What is a bondservant? How are bondservants viewed in the Bible?
The term "bondservant" in the New Testament (bond-servant or slave in some translations) is a translation of the Greek word doulos. Unlike perceptions of modern slavery, bondservant or doulos is a relatively broad term with a wider range of usage. In the time of the New Testament a bondservant could refer at times to someone who voluntarily served others. In most cases, however, the term referred to a person in a permanent role of service. A bondservant was considered the property of a Roman citizen, holding no right to leave his place of service.
Some historians estimate that in the first century as many as one-third of the Roman population lived as bondservants. The New Testament also notes that Jews owned bondservants or slaves. Because bondservants existed as a known role in culture, Jesus included them as characters in His own parables (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 12:41-48). In contrast with the cultural view, Jesus taught that the greatest was the "servant (doulos) of all" (Mark 9:35).
In many New Testament books, the word bondservant was used in reference to a person's commitment to Jesus. Most of Paul's letters begin by referring to himself as a servant of Christ Jesus. James and Jude, half-brothers of Jesus, both refer to themselves as Christ's bondservants. The apostle Peter called himself a "servant and apostle" (2 Peter 1:1).
The importance of these New Testament authors referring to themselves as bondservants should not be overlooked. Despite proclaiming a message of freedom from sin in Jesus Christ, these writers were dedicated to Jesus as their one master. Further, their service to the Lord was not one they could consider leaving. Just as a bondservant was more than an employee who could leave for another job, these Christians were servants who could never leave their master for another.
This belief and understanding of the Christian as a bondservant played an enormous role as early Christians often faced persecution. Peter, Paul, and James are traditionally recorded as dying for their allegiance to Jesus.
Does this mean the Bible condoned or promoted slavery? Not necessarily. First, it is clear that the role of a bondservant was broader than views of modern slavery, which explains why some New Testament writing gave instructions for "how" to treat bondservants instead of only commanding their freedom.
In addition, Paul's most personal letter, the letter to Philemon, offers the most direct discussion of slavery in the New Testament. When the runaway slave Onesimus became a Christian, Paul sent this letter with him to return to his master. Paul wrote, "For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord" (Philemon 1:15-16). He clearly noted that the bondservant and his owner were brothers and of equal status before God. Further, Paul told Philemon to "receive him as you would receive me" (Philemon 1:17). How would Philemon be expected to receive Paul? As a fellow believer, treated with respect. Paul indirectly suggests giving Onesimus his freedom (verse 18). Tradition records that Onesimus later became a church leader.
The bondservant was a common role in the New Testament period that ranged from slave to bonded laborer. Commands were given to Christians regarding proper treatment, with freedom recommended whenever possible (1 Corinthians 7:21). Most importantly, the image of the bondservant became one of great importance for Christians, who are called to live as bondservants of Christ Jesus.
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