A slave I am?

An untanglingchristianity.com listener posted the following in our FaceBook group:

“I was recently doing a word study on the word “servant” and came across this sermon online that felt not quite right and a bit icky. Thought perhaps it could do with some untangling.”

I would like to offer a response in four parts.

First let’s talk word use in the NT (the whole Bible is important, but let’s focus on the NT for now). The following searches were performed using Accordance v. 6.

So in the NRSV the NT contains 206 occurrences of the words “servant, servants, slave, slaves” and 252 of the words “child, children.” The Greek NT shows 126 occurrences of the word “doulos” or its derivatives, 99 occurrences of the word “teknon” (typically translated as child or son), 52 of the word “paidion” (literally child but often translated as servant), 29 occurrences of the word “diakonos” (translated servant or minister), 24 occurrences of the word “pais” (translated child or slave).

So doulos does mean slave, yes. But what kind of slave?

Second, then, to answer this question it is important to realize that the NT definition of slave is to be understood within its antiquarian context. That is, this is a Greco-Roman notion1.

Specifically, in the Roman world there were a diversity of types of slave—a nearly dizzying diversity of levels of authority, autonomy, influence, and wealth. Slaves owned other slaves. Many slaves were better off than free persons, by virtue of their rank and authority.

So the typical notions of slavery that occur to modern, Western people (and particularly the model of slavery found in the antebellum South of the Unite States) simply do not apply in this context, unless some specific corollary to such a model is indicated in the biblical text. Nor is this a matter of one Greek word designating as a given “type” of slave and another for another type.

What I hope results is the sense that the biblical translators chose not to use the singular word “slave,” with all of the inevitable implications for current readers, because it simply would not capture the nuance of the diverse significations of the word “doulos” in its original context. In other words, this is not a cover-up or a conspiracy theory but a case of good scholarship, despite a lack of unanimity on the matter.

Third, in addition to the cultural implications it is amazing how lightly MacArthur treats the textual modification of notion of doulos, where “friend replaces slave” in the prelude to Jesus’ departure speech in John 15, where followers of Christ are no longer called slaves but are called friends. I don’t think that this so much obliterates the notion of the need / responsibility for Christians to render service but it obviously thoroughly refigures it!

Yet not only does MacArthur skim over the reference but he also seems to allow it to have no impact on his formulations. In other words, he seems to ignore this key reference and the transition in meaning that it clearly indicates (and yes, the Greek word in this passage and all throughout chapter 15—and back to the original reference in John chapter 13—is “doulos”).

Fourth, and most striking of all, MacArthur frames his emphasis on slavery (and the notion that Christians are to be defined primarily if not solely as slaves) against the backdrop the biblical text’s plain and forceful indication that love of God—not service or obedience or anything typically associated with slavery—is to be the Christian’s primary orientation and indeed, command!

In this regard I see two problems with MacArthur’s view. In the first case, the notion of love presented (and required!) in the biblical text is at odds with characterizing Christians solely as “slaves.” For love can neither be bought nor commanded—it is something that, if not freely given, ceases to be itself!2  In the second case, I see no textual warrant for ignoring the characterizations of Christians as children (and God as father / parent) or in subjugating them below other characterizations. So in addition to an understanding of the Christians being, as I have argued, servants to God who is sovereign so too we are children to God who is our true father and parent.

The issue I raise here here is not that MacArthur is fabricating content but that he is over-emphasizing legitimately biblical notions (both by ignoring / underplaying cultural notions and significant textual nuances) with the result that he underplays other, equally legitimate biblical notions.

How do we counter this tendency?

On the one hand, as Christians we must be open to the notion that how the biblical text lays out the nature of God, of humanity, and of their optimal inter-relation may be different from what we have heard in past. In other words, we must constantly be seeking the truth about these things through our best understanding of the biblical text, with all of the tools and advantages that good scholarship, skillful and informed reflection and, as appropriate, a diverse and inter-disciplinary approach can yield.

On the other hand, however, Christians must not only develop the skills necessary to reading the Biblical text correctly but also those relevant to understanding and reading themselves correctly. And this includes becoming savvy interpreters of our own experiences and, particularly, of our experiences of God.

Indeed, there is a necessary reciprocity between understanding God textually and knowing God relationally. This reciprocity can easily (and often seems to) become harmful when we allow questionably interpreted experiences to tell us things about God’s nature and character that sound readings of the Bible impugn, or when we allow questionably interpreted biblical passages to constrain our willingness to interpret our experiences in a manner that circumscribes God’s nature, human nature, or the possible best outcomes of their interrelation in ways that do not reconcile with the reality we live in.

Where is John MacArthur in this regard? I’m not sure. Yet to my mind any discussion such as MacArthur is undertaking in his book—particularly one that claims a cover-up has taken place and that he is offer the one, true understanding of the matter—must offer both a clear and thorough examination of the text and a sense of who the author understands God, themselves, and the interrelation to be (and why).

This is because, from what I have seen, it is all too easy to prioritize either experience or knowledge—ontology or epistemology—rather than properly inter-relating and integrating them, with the accompanying risk of mischaracterizing God, ourselves, and how the two are to relate. And skewed understandings create orientations tinged with (and more often, marked by) dysfunction—a far cry from the “abundant” life that should characterize Christian existence.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. In addition to some general books relating to ancient Near Eastern and Antiquarian cultural practices that touch on the matter of slavery I have several books specifically on this topic that I have not yet read as I would like to. I hope to offer a more in-depth treatment of this subject in subsequent posts, following a reading of these books and others in this vein.
  2. Love by its very nature is a gift.  And a gift is no longer a gift when it comes as a response to subjugation (i.e., tribute) or petition (i.e., acquiescing) or threat (i.e., blackmail) or payment (i.e., exchange).  Many responses may come as a result of a command—love is not one of them.

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