[Book Review] Slave: The Hidden Truth About Your Identity in Christ (Part 1 of 2)
As followers of Jesus Christ, we identity ourselves as “Christians.” However, the word “Christian” in the Bible only is mentioned three times. Rather, we are described as children of God, sheeps in His flock, saints, citizens of Heaven, lights to the world, followers of the Way. All of these descriptions, in its unique ways, help us to understand what it means to be a Christian. But there is one word that is used more than any of these to describe our identity as Christians. Slave.
John MacArthur, in his paradigm-jarring book Slave: The Hidden Truth About Your Identity in Christ, argues that English translators have “perpetrated a fraud” or a “cover-up of biblical proportions” by translating the Greek word doulos as “servant” instead of “slave.” In fact, the word doulos appears 124 times in the original text, but it is correctly translated only once in the King James. As a result, a majority of Christians fail to truly capture the radical nature of our relationship with Christ as Master and Lord.
It’s important to discern the distinctions between a servants and slaves. Servants are hired, slaves are owned. Servants have freedom to choose who they are and what they do, while slaves are defined by their Master. Slave has no sense of self-autonomy or personal rights. In fact, in the Greco-Roman world, slaves were considered as a property or things rather than persons.
The original intention of the “cover-up” by English translators was rather benign. These translators were attempting to avoid the negative stigma attached to the notion of slavery which reminds many of the slave trade of British Empire and American Colonial era. In addition, the imagery of slavery conjures up oppression rather than viewing slavery as if a first century person in a Greco-Roman society.
Slavery was a pervasive and vital social structure in the first-century of Roman Empire. Roughly one-fifth of the empire’s population was slaves which in total amounts to twelve million people. (In the larger cities such as Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus, as many as one-third of the population were legal slaves). Slaves functioned as critical sources for a large pool of labor. Their occupations, however, defies our preconceived stereotypes. The role slaves played varied, including teachers, cooks, shopkeepers to doctors. MacArthur says, “from a glance on the street, it would have been difficult to distinguish slaves and non-slaves.” In some instances, slaves had greater respect as a household slave and at occasions, slaves were given the gift to become a freed man his/her master.
Nonetheless, a slave was a slave – a mere property or thing under the subjugation of a master. The experience and life style of a slave is singularly defined by the demands, goodness, and character of the master. Therefore, if you were a master who was wicked, you life would be miserable, whereas if your master was gracious and kind, your life as a slave would be well protected and trusted.
MacArthur makes an incisive summary on the nature of our slave/master relationship with God.
“True Christianity is not about adding Jesus to my life. Instead, it is about devoting myself completely to Him – submitting wholly to His will and seeking to please Him above all else. It demands dying to self and following the Master, no matter the cost. In other words, to be a Christian is to be Christ’s slave.”
Now, what does a slave/master relationship really look like as a follower of Jesus Christ. MacArthur makes five striking parallels between biblical Christianity and first-century slavery.
1) Exclusive Ownership – The first-century slaves had no sense of autonomy or choice whatsoever. The slave was under absolute control under his master. As Christians, “we were born as slaves of sin, having inherited an enslaved state from Adam, we were purchased by Christ through His death on the cross. We were bought with a price; therefore, we are no longer the authority of sin. Instead we are under the exclusive ownership of God. Christ is our new Master. Like first-century slaves would receive new names under their earthly masters, so will we each be given a new name from Christ (Rev 3:13).
2) Complete Submission – Slaves had no law but the master’s word. Nothing but unquestioning obedience. To be alive “means fruitful labor.” Slaves exist to only work. Obeying our Master Christ Jesus is sign of genuine conversion. As His slaves, we show our obedience in Christ by “[presenting] our bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is our spiritual service of worship.” (Rom. 12:1)
3) Singular Devotion – The only concern slaves had was to wholly carry out the will of the master. The slave’s main mission is to please his master. Like slaves, our mission in life is found in a singular devotion for our heavenly Master. Jesus Christ said it perfectly: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). We are called to glorify God in everything we do, conducting ourselves in a manner worthy of His name.
4) Total Dependence – Slaves were completely dependent on their masters in terms of basic necessities of life, including food and shelter. Unlike free persons, slaves had one thing less to worry. That is, finding something to eat or somewhere to sleep. Fulfilling these primary needs would help focus the slave’s focus on serving the master. As slaves for Christ, Jesus said, “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:31-33). Those who put pleasing God as his highest priority can be confident that He will take care of them.
5) Personal Accountability – The first-century slaves were entirely accountable to their masters in everything they did. The only thing mattered at the end of the day was the master’s evaluation. A lifetime of faithful service may lead to eventual manumission or freedom if the master is pleased. In contrast, if the master is displeased, the slave may experience severe discipline such as flogging.
The original meaning of doulos as slave is lost in translation and something significant is lost. When we call “Lord, Lord,” the Greek word is kyrios and it occurs nearly 750 times in the NT. It’s fundamental meaning again is “master” or “owner,” which means there needs to be a relational counterpart – a slave.
Reading this post may have enlightened you or even shattered your preconceived notions on your relationship between you and God.
However, our Master defies our thinking by inviting us into God’s family as His adopted children of righteousness. He then elevates us as heavenly citizens. In Part 2 of 2, I will share the paradox of the imagery of slavery. That is, we are free when we are slaves for Christ.
Question: How has your thinking changed when you consider yourself as a slave for Christ?