Servant or Slave – doulos in Romans 6

The word ‘slave’ is only found twice in the entire King James Version Bible (KJV), yet in many modern day translations, it is found from 100 to 300+ times in both Old and New testaments, and in some bibles it is found from 30 to over over 150 times in the New Testament alone. This is truly an astounding change and variation in the way bibles are translated, but more importantly it is greatly impacting the way in which the Bible is perceived and received. In this post, I want to explore the use of the Greek word δοῦλος (transliterated: doulos) in Romans 6, and discuss whether it should be translated ‘servant’ or ‘slave’ or something else. This won’t be an exhaustive study, but I hope it will open our eyes to how we look at the scriptures, and more importantly, what God is trying to show us through the apostle Paul in his teaching to the church about grace and its relation to sin in Romans chapter 6.

What does ‘slave’ mean today

I have had experiences with family members and acquaintances who use the existence of the word ‘slave’ in the modern bibles to justify an accusation that God/Bible supports slavery, and regardless of any attempts to clarify its use in context, the offended party sometimes leaves unconvinced, or numb to further explanations. So, let’s first examine why people often feel offended by reading the word ‘slave’ in a modern bible.

If you ask anyone living in Antigua (the island that I was born and raised in), and even in the any country in the Caribbean, what the word ‘slave’ or ‘slavery’ brings to mind, you will typically find persons giving a horrid, grotesque and painful description of African men, women and children being captured or purchased off of the western shores of the African continent, being stripped naked, bound with chains on their neck, wrists and ankles, being packed in the cargo hold of ship with other black Africans, and being transported over hundreds of miles of ocean for several months. While traveling over the Atlantic ocean, other slaves would become sick, and die or be beaten, or thrown overboard. Female slaves would be raped. Barely any food would be given to them.The area that the slaves were kept would be stink and filthy. After arriving on some Caribbean island, the slaves would be sold again, separated from family members, and forced to work in a plantation. Many would be branded and they would not have any rights or even given the basics of human decency or dignity. This is a simplified description of what most Caribbean people today may think of when they hear the word ‘slave’ or ‘slavery’. They think of the experiences of their ancestors in the “Trans Atlantic Slave Trade” that occurred during the 16th to the 19th centuries in the Caribbean. Such vivid and offensive imagery adds lots of negative connotation to the word ‘slave’ and thus automatically confers this negativity to any metaphor that uses the word ‘slave’.

The negative connotations attached to the word ‘slave’ is not unique to Caribbean people. There are many other cultures and ethnic groups around the world that also view slavery in a very negative light. Even today, there is lots of human trafficking all around the globe, where children, especially, are bought and sold, and forced into prostitution or treated like material objects that can be discarded and abused at the whims and fancies of their ‘owners’. So, even outside of our Caribbean culture, the term ‘slave’ is typically only associated with evil, abuse, violation of will, rape, chains, cruelty, depravity, and many other forms of sickening and sinful deeds.

For those of us who are Christians, believers saved by the grace of God, the question I ask is: “Is this how God treats us?” Does God treat us like the ‘slaves’ in this modren understanding? Does he abuse us? Chain us? Rape us? Attack us when he is angry? Does he violate our will? Does he treat us cruelly, with evil intentions and deeds? I think I can confidently say that any Christian will say “No” to all of these questions. 

What does ‘slave’ mean in the past

So, although Christians today would say unequivocally that God does not and would never treat us like our modern day understanding of a ‘slave’, how about in the past? Did slave have the same meaning in the past? And why do so many modern bible translators still insist on using the word ‘slave’ in their bible translations? To get a good understanding of this, we first have to realize that “slavery” itself, as a practice, existed for several thousand years since the very first civilizations (evidence goes as far back as 3500 B.C. in ancient Mesopotamia). Slavery itself dates before the English language even existed (around 450 A.D.). The interesting thing about this realization is that because ‘slaves’ and ‘slavery’ existed before the English language itself, the term ‘slave’ is really trying to define something that already is defined in other languages by their own words, and it is also trying to define something had been practiced for thousands of years in thousands of cultures. And the ancient people who use these other languages in their own cultures do not have the same experience of the slave trade of the 16th to 19th centuries. It is a hugely difficult task to reconcile the understanding of words like doulos in Greek and Roman times (in the 1st century) with the English word ‘slave’ (in the 21st century) and this is because the Greek word doulos has a wider range of application in the first century when compared to the English word ‘slave’.

So, what does the Greek word doulos refer to in the first century, and does this always correspond to the English word ‘slave’? Well, this is exactly the issue that the scholars of the ESV (English Standard Version bible) translation oversight committee faced in 2010 at Tyndale House in Cambridge, England. Here is a short video clip that gives some insight into there discussions:

It is very interesting to listen to the scholars in the video debate the use of slave in 1 Corinthians 7. It is interesting to note how some scholars focus on the dictionary meanings of the word ‘slave’ and ‘servant’, and only focusing on whether you are paid or not, and added about the concept of being someone’s property. Dr. Wenham in particular goes on to mention how the Old Testament is focused on improving the life of slaves rather than pretending they are not. Not disregarding, Dr. Wenham’s point, as he is not really incorrect in his assertion, the issue that he is oversimplifying is the fact that the dictionary definition of ‘slave’ does not relate to real world cultural understanding of the word ‘slave’ in every day communication. This point is highlighted by other scholars who make a differentiation between how the word ‘slave’ is perceived today by the average person versus how it is understood in the times of the Old Testament and the New Testament. In particular, at the end of the video, we see that Dr. Grudem makes the point that scholars understand slavery relative to the times in which it was practiced, but he goes on to say that the average reader sees the word slave as having “irredeemably negative associations and connotations”. He makes the point that in the first century, slavery has the following possible properties:

  1. it was temporary or time limited.
  2. it leads to ones freedom after the contracted time
  3. it was often voluntary (although it can also be involuntary)
  4. it was economically driven, and not racially driven
  5. it had some status in Roman society because there were legal protections in place

Considering these five points, it clear to see that slavery in the first century was a totally different thing from how we perceive it today. In addition, if we look at the Preface to the ESV, we can find the following quote:

A particular difficulty is presented when words in biblical Hebrew and Greek refer to ancient practices and institutions that do not correspond directly to those in the modern world. Such is the case in the translation of ‘ebed (Hebrew) and doulos(Greek), terms which are often rendered “slave.” These terms, however, actually cover a range of relationships that requires a range of renderings—“slave,” “bondservant,” or “servant”—depending on the context. Further, the word “slave” currently carries associations with the often brutal and dehumanizing institution of slavery particularly in nineteenth-century America. For this reason, the ESV translation of the words ‘ebed and doulos has been undertaken with particular attention to their meaning in each specific context. Thus in Old Testament times, one might enter slavery either voluntarily (e.g., to escape poverty or to pay off a debt) or involuntarily (e.g., by birth, by being captured in battle, or by judicial sentence). Protection for all in servitude in ancient Israel was provided by the Mosaic Law, including specific provisions for release from slavery. In New Testament times, a doulos is often best described as a “bondservant”—that is, someone in the Roman Empire officially bound under contract to serve his master for seven years (except for those in Caesar’s household in Rome who were contracted for fourteen years). When the contract expired, the person was freed, given his wage that had been saved by the master, and officially declared a freedman. The ESV usage thus seeks to express the most fitting nuance of meaning in each context. Where absolute ownership by a master is envisaged (as in Romans 6), “slave” is used; where a more limited form of servitude is in view, “bondservant” is used (as in 1 Corinthians 7:21–24); where the context indicates a wide range of freedom (as in John 4:51), “servant” is preferred. Footnotes are generally provided to identify the Hebrew or Greek and the range of meaning that these terms may carry in each case.

The ESV Preface gives us further insight into how slavery was viewed in the first century. It explains that doulos in the Roman empire was someone who was officially bonded under a contract to serve his master for seven years, and at the end of the contract the person is freed and given their wages that was due them over the seven year period. This is a very curious thing, because we would not ever call someone a slave who was contracted to work for seven years and paid at the end of that period. We would call that person an employee, or more specifically a contracted employee.

The concept of ownership has always seemed to make the differentiation between a slave and a servant. This point was specifically mentioned in the ESV Preface, and was mentioned in the video clip during the scholars’ discussion. Ownership of people as property, or as bonded to pay a debt is something that typically is associated with slavery. However, the way I see it is that it depends on how we perceive ownership. I find that this one point as the main determiner for distinguishing slavery (in the first century) from any other form of service is somewhat one-dimensional. By only considering this one aspect and calling it slavery seems to be inaccurate. The reasons why people became property in the first century is typically because they owe a debt, were children of parents who were slaves, lost their land (and thus rights) from the results of war, or chose to sell themselves to get money. People who were in these circumstances basically used their own selves as collateral.

Language constantly changes

We really have to be careful how we use the word ‘slave’. Applying it to doulos in the New Testament is not something I agree with. Even if we take the stance that ownership is one of the properties that doulos may be describing. The issue in my mind is that language is dynamic and meanings of word constantly change from generations to generation. There are nuances and connotations that change with every generation with certain words.

One example of this is the word, “girlfriend”. I recall when I was a teenager, and my mother referred to one of my school mates as being my “girlfriend’. I had to immediately correct her, because in her mind “girfriend’ referred to any female who was your friend, but in my generation “girlfriend” meant a female that I, a male, was dating and having a serious relationship with. Fast forward to a couple months ago, I had a similar conversation with my 6-year old daughter’s teacher. She mentioned to me that she referred to one of my daughter’s school mates as my daughter’s “girlfriend”. When she did that my 6 year old immediately told her that she has no “girlfriend” and that the school mate was just her friend. I told the teacher that my daughter was correct. In today’s modern culture, when a girl has a “girlfriend” they are considered to be lesbians or dating in a serious relationship. So, within three generations in my own personal experience, you can see how the nuances and connotation of the word “girlfriend” when applied to similar scenarios have different meanings and implications.

I believe that the word ‘slave’ suffers from the same dynamic changes in language over time. Because ‘slave’ in the 21st century means something different than doulos in the first century, we really can’t equate the two. Even if they both have similar properties in similar circumstances, it really does injustice to doulos to use ‘slave’ to represent it, as the meaning of ‘slave’ in the 21st century can never be reduced or isolated to only mean what doulos represents.

doulos in Romans 6

The ESV Preface makes the comment, “Where absolute ownership by a master is envisaged (as in Romans 6), “slave” is used”. However, i ask the question, “Is this really an accurate representation of doulos in Romans 6?”. In Romans 6, doulos is used 6 times as a noun (in verses 16, 17, 19, and 20) and 2 times as a verb (in verses 18 and 22). Here is the relevant passage:

14 For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.

15 What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid.

16 Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?

17 But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you.

18 Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness.

19 I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness.

20 For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness.

21 What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death.

22 But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.

23 For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

I quoted the passage in Romans 6 from verse 14 to the end because it gives us a full picture of what the apostle Paul is trying to reveal to us. I have also underlined all the occurrences of doulos in both noun and verb forms in the passage. If you read the passage carefully, you will see that the passage is not about ownership. It is explaining to the believer that we have a choice of who will be our Lord (or kyrios in Greek) and that we determine that in practice by who or what we choose to obey or whose instruction we choose to follow. In verse 14, the apostle Paul tells us that sin will not have dominion over us. This is important because in the Greek, the English expression “have dominion over” is kyrieuo, which is the verb form of kyrios, which is the “Lord” in Lord Jesus Christ. This infers to us that sin will not take the position as Lord in our life any longer, and from verse 16, we see that the apostle Paul expresses to us that we actually choose who/what we “yield” (or stand beside; ready to follow) ourselves to be of service to. It is a total mind shift in how we view our life choices. The apostle Paul tells us in verse 16, “to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey“. This is a statement of choice, in the form of a voluntary contract. It is not a statement of ownership.

It is also important to note that the Greek word for “obey” in this passage is the Greek word hypakouo, which is a compound word from the Greek hypo (which means “under”) and akouo (which means “hear; hearken; give audience”). By looking more deeply into this word, we see that this is not a forced submission that the word “obey” often suggests, but rather a choice of who/what do you listen to, or who/what you place yourself under to be your guide in your life.

Verse 17 to 19 reinforces the teaching from the apostle Paul that it is our choice about who we want to serve, and even emphasizes the results of that in our daily lives. Verse 17 talks about how the believers were bound as doulos of sin, but after believing the teachings of Grace were made “free” from sin (verse 18), they are now are bound as doulos to righteousness. This, to me, just just like modern day employment. You can’t work for two jobs full time. It is just not possible. However, you have to work to earn money to live. So, if you want to work for a different employer, you must leave your current employer to be hired somewhere else. This is how I see this passage in Romans 6. I do not see it as involuntary ownership, but rather as voluntary contractual stewardship.

What is most apparent as evidence for choice in this passage is actually the last verse. The apostle Paul’s analogy with doulos is made completely clear when you read verse 23, and it confirms our choice in the matter, and also that doulos could never be translated as slave here. In verse 23, the apostle Paul says, “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”. Verse 23, tells us that the doulos of sin will get wages, and the wages that sin gives is death. Do slaves get wages for their work? Do owners give their property wages? The clear and evident answer to this questions is a definite, “No”. If doulos were translated slaves here, it just would not make any sense in the context of the passage and in line with the teaching of the apostle Paul.

Benefits of being God’s doulos

To strengthen the point that being a doulos of sin is different from being a doulos to righteousness, and is not talking about ownership by God, we need to look at verse 22, and what it says about the rewards of being a doulos of God. Sin is always associated with wages you earn and producing the “works of the flesh” (Romans 6:19 and Galatians 5). Sin always produces works and wages. However, faith and righteous is always associated with gifts (of God; of Christ; of the Holy Spirit) and always produces fruit, which is not by our effort. The benefits of being a doulos of God are based in what God gives you, not what you earn or try to get from God. There is a total paradigm shift that shows how God views us. He does not want to “own” us as many Christians believe and as many Christian leaders have preached. God wants us to choose him. God does not want us to be slaves. He wants us to be his sons (“sons” speak of being heirs of his righteousness by faith).

Being a doulos of God is not about God owning you, but rather about you getting the opportunity to use your “members” (your physical body parts) for righteousness, and developing a relationship with God as an heir of grace. We all give gifts to people we love and care about, and God does the same thing. Being a doulos of God is like being a family member in a family business, you don’t do it for the wages or what you earn, but you do it for the love of family and for one day taking over as an inheritor. In the process of that, you benefit from the families’ success. Being God’s doulos is about enjoying his holiness, and having eternal life.

Being God’s doulos is a choice. It speaks of choosing Christ as your Lord, the one you stand beside, ready to listen to, as Mary sat as the Lord’s feet listening to his teachings (Luke 10: 39). If I had to pick an antiquated English word to translate it to, I would choose “bondservant”. If I had to translate it to modern English, I would pick “devoted servant”. For me, I side with the translation of servant and not slave.

But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name – John 1:12

  1. Atlantic Slave Trade – Wikipedia
  2. History of slavery – Wikipedia
  3. History of English – English Club
  4. Preface to the ESV – Gospel Coalition

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