Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Servant or a Slave?

I recently watched a short video of a Bible translation committee debating how to translate a particular Greek word. In an effort to be consistent, the committee members agreed from the outset that once they determined how to translate the word, they would translate it the same way in every passage it appears. The word they debated was the Greek word doulos.

The KJV translates doulos consistently as "servant" (as do most versions), and a handful of versions (including the Concordant Version) translate it as "slave." The committee in the video debated over which of these two English words would most appropriately communicate the meaning of the original Greek. Nearly every member of the committee agreed that "slave" is, in fact, the accurate transliteration of the Greek doulos. However, the majority felt that "slave" possesses too negative a connotation and that modern readers would be misled by the true translation or too disgusted to appreciate the text. In the end, the committee concluded, by majority vote, to translate doulos as "servant" in spite of its inaccuracy.

This tragic and all too common occurrence serves as an example of how poorly most Bible translations are produced. Rather than trusting in God's ability to communicate His truth in the most effective way, translators feel the need to help God by making His message more palatable. In doing so, countless readers are misled.

In this article, I will attempt to demonstrate just how detrimental the error of this translation committee is and why we who seek truth should care. Rather than attempt to "help" God and make this subject easier to swallow, I will present His Word, just as it is, and trust in its ability to communicate truth to the reader.

Strong's defines doulos as "a slave... in a qualified sense of subjection or subservience." The word is derived from the Greek deo, meaning "to bind... in bonds, knit, tie, etc." A doulos, then, is a slave or bondsman, literally bound in service.

To most, the distinction between a slave and a servant is not a matter of vital importance. The two terms seem to be more or less interchangeable. A slave certainly serves, and many servants may feel like slaves. Yet there is, in fact, a significant difference between these two terms - namely, that a servant acts voluntarily and is hired by his master, whereas a slave's action is often involuntary and he is owned by his master. In addition, a slave is bound while a servant is unbound. 

The committee members I discussed were certainly correct in their assessment that slavery bears an intensely negative connotation in our modern age. As Americans, we recall the brutal treatment of many slaves leading up to the Civil War, and this imagery is so imbedded in our minds that we can hardly escape associating the term with tragedy. To fully appreciate Paul's meaning when he uses the term, we must attempt to view slavery in light of what our apostle meant and not what our minds conjure up.

Understanding that we are slaves of God and Christ and not mere servants causes us to see our sonship in a new light. It causes us to recognize that we are owned by our Maker as Christ has paid a price for us. We are bound to God as sons, not commissioned as strangers.

Paul confidently identified himself as a "slave of Christ Jesus" (Rom. 1:1, Gal. 1:10, Phil. 1:1) and a "slave of God" (Tit. 1:1). This title is not something to be ashamed of in Paul's view, but is rather a glorious position to hold! As imitators of our apostle, we should strive to view our slavery to God and Christ in the same way. Yet how is this possible when slavery seems to possess no benefits? How is it that we are "free in Christ" (Rom. 8:2, Gal. 5:1) but also His slaves?

Paul explains this paradox in 1 Corinthians 7 where he states, "In the Lord, he who is being called a slave, is the Lord's freedman. Likewise, he who is being called, being free, is a slave of Christ. With a price are you bought" (1 Cor. 7:22).

So, according to Paul, our slavery to Christ makes us free. Free from what, though? Fortunately, Paul also answers this question. In Romans 8:2, we read that "the spirit's law of life in Christ Jesus frees you from the law of sin and death" and in verse 21 that we "shall be freed from the slavery of corruption."

As we are no longer slaves to sin and death, we are now sons; and as sons, enjoyers of an "allotment from God, through Christ" (Gal. 4:7). We are bound as slaves to God - not in the worldly sense as loathsome, despised creatures - but as cherished sons. Unlike worldly slave masters who were cruel and abusive, our Father - the perfect "Slave Master" - is perfect and loving. Our slavery to God and Christ is, in every sense, the opposite of our previous slavery to sin and death!

In conclusion, Paul's depiction of our dual slavery and freedom in God and Christ is this: We are slaves, bought and owned by our Master, Who is the perfect and loving Caregiver. Our slavery, which we cannot voluntarily enter or leave, provides us with freedom from the bondage of sin and death and binds us, instead, to life and glory. We are no longer slaves to sin and death, but are slaves now to God and Christ, making us sons and enjoyers of the allotment.

Thank God that we are His slaves, not merely His servants!

© 2013 by Stephen Hill

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