Identity: Slaves and Friends
I follow a handful of trusted and Holy Ghost approved ministers of the gospel on social media. I often find encouragement and nuggets of wisdom in their posts. Sometimes, I skim through the comments to see the general response of the audience, especially when it’s a new or unpopular topic or revelation. A few months back, one of the ministers had written a post around Romans 6:15-23, referring to herself as a slave of the Master. In the comments, one woman quickly pointed out her distaste of the word ‘slave’, choosing instead to think of herself as a child of God. The author politely responded by quoting the text in Romans that clearly says that believers “have become slaves to righteousness”, but the commenter would have none of it. She adamantly insisted that she was a child of God and not His slave.
I understand her aversion to the word. History has not painted any good pictures of slavery for us. When we think of a slave, we think of oppression, injustice, pride, bigotry, sadism, poverty, betrayal, greed, and all manner of savagery. This narrative has conditioned us to hate and reject the position of a slave. Yet the bible is crystal clear on this matter, not only calling us servants – as many would prefer – but actual slaves of righteousness and of our Master, the Lord Jesus Christ. This is an integral part of our identity that determines not only how we relate to God and fellow man, but also the degree to which we are able to accomplish our divine destinies on the earth.
A Recap on Identity
To recap, identity is the sum of all spiritual and physical characteristics of an individual that make him a complete and unique person. Identity is a fundamental aspect of life because it informs acceptance, which in turn determines how and with whom we form and maintain relationships. Our identity is defined by the questions: what are we, who are we, and why are we here? In the book of Genesis, the bible addresses and contextualizes these questions with the revelation that human beings are created by the Almighty God, in His own image, to have dominion over the animals and the earth.
We are, indeed, sons of God. We carry his image and likeness. We have power and authority to issue decrees and commands and to bring numerous things under our control. Our Father loves us with an unconditional and eternal love. However, to attain an accurate, balanced and comprehensive understanding of our true identity, we must not only grasp our likeness to God in sonship, but also our contrariety to Him in sovereignty. We are sons of God, but are not equal to Him. We have plenty of power, but are limited in our use of this power.
In Genesis 1:26 and 28, God gives mankind the power and authority to rule over all the birds of the air, the fish in the sea, the animals that move upon the ground, and all the earth. Man was to completely subdue the earth: to conquer it and bring it under our control using some effort. However, Genesis 2:15 explains God’s instructions and directives for this process: man was to dress (i.e. till, work on, or cultivate the land, which would means build it up and make it productive and more valuable) and keep (watch, guard and protect) the land.
The Mandate from the Beginning
Right from the beginning, we see that power and authority come from God and are subject to His guidelines and directives, rules and regulations. Secondly, power was not given to man for his own selfish interests, convenience, pleasures, or benefits, but for the protection and augmentation of everything under his authority as entrusted to him by God. Thirdly, man was not created to rule over other human beings, but to work together with them, under God’s leadership, to enhance and protect God’s created earth. These three lessons lead us to one reasonable conclusion: man was created to serve God (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
“For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3:5
Sadly, Adam and Eve disobeyed God. They were not content with following God’s leadership; instead they wanted to be like God. You see, although they carried God’s image and likeness in sonship, they did not share in His sovereignty. He is omniscient in wisdom, prudence, and understanding; they were not (Isaiah 55:9), and they knew it. They believed the lie that they could somehow become equal to God in wisdom, which would mean that they could rule themselves instead of depending on God to lead them. They were deceived into thinking that they could attain autonomous self-governance and independence from the Almighty God. They rejected their position as servants of God.
Unfortunately, by the time they realized their folly, it was too late. Sin had already entered the world, with death hot at its heels, and separated man from God. We all suffer the consequences of that separation to date, one of which was the divine proclamation to the woman, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Genesis 3:16b. Interestingly, the Hebrew word translated here as rule is different from the one used in Genesis 1:26 and 28. The word used here, mashal, also means to rule and to have dominion, but is used more often with reference to tyrannical rule.
Understanding Gods Design for Marriage
We need to clearly understand that God’s divine design for marriage was never for a man to rule over a woman. The woman was created as a help meet for the man; meaning one who surrounds the counterpart or mate to protect, defend or aid. The role of the woman in marriage, therefore, is to set healthy and godly boundaries around her husband in all matters (physical, spiritual, emotional, psychological, intellectual, financial, et cetera) in submission to God, thus protecting him from harm, defending his honor and name, and helping and guiding him in every area of his life so that he can accomplish God’s divine purposes for his life.
The man’s role, on the other hand, is to partner with the woman in accomplishing God’s purposes for his life, her life, and their union. We will delve much deeper into the man’s role in marriage our next discussion; suffice it to note, for now, that God never commanded the man to rule over the woman; rather, He declares to Eve that because of their rebellion against God’s leadership, and concomitant pursuit of autonomous self-governance, her husband will now reject her guidance and seek to assert himself and his authority and power over her, hence the tyranny.
When mankind rebelled against God, rejecting their positions as servants, a power vacuum was created and men and women clamored over each other in an attempt to claim supreme authority. The result was tyrannical rule and savage slavery, not just in kingdoms and territorial wars among governments, but also in marriage, churches, families, and every community where humans gather. The lie that we can somehow rule over ourselves continues to blind us to our rightful position as servants of God.
Consequently, we continually make decisions for ourselves without seeking God’s will for our lives. We aim to do what pleases us, not knowing what we really need, which results in non-fulfilment that manifests as stress, tension, agitation, anxiety, low self-esteem, misery, and frustration. By continually feeding our selfish inclinations, we grow more and more self-centered and oblivious to the needs of others. We struggle with virtues like patience, humility, and perseverance because they challenge our erroneous belief that we are in control. Inevitably, we widen the gap between ourselves and God as we increasingly reject our identity as servants – even slaves – and instead seek self-governance. Yet that is exactly who we are.
“[Christ Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” Philippians 2:6-7
The scripture is very clear: Christ is God. When He came to the earth, He didn’t cast away of take off His God nature, but He gave up all His rights to that nature. He didn’t cling or hold on to them, but lay them down of His own accord. Instead, He took on the nature of a servant. This alone shows us that God is not a servant. There is nothing in His nature that can be subjected to servitude. He is Sovereign and does as He pleases (Psalm 115:3, 135:6). We cannot rule over Him, exercise power or authority over Him, or tell Him what to do. He is Adonai, Master, Lord.
Masters and Servants an Understanding
So Christ laid aside His divine right to exercise Sovereign power and authority, and made Himself nothing by taking on the nature of a servant when he became a human being. Ergo, the very nature of a human being is that of a servant. As the bible makes it clear here, we are nothing. Our sonship to God does not make us equal to Him; on the contrary, we are nothing – mere servants at the Master’s mercy.
The Greek word (Greek is the language in which the New Testament was originally written) translated here as servant is the word doulos. It means slave, bondman, or servant; one who gives himself up to another’s will. As Jesus said, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) Doulos comes from the word deo, which means to tie, bind, fasten with chains, or put under obligation. Again, the very nature of a human being is that of a slave, a bondman, a servant – one who answers to God (Ecclesiastes 12:14 and Revelation 20:13).
God is our Master. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew name Adonai refers to God as the Master. In the New Testament, the word Lord is often used to refer to Christ, the Master. It is translated from the Greek word kyrios, which means supreme in authority, Master, Lord, God. It refers to one to whom a person or thing belongs, about which he has power of deciding; the possessor and disposer of a thing. It is also is a title of honor expressive of respect and reverence, with which servants greet their master.
A disciple of Christ, therefore, is one who chooses to lay aside his false sense of and foolish claim to self-rule and surrenders himself totally to the Lord, choosing to honor His decisions for his life, family, neighbors, friends, relationships, etc., high above his own. We willfully choose to submit our will, power and authority to Him, to be led by Him and share in His suffering that we may also share in His glory. As Romans 8:17 says, “Now if we are children, then we are heirs-heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” Christianity is the freedom to choose to be a slave of Christ.
The Message Translation summarizes all this so beautifully: Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion. Philippians 2:5-8
What is the difference between a servant and a slave? There are a number of differences, but we will focus on three of them here. However, let’s look at the original language before we proceed to English definitions and meanings. In the Greek language, there are two words translated as servant: doulos, which we have already seen above, and diakonos, from which we get the English word, deacon. Diakonos means an attendant, a waiter, one who executes the commands of another. It comes from the root word diako, which means, to run on errands.
Although some bible versions translate both doulos and diakonos as ‘servant’, it is evident from the etymology that doulos is a stronger term that carries the strong connotation of subservience – one person yielding to another’s will and belonging or being bound to them, being at their mercy. Its more accurate translation, therefore, is slave or bondservant – whether voluntary or involuntary – as translated in the passage in Romans 6:15-23 (NIV). Diakonos, on the other hand, is never translated as slave; only as servant or minister – one who serves another by executing their commands, meeting their needs, or advancing their cause, but is not necessarily subservient to them.
Understanding Slaves and Servants
In the English language, and with regard to present day socialization, these three principles distinguish a servant from a slave: ownership, wages, and will. A servant works for the master but does not belong to him. He comes and goes, based on the agreement or contract that defines the scope and schedule of his services. He has a life outside his work place: he can marry and have children who are not bound to serving his master. A slave, on the other hand, belongs to the master. He is like any other piece of property that belongs to the master. He cannot leave his master’s employ unless he is sold, stolen, or freed from slavery. A slave cannot own any property; everything he has when he comes into slavery, automatically falls under the ownership of his master. Even his wife and children automatically become slaves of his master.
A servant works for wages as agreed upon with the master. He is entitled to compensation for the work he has done. On the contrary, a slave does not receive any wages or compensation for the work he has done. He may be given food and shelter, but only to keep him alive so that he can continue working, not as payment for his labor.
Finally, a servant is free to do as he pleases as long as he meets the requirements of his contract or agreement with his master. He is also free to leave his master’s employ as he chooses. However, a slave is subject to his master’s will. If his master wakes him up in the middle of night to go stand outside in the rain, he cannot object. He does not have work hours or union rights. He cannot go on strike. He cannot go against his master’s will. I read it somewhere that “a servant offers services, but a slave offers obedience.”
So, is a Christian a servant or a slave of God? Firstly, on numerous occasions, the bible clearly uses the term doulos with respect to a believer’s relationship with God. Even in the passage in Philippians 2 above, the Greek word translated as servant is doulos, not diakonos. The apostle Paul often referred to himself as a doulos (Romans 1:1, Philippians 1:1, Titus 1:1) and diakonos (2 Corinthians 6:4) of Christ Jesus and of God. In Philemon 1:1, he goes further to say that he is a prisoner (desmios) of Christ; meaning, one who is in bonds or is bound – a captive. James, Peter, and Jude also refer to themselves as doulos of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ (James 1:1, 2 Peter 1:1, Jude 1). A doulos is naturally also a diakonos, but a diakonos is not a doulos.
Slaves to Righteousness
Secondly, with regard to ownership, what does the bible say? 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” Believers do not belong to themselves; we belong to Christ. Since we were bought, it means that we belonged to another master – we were not free men. The illustration in Romans 6:16-18 is right on the money! Christ Jesus, our new Master, bought us with His own blood from our old master, sin.
“Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey – whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” (NIV)
Consequently, because we belong to Christ, everything we have also belongs to him. We cannot hold too tightly to anything we have on earth to be unable or unwilling to let go of it in an instant at our Lord’s request. The same goes for the people in our lives: our spouses, parents, siblings, and children do not belong to us, they belong to God. Ergo, we must uphold, honor, and care for them – at the very least, as we would a grossly exorbitant and rare China vase or a one-of-a-kind masterpiece painting in a king’s palace.
Thirdly, our service to God is not pegged on compensation. Yes, He is a good Master who rewards us with gifts and fulfils His promises towards us, but His gifts and promises are not given as wages for our labor. God’s rewards are due to His grace. None of us can earn a single one of His blessings because His standards are unattainable in our humanity. For we have all sinned and fall short of His glory (Romans 3:23); all our righteous acts are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Perhaps Romans 6:23 explains it best, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Every promise we receive as children of the Most High God is not a wage or compensation for our good works, but is purely a gift from our good Father. Heaven is not payment for our obedience, but a gift from a loving Father to His undeserving children (Psalm 103:10).
Finally, perhaps the most definitive principle for the believer is that of will. From the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, it is evident that God gives us free will – the freedom to make choices for ourselves. As He says in Deuteronomy 30:19-20, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” We are free to choose to serve God or ourselves (our selfish desires that give birth to sin), but every choice has a consequence.
A Call to Christ Like Obedience
Chapters 27 and 28 of Deuteronomy elaborately describe the kind of choices that lead to blessings and those that lead to curses. The fundamental tenet in all these actions is obedience; obedience to God leads to blessing and abundant life while disobedience leads to curses and death. Is this an old-fashioned, Old Testament requirement? Not at all. Let’s have a look at what the New Testament says about obedience.
“Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.” Philippians 2:5-8, MSG
Christ is our example. Not only do we ascribe to, but have also been predestined by God to conform to the image of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, that we may be His brothers and sisters (Romans 8:29). Christ has already established the pattern of selfless and complete obedience to God, not just when it’s convenient for us, but even – especially when – it costs and hurts us deeply.
“He always had the nature of God, but he did not think that by force he should try to remain equal with God. Instead of this, of his own free will he gave up all he had, and took the nature of a servant. He became like a human being and appeared in human likeness. He was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to death—his death on the cross.” GNT
This kind of obedience requires and concurrently cultivates deep humility. Our flesh is filled with the pride of life – the lie that we are more important than another; that we are wise and can successfully rule ourselves. The kind of obedience that Christ models for us goes against this very essence that caused the downfall of our first earthly parents, Adam and Eve. To obey God, even when He’s commanding us to do something that doesn’t seem beneficial or is even painful to us, is recognizing Him as Master and ourselves as His slaves. This is the example that our Lord set for us when He prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” Luke 22:42
“For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.” John 6:38
What then shall we say? Well, all men are slaves either to sin or righteousness (Romans 6:15-23). We can choose to live our lives rebelling against this truth and incur the rebel’s wages – which is death by the lake of fire, according to Revelation 20:11-15 – or to embrace our humble position as slaves of the Lord Jesus Christ, and so gain the right to become children of God (John 1:12) and to share in the inheritance of the saints (Ephesians 1:18).
But Praise be to God, He is a good Master!
He is love (1 John 4:8, 16); ergo He loves us with an everlasting love. He is holy and cannot be tempted to do anything evil or cruel to us (James 1:13). He thinks only good thoughts about us and all His plans for us are good (Jeremiah 29:11) The Living Bible translation says, “How precious it is, Lord, to realize that you are thinking about me constantly! I can’t even count how many times a day your thoughts turn toward me. And when I waken in the morning, you are still thinking of me!” Psalm 139:17-18. God has adopted us into His family, cleansed us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9), and made us co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17).
In John 15:14-15, Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” Though we are His slaves, ours is not a strained relationship of bondman and slave driver that is forced down our throats, enforced by strict rules and ruthless punishment. On the contrary, as we continue to willfully lay aside our preferences in humble submission and obedience to His leadership and guidance, we become friends of God.
This is What I Wish All Men to Know..
So, this is the third item on my list. I wish that men everywhere would understand that human beings are all slaves by nature and that our highest privilege in Christ Jesus is the freedom to choose whom we shall serve. I pray that the men would discover that God did not create them to rule over the women, but that this ungodly desire and often misplaced ego is actually the result of sin and disobedience. May the men come to the realization that they are not superior to women, but that God requires both men and women to look to Him in humble submission and reverence as the Ultimate and Supreme power and authority. I hope that men will learn and grow to care for their wives, parents, and children as treasured possessions of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
I long for marriages, especially those within the body of Christ, to emerge as partnerships of rulers submitted to God in enhancing heaven’s purposes on earth. Dear heavenly Father, help my brothers and sons to understand and embrace the meaning of true godly submission: not as a means to satisfy their selfish ambitions and pride of life disguised as ego, but humble selflessness and obedience to God, looking to the needs of others above our own.
May Christ be formed in our men. Amen.