“Paul, a ‘Slave’ or ‘Bondslave’”? Misinterpreted Bible Passages #7

Categories: Biblical Studies, Misinterpreted Bible Passages, New Testament

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At the beginning of his letter to the Romans, Paul introduces himself as  “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, a called apostle set apart for the gospel of God ….”

One would think that this would be a rather difficult verse to misinterpret, but nearly anything is possible in biblical interpretation. In this case (as in many), archaic translation bears the brunt of the blame, as several translations render the Greek word for “slave” (δούλος, doulos) as “bondslave,” “bondservant,” or similar form that has fallen out of common use. In order to explain the unusual word, folks who don’t really know the original languages explained this difference by looking back to Exodus 21:6, which lays out the procedure for a debt slave to become a life-long slave (a decision presumably tied to a good master or perhaps a wife given to him by the master while under debt slavery), sealed by the piercing of the ear with an awl.

Anyway, the teaching in question basically explains that Paul wasn’t just a regular slave, that his use of the term “bondslave” (rather than “slave” or “servant”) refers to the voluntary slavery of Exodus 21, highlighting Paul’s piety or underscoring some difference between these concepts. The problem is that this notion results from those who not only don’t know the original languages but also don’t really know these somewhat archaic English words. Etymologically, “bond-servant” is used to distinguish a purchased slave who is owned by (bound to) his master from a servant who is simply hired help but is free to go elsewhere. Essentially, “bond-servant” means “slave,” in distinction from “servant”; another equivalent term often used before the 20th Century was “bondman” (i.e. “bound man” or “man of bondage”), which is what the Darby translation uses.

“Bond-slave” arises from the same origin and is a direct (albeit emphatic) synonym to “slave,” again meaning an owned or purchased slave, one bound to a master as opposed to a free person. These words aren’t used today outside of Christianese, which lends them to easier misunderstanding. The translations that use “bond-servant” are actually trying to distance themselves from the KJV, which simply uses “servant,” which isn’t really the right word to translate δοὐλος today, since “servant” in modern English implies a free person in distinction from a slave bound to an owner. But many translations are a bit twitchy about using the word “slave” in these cases due to the extremely negative connotation attached to this word today (thanks to our history of race-based slavery). Thus, some 20th Century translations elected to go with the somewhat archaic but more precise “bondservant” (NKJV & NASB) or “bondslave” (again the NASB, which isn’t consistent w/its rendering of this word).

This led to the fanciful interpretations going back to the “voluntary” slave of Exodus 21, explaining that this is why Paul would call himself a “bondslave” as opposed to just a “servant” or “slave.” Of course, it’s all completely wrong. Paul simply uses the basic Greek word for “slave.” There’s no inherent notion of volunteerism in this word—it’s the same word that was used for a slave that was purchased at a slave market or from another owner—nor is this a unique word, as the archaic translation “bondslave” might suggest. Rather, Paul merely uses the basic word for a person who is owned by another person.

For that matter, Exodus 21 doesn’t support this change in terms, either. The Hebrew word in the passage doesn’t change—the man is a “slave” (עבד) before his ear is pierced, and he serves (עבד) after his ear is pierced. Same word. If one wants to point out a difference, it is between a debt-slave in the first instance—an Israelite debt-slave could only be held for seven years—and a “slave” or “bond-slave” (that is, an owned slave, one in bondage—a much more severe state) in the latter state. “Bond-slavery” is the more severe enslavement—a permanent one in which one is owned as property, as opposed to debt-slavery, which was to be limited in its timeframe. Either way, by Paul’s day, the debt slavery outlined in Exodus 21 (and the practice of voluntary slavery) had long ceased; in his introduction, Paul was straightforwardly using the standard word for “slave.” It is extremely far-fetched to think of this as an intentional reference to Exodus 21, and it’s even more unlikely that his audience (who were accustomed to hearing δούλος in everyday speech) would have connected Paul’s self-identification as a slave to ancient Israelite slavery regulations.

There’s no question that Paul’s application of δοὐλος to himself indicates his being “bound for life” to serve God, and he uses the word denoting the most servile state one could have in the Graeco-Roman world: “slave.” But the point is better preserved by applying the modern form of the word in the passage, and any attempt to find something “special” about this particular word (beyond its indication of being owned and in a servile state) goes beyond the evidence of the text. It really does just say: “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus.”

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66 Comments. Leave new

  • There is no need to translate the bible, there is the New Testament Recovery Version that is available to the seeking ones. It is wonderful, there are footnotes that unveil the mystery of the Word. Please google the following, LSM the new testament recovery version online. I hope you will enjoy it more than I do.

    • I have a hard copy and am not particularly impressed with the translation, especially with how textual decisions are handled. I also have significant concerns about the “recovery” theology underlying the translation and notes, which is similar to the views of KJV-only proponents who believe the KJV to actually be a re-inspiration on a higher level than the manuscripts (and eclectic critical texts) upon which it is based. No translation is perfect or makes further examination or translation permanently unnecessary.

      Rather than trust a single English translation, I would prefer to stick to the best available manuscript evidence in the original languages.

      • Alexander Price
        November 14, 2017 3:00 pm

        Hey, Brother- while we strive for academic excellence and historical accuracy, a good rule of thumb I find is this: HOW does this Word of God interpret my life and HOW do I engage the “Living Word” (Ha Torah- early church’s name for Jesus). Do I have that experiential closeness of the manifest presence of God upon my life? Am I looking for the “Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation” to increasingly show me how to love God more OR I am more concerned with perfect parsing? Simply Food for Thought. Bless you, Alexander

        • “Ha Torah” does not mean “Living Word,” nor was it the early church’s name for Jesus. “Ha Torah” is just a transliteration of the Hebrew for “the Law” or (more literally) “the instruction.” It’s the word that refers to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.

          Thanks for the comment, however, and for the sentiment.

      • bill erickson
        January 12, 2018 6:09 pm

        thankd for the confirmation
        i had studied this out myself and came to same conclusion.i also just recently heard someone for the first time say the same which is John Mcar th ur who preached a whole sermon on it!
        i wish everyone understood this.many think “serving”Jesus is optional. i also re-translated my “nearly infallible version”bible verb form of the word”slaving” where applicable.
        thanks for your studies!i love your piece on lusting after a woman!
        fantastic. keep it up.we need the truth in these last days.!!!

        • T.S. Rohnevarg
          March 19, 2019 8:15 pm

          McArthur notwithstanding (as for consideration of anyone who names the Bible after themselves, I’ll leave that to you), the fact that we are identified as ‘slaves’ in the NT is not endorsement of our identity as slaves as we may understand that. Despite all this huffing and puffing over doulos, Jesus sweeps it all away with one word (Jn 15:15) “No longer do I call you slaves, but FRIENDS.” The embrace of slavishness is indistinguishable from the justifications used by early Americans to legitimize the bondslavery (yes) of those whom they held captive in the South. These individuals were purchased by warlords who captured them and then sold them as slaves. They were fully, legitimately ‘slaves.’ Yet, NO modern Christian would except such reasoning because we find this practice repugnant to the whole counsel of God. Further, Paul is wont to describe himself in many other lowly characterizations: scum of the earth, prisoner, fool, to name a few. Each of those words means precisely what you think they mean, there is no legerdemain to be gleaned from these terms; they’re clear as day. Yet, when Jesus would have us identify ourselves, his admonition, as Christians for centuries have acknowledged we are ‘bold to say,’ OUR FATHER, not Our Master, or Our Jailer, or Our Judge. We have been delivered out of these relations to one of loving intimacy as with a Bride, not a slave. As Jesus says, “A slave does not know what His master’s business.’ Well, we DO; the Holy Spirit (who IS God) TELLS us. Yes, it is true, as Solomon tells us, that We are His, but it is equally true also that He is Ours. This essential relational truth should not be lost in the discussion.

  • Well said, it so discourages me to admit to myself the vast majority of individuals would allow misgivings and uncollaborated, in fact, even disproven dogmas and ideologies to propigate. When will intelligent humans take the time and make the effort to find the truth about discrepancies that arise and stop clinging to traditions of their predesessors, instead of blindly, proudly defending errors, at best, and outright lies at times. Take the politics and population control out of the equation and throw in some common sense and maybe i will reevaluate my conclusions about religions.

  • You might be interested in reading a new book by John MacArthur entitled, “Slave: The Hidden Truth About Your Identity in Christ.”

  • Go back to your Hebrew roots to the culture and understanding that was then and you will get a complete picture of the bond servant and what Sha’ul was talking about, because as we all know he was Jewish and studied under Gamliel . lived and worked in a Jewish community and was talking to another Jew when he wrote the letter to Titus.

    Go back to the Culture and many things will be revealed.

  • Enjoyed your article. Here is a related article you might enjoy.

  • Enlightening. Thanks.

  • […] ministers are slave-traders – all Christian ministers (Paul called himself a slave, Jesus said you should become captive and you should submit and deny yourself ). They are preaching […]

  • Nhlanhla Zwane
    February 18, 2016 2:45 pm

    Do not be overly worried about the exact meaning of words guys. The truth is one can never be right in everything of God . Otherwise he can be on the same level with Jesus. He alone is righteous. Our righteousness does not depend on us getting everything right. Remember we are righteous only because Jesus is righteous.

  • Is there a theological implication for whether it is a willing slave or not? Does this imply irresistible grace? Can a spiritual slave still run away like Onesimus? Is it a robotic slavery?

    • There is certainly a theological implication to that question. It definitely does not imply irresistible grace, as that concept is entirely foreign to Paul—it’s a nonsense phrase given that concept of reciprocity was inherently embedded in the word translated “grace” (χάρις). There are no robots in Paul’s world or imagination—slaves can behave or misbehave. They are not automatons.

      Nevertheless, Paul insists that all that he does and all that anyone can do must come through χάρις, since God is the source of all things. All a human being can do is return to God what is already his—thus the concept of reciprocity embedded in the concept of grace.

  • Well said, in Jewish thought becoming a slave again for any reason is shameful. Hence, the ear and the door. The ear: Hear oh Israel, and the door, where the blood was painted the night of the first Passover.

  • Hey jason, totally appreciate your insights and research. Just out of curiousity, I would like to hear your perspective on Malchus and the cutting off of his right ear. Do you think it was because Peter was left-handed as some scholars say, or because he was a bondservant under Caiphus and may have had his ear pierced? I’ve heard it said the latter, and was just super interested to get more opinions on it. As you can imagine, once Jesus healed his ear, IF Jesus grew a fresh new one (instead of attaching the original)…IF he had been a bondservant in the traditional Exodus sense, the last thing he would of wanted to do after being the recipient of Jesus’ final recorded miracle, would be to continue serving Caiphus. I wonder if Jesus grew a fresh ear and in that act set Malchus free from having to keep his commitment to Caiphus. Sorry that’s a longer ramble than intended. (I do realise it only says “slave” in the original text regarding Malchus, however seeing who is master was it just makes me wonder if Caiphus may have kept to some archaic traditions.

    • 1) Just a reminder that “bondslave” or “bondservant” does not specifically refer to one who has had his ear pierced with an awl to become a lifelong slave; it is just an older English longhand for what we would today call a “slave.”

      2) If Malchus was a Jewish slave of Caiaphas, it’s entirely possible he had his ear pierced, but we just don’t have enough information from the text to infer that.

      3) Quite frankly, I’m not sure what the point of the extra detail of it being the right ear is; the passage that addresses the piercing of the ear to mark a lifelong slave doesn’t specifically reference the right ear.

      I’ll have to look closer at this in the future, but those are my thoughts off the top of my head.

  • Rick McClain
    July 14, 2016 12:28 pm

    Good article, and nice, clean website. Thanks.

  • I am starting the Book of Romans for my High School Sunday School class. I rely heavily on our Pastor’s notes as well as 4 commentaries to help the Hebrew and Greek. I appreciate this website and your explanation clarifying the simplicity of what Paul was actually saying.

  • Staples has established in this post alone, a new style of commentary., utterly of the moment with its transparency, openness and honesty while simultaneously achieving the highest levels of classic scholarly examination and analysis. Good biblical commentary adds to the reader’s understanding of the sacred Word. Great biblical commentary links the anointed Word of God with our. everyday lives to deepen our understanding both of the richness and depth, but also of the direct impact the living Word must have on our day-to-day existence, what Eugene Peterson describes as “everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life.” (Romans 12, The Message)

    As such, the best form of commentary must be constantly evolving to speak to the culture as it shifts and emerges, while simultaneously holding fast to biblical truth and examining the ways and the why’s behind past attempts falling short or losing their contemporary effectiveness.

    Thank you for this post which has significantly increased my understanding of God-spoken Word through the lens and life of Paul. I know I wrote this as if it were a review for the Times as if my opinion matters. I am not a biblical commentator or anyone whose name would be recognized, but wow! Would I like to add Jason Staples to my list of colleagues in Christ-centered communication in it’s various forms. Thank you.

  • Randolph Harris
    February 13, 2017 1:21 pm

    In many New Testament books, the word bondservant was used in reference to a person’s commitment to Jesus. Most of Paul’s letters begin by referring to himself as a servant of Christ Jesus. James and Jude, half-brothers of Jesus, both refer to themselves as Christ’s bondservants. The apostle Peter called himself a “servant and apostle” (2 Peter 1:1).

    The importance of these New Testament authors referring to themselves as bondservants should not be overlooked. Despite proclaiming a message of freedom from sin in Jesus Christ, these writers were dedicated to Jesus as their one master. Further, their service to the Lord was not one they could consider leaving. Just as a bondservant was more than an employee who could leave for another job, these Christians were servants who could never leave their master for another.

    This belief and understanding of the Christian as a bondservant played an enormous role as early Christians often faced persecution. Peter, Paul, and James are traditionally recorded as dying for their allegiance to Jesus.

    The bondservant was a common role in the New Testament period that ranged from slave to bonded laborer. Commands were given to Christians regarding proper treatment, with freedom recommended whenever possible (1 Corinthians 7:21). Most importantly, the image of the bondservant became one of great importance for Christians, who are called to live as bondservants of Christ Jesus.

    In this day and time we seem to forget that we are bought at a price, the price He payed with His blood on the Cross!

  • Elizabeth Savage
    July 1, 2017 4:47 am

    There is a Pastor that I have met who has made people that they have been helping bond slaves to themselves and not to Jesus Christ. This Pastor has told me that this is Biblical and that they need this, the same way Paul was a bondslave to Jesus. Can you help me here. I have such a strong check in my spirit every time this topic comes up

  • I must respectfully disagree. A slave is referred to as pais, or “boy..” In Acts, the word paidiskes is used for a young female slave. A bondservant is not a true slave. A bodservant generally has a fixed time to serve. He either enters into that arrangement voluntarily or his parents assign him to it. Functionally, he differs little from a slave, but they are not the same thing.

    • Disagree all you want, but you are flat wrong. Yes, the word pais, which properly means “child,” is sometimes used to mean “slave,” it is not the most common word in Greek for a person owned (under bondage) by another. That word was doulos, which is the word used for “slave” here.

      Generally, doulos is the more severe of the two; pais is a more familial term that would better apply to a house-slave or someone closer to or more valuable to the master, while doulos is a generic slave.

      For what it’s worth, as a rule, if you’re going to disagree about the definition of a word with someone who actually knows the language, it’s best to know the language yourself.

  • I am afraid you are mistaken. The “slave” translation is relatively new. I know that people like to go on and on about greek “interpretations”, but by considering the latin and syriac sources available, it is clearly “servant”. Also, you may want to consider the possibility that this letter to the Romans was not originally in Greek. Not that it matters, since doulos is also servant in the greek! Which makes me wonder what the purpose of this post really is??

    • You’ve just revealed that you don’t know any of the languages you’re discussing. Best to leave such analysis to those who actually know the languages. The word means “slave,” as do the analogous Latin and Syriac words in those versions.

  • I believe we can better understand the meaning of Paul as a slave by looking at another passage in Exodus. Exodus 12:43-45 And the LORD said unto Moses and Aaron, This is the ordinance of the passover: There shall no stranger eat thereof: But every man’s servant that is bought for money, when though hast circumcised him, then shall he eat thereof. A foreigner and an hired servant shall not eat thereof. Paul refers to himself as a servant meaning slave or “bought servant”, knowing that he has been bought with a price, and made a partaker of Christ having been redeemed. Paul here recognizes that he has been purposed by God to serve His Church until the end of his life. We should not take this to mean that Paul doesn’t understand that he is made a son also, because we see many instances in Pauls writing where he acknowledges this fact. The emphasis here though, is that Paul is a bought slave, a partaker of the covenant, but with a lifelong mission of service.

    • There’s no need to go back to Exodus to interpret Paul’s use of a very common word and concept in the Greek language and the world of the Roman Empire. He simply means “slave.” Many slaves were purchased by their owners, yes. Some were gained through conquest. Others were born as slaves. But in any case, all slaves were owned by their masters. He himself says he is the slave of Jesus Christ, having been purchased for that purpose.

  • I am glad I found this website, I forget what my search was that, led me here. This may be the wrong place to ask my questions but with all the word studies being of the Greek can we be sure the right Greek word was used to express the intent of the Aramaic? Also what do you think of the Aramaic NT?

    • The earliest Christians weren’t really concerned about exact words, as is evident by their decisions to use Greek as a primary form of transmission for Jesus’ ideas. They were more concerned about getting the ideas across than they were the exact words.

      As for the Aramaic NT, it depends on which one. They’re all translations from the Greek, and some are done better than others.

  • Hi Jason, Thanks for your article on Duolos – Slave.

    Same like, I would be grateful, if you can publish an article about “gird” or “girding” , “eye of the needle” and “kefa’/ cefas”, pls.

    Kind regrads,

  • Does your understanding include that all believers in Jesus are now His slaves, as Paul indicated he was? If so, does that mean those who are slaves to Jesus still have free will or is that given up when we allow Jesus to rule in our lives as our Master? If so, how does he guide and direct our steps? Is this a continual communication with him throughout the day about what we are doing step by step or activity by activity or are we left to organize and plan our day asking him to bless our plans as opposed to asking him for his plan for our day? The reason I am asking is that I am trying to figure out what it means to walk in the spirit. Would appreciate your help with this.

    • Paul does say in Romans 5:18–19 that those who are in Christ have “become slaves of righteousness,” enjoining all in Christ to “present your members as slaves to righteousness.” But he also notes that in the same way that those who are slaves to sin are actually “free with regard to justice/righteousness,” meaning they’re capable of doing good despite their enslavement to sin. By analogy, those who are in Christ are now slaves of righteousness but are capable/free to commit sin, meaning they must freely choose not to do so.

      As for the second half of your question, the New Testament suggests that those who are in Christ should be in constant communion with the spirit and that the spirit ultimately guides the life of those in Christ. Thus those in Christ are encouraged to seek God’s will and to organize and plan their days in whatever ways seem best to accord with the will of God as they understand it through the indwelling spirit and the counsel of others in the body of Christ.

  • Hi,

    How does this Greek word ‘slave’ relate to the passage in Leviticus 25 vv39-55?

    Was it true that a Hebrew could not own a Hebrew in a bondservant relationship?

    And if so, does that mean that the Exodus passage is only referring to a servant relationship and not bondservants/slaves?

    I agree with your analysis of the Exodus text as compared to the title Paul gave himself. I’m just wondering how the Leviticus passage relates to all of this and if it would have been shocking to the Jewish listeners to hear Paul call himself a bondservant?

    Thank you!

    • That word for “slave” (δούλος) is used in Lev 25:39 but not in the rest of that passage. In Leviticus, it’s saying that Israelites are not to own other Israelites as permanent slaves but may enforce debt service only in a temporary capacity and not with duties typically reserved for slaves.

      It wouldn’t have been shocking for a Jewish audience to hear Paul to call himself God’s slave; this very passage in fact says that one of the reasons Israelites are not to be enslaved is because they are YHWH’s servants. It’s a different word in that case, but the concept is basically the same.

  • I feel you have misrepresented the basic tone of biblical text:
    Servant; a hirling

    Slave: one who has been purchased, one who has been acquired to pay off a debt.

    Bondslave: one who has paid off his debt in time of service to his master and has the opportunity to be set free but by his own choice, chooses to relinquish that right and chooses to serve his master…no longer a slave but now a bond slave… a slave by choice.

    • No, I haven’t misrepresented the basic tone of the biblical text. I have corrected the misguided and mistaken interpretation you just repeated. A bondslave is not a “slave by choice.” Anyone who thinks this is simply wrong.

  • Charlie Gilreath
    December 12, 2018 10:38 pm

    I am sorry but all this misses the essential point or maybe tries to make the point but with the volume of words loses it again. .Paul calls himself a “Bond Servant” because Christ died and for him and paid a debt (the bond) to which Paul “willfully” accepts and now is forever in Christ debt. Bonded our an now a slave and servant – the term has a sense of irony in the Paul willingly accepts and actually boasts he is a slave to God. Wh….., knowing our amazing God would not consider being a bond-servant, slave or in any other form of service a great honor. Most importantly for all those atheist out there – because God would never demand or conscript anyone into become His slave – He calls us but we must willingly accept.

    • No. Paul did not write in English. He did not call himself a “bond servant.” He called himself a doulos, which means “slave” in English. Your interpretation is faulty because you’re basing it on the supposition that Paul wrote something other than what he did.

  • dennis wright
    January 15, 2019 2:06 pm

    Thank you for your thoughts and insights. They are helpful and most interesting. I know very little Greek as my studies only included two years of basic Greek, and I was not the best student in the class. However, over the past decades, I’ve been involved, at different levels, with oral translations from English into several other modern European languages. The challenge is always getting it right. Especially as one reflects upon modern English, sometimes the target of ‘best translation’ seems to be a moving target, since the understanding of words and therefore their definitions have changed (sometimes drastically) over the past years. As you have so clearly stated, the meaning of “doulos’ has not changed in New Testament Greek. However, the English words we use to translate this word, just a you indicated in your writings, have changed from the times of earlier English Bible translations until the present times & newer translations. Therefore, one might ask oneself the question, “was there a time in the English language in which the terms of “bond-servant’ and ‘slave’ had similar but distinct meanings? Of course, even if that is so, it is not a fully determining factor, but definitely expands one’s process of consideration. It would be somewhat like the debate over the English translation of different Greek words in John 21 (Peter & Jesus’ discussion regarding ‘…love…’). Most persons that I’ve discussed this with would suggest that they use two, totally inter-changeable words….but, later Peter (1 Pt. 1:22) himself uses both words again, now in the same sentence. It seems to indicate that he associated a different, yet similar meaning with the two words. However, in English translations generally no distinction is made. English uses just one word to translate and thus define both.,

    Thank you for writing. Your blog is much appreciated.

  • Thank you. Very helpful and insightful. Leading a women’s group on being a servant and this helped me prepare!

    God bless and keep you.

    Mama to 8
    One homemade and 7 adopted

  • I think Paul certainly understood the aspect of slavery and although Roman and current audiences may be foreign to such, we must investigate further.

    The ear was pierced, reminding one of the Shema (hear and obey). It was at the Master’s door (Threshold covenant). Yeshua/Jesus is the door. The 7th year, a Sabbath year, a year of Freedom; a Yovhel/Jubilee in a sense.

    • None of that is relevant to Paul or his audience. Paul uses the Greek word for generic slavery, not for that particular scenario. Efforts to connect the two are going where Paul did not, and he certainly could have chosen to do so.

  • Andz Hendricks
    February 6, 2019 7:45 am

    Can you help with the word steward Eliezer the steward of Abrahams household was he a servant bondslave hireling son heir? Could he be all of these?

    • There isn’t a word for “steward” or anything similar with reference to Eliezer. He’s just called a “house-born” person, meaning a slave born in Abraham’s house. He’s basically the ranking slave in Abraham’s possession.

  • Who needs theology when they can speak directly to God? Paul spoke to Christ, and was keenly aware of Jesus being the “boss” of him, Jesus purchased us with His blood and It is this awareness of our duty of service to the Master that Paul sought to propagate through his epistles. Most Christians can talk about what God can do but people’s faith should not be based on words, man’s wisdom, common sense, or even theology; it should be based on the demonstration of power of God’s spirit. How do we demonstrate God’s power? By surrendering our will to Jesus to the extent that a slave has no free will. Until then, we just tickle ourselves silly . . .

  • I agree with your explanation of the proper translation. I still believe that the passage in Exodus 21:6 is useful in understanding Paul’s slave relationship with Christ. Realizing that the Old Testament gives us shadows or types that are useful in understanding New Testament principles. In the Exodus passage the one has a debt that they cannot pay and comes to the place where he would rather serve the master rather than go free. The choice is a free will choice with an open confession of his love for the master. We, too, have a debt that could only be paid by the master and also make a free will choice and a confession of Jesus as Lord/master. Even with the translation being merely “slave” rather than “bond servant,” the analogy still works.

    In fact, it may be that the period of service prior to complete commitment may at times hold true, also. How many times have we seen people recognize their need for the sin debt to be paid only to walk away later. It is possible that the total commitment to Christ was never made. Notice, this last part is mere supposition on my part, but very plausible.

    • My thoughts exactly. Paul, a former Pharisee known for zealously following the letter of the law would have been very conscious of this. In fact, it would have been academic knowledge other Pharisee’s would have expected him to know to prove he was part of the “Torah Tower” (pretty similar to our Ivory Tower today). While Jason Staples’s commentary also bears shades of academic correctness; nevertheless, knowing the above, we can rightly infer that Paul was very likely using the analogy of slave in order to juxtapose both realities upon his readers, one to the Gentile, who would likely take the word literally, and one to the educated Jew, who would know and potentially be offended by Paul essentially highlighting his (and theirs, and all of our) obligation to bow our heads as debt slaves to our master for the payment of a price we cannot pay, our sin. Pharisees and other Jewish scholars of this day hated this idea, because they wanted to believe they could earn their way to heaven by ritual, following the law of Moses, or due to their birth as men withing the Jewish nation at the time. This said, commentary in other previous posts on this page are also correct… Jesus has elevated us to friends and has turned his death and resurrection from what absolutely could be the purchase of bond-slaves to a wedding dowry for the purchase and elevation of the bride of Christ, his church — the body of believers and followers whom he would call friends. And again, how do we know we are friends and not bondslaves alone? It is by the reception of his spirit, the Holy Spirit, who in turn guides our conscience and leads us to truth. Indeed, we have not just been given the Word of God, but His very Spirit for the understanding and interpretation of that truth. This is the missing component to so many scholarly interpretations of the word. A man or woman can be ‘literally’ right about their interpretation of language from biblical Greek over to English or Latin, yet still absolutely miss the point to the message provided us from heaven. This was Jesus’ frustration with the scribes of his day as well and why he often spoke in parables. – Amen and Amen.

      • This is, of course, complete nonsense. We can’t infer anything of the sort, especially since you don’t seem to have any idea of what Pharisees actually believed or did—Pharisees did not believe they earned their way to heaven by ritual, by following the law of Moses, or due to their birth. Moreover, none of this has anything to do with the proper meaning of “bondslave,” which as this post explains, just means “slave.”

  • Colin Feierabend,
    May 28, 2020 3:44 pm

    Thanks for what you’ve written. I’ve just come across it. Does James’ use of doulos differ from that of Paul’s. It strikes me that, because James is speaking to believers who are part of the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion” that they would have in their minds the Old Covenant understanding of slave, with its idea of release at Jubilee. I’m neither a Hebrew or Greek scholar. I’m asking the question to try and get some clarity. I haven’t read all of the comments above either, which I probably should have, and so apologise if you’ve answered this before. Many thanks

    • James’ use is the same as Paul’s. Also, James’ address is coded, as there were no longer twelve distinct tribes of Israel at the time he was writing his letter. The best way to understand his audience is that it’s a combination of Jews (from the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin along with Levi) and gentiles, with whom the rest of Israel intermarried.

  • Colin Feierabend,
    May 29, 2020 12:49 pm

    Thanks for that. This brings up another question in my mind. Other than supposition, where would I find evidence for that? Or is it the fact that verse 1 is the only lace in the letter that any mention is made of the Jewish diaspora?

    • The evidence is that James and Paul are both writing in Greek to Greek readers and using the same term.

      Verse 1 also does not mention the Jewish diaspora but rather the diaspora of all Israel (Jews comprise only three of the twelve tribes of Israel). The fact that he specifically brings up the twelve tribes means he is speaking to more than Jews.

      • Really appreciated your original comment re: slave/bondslave. I could have written it myself, but you saved me the trouble. One of the most annoying problems in the church is people who build some part of their theology on an outmoded or innacurate translation and then remain steadfast in their ignorance. The sad part here is that those who consider themselves “bondslaves” also co sider themselves somehow more spiritual than the rest who are merely slaves, a nonsensical unbiblical idea, but one which its adherents persist in retaining no matter how clear the evidence to the contrary. Many of these are people who insist on using the Darby translation. Another example of such nonsense is the use of the archaic word manifest instead of revealed or shown, both of which are in current use. We must strive for clarity. Unfortunately, Christianese is something we are stuck with, but which must be continually confronted. Bless you for doing so. But I had better not say that since “bless” might be one of those Christianese words. Oops!

  • Mike Murphree
    June 5, 2020 9:41 am

    Amazing. I was once told Christians are stupid. Reading many of these responses to the article and to Staples, I can understand the sentiment. It’s a little startling to see so many self-assured ‘Christians’ who have so little ability to think clearly at all or, apparently, to read and comprehend. Maybe they are just the most vocal ones, or it’s the Dunning-Kruger effect rising to the fore.

  • Dr. Ron Slepecki
    July 1, 2020 2:10 am

    Well said, for that matter I would like to hear how any theologian can come to terms with the concepts of slavery and the motif of the Bride used by Christ. How is a bride a slave? Paul in his use of slave is not making a theological statement as to how he is seen by God (God is not a slave owner) – if He were, He would have just dispensed with the tree of good and evil and excluded choice from the equation all together. We must understand scripture in light of the character of God, not the inconsistencies and immature practices of man. Paul is simply making a statement concerning his allegiance to his creator not a theological statement of his position (as a slave). Christ’s bride motif destroys the picture of a redeemed spirit being (Christian) as a slave. Slaves do not nor ever will share the table of the King, nor use the royal utensils at such table. We however, although unworthy, will sit at the supper of the bride. My wife indeed is a wonderful servant but don’t you dare nor will I ever call her my slave. Christ ended slavery on the cross and has adopted us as family. If Paul’s use of slave gives you some comfort as a martyr in the cause for Christ – so be it , but you are in error who understand the savior as a slave owner. MT. 7:11 If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him! That is the character of Jehovah and McArthur or anyone else who serves the God of Heaven (Yahweh) should understand these things and not get wrapped around the axle on these issues – Dr. Ron Slepecki


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