I would assume all of us have a visceral response of repugnancy to the word slave. What likely comes to mind are black Africans in the cramped holds of ships, markets dealing in human flesh, and the inexorable suffering of human beings at the hands of their owners. So it is understandable that to our modern minds, thoughts of slavery are exclusively negative.
Yet, the Scriptures make use of the term with regard to our relationship with God. Paul says we are to be his slaves (Romans 6:22). He also says we are to be slaves to righteousness. (Romans 6::18) So with such a negative conception of slavery in our modern minds, how are we to understand these Scriptures?
First of all, we must remember that slavery was practiced in the 1st Century. It was not always as brutal as the American slave trade, but make no mistake, an owner’s authority was absolute and slaves could be punished to the point of death if deemed necessary. So Paul is writing to people who knew about slavery, and many believers were either slaves themselves or owners of slaves. And this is why I believe he chose the word over others, such as servant. Everyone knew that the slave owner’s authority was total.
Paul views one’s relationship with Christ as being similar to that of an owner and a slave. Elsewhere he notes that, “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.” (I Corinthians 6:9b-10) Jesus paid our debt of sin on the Cross; thus, when we willingly acknowledge this and submit our lives to him, we become his slave. He has absolute authority over our lives because, not only is he our Savior, but he is our Lord as well. He tells us what to do through the Scriptures and through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. What is required of us is simple: obedience. That’s what it means to be a slave.
I can almost feel some of you cringing right now. The idea of being a slave is appalling to some. We, particularly many Americans, don’t like being told what to do. Often, we have a dim view of authority because of our own personal experiences with other human beings in charge over us who have abused that authority, such as teachers, pastors, bosses, or parents. So we resist authority. This is likely why so many pastors teach about God’s love, Jesus as our friend, and the freedom we have in Christ rather than on his authority over our lives. These are just far more appealing. I can do what I want, but God still loves me.
It does sound good, except when you realize that giving complete freedom to people to do what they want is similar to parents giving complete freedom to their children to do what they want. People, like children, don’t always know what is in their best interests. The love of a parent would be called into question if he allowed his child to play in a busy street just because that is what the child wanted to do. No, it is universally recognized that a competent parent always knows what is in the best interest of a child.
Similarly, nations often struggle to govern themselves. I have traveled to many countries where they operate as a democracy, but corruption of their governments only serves to hold the people in bondage through poverty, oppression, and injustice. I have long believed that what they need rather than democracy are benevolent dictators, ones that can be trusted to rule in the best interests of the people. Imagine a president or a prime minister whose only desire was to serve his or her people for their good. Of course, this is impossible in a fallen world and throughout history we have witnessed the evils dictators have imposed on their people. But imagine you had the perfect dictator over you in whom you could trust completely to care and provide for you in a way that was healthy and nurturing. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
This is exactly who we get with the Lord—a perfect dictator/slave owner. He is faithful to us, wants the absolute best for us, loves us more deeply than we love ourselves, and knows exactly what we need, not just for humans in general, but each one of us specifically.
So when we think about slavery and bondage to Christ, the thing that must be uppermost in our minds and hearts is that he knows what is best for us because, not only does he love us, but he created us. Unlike a human owner or authority, he will never do us wrong or have evil intent regarding us. He is the perfect owner of our lives. However, for this to work out best for us, we must be submissive and obedient.
Jesus spoke of counting the cost of following him. Submission and obedience are his price. But what we get in return is invaluable. They are love, hope, purpose, and true life. While it is counter-intuitive, to be a slave to Christ is to, at last, gain our freedom.
© Jim Musser 2020 All Scripture references are from the New International Version, 2011.