The word “slave” has virtually nothing but unpleasant connotations to most modern ears. Yet, as many Christians are aware, we are called to be “slaves” of God and of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 7:22). The dissonance between how we feel about the word and the unequivocally clear message of the New Testament is difficult for many to handle, and we can clearly see this in most English translations of the Bible.
The Greek word for “slave” – doulos – occurs about 150 times in its different forms in the New Testament, but it is rarely translated that way. Even as early as the King James Version, the translators elected to use the English word “servant” except where the word cannot be understood any other way (as when slaves are contrasted with “free” individuals) or when the meaning is figurative (as when the New Testament speaks of being “slaves of sin” – Romans 6:20, etc.).
But although doulos can mean “servant” in some few circumstances, there were clear-cut distinctions. For example, ancient slaves would routinely wash the feet of house guests, something free servants would not normally do. Doulos is not the usual word for servant, and probably more than 90% of its occurrences in the New Testament do simply mean “slave.” Yet only one modern translation of the New Testament (the Holman Christian Standard Bible) translates doulos as “slave” – as it should be translated – whenever it appears. The reason is obvious. Most translators cannot bring themselves to convey the clear meaning of the Greek with a word that is so offensive to most modern readers.
As a result, most translations use “servant” – sometimes with a footnote explaining that the Greek may be “slave,” and sometimes (as in the ESV) even with a labored explanation in the Introduction stating that the word doulos can be either slave or servant. Yet the fact that they opt almost invariably for “servant” proves the point we are making.
But the answer to this dissonant situation is not to try to make the Greek word mean something it did not. The answer that Christians need to be aware of is to be found in the nature of ancient slavery itself. Some try to claim that ancient slavery was “much better” than the abomination we know from the modern world, and in many cases it was – but for many it was no better at all. The key to understanding ancient slavery is ultimately not in the nature of how well a given slave was treated (which could vary considerably – just as in any other human relationship), but for whom the slave worked.
Few Christians today realize that in the Roman Empire a slave of someone of high position had far more status, authority, and often freedom than any poor free man. For example, Tiro, the personal secretary of the great Roman orator and statesman Cicero, enjoyed great prestige and was successful enough to retire on his own country estate, where he died at the age of 99. But perhaps the best examples can be seen in the fact that slaves of the Emperor included some of the highest-ranking individuals in the whole Empire. The status of the slave was almost entirely a matter of the status of his or her master.
When, in his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul introduces himself as a “slave of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle” (Romans 1:1 HCSB), he effectively uses not the lesser, but the greater title first. To be called as a slave of the Son of God is to be called to a far greater position than that of a “free” person. Stating that fact is not to elevate the Christian above others in any way – it is simply to stress that we need not be reluctant to translate the Greek word doulos the way it should so often be translated. We just need to understand its meaning in context. Early Christians understood – and we should, too – that being called to be a slave of the Son of God is being called into a relationship of privileged service. That service is not demeaning – as slavery inevitably is in this world – it is a high calling based on the nature and stature of the one we serve.