Recovering the Word “Slave” as Scripture Presents It.

Most of you know that I write a weekly “Question and Answer” Column for Our Sunday Visitor. An interesting question came in on the question of some older Catholic prayers and Bible translations that uses the term “slave” or “slavery” to reference our relationship to God. While such terminology makes must modern people wince, it is an important biblical concept that we should not wholly lose by simply rejecting it or by covering it up with euphemistic terms such as “servant” or “handmaid.” I reproduce here what I wrote for the column.


I was recently reading a prayer of consecration wherein we were asking the Lord and our Lady to makes us slaves to the will of God. How is this not outrageous and horrifying given the history of slavery in our culture? Name withheld. 


Your concern is understandable. The slavery of the colonial period was detestable for many reasons. In biblical times, slavery resulted largely from three causes: one owed large debts, one had committed a range of serious crimes but not capitol, or one was a solider in a losing army. Hence slavery replaced prison or death. But, the slavery of the colonial period (16th – 19th Centuries) exploited peoples who committed no crimes, engaged in no war and owed no debt. It was unjust and horrible. The slavery of biblical times was not without serious problems, hence the biblical texts admonish both slaves and slave masters to observe certain limits (eg. Eph 6:5). There is no blanket-approval of slavery as critics allege. 

So, prayers that speak of us as slaves” to God or, subordinately, to the Virgin Mother, need to understood in the biblical tradition from which they are drawn. 

Lets look at some texts wherein the term “slave” is applied to disciples. Often today, the Greek word doulos” (slave) is translated as servant.” But this is a euphemism since a servant” is paid and free to leave employment. Slaves do not have these options. Hence our modern translations hide a more provocative image than most of us know. Consider some of the following examples: 

        • In the Letter to the Philippians we read: Jesus Christ, though existing as God, did not consider equality with God something to which he should cling. Rather, he emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, and being made in human likeness… (Phil 2:7) Notice then, while some translations say he became a servant” the Greek word is δοῦλος (doulous) which translates slave.” What this means is that Jesus became wholly obedient to death obeying his Father completely, and though, despising the shame of the Cross, he went there because his Father willed it. He did not negotiate a better deal or, like a servant, resign. As a slave” he obeyed his Father absolutely. 
        • When Mary said, Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord,” as most modern translations render it, there is hidden from us what she more literally said, Behold, I am the slave-girl (δούλη = doule = slave girl) of the Lord. Let it be done to me as you have said.” Perhaps we wince at this sort of talk, but that is most literally what it says. 
        • In Romans 6, St Paul teaches that, although we like to think we are big-shots,” we are actually just little specks of dust in vast universe. We are going to be slaves to someone: either the devil, the world, the flesh, or God. We might as well be slaves to God who loves us. St. Paul writes: : Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness .… For when you were slaves to sin, you were free of obligation to righteousness. …But the outcome of those things is death. But now that you have become slaves to God, the fruit you reap leads to holiness, and eternal life… (Romans 6:20-23). Herein St Paul presents the paradox, namely that there is no place safer and freer than inside the will of God and in a “slavish” but loving and absolute obedience to his commands. Slavery to God paradoxically provides the greatest freedom we can ever hope to experience. 
        • Hence, as our Lord teaches, Amen, amen, I say to you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin…. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (Jn 8:34-36). So, “bondage” and obedience to the truth our Lord teaches is the paradoxical and surest way out of destructive slavery. The horrific slavery of the devil and his world are the surest way to the glorious freedom of the children of God. 

In the end, we do best to live in a biblical world and understand its terms, not demand that it conform to our terminology. While words in our times may provoke understandable feelings, we are best served by overcoming this and learning what our Lord teaches in a counter and cross cultural way. “Slavery” in God’s commands is the surest path to true freedom.