Slaves or Sons?

One question that I have been pondering recently is what to make of the tension between the biblical designations of believers as both sons and slaves (the Greek is doulos, more commonly translated servant) of God, highlighted by my recent reading of Murray Harris’ book “Slave of Christ”. Should I primarily think of myself as a son, but in a lesser sense a slave? Or is there another way of holding the two in balance?

Indeed, for many, if not most evangelicals, the concept of thinking of ourselves as slaves  at all seems very foreign. After all, in the famous parable, the wayward son thinks he can only come back to his father as a servant, but no, he is welcomed back as a son (Luke 15:19,20). Similarly, Paul seems to encourage us to think of ourselves as sons of God rather than slaves in Gal 4:7 –

So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.

But this is the same Paul who introduces himself in several places as a “slave of Christ”. So how can we hold these things in tension?

God the Father, Christ the Lord

I wonder whether there is a clue in the names used most commonly of the first and second persons of the Godhead. First, we have God the Father. Though he could also be called God the Creator, or God the Judge, the name that we as believers most commonly refer to him as, is “Father”, following the example of Jesus. Hence, I would argue that the primary way we think of ourselves as relating to God the Father is as his dearly loved children.

However, when we think of God the Son, by far and away the most common title he is given in the New Testament is Lord. The term is entirely religious for most people today, but in the first century, as Murray Harris points out, wherever there was a slave (a doulos) there was also a master (a kyrios, or Lord). Whilst we could say that Jesus is our elder brother, or friend, or even lover, the primary way we are encouraged to think of him is as our Lord or master, who we listen to and obey and seek to please.

“Abba Father”, “Jesus is Lord”

I wonder then if there is any coincidence that the two authentic heart-cries of the Spirit filled person are to refer to God as “Father” and to Jesus as “Lord”. “Father” is not just a name we mechanically call God as we recite the Lord’s prayer, rather the Spirit causes us to recognise deep within us that we can relate to God as his children in whom he takes great delight.

And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" (Gal 4:6)

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!" (Rom 8:15)

Similarly, it is the Spirit who causes us to joyfully confess the lordship of Jesus in our lives:

no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except in the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor 12:3)

This is confession that Jesus is Lord is at the very heart of our regeneration, also a work of the Spirit:

if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Rom 10:9)


I would suggest then that the primary way we are to think of our relationship with God is as his sons, and the primary way we are to think of our relationship with Jesus is as his slaves (although maybe obedient disciples might be a better way to express this). And since it is the Spirit who causes us to recognise these things, this is not a purely intellectual exercise. As we are filled more with the Spirit, so we appreciate and rejoice in these realities more and more.

I must admit that this solution is not perfect. Paul does sometimes refer to himself as a “slave of God” (e.g. Titus 1:1), so he clearly did not consider that self-designation to be inappropriate. Similarly, it would be a mistake to suggest that we can only relate to Jesus as slaves (e.g. John 15:15). But I think it is true to say that God the Holy Spirit is the one who helps us to rightly understand our relationship to God the Father and God the Son.

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.