Remarkably, one of the metaphors frequently employed by New Testament writers has been toned down in many versions, most likely because it is so objectionable to the senses of so many who profess to be Christians these days. Besides being politically unacceptable because of its many demeaning features and because of the many abuses suffered by slaves in the earlier years of this nation, slavery is not a very appealing picture to the modern mind. We cannot imagine ourselves being owned by another person, not free to go and come when we wish and not being able to make decisions regarding what we do, where we live and with whom we associate.
Yet, slavery is a very common figure of speech used for the Christian in the New Testament. That truth may not be so obvious to us because the most common word for slave is not uniformly translated. For instance, in Romans 6:16-18 the KJV, ASV and other versions render the word for slave (doulos or its variants) as “servant” or “bondservant.”The word servant does not convey the same significance as “slave.” A servant can choose to discontinue his service and walk away from the one whom he served. A servant is an employee who is paid for his service. A slave is owned by his master. He has no choice as to whether he will serve or not. If he were to decide to walk away from his master he could be severely punished or even killed as punishment and as a warning to other slaves. There is a great difference between a servant and a slave. A servant is free to serve or not serve – a slave has no choice as to whether he will serve or not.
Slavery, as an institution in the Roman Empire, has been shown by recent scholarship to have been a very oppressive arrangement. In spite of the common knowledge of what a slave was in their day, the apostles freely used the figure of a slave to describe the relationship of the Christian to their Lord. New Testament writers considered themselves slaves of Jesus Christ (Romans 1:1; Galatians 1:10; Titus 1:1: James 1:1). Not only did Paul consider himself a slave of Jesus, he described Christians as being slaves also.
“For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ.” (1Cor. 7:22).
“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”(Rom 6:16-18).
The apostle doesn’t pull any punches. He does not hesitate to let people know what is involved in being a Christian. If one looks at this relationship with the Lord as being that of a slave and finds that objectionable, at least he can’t say he was deceived. If he were not told up front what it would be like to be a follower of Jesus and later finds that is is much like being a slave, he might well object that he was deceived.
The figure used in v. 16 of being a slave to sin is not objectionable to our modern sensibilities. Jesus himself used this figure to describe the condition of a sinner …
“Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” (John 8:34).
We can understand the oppressive nature of sin and the desire to be free of its bonds. We flee from sin to the freedom that is in Jesus. We revel in our freedom in Christ, sometimes even abusing that freedom because we do not understand that we have been made free from slavery to sin in order to become his slave. You see, it is not a question of whether we will be a slave, it is a question of who will be our master. We are going to be a slave to something, whether sin, the flesh, the world, pleasure, pride or of the King of all the universe.
We are his slaves because we have chosen him to be our master. In Bible days a man could sell himself or even his entire family into servitude in order to pay off debts or because he had for some reason become unable to provide for his own. Under the law of Moses, this servitude was only for a specified period, after which he could go his way. But in choosing Jesus as our master, we commit to him for life. The only alternative is to go back into slavery to sin. There is no third position – no neutral, in between place.
We are a slave to God, not just because we have chosen him to be our master, but because he has bought us.
“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Cor 6:19-20).
Through having bought us with the blood of the Son of God, he has exclusive claim to our entire being. There are no part time slave of the Lord. Everything we do, everywhere we are in every circumstance of life, we are his purchased possession. We are to be exclusively available to him whenever and in whatever way he may demand.
“No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24).
The idea here is that one cannot be a slave to two masters. A master is one who owns a slave. If God has bought us, we are exclusively owned by him and cannot be owned by another. Thus, we are obligated to give him our constant, exclusive service. This gives depth of meaning to the words of Jesus in Mark 12:30 …
“And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.”
A slave was constantly available to his master. No matter what time of day or night, when the master called, the slave was obligated to obey. Slavery was an established institution in New Testament days. The economy of the Roman world was very much built on it. Paul instructed Titus to …
“Exhort servants to be obedient unto their own masters, and to please them well in all things; not answering again;” (Titus 2:9).
How much more should the Christian be singularly devoted to his master. After all, in making us his slaves, he has not only delivered us from slavery to sin with all its consequent evils, but in being his slaves we are protected and provided for more abundantly than we ever could provide for ourselves. We are, as a slave, totally dependent upon our Master. Whether a slave of God or not, everyone is dependent upon him. The slave of sin doesn’t acknowledge this fact, but the slave of God does. Everyone has problems in life. Those who are in a relationship with God can turn to him in times of trouble. As slaves, we recognize that there is nowhere else we can turn. As Peter urges, we are to cast our anxieties on him because “because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). Paul spoke of his own condition this way …
“Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” (2 Corinthians 1:9).
Finally, there is the honor of being a slave to God and his righteousness. Even in Roman slavery, there was honor attached to being a slave in the house of a great man. Those who were slaves in Caesar’s household were considered to be greatly honored. How much more the honor of those who have been faithful to the great King of all creation! Paul says that at the judgment those who have done good will receive “glory and honor and peace” (Romans 2:10).
Being a slave to God is not a demeaning thing. It will cause us to lower ourselves in our own estimation. It will prevent us from seeking the honor of this world. It will cause us to be like our Master who himself took on “the form of a servant” (doulou, slave Philippians 2:7). He lowered himself to the level of a slave to wash the disciple’s feet (John 13:1-17) and he humbled himself to the point of slavery to do us the service of saving us from our sins. It was after he had performed this act that he was exalted to the right hand of God.
We, his slaves, are exalted by lowering ourselves to do service to others. We are glorified by seeking HIS glory. We are honored by honoring HIM. There is no greater honor than to be a slave of Jesus Christ. There is no greater reward than that of a slave of Jesus Christ. We share in his glory. We are honored in his honor.