Slaves, Not Servants: An Interview with John MacArthur
- Monday, April 04, 2011
We don't hear about that concept much in churches today. In contemporary Christianity the language is anything but slave terminology. 14 It is about success, health, wealth, prosperity, and the pursuit of happiness. We often hear that God loves people unconditionally and wants them to be all they want to be. He wants to fulfill every desire, hope, and dream. Personal ambition, personal fulfillment, personal gratification—these have all become part of the language of evangelical Christianity—and part of what it means to have a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ."
Instead of teaching the New Testament gospel—where sinners are called to submit to Christ—the contemporary message is exactly the opposite: Jesus is here to fulfill all your wishes. Likening Him to a personal assistant or a personal trainer, many churchgoers speak of a personal Savior who is eager to do their bidding and help them in their quest for self-satisfaction or individual accomplishment.
The New Testament understanding of the believer's relationship to Christ could not be more opposite. He is the Master and Owner. We are His possession. He is the King, the Lord, and the Son of God. We are His subjects and His subordinates. In a word, we are His slaves.
Lost in Translation
Scripture's prevailing description of the Christian's relationship to Jesus Christ is the slave/master relationship.15 But do a casual read through your English New Testament and you won't see it.
The reason for this is as simple as it is shocking: the Greek word for slave has been covered up by being mistranslated in almost every English version—going back to both the King James Version and the Geneva Bible that predated it.16 Though the word slave (doulos in Greek) appears 124 times in the original text,17 it is correctly translated only once in the King James.
Most of our modern translations do only slightly better.18 It almost seems like a conspiracy. Instead of translating doulos as "slave," these translations consistently substitute the word servant in its place. Ironically, the Greek language has at least half a dozen words that can mean servant. The word doulos is not one of them.19 Whenever it is used, both in the New Testament and in secular Greek literature, it always and only means slave. According to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, a foremost authority on the meaning of Greek terms in Scripture, the word doulos is used exclusively "either to describe the status of a slave or an attitude corresponding to that of a slave."20 The dictionary continues by noting that
the meaning is so unequivocal and self-contained that it is superfluous
to give examples of the individual terms or to trace the history of the
group. . . . [The] emphasis here is always on "serving as a slave." Hence
we have a service which is not a matter of choice for the one who renders
it, which he has to perform whether he likes it or not, because he
is subject as a slave to an alien will, to the will of his owner. [The term
stresses] the slave's dependence on his lord.
While it is true that the duties of slave and servant may overlap to some degree, there is a key distinction between the tw servants are hired; slaves are owned.21 Servants have an element of freedom in choosing whom they work for and what they do. The idea of servanthood maintains some level of self-autonomy and personal rights. Slaves, on the other hand, have no freedom, autonomy, or rights. In the Greco- Roman world, slaves were considered property, to the point that in the eyes of the law they were regarded as things rather than persons.22 To be someone's slave was to be his possession, bound to obey his will without hesitation or argument.23
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