I have heard that phrases like slaves are translated into servant so as not to portray God as slave owners.


So even though the word doulos clearly means slaves, political correctness translates doulos as servant to keep the Bible politically correct.

The article "Servant or Slave?" from the Grace To You website argues the same thing.

The reason I ask is that Christians believe that the Bible is God's word. Yahweh himself often tells the prophets not to add or reduce words from the Bible.

If Bible translators see a word that clearly means slave, and they translate it into servant, because they think it's better, then following such translation means we are doing what the translators think is good rather than what God wants.

So, is this bowdlerization?

  • 4
    Translation involves careful and precise understanding of both the source language and the target language. Considering the massive differences between Israelite and Roman era slavery compared to the trans-Atlantic slavery most modern readers are more familiar with, it's natural for Bible translators to question whether "slave" in English is actually an accurate translation for anyone who isn't an expert in ancient history who is already familiar with those more ancient institutions of slavery. That isn't bowdlerisation, that's just the normal task of translation.
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 7, 2021 at 13:39
  • 1
    Indeed, considering the differences between Israelite slavery and Roman slavery, a translator might decide to use different words for the different contexts. The goal is always to communicate clearly and accurately. There's no conspiracy; none of the popular translations have political correctness as a goal. Some translations may end up seeming more PC than others (particularly in how some gender terms are translated) but that's a side effect of how they think an accurate translation should look.
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 7, 2021 at 13:47
  • 1
    Problem here is the fragmentation of culture, so for some people, when they hear "slave" they think of a plantation as the primary meaning as that's all they know of history. That's a minority of people, but if its the culture of the translator or their target audience, then they have to think carefully about what the word means to that minority. Similarly when some people read "sin passed to all men", they think it only applies to men. Again, that's a minority, but if it's the target of the translator or their own culture, then it creates legitimate problems that are not about being PC.
    – Robert
    Jul 7, 2021 at 19:44
  • @curiousdannii If you are to apply this translation decision consistently, why are you referring to the 'ancient institution of slavery'? By your own argument, these were servants, not slaves. Why are you talking about 'Roman slavery'? The Romans (by your argument) didn't have slaves, they had servants! Jul 7, 2021 at 23:25
  • @OneGodtheFather That's not my argument. Firstly this is an academic site so we can expect more background knowledge and willingness to research. Second, the issue is with unqualified nouns. "Roman slavery" isn't ambiguous, just as "trans-Atlantic slavery" isn't. "Slave" by itself is. And when Paul writes in the Roman context where there were both slaves who worked mines and plantations, as well as slaves who were accountants and household stewards (or even a King's minister!), we have to think carefully about what connotation we think he wanted when he called himself a "slave of Christ".
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 7, 2021 at 23:37

3 Answers 3


The word doulos basically means servant or worker. Δουλεία means work or employment:

Τι δουλειά κάνεις;=What kind of job do you do?

ESV Matthew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

NLT John 8:34: “Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin.”

BDAG3 mentions on δούλος

② one who is solely committed to another, slave, subject; ext. of mng. 1. Mt 6:24; Lk 16:13 express the ancient perspective out of which such extended usage develops: slaves are duty-bound only to their owners or masters, or those to whom total allegiance is pledged.

Slave to money, slave to addictions and sins etc. Implies a willful servitude to whatever one heart belongs to.

There are far greater problems in the translations than the slave G1401 δοῦλος doulos in the NT or annoying gender-neutral translations. NET Bible translation notes on Matt 8:9 on slave says:

tn Though δοῦλος (doulos) is normally translated “servant,” the word does not bear the connotation of a free individual serving another. BDAG notes that “‘servant’ for ‘slave’ is largely confined to Biblical transl. and early American times… in normal usage at the present time the two words are carefully distinguished” (BDAG 260 s.v. 1). The most accurate translation is “bondservant” (sometimes found in the ASV for δοῦλος) in that it often indicates one who sells himself into slavery to another. But as this is archaic, few today understand its force.

So the main reason we have the contrast between servant and slave is solely due to the political misconception arising from the African slavery in the recent centuries.

The context of servant or slave in the NT is not necessarily a forced slavery. We can argue the modern bonded employment is also a form of slavery and servitude where the employee is not free to leave until the bond ends.

1 Corinthians 7:21 ESV: “Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.)”

ESV Global study Bible footnotes : 7:21 [†21] Being a bondservant in NT times was different from the institution of slavery in North America during the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. Slaves (bondservants, servants) generally were permitted to work for pay and to save enough to buy their freedom (see Matt. 25:15, where the “servants” were entrusted with immense amounts of money and responsibility). The NT assumes that trafficking in human beings is a sin (1 Tim. 1:10; Rev. 18:11–13), and Paul urges Christian bondservants who can gain... freedom to do so. The released bondservant was officially designated a “freedman” and frequently continued to work for his former master.

ESV Global study Bible Preface on the translation of slave/servant:

Third, a particular difficulty is presented when words in biblical Hebrew and Greek refer to ancient practices and institutions that do not correspond directly to those in the modern world. Such is the case in the translation of ‘ebed (Hebrew) and doulos (Greek), terms which are often rendered “slave.” These terms, however, actually cover a range of relationships that require a range of renderings — either “slave,” “bondservant,” or “servant” — depending on the context. Further, the word “slave” currently carries associations with the often brutal and dehumanizing institution of slavery in nineteenth-century America. For this reason, the ESV translation of the words ‘ebed and doulos has been undertaken with particular attention to their meaning in each specific context. Thus in Old Testament times, one might enter slavery either voluntarily (e.g., to escape poverty or to pay off a debt) or involuntarily (e.g., by birth, by being captured in battle, or by judicial sentence). Protection for all in servitude in ancient Israel was provided by the Mosaic Law. In New Testament times, a doulos is often best described as a “bondservant” — that is, as someone bound to serve his master for a specific (usually lengthy) period of time, but also as someone who might nevertheless own property, achieve social advancement, and even be released or purchase his freedom. The ESV usage thus seeks to express the nuance of meaning in each context. Where absolute ownership by a master is in view (as in Romans 6), “slave” is used; where a more limited form of servitude is in view, “bondservant” is used (as in 1 Corinthians 7:21–24); where the context indicates a wide range of freedom (as in John 4:51), “servant” is preferred. Footnotes are generally provided to identify the Hebrew or Greek and the range of meaning that these terms may carry in each case.

The translations contextually render the word because English has a lot greater number of words and nuances than Greek, which may have proven detrimental to interpretation of the Bible. The modern people keep innovating new words and even genders to the English vocabulary solely due to their political agendas and misconceptions. Only the NIV is known for its highly biased political correctness on these things. This cannot be called as bowdlerization, which means "to Remove material that is considered improper or offensive from (a text or account), especially with the result that the text becomes weaker or less effective." My biggest concern with the false translations is on Galatians 3:21b, which twists the plain text to imply that the law of Moses could never justify or give life, which is based on the lawless licentious theology that turn grace of God into lawlessness and freedom to sin. The text says, "if the given law was able to justify" implying a contingent inability due to the covenant change, but the translators twist it into, "if a law had been given that could justify", which totally destroys the context and meaning of the text. Nonetheless, we know God judges everyone impartially (Christians and non-Christians alike), and nobody will have any excuse for their sins using translation errors, because the Bible is exceedingly plain despite the minor translation errors.


Slaves in Bible times were not slaves for the same reasons many have been enslaved in modern times. Nor were they treated in the same manner.

Just after the Ten Commandments were spoken from Mount Sinai, God gave further instructions in many points of civil law, including laws governing servanthood.


  • 21:2 If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.
  • 21:3 If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him.
  • 21:4 If his master have given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out by himself.
  • 21:5 And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free:
  • 21:6 Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for ever.

One cleaning product on the market has an image of a man with one ring in his ear to indicate that the product will do one's slave work. See the images of this by looking online for "Mr. Clean." That earring is the mark of his permanent servanthood, biblically, and this symbol still holds its original meaning among some today.

And that passage continues:

  • 21:26 And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye's sake.
  • 21:27 And if he smite out his manservant's tooth, or his maidservant's tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth's sake.

Servants were not to be mistreated. Unless they had committed themselves to their master for life, such as by marrying his daughter and consenting to have their ear pierced to show permanent servanthood (basically becoming part of the family), they were to be released in due time or when their financial obligations (debt) had been met and cleared.

Allowing the Bible, however, to interpret itself, we see a range of usages for the word "servant." Sometimes it becomes "bondservant." Consider the contrast between these two in the following passage, and note how servants were to be treated.


  • 25:39 And if thy brother that dwelleth by thee be waxen poor, and be sold unto thee; thou shalt not compel him to serve as a bondservant:

  • 25:40 But as an hired servant, and as a sojourner, he shall be with thee, and shall serve thee unto the year of jubilee:

  • 25:41 And then shall he depart from thee, both he and his children with him, and shall return unto his own family, and unto the possession of his fathers shall he return.

  • 25:42 For they are my servants, which I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: they shall not be sold as bondmen.

  • 25:43 Thou shalt not rule over him with rigour; but shalt fear thy God.

  • 25:44 Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids.

  • 25:45 Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession.

  • 25:46 And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour.

  • 25:47 And if a sojourner or stranger wax rich by thee, and thy brother that dwelleth by him wax poor, and sell himself unto the stranger or sojourner by thee, or to the stock of the stranger's family:

  • 25:48 After that he is sold he may be redeemed again; one of his brethren may redeem him:

  • 25:49 Either his uncle, or his uncle's son, may redeem him, or any that is nigh of kin unto him of his family may redeem him; or if he be able, he may redeem himself.

  • 25:50 And he shall reckon with him that bought him from the year that he was sold to him unto the year of jubilee: and the price of his sale shall be according unto the number of years, according to the time of an hired servant shall it be with him.

  • 25:51 If there be yet many years behind, according unto them he shall give again the price of his redemption out of the money that he was bought for.

  • 25:52 And if there remain but few years unto the year of jubilee, then he shall count with him, and according unto his years shall he give him again the price of his redemption.

  • 25:53 And as a yearly hired servant shall he be with him: and the other shall not rule with rigour over him in thy sight.

  • 25:54 And if he be not redeemed in these years, then he shall go out in the year of jubilee, both he, and his children with him.

  • 25:55 For unto me the children of Israel are servants; they are my servants whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

Servants, and even bondservants, were to be treated with dignity and respect. They could be redeemed if their debts were paid by a relative to release them. And, in any case, the Israelite servants must be released in the year of jubilee, regardless of whether the debts had been paid. Essentially, the jubilee provided an economic reset to the whole nation of Israel, and people who had, during the past jubilee cycle, lost properties or even their freedom due to poverty would be restored their properties and their liberty to start the new cycle.

The entire perspective of slavery in the Bible revolved around two basic tenets: 1) economic (indebtedness); and 2) military subjugation. In the latter case, of course, one might far prefer to become a servant than to be put to the sword. Yet, even here, the slavery in Bible times was very unlike what we think of today by the word "slave."

Daniel and his friends, taken captive to Babylon, were servants.

And them that had escaped from the sword carried he [Nebuchadnezzar] away to Babylon; where they were servants to him and his sons until the reign of the kingdom of Persia: (2 Chronicles 36:20)

But how were they treated in Babylon? Quite well. Some of them received royal treatment.


  • 1:1 In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah came Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon unto Jerusalem, and besieged it.
  • 1:2 And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with part of the vessels of the house of God: which he carried into the land of Shinar to the house of his god; and he brought the vessels into the treasure house of his god.
  • 1:3 And the king spake unto Ashpenaz the master of his eunuchs, that he should bring certain of the children of Israel, and of the king's seed, and of the princes;
  • 1:4 Children in whom was no blemish, but well favoured, and skilful in all wisdom, and cunning in knowledge, and understanding science, and such as had ability in them to stand in the king's palace, and whom they might teach the learning and the tongue of the Chaldeans.
  • 1:5 And the king appointed them a daily provision of the king's meat, and of the wine which he drank: so nourishing them three years, that at the end thereof they might stand before the king.

While these were "servants" of the king, the king did not treat them as we would expect for "slaves" today. In Hebrew the same word translated as "servants" in 2 Chronicles 36:20--which included Daniel and his three friends, is the word translated as "servants" in Exodus 5:16, addressing the slaves in Egypt:

There is no straw given unto thy servants, and they say to us, Make brick: and, behold, thy servants are beaten; but the fault is in thine own people. (Exodus 5:16)

Today, we might translate this as "slaves" in this latter text. But the translators have faithfully preserved the same Hebrew word by consistently translating it as "servant," helping readers to see that it is, indeed, the same concept as used in other passages. The Bible can then be used to explain itself.

In the New Testament, as one professor of Biblical languages has aptly stated, the Bible writers wrote in Greek, but followed the Hebrew thought. They were familiar with the Hebrew scriptures and with the Hebrew culture and tradition. When Onesimus comes to Paul, you remember, Paul instructs him to return to his master--and sends a letter with him asking his master to deal graciously with him. (See Philemon 1:10-18.)

If slavery in the Bible times had been what we know today, it is certain that Paul would never have sent the slave back to his master. Acts 5:29 and 1 Corinthians 10:29 help us to see that our conscience is never to be placed in subjection to the will of another human being. Servanthood and slavery are distinctly different concepts, and even as "slaves" to sin, we should be encouraged by the concept of "servants" to think that we do have a choice, and are not obligated to serve sin or to submit ourselves to it. We have a Redeemer, and can be freed from our old, evil master.


This language choice might not be about political correctness. The difference between slave and servant is that a slave is forced or coerced to work, whereas a servant chooses to work for / follow a person or ideal.

One could argue that a slave of a King might call himself a servant, at least for the King's ears, but in reality would be jailed or killed if he didn't do his job. The same logic might not apply to followers of Jesus or God because the follower has a strong belief in his work, and supposedly there is no punishment for disobeying (although eternal damnation is a strong motivator).

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