Wether we examine the national identity of Israel after the exodus from Egypt, or the self-identification of the apostolic writers, or the nomenclature used by early Christian martyrs – we find ourselves continually confronted with a concept as foreign to our Western minds as it is radical and profound. Yet if we are to fully appreciate what it means to follow Christ, we must embrace the life-changing implications of this vital concept. To be a Christian is to be a slave of Christ.
John MacArthur, Slave, p. 212

Over and Over again, the Bible uses the word slave to denote followers of God. English versions have tended to use another word for the Hebrew ebed and the Greek doulos. Servant or bondservant is preferred more often than not, but why? The Hebrew and Greek words both imply more than a servant but a possession; a person that is wholly owned by the master. There are theological implications for using “servant” instead of “slave.” A servant has a choice, where a slave does not. A servant works on his own time, a slave is completely subject to the master. A servant does what he can, a slave does what the master demands. Does “servant” soften the meaning of ebed and doulos? John MacArthur believes is does.

The reclaiming of the term “slave” is the topic of John MacArthur’s Slave: The Hidden Truth about Your Identity in Christ. Certainly, the term offends modern, Western sensibilities. However, MacArthur argues that a proper understanding of the term is crucial to understanding the teachings of Jesus. First century, Roman slavery was the context of many of the parables. Such slavery defines discipleship. MacArthur draws five parallels between ancient slavery and Biblical Christianity: 1) Exclusive Ownership, 2) Complete Submission, 3) Singular Devotion, 4) Total Dependence, and 5)Personal Accountability.

Detailing the trial and execution of John Huss, MacArthur writes, “the faithful throughout church history have always preserved by the Holy Spirit wholehearted devotion to the true head, Jesus Christ. He alone is Lord of His church, and the position cannot be occupied by another.” He gives examples of movements that deny Christ as the head such as Free Grace, church growth, and prosperity preachers. He claims some in conservative circles do this as well with “crass humor and coarse speech.” This connection is not obvious and comes across as methodological axe grinding more than it bolsters his argument.

That aside, MacArthur does well to show the connection between the Greek words doulos (slave) and kyrios (lord). They are two sides of the same relationship. However, when the bible is interpreted in light of our modern sensibilities, if we are not careful, we may loses the significance of such terms.

MacArthur points out that scripture refers to Christ Lord in the exact same way it calls Yahweh, Lord. Thus, such Lordship demands more than just lip service. We are slaves to Christ, but this gives us status in our relationship with God.

The struggle with this argument is the idea of freedom. Why would any free person choose slavery? How could someone claim that Christ set them free if they are to be slaves to Christ? The answer is that no one is free. A sinner is a slave to sin; subject to a master that is a “cruel tyrant.” “He is not only powerless to free himself, but he wears his chains with willing eagerness.” (127) This is certainly not a new argument for MacArthur. This was the very subject of his 2008 Together For the Gospel sermon, “The Sinner Neither Willing Nor Able.”

One of the most important reasons to argue for the use of the word “slave” is that it is crucial to the process of redemption. Sinners are redeemed at the cross, purchased from the master of sin, to be slaves of Christ. Is this freedom? Freedom to sin, lead to slavery to cruelty, but slavery to Christ leads to the freedom of a perfect master!

MacArthur also examines other metaphors used in scripture to describe a believer’s relationship with God: adoption and citizenship. Certainly both show the freedom of Christ; to be a child of God and a citizen of the Kingdom. However, both also show being subject to authority; a father or a king.

What of the life of a slave of Christ, a son of God, and a citizen of Heaven? Macarthur goes to the parable of the talents and reminds the reader that the master will return and the slave will be held accountable. Referring to John Piper’s book, Macarthur encourages such slaves, sons, and citizens, “Don’t waste your life.”

Ultimately, the argument of this book is for a return to slave language in translation and interpretation. Macarthur argues that slavery ends prejudice, magnifies grace, and pictures salvation. The loss of the slave language that is so prevalent in the Greek and Hebrew texts, and found throughout church history, is a significant loss to modern Christianity.

Slave is insightful and thought-provoking, though not without its weaknesses. MacArthur’s examples of various movements of false doctrines are helpful, though it would be more helpful to have more detail. Further, the not-so-subtle slight of Mark Driscoll in that section seems out of place and weakens to overall argument. MacArthur’s issues with Driscoll are well known, but it would be better if pastors could deal with these things in the context of Christian fellowship rather than the pages of books.

Also, though MacArthur does excellent work tying the metaphors of slavery, adoption, and citizenship, he ignores that of marriage. Marriage is a common metaphor in scripture and it would be interesting to see MacArrthurs handling of it in this context.

Ultimately, this is a thought-provoking book. The issue of slave language in modern translation and interpretation is hardly on the radar of Christian debate, but maybe it should be.