ΔΟΥΛΟΣ — “slave”
The first two words of Romans are: ΠΑΥΛΟΣ ΔΟΥΛΟΣ—”Paul slave”.
Today, we often consider Romans to be the Magna Carta of the Christian faith because it is the closest we get to a system of theology from a New Testament work. If we are going to take this seriously, then let’s seriously consider exactly what Paul is saying about himself.
Paul could have presented himself in many different ways. See, for example, the beginning of Galatians. However, in introducing himself to a group he does not know (he has never been to Rome), he chooses to first present himself as a slave.
Now, some might be taken aback by my use of the word “slave.” Many translations will have “servant” or “bondservant.” I really believe that the primary motivation for using these glosses is to make Paul’s description of himself appear less harsh. Elsewhere in the New Testament, most translations have no problem using “slave” for δοῦλος. We are uncomfortable with referring to the principal author of the New Testament as a “slave.”
Nevermind what we’re comfortable with: Paul calls himself, first and foremost, a slave.
What does this mean? Paul is enslaved to Christ? How does this work?
For Paul, humans exist in a state of servitude. We are servile beings. Our masters come in two major flavors:
- Passions and Desires
Since the Fall (Genesis 3), humans have existed in a state of service to sin. If we read ahead in Romans, Paul clearly addresses this with the latter half of Romans 1. Here Paul goes on to describe just how awful humanity, left to its own devices, really is. We have sinful desires, and God, as punishment for these desires, gives us up to them.
The solution, however, is in changing masters. Rather than serving sin, Paul serves God. When we talk about how we’re “bought with a price” it is the language of slavery and ransom that we are employing. We are hostages to sin, but Christ’s blood on the cross ransoms us. We are slaves to death, but Christ’s blood on the cross purchases us.
In throwing off this old master of death, we take on a new master, Christ, who represents life.
It is difficult for most of us to think in terms of slavery. As an American there is an emotional scar that goes along with the notion of slavery. It is/was a sordid, dirty business that we’d love to erase from our memories. Unfortunately, the enslavement of Africans has left a wound on this country that is still in the process of healing. Occasionally, the scab is ripped open and fresh blood is spilled. Slavery is an awful thing. Slavery is a damaging thing. Slavery is ugly.
Why would we want to call ourselves slaves? Why would we want to associate ourselves with such filth?
Slavery to Christ is wholly good and rewarding. The skeptic might tell me that freedom is good and rewarding. But, when we speak of freedom, what are we really speaking of? What is freedom? The ability to do what we want when we want? Even this is a kind of slavery—we are enslaved to our passions, to our desires, to our wants.
When we become slaves of Christ, our goal is to eschew enslavement to desire. Rather than our desires being the basis for our actions, the will of God is now thrown into the equation.
Why is this any better than being enslaved to our passions?
Ultimately, our passions are selfish. Selfishness is not the will of God. God does not want us to run around thinking about only ourselves. Rather, God would like us to take the example of Christ and put the welfare of others before our own. For Jesus, even self-preservation took a backseat to his love for others.
If you are given the opportunity to serve a wicked self-seeking master or a good master who considers the welfare of others before himself, which would you choose? The answer is a no-brainer. The self-seeker would be a tyrannical master.
For Paul, this notion of enslavement to the will of God is so important that he opens his letter to the Romans with it. When the Romans think “Paul”, Paul wants them to think “slave.”
What difference would it make in your own life if you thought of yourself primarily as a slave of God? What difference would it make if your first thought was not about your self but about God?