Douglas B. Clawson
No one wants to be a servant or a slave. However, none of us probably minds being called a servant of God or a servant of Christ. Indeed, we shouldn't even mind being called a slave of God or of Christ. After all, he owns usand we should be glad that he does, because if he had not purchased us and made us his possession, we would still be slaves to sin (Rom. 6:16–19).
But, while it sounds better to be a slave of God than a slave of sin, the very idea of being a slave probably rubs us the wrong way. After all, slavery has caused great pain in our nation's history and elsewhere in modern timessuch as the enslavement of Christians in Sudan by Muslims. And even apart from such emotional issues, we love our freedom and we hate to be told what to do.
Genesis 9:25–27 is the first passage in the Bible that uses the word servant, and it confirms our general feeling that the word carries negative connotations. When Noah said that Ham's son Canaan would be a servant to Shem and Japheth, he was pronouncing a curse, not a blessing. Noah was describing the inferior position that Canaan would have, relative to his uncles. He was even to be a servant of servants.
Let's be honest: we do not like the sound of the word servant. It connotes the idea of endless menial work. Worse, it connotes the idea of slavery. In fact, the words in Hebrew (‘ebed) and Greek (doulos) that are ordinarily translated "servant" usually mean "slave."
To be sure, there is another Greek word meaning "servant" (diakonos) that is used to refer to church officers. It is translated "servant, helper, minister, deacon." Jesus uses that word in John 12:26 when he says, "If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also." A related noun describes the service of angels in Hebrews 1:14. Jesus used a related verb when he said of himself, "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:28). Peter uses this verb in the context of a particular calling to service, where he may therefore be referring to deacons: "As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: ... whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies" (1 Pet. 4:10–11).
(Nevertheless, just so there is no confusion, in this article I am not going to use passages that use the "diaconal" words. I am only going to use passages that refer to slaves and the work of slaves.)
We need to find the right way to understand what it means to be a servant and at the same time like being one. Perhaps we can find that way by looking at what God's Word says about being a servant.
In Exodus 8:1, the Lord tells Moses to go to Pharaoh and say, "Let my people go, that they may serve me." The word for "serve" is the verbal form of the word for "slave." In other words, Israel was being freed from their slavery or service to Pharaoh in order to enter into the service of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
In the New Testament, we find the same idea of transfer of ownership and therefore transfer of service. Paul writes in Romans 6:17–22 that while we were once slaves to sin, we are now slaves of God:
You who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.... Just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.... Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.
We commonly think of slavery as a curse and the deprivation of freedom as death. But in this passage from Romans we clearly see that the lines are not drawn between slavery and freedom but between slavery to sin and slavery to God, between freedom from righteousness and freedom from sin. Slavery to sin and freedom from righteousness bring death, but slavery to obedience (that is, to God) and freedom from sin bring eternal life. The choice, then, isn't between slavery and freedom, but between different combinations of slavery and freedom.
You might respond that in Christ you have been raised to a higher status than that of a slave or servant. Indeed, Jesus says in John 15:15, "No longer do I call you servants, ... I have called you friends." But five verses later he still calls them servants: "Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.'"
True, we are more than slaves of Christ. We are his friendsand even his precious bride. We are more than slaves of God; we are sons of God. But we still remain his slaves and servants. In that capacity, we are called to bring our life into conformity to the life of the Son of God, who, in human flesh, made himself a slave. Paul writes in Philippians 2:5–8:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
Jesus took the form of a servant, and therefore we, as those who are in him, are called upon to have the same attitude toward each other that he had toward us. We are to be servants toward each other. This is why we find Jesus in Matthew 20:25–28 quieting his indignant disciples in this way:
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Think of that. Whoever would be great among you must be your "servant," and whoever would be first among you must begulp ... that's rightyour "slave."
Notice that we are not called to be slaves only of Christ. Christ's disciples are also called to be slaves of his other disciples, if they would be "great" or "first."
Lest you try to console yourself with the thought that you have no desire to be first or great, I must warn you that every believer is called to slavelike service. In Galatians 5:13 we read:
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
The attitude of selfless service must characterize all your relationships with other Christians. It must also characterize your role as one who represents Christ before the watching world. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:19,
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.
Will people abuse your slavelike service to them? Of course they will! Jesus' care for others and his resulting neglect of his own needs made his mother and brothers think that he was out of his mind (Mark 3:20–21). Furthermore, although thousands of people came to him to be healed and delivered from demons, they later rejected him.
In fact, you will no doubt discover that the very same people who should have a slavelike attitude toward you will at times abuse your service. They will regard their need for your service as greater than your need for their service. That is the way it will always be in this world of sin. Indeed, that is our own attitude toward our Lord, isn't it? We're big on asking him to answer our prayers and short on looking to his word to learn how to be more faithful in obeying and serving him.
Remember the goal. Do you hope to hear your Lord say, "Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master" (Matt. 25:21)? If so, your response and attitude toward your calling in Christ must be like Mary's, who, at the words of the angel Gabriel, said, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38).
For Canaan, Noah's pronouncement that he would be a slave of slaves was the pronouncement of a curse, but for you one far greater than Noah has transformed that description into the pronouncement of an everlasting blessing.
The author is the associate general secretary for the Committee on Foreign Missions. He quotes the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, May 2007.