In reading Titus, Paul’s opening statement caught my attention. In the New American Standard version of Titus 1:1, Paul calls himself a bond-servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ. The Amplified Bible also shows Paul calling himself a bondservant of God. All other translations of the Bible show that Paul called himself a slave or servant of God. Why are there differences in the translations between the first two and all the others? Why did Paul call himself a servant/slave of God? What did it mean in Bible times to be a servant or slave of someone else? How does this relate to anything having to do with us in the 21st century?
In researching, I have come across a theory as to why the New American Standard and Amplified Bibles read “bond-servant” and all others read servant or slave. It is a unique theory. The thought is that the term slave or servant has a negative connotation since different people groups around the world in the 17th-19th centuries enslaved people based on their race. The editors of these two translations were trying to be more politically correct. In addition, they could not imagine why Paul would call himself a slave; the word has such negative connotations. I must admit, if this was the reasoning of the editors of the NASB and AMP versions of the Bible, I can understand their desire to use a word without negative connotations. However, I must note that the Greek word, doulos, that is translated as bondservant here and in Romans and Philippians is the same word translated as slave and servant elsewhere in the New Testament. So, it seems that the word servant or slave is the more correct word to use in Paul’s introductions. Doulos, according to Greek Lexicon, means one who is in a servile position.
Another consideration we must understand is the feeling toward slaves in the biblical times. In the Old Testament, slaves (in Hebrew it is ebed) were people from conquered nations or people who could not pay their debt and sold themselves into slavery/servanthood to pay the debt. If the person was of Hebrew descent, his or her length of servility lasted only until the jubilee year, year 7, at which point all Jewish slaves were given their freedom, their property, and their possessions again. (See Exodus 21 and Leviticus 25:39-43.) You will also notice that the Hebrew slave was not to be treated like a slave from another nation, but as a hired man. He was to be given rights and the master was to treat him with respect. This was not the case for non-Jews. In the New Testament, to be a servant or slave was looked down upon and neither the Romans nor Greeks would ever call themselves a servant or slave or allow themselves to be taken as one. Here we must remember that Paul was a Roman citizen as well as a Hebrew. He was raised in the Greek city of Tarsus and, at the time of his ministry, was a Christian. Each of these distinctions brings its own element to Paul calling himself a servant of God.
Paul’s calling himself a servant of God brought to realization to the readers and hearers of his letters an awareness of how Paul looked at himself in comparison to God. As a man who was born into the Hebrew nation, Paul recognized Yahweh God as greater than himself. As a Levitical priest, trained in the Jewish Law and Prophets, he recognized his “called-out-ness” by God to lead His chosen people. As a man raised in the Jewish Diaspora of Tarsus, a Greek port city, Paul acknowledged the necessity to retain his identity as a Jew. As a Christian called by Jesus Christ through his Damascus road experience (Acts 9:3-18), Paul acknowledged his own smallness in comparison to Jesus’ greatness. Paul recognized his unworthiness as a persecutor of Christians to be saved from his sinful life and called to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. These were the realities Paul faced and acknowledged to be true about himself. They were what brought him to the realization that he was worthy of nothing more than to be a servant of the true God who actually gave him freedom. This reality confronts many of us during our lifetimes and how we react to this reality shows who and whose we are. Paul’s servanthood encompassed his teachings about Jesus and his life in total – actions, attitudes, and speech. His was a conscious choice to recognize his inferiority compared to God and Jesus and to act upon his acknowledgement of their supremacy. Paul chose to be a servant of God. He chose not to be a servant of sin and Satan, but to turn around and give up his life to go where God led him, speak what the Spirit brought to his mouth, endure trials and persecutions, and live with nothing to call his own. Paul chose complete submission to the will of God for his life in the world where God led him.
That brings us to the question of what a bondservant is. A bondservant according to the dictionary is someone who serves without wages. That sounds like abject poverty and leaving oneself open to the possibility of abuse. The answer to that statement is that a bondservant can and often was abused. We must understand the distinction between a bondservant and a servant. A bondservant was unlike a slave who was worked doggedly night and day and had no rights. According to the Bible encyclopedia at http://bibleencyclopedia.com/slave.htm, Hebrew slaves had rights like freedom, justice, elevation, and good treatment. To understand this better, we can read Paul’s writings to slave masters about their responsibilities to slaves and servants and to servants and slaves as to their responsibilities to the master. In Ephesians 6:5-9, Paul wrote,
Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free. And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him. [NASB]
The word “slave” here is the word doulos. Slaves have the responsibility to be obedient with sincerity. Act to please Christ and not the people who watch, for by acting to please Christ, they show the attitude and heart of Christ in their service. Not only will the slave show Christ to his or her master, but he or she will receive a reward in heaven. Masters are also to enact their rights as master of slaves/servants just as the servant/slave is told. Both the master and the servant will be rewarded in heaven. Paul went even further in Galatians 3:28 when he stated, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In relation to each other, Jesus broke down the distinctions humans put in place. In essence, no one is better than anyone else is because we are all one, the same, in our acceptance and following of Jesus Christ.
This, then, makes Paul’s opening statement in his letters even more remarkable (also Peter, James, Timothy, and Jude). For a man who taught that all are one in Christ, he purposely called himself and put himself in the position as a servant of God. This is what the Amplified and New American Standard Bibles translated doulos in these instances as bondservant. Paul understood that in relation to other humans, we are all the same when we become believers in Jesus Christ. We serve others in love (John 13:34-35). Additionally and more importantly, Paul recognized his relationship to God as being unworthy of God’s love, salvation, and being counted as one of Jesus’ apostles. In recognition of his relationship with God, Paul described his relationship as being a bondservant; he intentionally, voluntarily, and with all understanding made himself a servant of God for life and all eternity. His response to what God the Father and Jesus Christ did for him and meant to him was to bow in humility and life to them. He made himself a bondservant. It was of Paul’s choosing to give up his life – actions, words, and attitude. God was his master and he recognized this and made it known publicly.
We now come full circle with our final question: How does this relate to anything having to do with us in the 21st century? First, let us remember who God is. God is the creator of the entire universe, including humankind. Our relationship to Him from the beginning is Creator to created. As the Provider of all needs, our relationship to God should still recognize our dependence on Him and our smallness and unworthiness to be taken care of. As the One who loved us so much He could not stand by and see us fall permanently to our own failures (sin), God provided the only means of salvation to cleanse us entirely and eternally, a Savior through His Son, Jesus the Christ. Our relationship to Him acknowledges our unworthiness and thankfulness. Even 2000 years after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus to heaven, God continues to offer this means of salvation. Our relationship to Him is still unworthiness and gratefulness. Hence, the essence of being bondservant is as relevant now as it was when Paul called himself a servant of God in the first century AD. Consider this, too, God called Abraham His servant in Genesis 26:24.
Servanthood is relevant even today in the 21st century. God is still real. Jesus is still relevant and alive. A relationship with Him is still available. Our response to His love and our unworthiness still provokes a response of absolute devotion and humility in the face of who God is and what He has done for us. It all comes down to us: will we accept God’s love gift of salvation through His Son, Jesus? When we do, not only do we receive forgiveness and eternal life with the triune God, we also recognize His supremacy and out unworthiness. We are returned to a right relationship to God and humankind. We are bondservants to God and servants with other believers in this world living out Jesus’ attitude, words, and actions of love. We are no longer servants of sin and Satan. What prevents you from accepting God’s gift of forgiveness and salvation for eternal life with Him?