Slaves and Bondslaves
Scripture Words Defined
Slave or Bondslave: what is the difference?
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How often have you heard people talking about being a “bondslave” (“δοῦλος”) of Christ? While the idea of being a “bondslave” sounds great in some ways, what do the Scriptures provide about slavery to Christ? This short note will focus upon why the word “bondslave” inaccurately describes the relationship of the believer with Christ. When translators choose the term “bondslave,” they apparently want to avoid the negative ideas associated with forced slavery. They also want to convey the idea of voluntary servitude after being set free from involuntary servitude.
Does this idea of voluntary servitude comport with New Testament teachings? The simple answer is profoundly “No.” Christ bought you as His slave for all eternity. He will never set you free from Him. You never have a choice to stop being enslaved to Him unless you choose to stop submitting to Jesus and so commit sin. As an aside, the term “servants” today implies voluntary associations, and people may serve different masters at their choice. Servants are not bound against their will to any person. The better translation will always be “slaves,” not “bondservants” or “servants.” A brief review of the Scriptural evidence below leaves no room for doubt about the meaning of the term “slave” (“δοῦλος”) in the New Testament and the concept of slavery to Christ. I do not intend to negate the role of the slave’s will in making constant decisions about doing the will of God, but not doing the will of God results in sin, not in freedom. Slave or bondslave?
Old Testament Bondslaves
1.1 Bondslaves. In Exodus we read about Hebrew male slaves being released from their involuntary servitude after six years (Exodus 21:1-11; Deuteronomy 15:12-18). On the seventh year, the male Hebrew slave (“עֶ֣בֶד“) might go free by his choice. If the Hebrew male slave left, then his wife and children remained the property of his master. So, the Hebrew male slave might make a choice about staying or leaving. If the Hebrew male slave said, “I love my master, and my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,” then the master would bring him to Elohim and his master would pierce his ear with an awl; and he would be enslaved to him permanently. The male slave might be called a “bondslave” in the sense that he was set free, but chose to remain a slave by his will. In contrast, Hebrew female slaves were not allowed to leave their master by choice at the end of six years and other legal rules applied to Hebrew female slaves. Slave or bondslave?
Some Hebrew people were sold into slavery (involuntary servitude) to a master.
All male Hebrew slaves were enslaved only six years to a master.
At the end of six years, the male Hebrews slaves automatically received their freedom.
The freed male Hebrew slaves might choose to become a bondslave and so remain a perpetual slave by an act of his free will.
All female Hebrew slaves were never automatically freed from slavery at the end of six years.
New Testament Slaves
God revealed in the New Testament the broad concepts of spiritual slavery. Everyone grows up enslaved to sin. At the moment of salvation, by grace through faith, people have been freed from slavery to sin and begin to live in slavery to God. Therefore, everyone on earth exists as a slave, either to sin or to God. They are either children of the devil or children of God. The Scriptures help us understand the concept of spiritual slavery. Slave or bondslave?
2.1 Slaves to Sin. God said that all people have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Everyone who commits sin is the slave (“δοῦλός”) of sin (John 8:34). They do the desire of their father, the devil (John 8:44).
2.2 Salvation. At the moment of salvation by grace through faith, we are born from above and become new creatures in Christ (John 3:3; 2 Corinthians 5:17). The old things passed away; new things have come (2 Corinthians 5:17).
2.3 Slavery to God. At the moment of salvation, our old self was crucified with Christ (Romans 6:6; Galatians 2:20). We are no longer slaves (“δοῦλοι”) to sin (Romans 6:20), but enslaved ones (“δουλωθέντες”) to God (Romans 6:22).
2.4 Atonement. God paid the price to buy all people through the atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross and His resurrection. That single sacrifice resulted in God buying all people, not just the elect (1 John 2:2–Jesus is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, not just the elect; 2 Peter 2:1–Jesus bought (“ἀγοράσαντα”–same root as “I redeem”) even the false prophets who deny Him).
2.5 Bought. God bought us through the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are not our own (1 Corinthians 6:19). We have been bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:20; 1 Corinthians 7:23), which is the precious blood of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:18-19).
Saints become slaves to God and His righteousness at the moment of salvation.
People are never automatically freed from slavery to sin.
God bought saints with the precious blood of His unique Son.
Seven Reasons Christians Are Not Bondslaves
All the references to Hebrew male bondslaves below refer to the slaves of Exodus 21. The Hebrew male slaves were automatically set free after six years. Some Hebrew male slaves, having been freed, chose perpetual slavery to their existing masters and so became bondslaves. Because they wanted to be with their wives and children, or had other reasons for continued slavery to the same master, they pledged themselves to their perpetual servitude. Slave or bondslave?
3.1 New Master. Bondslaves continued to be enslaved to their same master. In contrast, saints are enslaved to a new master, Jesus Christ, having been set free from slavery to sin (Romans 6:15-23).
3.2 Continued Slavery. Bondslaves continued in slavery with the same master. Nothing changed. In contrast, everything changes at the moment of salvation for saints. Saints are new creatures and gifted for new spiritual ministry, using their spiritual gifts. Saints continue in slavery, but the kind of slavery has been changed forever and they are slaves to a new Master, God (Ephesians 4:11-12, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21).
3.3 Automatic Freedom. Bondslaves had received freedom after six years of slavery, but chose to remain enslaved to their masters. People never have a day in their lives when they are automatically freed from their slavery to sin. Salvation comes by grace through faith, and that salvation is a gift of God, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).
3.4 Redemption. Bondslaves were first purchased by the master and he became the owner of the slave; no further payment was required to become a bondslave. In contrast, God redeemed us through the precious blood of His unique Son, Jesus Christ. God satisfied the debt (the death penalty) required as the wages of sin (Romans 6:23). Bondslaves in Exodus 21 chose to live with their master, but no blood payment was required.
3.5 Servants. Bondslaves, having chosen to become perpetual slaves, were not servants, because they could never again choose to leave their slavery without their master’s consent. In contrast, saints become slaves to God, and they too can never leave the family of God (Romans 6:15-23). Servants perform voluntary service for any master they choose and may leave at any time. Slaves are property owned by their master and submit to their master, by force if necessary.
3.6 Will. Bondslaves chose to continue their slavery after automatic freedom. Instead of choosing to live free without a master, they decided to remain enslaved to their master. In contrast, saints at the moment of salvation leave both slavery to sin and doing the desires of the their father, the devil. Saints become slaves to God and His righteousness, not by the will of man, but by the will of God, as a free gift (John 1:13). Saints are free in the sense they are no longer slaves to sin, but become slaves to God and His righteousness at the moment of salvation. Saints do not choose to live without a master; they live as a slave to God as their only Master. If a saint chooses to live in disobedience to their Master, then they suffer discipline, but always remain enslaved to God and His righteousness.
3.7 New Ministry. Bondslaves continue their work for the same master. In contrast, at the moment of salvation, each saint receives at least one spiritual gift and all things became new. First, at the moment of salvation, all saints become new creatures. Second, at the moment of salvation, all saints also have a new ministry given to them by God, the ministry of reconciliation. Third, at the moment of salvation, all saints have a new job as ambassadors for Christ, even begging people to be reconciled to God. All saints are slaves of God in perpetuity (2 Corinthians 5:16-21).
Some people think of believers as bondslaves, looking back at Exodus 21. Such thinking actually opposes every part of being a bondslave for the reasons described above. Slavery to God means compulsory obedience to the New Master. Saints have been bought with a price and so never should be called bondslaves, because bondslaves were automatically freed from further slavery after six years. Saints were never automatically freed from anything. God paid for our redemption with the precious blood of His only Son, Jesus Christ. So, please examine everything carefully. Search the Scriptures and see if these things are true. Hold on to the good. Praise God we are not bondslaves, but enslaved to God and His righteousness. We have the most righteous, just, gracious, truthful and loving Master.