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Paul writes the following in his first letter to the Corinthian church:

Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. -1 Corinthians 7:21-23

As a modern American, when I read "slavery", the following sorts of things scroll through my head:

  • The movie Amazing Grace, with all its graphic descriptions of Africans being shackled and crammed into tiny ships where they waded in puke and dysentery for weeks prior to having rope shoved up their rectum so they could bring more profit when they were sold at the auction

  • Israelites conquering their enemies and turning them into slaves

  • Stuff I've heard about how "back in Bible times" slavery was more like indentured servitude... poor people would make an agreement with a land-owner to work for them for some period of time, and received food and shelter in return.

  • Commentaries I've read that apply New Testament passages about slavery to modern employment arrangements

I'm not looking for an overview of all of the different types of "slavery" throughout history, but needless to say, there's a lot swimming around in my head on this topic. My question here is pretty simple: what was Paul referring to in 1 Corinthians 7:21-23 when he spoke of "slaves"? A good answer will include some historical context, some clues from the literary context, and perhaps some support from other relevant places in the New Testament (esp. Paul's writings.)


And, if you're itching to take it a step further, does Paul's situation have any direct, modern, Western equivalent? (I.e. would Paul urge the Engineers at Intel to quit their jobs and "free" themselves from their "slavery"?)

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There is an entire article on Wikipedia which answers this question as Noah pointed out almost immediately. A Google search for "slavery in ancient Rome" turns up numerous hits. –  Daи Sep 5 '13 at 21:57
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The Greek word δοῦλος (doulos) refers to a slave (also called a 'bondservant') in the ancient Roman socioeconomic context. Ancient roman slavery was nothing like American/Caribbean slavery (no particular race was being oppressed). In fact, Paul condemns those who sell others into slavery in 1 Timothy 1:10. More information can be found on the Wikipedia article quoted above. –  Daи Sep 5 '13 at 21:58
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VTC as this is a general reference question. –  Daи Sep 5 '13 at 22:03

1 Answer 1

Since "doulos" can mean either slave or servant it makes better sense for English translations to continue the long tradition (preceding Wycliffe and ending with the advent of the New World Translation) of using the word servant: as you noted, to us the word slave connotes abject bondage thanks to the notoriety of American slavery, and you can see from the context in references like these (containing "doulos") that servitude by force is not always indicated:

2 Corinthians 4:5 For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants [doulos] for Jesus’ sake.

Romans 6:16 Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants [doulos] ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?

Luke 19:13 And he called his ten servants [doulos], and delivered them ten pounds, and said unto them, Occupy till I come.

The Apostle Paul ministered to the Corinthians as a servant but was never their 'slave' in any sense of the word. To "yield one's self to obey" describes the act of a willing agent and not of a 'slave' in abject bondage. And it is the rare group of 'slaves' whose master entrusts them with his investment funds. Clearly Jesus is talking about servants here, too.

And while it goes without saying that in every age and in every culture there are always widely varying degrees of control exercised by the managers of human resources (even as some bosses in America today dominate their workforce with intimidation and cruelty) it is still more sensible to allow the milder "servant" to express various shades of stringency as called for by the contexts in which it is found, rather than to allow the ugly and harsh "slave" to invariably conjure up images of whips and chains and thus skew the meaning of scripture on every occurrence.

So, what sort of "doulos" (servant) is Paul referring to in 1 Corinthians 7:21-23? All kinds of servants. Paul covers the whole spectrum by noting that at one end, there are those believers who must be content to remain bond-servants since that was their lot when God called them; while at the other end are those who have no compelling reason to become the servants of men and should therefore opt for complete freedom to serve Christ directly...ideally to be like Paul, a self-employed tentmaker.

Acts 18:3 And because he [Paul] was of the same craft, he abode with them, and wrought: for by their occupation they were tentmakers.

The best reason to read "doulos" as "servant" is to keep from perverting a fundamental Christian doctrine: Does Jesus impress believers into slavery? Are they compelled by fear of punishment? Or do believers serve out of love, as in "We love him, because he first loved us"? 1 John 4:19. Slaves labor against their own will and serve not by choice; but the ideal servant of Christ both serves and labors by love.

Galatians 5:13 ...by love serve [not 'enslave ourselves to'] one another.

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