A Call for Slavery (Colossians 3:22–4:1)

While some are repulsed by the command for a wife to submit to her husband, many ignore the command for slaves to obey their masters. They’d rather act like it’s not there, like dust quickly brushed under the rug as the guests approach. We wear the Bible’s slavery passages like a stain we got on our white shirt on the way to a job interview. We sit awkwardly trying to hide it.

The embarrassment goes as deep as our translations. It is as though a coverup is afoot made easy by a prior historical fumble. The Latin servus was used to translate the Greek doulos. The Latin then crossed over into the early English translations as “servant.”

Many modern English translations now used a mixture of slave, bondservant, and servant. When it comes to passages where cause for offense might be most intense, translators often waffle and default to servant or bondservant. Doulos, means slave. Every time. No exceptions. Murray J. Harris writes:

“In New Testament Greek there are at least six terms that are often translated or could be translated by the English word ‘servant.’ But only one New Testament word—doulos—has the distinctive meaning of ‘slave’, and this word occurs 124 times in the New Testament.”

The ESV translates this same word as “slave” in 3:11 and there is absolutely no reason to do otherwise in 3:22. At the close of chapter 3 Paul is speaking precisely to those just addressed as slaves and the free lords they serve.

The term slave should cause us to blush at our national heritage, but not at our Biblical heritage. Put shame where it belongs, on sinful men, not the Holy Word of God. Do not ever be embarrassed at the Scriptures. We shouldn’t blush to take any portion of God’s Word on our lips. If there is any right to embarrassment, the Word of God should blush to be on our lips. We are the stain. God’s Word is pure.

There is a radical difference between a slave and a servant. Most notably, servants are hired, whereas slaves are owned. Some argue for a translation of “servant” because ancient slavery was different from modern slavery and they fear an anachronistic reading of our ideas back into the text. Yes, it was different, but why is it any better to read our modern idea of servanthood back into the text? Modern slavery is a good deal closer to ancient slavery than modern servanthood is. Use the right words so that the right questions are asked. Making it easy doesn’t make it clear. Rather than making our translations soft, we need to do the hard work of teaching the sheep to be good readers of God’s good Word.

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