Book Review – Slave of Christ (Murray Harris)

This is volume 8 in the “New Studies in Biblical Theology” series. These books take a single topic and trace it right through the Bible or New Testament. They are not typically light reading, but serve as very useful background material for those preparing for preaching or simply wanting to get some in-depth insight into major biblical themes. The subject here is that of the use of “slave of Christ” as a metaphor for total devotion to Christ.

One of the interesting issues this book raises is that modern Bible translators shy away from using the word ‘slave’ to translate doulos. This is undoubtedly due to the negative connotations that slavery carries, but Harris believes that we miss out on a true appreciation of the meaning by toning the terminology down to just “servant”, which loses the connotation of belonging.

The book begins with a fascinating survey of the nature of slavery in Roman, Greek and Jewish cultures of the first century. These, rather than the African slave trade of the 18th century form the conceptual background to the use of this term in the New Testament.

A slave may be defined as “someone whose person and service belong wholly to another”. Roman slavery law was complex, and up to a quarter of people were slaves in the Roman empire, doing a wide range of work. Surprisingly, most Roman slaves were able to gradually earn money, allowing themselves to buy their freedom through “manumission” by their 30s.

Harris explores whether the NT could be said to “endorse” slavery, since it lacks any explicit repudiation of it. It is true that the NT seems to accept it as the status quo, yet sees the gospel as being the means of the breakdown of the slave/free distinction. The NT is able to use slavery as a negative metaphor (such as bondage for sin), but also uses it in a positive sense to illustrate the humble way in which believers are to serve Christ. Paul strongly hints to Philemon that Onesiphorus should be freed, but refrains from commanding it. Harris suggests a variety of reasons why the NT lacks an explicit condemnation of slavery. Ultimately, the NT’s aim is first at personal transformation, which should then result in societal transformation.

Then follow four chapters exploring different aspects of slavery as used in the metaphor of slavery to Christ. First, freedom in the NT is presented as voluntary surrender to God’s will. The freedom we have in the gospel is not for license, but in order that we might be slaves to Christ. He shows how Paul in Rom 6:15-23 contrasts two slaveries. Everyone is either a slave to sin (Satan as master) or righteousness (Christ as master) – there is no third option. Christians need to beware the danger of temporarily reverting to slavery to sin.

Secondly, Harris shows how the whole concept of Christ as Lord depends heavily on the slave metaphor – where there is a slave there is a lord. A slaves duty was first to obey any explicit commands from their lord, and second, in the absence of such commands, to take actions that will please the master. The NT also expresses our obligations to serve one another through the slave metaphor.

Third, slavery connotes ownership. He sees water baptism “into” the name of Jesus, as representing a legal transfer of ownership. Harris explores several ways you could become a slave in Roman society and contrasts this with the way we become slaves of Christ.

Fourth, Harris addresses the suggestion of some that “slave of God” was actually intended as a title of privilege, i.e. applying only to very important Christian leaders such as Paul. Harris agrees that it is an honour to be a slave of such a great and gracious master, but argues that to be a slave of Christ (or of God) is a privilege for all believers, not just a few.

Harris claims that the concept of slavery to Christ is central to the NT concept of discipleship. Whilst the NT authors would be aware of the negative connotations of the slavery metaphor, the concept of slavery to Christ is presented as entirely positive – it represents our exclusive devotion to Christ, expressed in humble submission, unquestioning obedience and and exclusive preoccupation with pleasing him.

He then deals with two texts that might possibly be considered contradictions to the concept that a believer is the slave of Christ. The first is John 15:15 and the second Gal 4:7. He argues that these do not invalidate the metaphor of slavery to Christ, but rather define its boundaries and limitations. We are both sons and slaves.

A final chapter explores four case studies of characters in the NT demonstrating what it means to be a slave of Christ. These are Dorcas, Onesiphorus, Priscilla and Aquila. The book has three appendixes, the most interesting being the one where he explores the translation of doulos and calls on Bible translators to make more regular use of slave as its translation, particularly where slavery to Christ is in view.

Overall I would say this is a fascinating study on a theme that is regularly overlooked due to the reluctance of modern translators to use the term ‘slave’. It has certainly made me more aware when the term “servant” or “serve” comes up that there may be a root word of doulos underneath. There is however more to be explored on the relationship between the two metaphors of Christians as slaves of Christ and sons of God, though. Is one primary and the other secondary? Can they be held together easily? But apart from that unresolved issue I found this book very helpful. In particular, the metaphor of slavery sheds light on the exhortations to live with the ambition of pleasing the Lord.

11 thoughts on “Book Review – Slave of Christ (Murray Harris)

  1. Mark, thank you for the taking the time and effort to write these reviews for others. I have been dipping in and out of WordandSpirit for several years now and find the reviews section (among other things) most helpful and enlightening – even if I’ve already read the book to begin with.
    I realise there’s no substitute for reading a book for yourself but it seems as if you really do make an effort to approach an author’s work objectively in spite any personal slant of your own.

    I purchased Slave of Christ almost ten years ago now but so much of it seemed to come flooding back through reading your review. Your writing is so economical but has a way of drawing out the essence of a book and crystallizing it’s more complex flows of thought in easy to remember phrases. I think it’s a true gift of the teacher to be able to simplify without dumbing down.
    It’s also interesting to see how you try to tease out further grounds for exploration that the author might have made – as you do here. I have to admit to usually being too easily satisfied to consider such possibilities.

    Anyway, thank you again for all your efforts.

  2. Hi Jay,

    Thanks for the encouragement. The truth is, I mainly review for my own benefit. The reviews serve as summaries of what the book is about and what I liked/disliked about it. I always suspect that my reviews must be quite boring for other people to read!

  3. Are you a theological tourist, Mark?

    What do I mean by that? Well, a Catholic friend of mine is currently into the writings of St Therese de Lisieux. This seems to be logically incompatible with a men-only leadership and teaching position such as he has accepted so far from the Magisterium.

    Similarly, is it consistent to hold such a position and yet think nothing of sitting under teaching from Mary Evans, Rosemary Nixon and Amy Orr-Ewing?

    Don’t be a theological tourist in 2010, Mark. Be committed!

  4. happy new year cndo.

    I’m not sure what you’re suggesting? That I should not read books by people I don’t agree with? While I mainly read books by authors I respect, I do like to occasionally branch out and read something that will challenge my presuppositions. So, I have enjoyed commentaries from Tom Wright, John Stott and Gordon Fee, all who take the time to put across egalitarian positions in their writings.

    Or are you just suggesting that if you are a complementarian you should not read a book written by a woman? If so, I must disagree. Just as Apollos benefitted from learning from Priscilla and her husband, so I believe I can benefit from books written by women. If complementarians are right in believing that the NT restricts women from being elders of a church, it does not logically follow that they should be prohibited from writing books, or that men should be prohibited from reading them. But that is a debate for another day. I’m hoping to read Philip Towner’s commentary on the pastorals this year, so there will be an opportunity for me to revisit some of these issues.

  5. I was suggesting the latter. I find the ‘restricting from being elders of a church’ interpretation from 1 Timothy 2:11-15 to be spuriously illogical; why that and not ‘restricting from teaching men’ entirely? But of course it would be tiresome to take this into a full blown debate on your website.

    Glad to see you’ve read NT Wright’s position, surprised you mentioned Stott as putting across an ‘egalitarian’ view as his writing seems pretty biased to me. Just as on Ephesians when he proclaims Calvinism without even mentioning another view, such as corporate election.

    As David Coffey advised me “Start with Galatians 3:28 – there’s no ‘male and female’ in Christ.”

    God bless you

  6. Sorry Mark, I don’t think I’ve been as gracious as I should have been, perhaps given the emotive nature of the issue; I hope it’s not too late to wish you a Happy New Year, too.

  7. Mark, I haven’t read Harris’ book yet (but I do have a copy). I’ve been putting it on my list each time I finish something but end up choosing other things. I did notice that Stuart’s Exodus commentary makes a lot of the same points about everyone being enslaved, and the language of Exodus bears this out. The Israelites are freed from slavery to Pharaoh, but most translations ignore that they’re freed to become slaves to God. The term there is usually translated as if they’re being freedom to worship God or sometimes to serve God, but it’s the same word as when it describes them being enslaved to Pharaoh.

    Ando, I don’t know if you’ll get back to these comments, but Stott isn’t really an egalitarian. He’s a moderate complementarian. He’s fully complementarian about marriage roles and about the highest level of church leadership, which he considers to be the elder chair or head elder/pastor (an unbiblical role in my view and thus where his view falls apart). He just thinks you can have a female elder under the authority of that head elder, who is male, and she can even preach if it’s under his authority. Craig Blomberg holds the same view, and both consider themselves complementarians. Most egalitarians I know would be as opposed to his restrictions on female leadership as they are to any others complementarians might insist on.

  8. Jeremy – interesting about Stuart’s Exodus. I am thinking of reading an Exodus commentary later this year and have heard good things about Stuart and Enns. I have Walter Kaiser’s Revised EBC commentary which I haven’t read, but am wondering whether to skip it and get myself Stuart or Enns.

    Also, didn’t know the finer nuances of Stott’s position. He must have said something that made me put him in the egalitarian camp. Have Stott or Blomberg elaborated on these opinions anywhere in print that you know of?

  9. Pingback: Slaves or Sons? « wordandspirit

  10. I’d say Stuart is better than Kaiser by a long shot. There were lots of places I wrote comments in the margins, especially in the Ten Commandments section, but maybe that just reflects my academic training in philosophy, including ethics, and my complete lack of Hebrew. I had issues with Enns’s approach to scripture when I was reading some early stuff in it, and I decided I’d benefit more from just Stuart. An elder in my congregation decided a little ways in to it that he would just reading the Original Meaning sections of Enns, but I think he thought it worth continuing. He wasn’t a big fan of either Stuart or Enns, but he’s not a big fan of most commentators. He thinks they lack imagination due to their focus on language issues. (He didn’t even like Wenham on Genesis.)

    Blomberg’s view is presented in Two Views of Women in Ministry, from Zondervan. He was an editor of the first edition, and he expanded his role significantly to be almost a third view in the second edition, although they’ve presented it as if there are two egalitarian contributors and two complementarian contributors (but the two egalitarians are much more similar in their approaches than the two complementarians).

    I’ve never seen Stott’s view in print, but I’ve been told (and perhaps it was mentioned by Blomberg) that he ran his congregation according to a view much like Blomberg’s (and Park Street Church in Boston, under the leadership of Gordon Hugenberger, has the same approach, as do several Campus Crusade for Christ ministries that I’ve been familiar with, but unlike the officially-egalitarian IV/IFES, Campus Crusade is silent on that issue from the top, so it varies from campus to campus).

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