δοῦλος [doulos] – Slave

You can download the PDF to this article here: Doulos – Slave

            This ‘brief’ study is going to be based primarily around one word: δολος [doulos] the Greek word for “slave”. I had previously done a study on it but decided to revisit it in light of recent conversations. It occurs a minimum of 126 times in the NT in the noun form alone, with an additional 15 times in compound words and at least 33 times in some verbal forms. So I think it is a pretty important Biblical concept to grasp. By the end of this article, I hope to convince you to joyously sell yourself into slavery… I know that might sound jarring, but stay with me for the journey.

Defining the word:

            Some Bible translations will render δοῦλος as “servant” or “bondservant”, however I think this is not a helpful choice of words and it should be rendered “slave”. There are at least six other words which could be used if the Bible wanted to say “servant”. “In the beginning, before it came to be used for slaves, δολος was an adjective meaning “unfree,” as opposed to eleutheros, and this dichotomy remained basic in the first century: eite douloi, eite eleutheroi.”[1] Properly, in lexicons, the meaning is: One who gives himself up to another’s will, devoted to another to the disregard of one’s own interests. One who is the property of another.[2] It is the surrender of freedom to your master. It is derived by most from δέω, which means to tie or bind—so it seems like there’s a sense of being bound to someone else’s will. It is “a service which is not a matter of choice for the one who renders it, which he has to perform whether he likes or not, because he is subject as a slave to an alien will, to the will of his owner.” Furthermore, “the stress is rather on the slave’s dependence on his lord.”[3] Greeks valued freedom highly and found their personal dignity in the fact that they were free. Nowhere in their pagan religions is the worshipper described as a slave to the Gods. So this concept of slavery would have been equally, if not more repugnant to the Greek mind as it is to ours. So this concept from the beginning was hugely counter-cultural. However there are some distinctives to remember between slavery in the Ancient Near East and North American or European ideas of slavery.

Slavery in Context:

            It would be wrong for us to project the colonial North American or European concept of black slavery—which was primarily based on racial divisions—on the slavery spoken of in the Bible. Also, we must realize that the Bible was written by people who existed in a certain cultural context and to people within that framework. I’m not trying to glamorize slavery, but rather that we would have an accurate idea in mind of what is the imagery which the Bible uses when referring to slavery. Some things written in the Bible—because it is historic—are simply descriptive of the reality of their time. The concept of slavery we see in the Old and New Testaments is placed in the Ancient Near East—a culture many of us are unfamiliar with today. The antecedents to slavery in the OT is from the nations in the Fertile Crescent which ranged from Babylon to Egypt. There were three major categories of people—free, semi-free and slave—and the social structure was defined by these categories.

            The purpose of slavery was different then; people could sell themselves into slavery to pay off debts or even as a method of survival in hard times. Remember, there was no social security, so this could have been a legitimate way of survival in desperate times. “The economy of Egypt, Greece, and Rome was based on slave labor.”[4] Slaves also could be captives from wars and conquered people. “By Roman times Slavery was so extensive that in the early Christian period one out of every two people was a slave. From at least 3000 b.c. captives in war were the primary source of slaves (Gen 14:21; Num 31:9; Deut 20:14; Jgs 5:30; 1 Sam 4:9; 2 Kgs 5:2; 2 Chr 28:8).”[5] They were considered as property and the main concern if a slave died was to settle the price for the loss of property. However, the OT “raised the status of the slave from property to that of a human being who happened to be owned by another person (Exod. 21:20, 26–27; Job 31:13–15; Eccles. 7:21–22).”[6]

            There are many other radical changes to the concept of slavery which the OT introduced, including the opportunity for a slave’s freedom to be bought and the release of Hebrew slaves in the Sabbatical and Jubilee year. So no Hebrew could theoretically be a slave for life in their context. To safeguard against brutality, “By law a maimed slave must be released (Exod. 21:26, 27).”[7] Furthermore, many of the OT heroes such as Abraham, Isaac, Israel, Moses, and David were called slaves of God (Exod. 32:13, Deut 34:5, 2 Sam 7:5, 2 Kings 21:10).[8]

            In Greco-Roman times, “Domestics were considered part of the family, and some were greatly loved by their masters.”[9] Household slaves were the best treated, some even becoming confidants of their masters and having their own businesses to both their own and their master’s benefit. “There was no strong opposition to slavery from Jesus or the apostles, but an admonition that slaves and servants should serve their masters faithfully and that masters should treat their slaves humanely and fairly (Eph 6:9; Col 4:1; 1 Tm 6:2; Phlm 16).”[10] The NT also gives tremendous dignity to the treatment of slaves (for example in the letter of Philemon), and though there is no direct call for the abolition of slavery—it does lay the ground work for those movements later on. However, that is not the focus of this study, but something I’d encourage you to look into more for yourself. For our purposes, just understand that this was the accepted norm which people in that time existed within.

Slaves to Sin:

“In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.” (Galatians 4:3)

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free.” (John 8:34-36)

            We all were once slaves to the sin which mastered us. 2 Peter 2:19b says, For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.” Prior to being saved this was our state, however God through Christ set us free. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:2) Also Galatians 5:1. For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Cool—we’re set free FROM sin—but what are we set free TO? Simple. We’re free to sell ourselves back into slavery!

Slaves of God in Christ to Righteousness:

            Paul and the other apostles often identified themselves as a slave in their letters, “Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God…” (Romans 1:1) We see this common introduction as slaves of Christ in James 1:1, Titus 1:1, Phil 1:1, 2 Peter 2:1, Jude 1:1, Rev 1:1. So there was clearly this idea of being a slave in the heads of the apostles. 1 Peter 2:16 tells us, “Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as slaves of God. Paul encourages us,

Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.  I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” (Romans 6:16-19)

            And again, But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.” (Romans 6:22) So, carrying on the definition of what a slave is, this means that we are “unfree”, bound to righteousness, devoted to another’s will at the disregard of our own interests and the property of our Master. We’re totally dependent on our Lord and have properly given up our freedom or autonomy.

Freedom in Christ:

            But wait a minute! Didn’t Jesus say he doesn’t call us slaves but friends (John 15:15)? And isn’t salvation about a personal relationship with Jesus? Well, yes—but Satan has a ‘personal’ relationship with Jesus and it’s not a very good one. So we must define what exactly is meant by these concepts. These days we don’t hear much slave language spoken of in Christianity. When was the last time you heard a Gospel call to become a slave to Christ? It’s all about freedom in Christ baby! Christ wants you to fulfill your dreams, ambitions, and hopes—claim that blessing! Really?

            It’s interesting, because right after that line in John 15, after Jesus calls us friends, he follows it by commanding us what to do. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.” (John 15:17) He continues this thought, explaining that the slave is not greater than His master (v. 20), so clearly, though he’s called us friends, he still has this concept of slavery in mind. Perhaps the disconnect we have in our minds is as a result of how we think of slavery in our modern minds, however, slaves in the ancient world who had a good master could become some of the most trusted confidants, friends, managers of estates (think of Joseph in Egypt) and even adopted as family of their master. We have an amazingly loving and good Master! The concept of slavery is only repulsive if we think that our Master does not have our best interest.

            This concept of slavery to Christ is essential to understanding the relationship we have with Him. Freemen have the right to their own names, but slaves were properties of their masters and bore the name of their master. We too bear the name of our Master being called Christians. That says a lot about what should define us, and for Whom we live. Sometimes we ‘domesticate’ our concept of God to one who is subservient to us, who fulfills our desires, hopes and dreams. However, if we are owned by God, it changes everything. No longer do we properly possess anything, but all that we own—we are stewards of—everything including our time, money, relationships, even our passions and life.

A servant receives wages, a slave does what is expected:

            God bought you with a high price. So you must honour God with your body. This is Paul’s basic argument in 1 Corinthians 6:20. You were bought with the highest of prices—God’s own Son—through horrific suffering of death in every aspect; physical, emotional, spiritual. The cross shows us our true identity and self worth based in Christ. We are not our own, and as a result don’t own anything. Stewardship makes no sense apart from understanding you are a slave to Christ. A slave doesn’t own anything in His master’s house but rather becomes a steward of the things that ultimately belong to his master. However, there’s another part of this—servants are paid, slaves are not. They’re expected to serve.

            Without this understanding, perhaps a lot of Jesus’ parables won’t make sense—as most Bibles translate “servant” when we should be reading “slave”. For example, the parable about forgiveness in the story of the wicked slave (δοῦλος) who was forgiven his large debt but imprisoned his fellow slave for a smaller debt in Matthew 18:23-35. How about the well known parable of the talents (also δοῦλος) in Matthew 24:45-51:

“A faithful, sensible [slave] is one to whom the master can give the responsibility of managing his other household [slaves] and feeding them. If the master returns and finds that the [slave] has done a good job, there will be a reward. I tell you the truth, the master will put that [slave] in charge of all he owns. But what if the [slave] is evil and thinks, ‘My master won’t be back for a while,’ and he begins beating the other [slaves], partying, and getting drunk? The master will return unannounced and unexpected, and he will cut the [slave] to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The same parable also found in Luke 12:41-48. Or, again in Luke 17:7-10 (also δοῦλος):

“Will any one of you who has a [slave] ploughing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve [literally “kicking up dust” because he’s on the move] me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy [slaves]; we have only done what was our duty.’”

            Service to Christ is not just expected, it’s mandatory. The point of the parable is why should you expect to be commended for doing just what was expected? Being a slave to Christ is an attitude and lifestyle of total faithfulness and humility. We don’t get this with the modern “Jesus is my homeboy” approach to evangelism and Christianity—but perhaps that’s why we struggle so much with apathy and lack of commitment in churches. Furthermore, understanding this makes the fact that we do actually receive some reward for our obedience even weightier! For God is not obliged to show us such grace. He is a good Master.

An Old Testament passage with New Testament implications:

            Let’s take a look at an Old Testament tradition to gain some insight and see how this tradition is relevant today in our Christian walk. In Exodus 21:1-6, God gives certain commands about slaves:

“Now these are the rules that you shall set before them. When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.”

            As it says, his master would pierce the flesh of his earlobe with an awl against the wood door of the house. That’s a very clear statement that you’re going nowhere—that you’re permanently fixed to this house and this master. It became traditional to put in a gold earring after the awl was removed as a reminder and symbol that that slave could never go free again. He could never be sold, either. He became more than just a slave; he became a servant who was permanently attached—bonded—to his master, a bondservant.


            There was a reason why there was this tradition of boring the ear – Hebrews viewed the ear not only as the means of hearing but also symbolically linked the ear to obedience. The slave had an open ear open to the master’s call. He was obedient.

            We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. (Romans 6:6)

“Well then, since God’s grace has set us free from the law, does that mean we can go on sinning? Of course not! Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living. Thank God! Once you were slaves of sin, but now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you. Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living.” (Romans 6:15-18)


            Becoming a bondservant was a covenant relationship between master and slave. According to scripture, this commitment was to be made publicly. The elders would be witnesses to the covenant made between the servant and his master. This is similar also to our profession of faith through baptism which is a public demonstration of the commitment and covenant we have entered into.

            God makes covenants and He knows He’ll always uphold His end of the deal. The Hebrew word for covenant בְּרִית – “berith” occurs 284 times in the Old Testament alone! It occurs as διαθήκη – “diathēkē” in the New Testament at least 33 times. There is another Greek word συνθήκη – “syntheke” which could have been used which means a mutual agreement between two equals. However this is never used in the NT, because the agreement between man and God is not between equals. Also, it’s not even necessarily mutual! We break the agreement either by failing to honour our side of it or even rejecting and ignoring it altogether!

            A covenant however could be done between unequal parties – like a conquering king and his defeated enemy and it could either be conditional or unconditional. The latter didn’t depend on the mutual upholding of the covenant—just that the person swearing the covenant swore to uphold their end regardless. Covenants in general, were made along with some sort of sign to secure the deal (e.g. rainbow, walking through divided sacrifices, etc.) and for the believer this sign is baptism. In the context of this OT example, the covenant between slave and master was signalled by the boring of the ear.

The Master who became a Slave:

            Probably the most incredible thing of all is that our Master who demands obedience and submission from His slaves, became a slave Himself! So our call to slavery actually becomes a response to what He has actually already modeled for us. This is most clearly stated in Philippians 2:5-7: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, 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 [slave] (δολος), being made in human likeness.” Jesus, the incarnate Son of God and eternal Logos became a slave!!

            While the disciples were squabbling about who would be the greatest in the Kingdom, Jesus’ response is recorded in 2 places: Jesus picks up a towel and bowl of water and begins washing the disciples’ feet—a job that was usually for the lowest slaves to do. Jesus was showing them by example what it was to be a slave of God and each other. And he commanded them, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) In another account of this he said, “But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant [διάκονος], and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave [δολος]. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26-28)

How did he become a slave?

            Here’s what blew my mind… We saw in Exodus that the flesh of the person’s ear would be nailed to the wood of the door as a sign of the covenant. With Jesus, likewise at Calvary, His flesh was nailed to the wood of the Cross. In doing so, from the incarnation to His servant life until ultimately His death on the Cross he shows how he willingly gave up His freedom, becoming a slave—not to pay any debt of his own—but to pay our own debt which we could not afford. This is why Paul can tell us in Philippians 2:5-11:

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a slave [δολος], being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Slavery and Relationship:

            We sometimes think that love sets us free—but that is true in one sense. But the freedoms of love only come if you surrender all kinds of your individual freedom. For example, you are accountable to your wife of where you are, where you go, etc. When you’re in a relationship, your right to make even small independent unilateral decisions is over, because the more intimate the love relationship, the less independent you can be! By its very nature, a relationship is inter-dependent and therefore no longer independent.

            In a love relationship, both have to surrender their independence—together—also known as mutual submission. If each says to the other that I will sacrifice my needs for you, then it’s heaven—that’s a healthy relationship. But if one doesn’t, then it becomes abuse and exploitation, because one is surrendered and the other is just seeking his/her own selfish will and imposing it on the other. In human, flawed relationships, there is legitimate fear of being exploited or abused. There is fear of being vulnerable, fear of total surrender to the other. However, God is the perfect lover of our souls, and perfect love casts out all fear. (1 John 4:18) Therefore, this should lead us into a boldness to sacrificial love for Christ—the likes of which the world cannot comprehend. We have been crucified with Christ and are to count all things loss (Gal 2:20 & Phil 3:8). So what does this look like?

“When James Calvert went out to cannibal Fiji with the message of the Gospel, the captain of the ship in which he traveled sought to dissuade him. “You will risk your life and all those with you if you go among such savages,” he said. Calvert’s magnificent reply was, “We died before we came here.” And yet he would have been the last to talk about a sacrifice; it was not a life of sacrifice, but of real pleasure.”[11]

Joyously sell yourself into slavery:

            All this talk of becoming a slave is often repulsive, especially for us in the west where freedom and autonomy is so highly regarded. We have in mind the tyrannical rulings of people such as Stalin-Communist Russia, North Korea and the Nazis Germany. This apprehension would be right if we were surrendering to human masters. However our Master is perfect and loving. And becoming a slave is actually liberating as He takes good care of us. Providing for us what we need in due season. This is true freedom in Christ.

            Understanding this concept of slavery should radically change the way we conceive of our relationship to God, and how we serve Him. It changes even how we should see our outlook on evangelism and taking the Gospel to all people—which is our primary work as slaves of God. I want to share briefly with you two stories. The first one is of a man named Lough Fook:

“Lough Fook, a Chinese Christian, moved with compassion for the coolies in the South African mines, sold himself for a term of five years as a coolie slave, and was transported to Demerara, to carry the Gospel to his countrymen working there. He toiled in the mines with them and preached Jesus while he toiled, till he had scores of whom he could speak as Paul of Onesimus, “whom I have begotten in my bonds.”

Lough Fook died; but not until he had won to the Saviour nearly 200 disciples who joined the Christian church. Where in the centuries has that lowliest feature in the condescension of the Man of Sorrows—“He took upon Him the form of a slave”—been so literally reproduced as here?”[12]

The second is the testimony of that great missionary David Livingstone who had sacrificed so much to bring the Gospel to Africa. He said:

“People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. Can that be called a sacrifice which is simply paid back as a small part of the great debt owing to our God, which we can never repay? Is that a sacrifice which brings its own reward of healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter?

“Away with such a word, such a view, and such a thought! It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering or danger now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause and cause the spirit to waver and sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall hereafter be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice. Of this we ought not to talk when we remember the great sacrifice which He made who left His Father’s throne on high to give Himself for us.”[13]

            Perhaps the thing holding us back from bold, fearless outreach and self sacrificial living is the delusion we have that we are still our own? What life is there to lose if our life is with Christ? What loss is there to incur if we’ve already counted it all as dung? What sting does the grave have over those who have died already to self? It’s all gain… all of it!


            The only way to get the freedoms of love is to surrender our autonomous freedom which is really just an illusion. In reality, we are slaves whether we like it or not—either to sin or to Christ. No slave can serve two masters, he’ll hate one and love the other (Matt 6:24, Luke 16:13). If you’re not a slave to Christ, guess who’s your master and guess Who you hate? Jesus—in pursuit of a relationship with us and to reconcile us to relationship with God—surrendered His freedom. His open invitation of salvation is the offer for us to reciprocate. He gave up the riches of Heaven, laying aside His glory to become a δολος. He awed angels at the Cross—seeing the object of their worship for countless centuries being crucified by the hands he had created. And, in dying breath speaking words of grace, “Father forgive them” he triumphantly declared “It is finished!”

            We will undoubtedly all fail in our service to our Master. However, all our debt owed had been already paid. We who were once slaves to sin can now go free. But free from and to what? Free from sin and guilt to love God! Free from the chains of the fleeting pleasures and trappings of this world to sell it all for true treasure where moth and rust does not corrupt. In light of such sacrifice, our own surrender as slaves should seem only natural. Our attitude should be as Christ’s, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2) Likewise we fix our eyes on the things unseen, and run with perseverance for the JOY set before us in Christ Jesus which these light and momentary sufferings cannot compare. It is a response which feels even too small when we begin to understand the depth of riches of knowing Him. He is our Master and our reward. What I’m after and what I hope I’ve communicated is a call, not to legalistic slavery to a law of moral behaviour, but the freedom to dutiful delight. We’re slaves to Him, but not just that—also adopted as sons and daughters, and called friends of our beloved Master.

Grace and peace to you,
…a fellow slave of Christ Jesus.


[1] Ceslas Spicq and James D. Ernest, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 380.

[2] Mangum, Douglas, Derek R. Brown, Rachel Klippenstein, and Rebekah Hurst, eds. “δοῦλος” in Lexham Theological Wordbook. Lexham Bible Reference Series. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014.

[3] Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 261.

[4] James A. Brooks, “Slave, Servant,” ed. Chad Brand et al., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 1511.

[5] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1971.

[6] Walter A. Elwell and Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996).

[7] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1972.

[8] James A. Brooks, “Slave, Servant,” ed. Chad Brand et al., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 1511.

[9] Ibid., 1511.

[10] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1972.

[11] Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times (Garland, TX: Bible Communications, Inc., 1996), 1177.

[12] Ibid., 1175–1176.

[13] Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times (Garland, TX: Bible Communications, Inc., 1996), 1178.


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