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Slavery is Approved of in the Bible

Although the Old Testament describes slavery many times, it never condones it. The New Testament is different. Slavery is approved of in the Bible, specifically in the New Testament.

However, slavery probably doesn’t mean what you think it does and it is not condoned as you might expect.

It does not mean slavery as it was in Britain and the British Colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries, which was a kind of slavery based on race.[1] Slavery in Bible times was completely different. There was still the concept of working for a Master, but it had nothing to do with race. Often, slaves were debtors who couldn’t pay, captives from war, or people who chose to become slaves because they could not support themselves any other way.

In the New Testament, slavery is approved of as the proper relationship between a Christian and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Greek word for slave is doulos. It is used 120 times in the New Testament. It is translated “slave,” “servant” or” bondservant.” However, we need to understand that much deliberation amongst translators is needed to determine whether doulos should be translated “slave” or “servant.”

Some Examples of Doulos

Some believe doulos should always be translated “slave.” I believe we most definitely bring out the original intent of the New Testament writers when we do this. Some examples might help clarify:

Philippians 1:1

Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus – (NASB)

Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ – (KJV)

Colossians 4:12

Epaphras, who is one of your number, a bondslave of Jesus Christ – (NASB)

Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ – (KJV)

The New American Standard Bible translates doulos as bond-servant or bond-slave. The King James Version translates it as servant. However, though these are two of the most literal word-for-word translations that exist in English, the Holman Christian Standard Bible actually translates these two verses as follows:

Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus – Philippians 1:1 (HCSB)

Epaphras, who is one of you, a slave of Christ Jesus – Colossians 4:12 (HCSB)

The HCSB does not debate the usage of doulos. It always translates it as “slave.” Notice the difference in the meaning when we translate doulos as slave. Paul is a slave of Christ. Timothy is a slave of Christ. Epaphras is a slave of Christ. They are not servants; they are slaves.

A slave is someone who has no choice but to obey his master. He does not get to decide which commands he follows and which ones he can ignore. His likes or dislikes are unimportant. On the other hand, a servant has choices. If a servant chooses not to work for her master, she can leave. She can choose not to follow a command, though she may lose her job.

The Bible uses the word doulos for slave. When a New Testament writer wants to discuss a servant, they use a different word: diakonos.

The Difficulty of Translations

So why do all English translations, other than the HCSB, choose to translate doulos as servant or bond-servant? Why do most English-Greek lexicons define doulos as “slave,” “servant” or “bondservant?” It is because of the belief that most people today think of slavery in a way that is so different than that which existed in the New Testament. For example, the following comes from the preface of the English Standard Version:

Third, a particular difficulty is presented when words in biblical Hebrew and Greek refer to ancient practices and institutions that do not correspond directly to those in the modern world. Such is the case in the translation of ‘ebed (Hebrew) and doulos (Greek), terms which are often rendered “slave.” These terms, however, actually cover a range of relationships that require a range of renderings — either “slave,” “bondservant,” or “servant” — depending on the context. Further, the word “slave” currently carries associations with the often brutal and dehumanizing institution of slavery in nineteenth-century America. For this reason, the ESV translation of the words ‘ebed and doulos has been undertaken with particular attention to their meaning in each specific context. Thus in Old Testament times, one might enter slavery either voluntarily (e.g., to escape poverty or to pay off a debt) or involuntarily (e.g., by birth, by being captured in battle, or by judicial sentence). Protection for all in servitude in ancient Israel was provided by the Mosaic Law. In New Testament times, a doulos is often best described as a “bondservant” — that is, as someone bound to serve his master for a specific (usually lengthy) period of time, but also as someone who might nevertheless own property, achieve social advancement, and even be released or purchase his freedom. The ESV usage thus seeks to express the nuance of meaning in each context. Where absolute ownership by a master is in view (as in Romans 6), “slave” is used; where a more limited form of servitude is in view, “bondservant” is used (as in 1 Corinthians 7:21–24); where the context indicates a wide range of freedom (as in John 4:51), “servant” is preferred. Footnotes are generally provided to identify the Hebrew or Greek and the range of meaning that these terms may carry in each case.[2]

There is an interesting youtube video of BBC cameras recording part of a session where the editors of the ESV debate whether doulos should be translated slave or servant in 1 Corinthians 7.

Properly Understanding Doulos

So how should we understand the NT use of doulos? Most people don’t know what a bondservant is. As for servant, we think of waiters or housekeepers. Neither of these is a doulos. We best understand doulos as slave, especially when looking at it from the relationship between God/Jesus and man.

However, maybe the right way to deal with this is to preface this with a correct understanding of slavery in the first century: It was not about race, it was usually due to debt or war and was often the slave’s choice to enter into it.

Once this preface is understood, using “slave” helps us to understand better our relationship with Christ. He is our Lord. He is our Master. We are His slaves. Jesus is our redeemer, not our liberator.

You are not your own, For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body. – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20

You were bought with a price – 1 Corinthians 7:23

When you redeem something, you pay for it and then it is yours. You own it. Jesus redeemed us. He bought us with a price. He owns us. We are not our own. This is the terminology of slavery, not servanthood.

When people are liberated, they are free. They can do what they want. When people are purchased, they must do what their redeemer wants. The person who purchased them has the right to command them.

Your Turn

We are slaves of Christ. The NT writers understood this. We need to understand this as well. From now on, whenever you read the words “servant” or “bondservant” in the NT, you should do your own translation to make it “slave.” When you do this, you will better understand what God is teaching you.

Are you satisfied being a servant of Christ’s? This allows you to decide what commands you would like to obey. Or are you ready to be like the Biblical Christians and become a slave of Christ? Then you must submit to your Lord and Master and follow His commands.

“You shall follow the LORD your God and fear Him; and you shall keep His commandments, listen to His voice, serve Him, and cling to Him. – Deuteronomy 13:4

Whoever has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me. The one who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and reveal Myself to him.” – John 14:21


[1] Most people don’t understand that slavery before 1776 was not “American” slavery; it was British slavery. There was no United States. There were 13 British Colonies. The problem was that after the Revolutionary War, many of the Southern Plantations, which were originally created to bring wealth to the British Government, continued to use the slaves that the British brought over. So while America was guilty of this slavery, it was not an American invention. America’s guilt was in continuing the British approach to slavery for the next 100 years in order to appease the Southern states. Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence actually criticized the King for his encouragement of slavery in the States. Also, it should be noted that England colonized the South first and brought there the religion of the British state (Anglican). However, the Puritans who had been persecuted by the British for using the Geneva Bible and claiming there is no king but Christ, had come over and occupied the North. The Puritan belief in the Bible is why the North was anti-slavery. The heavy British influence in the South is why they had slaves.

[2] ESV Preface as of November, 8, 2016