The Christian Slave

Are there two words in the English language more contradictory than “Christian” and “slavery”? Whereas the term “Christian" connotes a harmonious relationship of peace with God and our neighbors, the term “slavery” is rife with cruelty and oppression.  It is hard to imagine two words more distinct from each other in our vocabulary. Yet in Romans 6:19, Paul calls on all believers of Rome to “offer your bodily members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” In effect, he calls on every Christian to be a “slave.” Let’s look deeper into what Paul means when he talks about slavery in the context of the Christian life.

First, Paul begins 6:19 with an apology for his analogy: “Because of the weakness of your human nature, I am using the illustration of slavery to help you understand” (NLT). Slavery was part of the Roman culture in Paul’s day. By most estimates one-third of the city’s population of Rome was either slave or freedmen (freed slaves). James Dunn observed (Romans, 1:341) that of the 40,000 to 50,000 Jews in the city of Rome, most of them fit this category. In other words, Paul’s analogy was clear to these believers. Yet Paul was uncomfortable with it because of its social incongruities, and therefore offers his apology for this human comparison.

Second, if slave language is socially reprehensible, why did Paul use it? This is a fair question and may be approached from two perspectives. First, Paul used it because of the image it suggests. One author fittingly described slavery as “total belongingness, total obligation, and total accountability,” and this suits Paul’s point “which no other image seems able to equal” (Cranfield, 1:321). This image was Paul’s own description of himself as seen in the beginning of his letter, “Paul a slave of Jesus Christ” (1:1a). Secondly, the type of slavery Paul references does not seem to be the result of being sold as a captive of war or by parents for financial gain; rather, it is the familiar Roman practice of offering one’s self to a wealthy citizen for the purpose of having a place to live and food to eat. In Stott’s words (Romans, 183), it was a willful “self-surrender” to another, and the end result was the loss of personal liberties. 

Third, the language of willful self-surrender supports Paul’s objective. Paul reminds his readers through this familiar cultural practice that there are only two masters one may submit to, with the result being either “impurity” or “righteousness.” On the one hand, impurity “dishonors the body” (1:24) and calls for one “to live a lie” (1:25). Also, Paul explains in 6:19, “impurity . . . leads to more lawlessness.” For Paul, impurity is never stagnant, and left unchecked by grace will consequently breed deeper sin, or “ever-increasing wickedness,” as the NIV translates it. On the other hand, surrendering to the gospel results in one becoming a “slave to righteousness,” which means living a radically transformed life. In this verse Paul gives an imperative with apostolic force: “offer your bodily members as slaves to righteousness [right purposes and actions].” Paul is calling for a wise choice and a radical lifestyle.

Finally, living as a Christian slave has a definite result. The noun “sanctification” may mean either the position in which one stands because of justification, or the process one pursues in his or her daily life through submission to the indwelling Holy Spirit. In 6:19 it is the latter, and living as a genuine Christian slave, writes Douglas Moo (Romans, 405), “results in living that is increasingly God-centered and world-renouncing.”  Therefore, let’s live today for Jesus as did Paulas Christian slaves!

This article is from the "Truth from the Agora" section of the Exposition, VBTS's monthly e-bulletin authored by President Daniel Davey. Click HERE to sign-up to receive the Exposition each month.

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