to that verse in Romans 6 that we just read, it says: “and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” We are still slaves, but now 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.”
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. But we still obey God. Remember a moment ago when read Ephesians 1:7 which says, “In Him we have redemption through His blood…” A few verses later, in verse 14 it says we have been sealed by the Holy Spirit as “God’s own possession.” And as God’s own possession, our will is now captive to our Father’s. He is still the Master. We are still His servant.
That 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. That means we no longer are bound to do what is wrong. This means 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 get this—the right thing is to always obey Jesus. There is no such thing as being freed from sin into a condition of moral neutrality. We either obey sin or we obey God. It’s that simple. Romans 6:16 gives us no other options—we either are slaves of sin and obey sin, or we are slaves of Christ and obey Him. These are the only options given to us in scripture.
By definition, being set free from sin means obeying Jesus. This is our freedom: we are finally free to pursue holiness and righteousness. We are finally free to obey the Lord. We can’t thirst for righteousness while at the same time thirsting for something that Jesus doesn’t want for us. 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 (because we can now actually pursue Christ).”
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. It will inform out words, our actions, our decisions, our goals, our objectives.
There will be countless times when our old nature will rile 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.” There is a very real truth that while we have been set free from sin, our flesh keeps going back to our old master. Like a horse that travels well-worn paths, our flesh will always want to go back to our old master. That’s why we need to keep reminding ourselves of these truths throughout all our days. Because if we have been set free, even though we may be riding a horse that wants to go to the old barn, we can control it 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) that we might live and walk with God
There are a couple of questions that we might ask. 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, 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 be posed back to the person asking this original question—“What kind of person, 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, someone might ask the question, “If I am set free from slavery, why do I have to now obey Jesus?” Some might even quote the NIV translation of Romans 8:15 which says (when taken out of context) “…you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again…” And so the thinking is that if we have been set free; we’re not slave of anyone or anything.
This goes back to the point made earlier. Romans 6:16 only gives two options for us—either we do what is wrong (sin) or we do what is right (obey Jesus). There is no middle ground. Even the context of Romans 8:15 says (verse 12-13 in the NIV) “Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die…” Even the verse in Romans 8:15 must be read it its entirety: “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.” We can see that the slavery we did NOT receive was to fear. We have been adopted as sons, we are free from the fear of our Master that would be commensurate with an evil master. But this verse is even clearer in the NASB; "For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons…" The word “adoption” is critical to this text and it’s in the original Greek. I have no idea why it was left out of the NIV—the word “adoption” there only occurs 5 times in the Greek New Testament. And even the NIV translates it as “adoption” in all but this passage and Galatians 4:5; where they confuse the matter again.
Okay, so before we get too bogged down in Greek and different translations; we simply need to understand that our freedom from sin 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. And 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. And tying this back to Romans 8:13 if we live in sin; we will die. Why? Because we have demonstrated that Christ is not our Lord and Master and we are still in bondage to our original sin nature.
Lastly, there are several verses that seem to teach contradictory thoughts. For instance, 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 verse mean?
Well, for one thing—it does not mean we have to choose one and reject the other. As we’ve already demonstrated, the Bible does state our condition as slaves of God. But it also states our condition as sons of God. Both are true and neither is mutually exclusive.
In the biblical world, children obeyed their parents. The 10 Commandments even say, “Honor your father and your mother.” This principle was so serious that Deuteronomy 21:18-21 says that children who were stubbornly rebellious to their parents could even be stoned. The principle is clear—God took obedience seriously. If a child was not to obey the parents, he was to be cut off. When the New Testament removes these kinds of penalties, it does not also remove the command. Indeed, Ephesians 6:1-3 reiterates the command. So the principle is clear—children, obey your parents. And when we come to God, we come to Him as His children. Yes, we have the rights and privileges of children. Yes, we have a status as children. But that does not remove our requirement to obey. We are still captive to do the will of the father. Even John 15:15 where Christ calls us friends, the very preceding verse 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 that the heartbeat of God is not as an impassive, uncaring Master. God knows us as His children. Christ knows us as His friends. When He commands us, He knows what we can bear. He wont call all of us to martyrdom. He wont call all of us to the jungle mission field. He wont call all of us to difficult marriages. But He will call some. And He knows who to call to do what. He knows us like sons. He knows us like family. His heartbeat isn’t to uncaringly make us miserable, it’s to lovingly lead us to the place of our greatest fulfilment and joy; in submission to Him.
Ours is not to say whether or not we agree with this doctrine. No doubt, even after explaining; there may be some who are still unsettled with the idea of being a slave of Christ. The real question is, “Does the Bible teach this?” The undeniable answer is “Yes is does”. And like every other way that we need to let the Bible tell us what is true—we likewise need to humbly come to these texts and submit to them. This is what it means to have Jesus as our Lord and Master. By very nature, this relationship means that we will do what He calls us to do. We will believe what He tells us to believe. We will live as He tells us to live. And so, having come this far; is Jesus your Master? If not, it is time for you to simply submit to Him and surrender to Him. Romans 10:13 says, “Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” To call upon Jesus is to surrender to Him as your Lord. If you have not done this yet, I encourage you to do this today.