There are a number of words in our New Testament that refer to people who are under the authority of another. One of those words is “doulos” and has a very specific meaning and always has the same definition: slavery. It is never anything less. It represents complete servitude.
While the word “doulos” appears time after time in the New Testament, it is translated several different ways in the King James Version and almost every other English version except for the recent revision of the NASB now known as the LSB — the Legacy Standard Bible. That version sought to consistently translate the word “doulos” as slave at every occurrence.
Reading the New Testament in Greek and then seeing all of these English versions translating this pointed word as either “servant”, “bond-servant”, or “slave”, I had to know why. After all, inquiring minds want to know.
If we put the Legacy Standard aside, we find that every major English version going back to the King James translates “doulos” in various ways depending on the passage although the word only has one meaning. So I kept on digging. The King James version was obviously not the first English Bible. In fact, the KJV translators used several earlier English versions along with some Greek printed editions. Among the English versions used were:
- Bishop’s Bible from 1568
- Geneva Bible from 1560
- Tyndale’s New Testament from 1526
Even going all the way back to 1382, the earliest English Bible, Wycliffe’s Middle English Translation translates the word in various ways depending on the context. It is here that our trail of English translations stop — or rather begin.
Regarding this topic, John MacArthur wrote, “The vast majority of New Testament translators only translate the Greek word for slave, “slave,” when it’s referring to an actual physical slave, or some when it’s referring to an inanimate object, like ‘slaves of sin’ or ‘slaves of righteousness’. So there is this concept of slavery in the Scripture that has been completely hidden to the English reader. Now this was by design because the word “slave” is the most important, all-encompassing and clarifying word to describe a Christian used in the New Testament. And yet whenever a Christian is in view, it’s not translated ‘slave.'”
We finally get to the reason: put simply, the stigma of the word “slave” was simply seen as having too big of a downside to use it to refer to Christians. In the same way that we wince at or tweak some of the language of the Bible when we have small children around, translators throughout history have thought it was too negative a connotation to use when talking about the believer’s relationship to Christ.
However, even without actually using that word, we are able to see the underlying truth in many ways throughout the New Testament. Paul repeatedly refers to himself as a servant, or literally, a slave of Jesus Christ in Romans and in Titus. Peter uses the exact same statement, as does Jude. Even James does not refer to himself as the half-brother of Jesus, but rather a slave. In Revelation 1:1, John says that the revelation was given to Jesus’ “doulos”, John, to show to his “douloi” or slaves meaning the entire Church.
Over and over again, we see Jesus called “Master”. One of the most frequently used words for Jesus is the Greek word, “Kurios” or Lord. By calling him Lord, we are identifying him as our Master.
Unfortunately, too many have a man-centered Christianity, forgetting that Christ is our Lord and Master. Four times we are told to deny ourselves, and take up his cross, and follow him. We are to die to our selves.
Romans 6:16-18 tells us that we are “doulous” or slaves to whatever we obey whether it is sin or righteousness. Then verse 18 tells us that when we were made free from sin, we became the “douloi”, or slaves, of righteousness. This illustrates the believer’s absolute surrender to Jesus Christ as our Lord.
1 Corinthians 7:23 says, “You are bought with a price; be not the “douloi”, or slaves, of men.”
Now, I certainly do not fault the translators’ decisions throughout the years as they showed concern for the stigma of the term “slave”. But, by understanding the true depth of the word “doulos”, we are able to truly see the greatness of our Lord while maintaining a proper perspective of our own surrendered selves in Christ. If the apostles were called friends by Jesus and still considered themselves slaves, we too should enjoy that same humility in our attitude.
WAYS TO DONATE: