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Home: Articles / Bible Studies: Slaves or Servants?

What is the more accurate translation of doulos?


Advocates for the King James Bible will insist that the venerable translation is the only printed English edition that accurately conveys God's revelation to men in our modern world. When the KJV was translated, they will boldly argue, it was translated by the most learned language scholars the Christian world had ever known and has known since. Those men were so expert with the command of Hebrew, Greek, and English, they used just the right English words to precisely translate the meaning of the original, biblical languages.

Overseeing this miraculous work of translation was the Hand of divine providence. God Himself, in the fullness of time, brought together all the conditions necessary to have translated once and for all the one and only Bible to be used by God's people throughout the English speaking world, and that Bible is the King James Version.

Those are some extremely lofty claims for a translation of scripture. The implications are profound. It means no other English Bible translation before or after the publication of the KJV can rightly be called "God's Word." Moreover, any revision done to the KJV text with either updating spelling or English usage for the purpose of clarifying difficult to read passages is, in a manner of speaking, changing "God's Word." That certainly holds true for any meaningful revision involving the re-translation of specific words or phrases where the KJV translators could have been more accurate with their translation into English.

I have been writing on KJV-onlyism for a few years now, and one of my key ojectives has been to demonstrate the absurdity of the exclusive claims made on behalf of the KJV. King James apologists have good intentions with their beliefs. They merely wish to uphold God's revelation as being infallible and inerrant. Yet, regardless of how well intentioned their motives may be, the apologetics they have developed to defend the exclusivity of the KJV are woefully misguided. Instead of helping Christians stand confidently upon the Bible as God's Word, they only serve to undermine a Christian's faith when challenged to defend his beliefs against intelligent critics.

That is because the KJV-only view of how the scriptures were preserved and transmitted over the course of time is historically inaccurate. More importantly, the claim that the KJV has never been in need of any serious textual re-translation is dangerously false. In other words, if it can be shown that there is a better English translation for specific words and phrases from the original biblical texts than what the KJV has translated, then the KJV-only claim of perfect preservation for the King James is made a mockery which in turn ruins any meaningful defense of scripture.

This Achilles Heel in the KJV-only apologetic has become vividly clear to me when I have been considering the translation of the NT Greek word doulos. The primary definition of doulos is "slave." The word is used over 100 times in the NT and carries the idea of slavery in the sense of a person being owned by a master. Ever since Christians have been translating the scripture into English the word "servant" or "bond-servant" has been used to translate doulos, and the KJV is no exception. In fact, the only time the KJV uses the word "slave" is in Jeremiah 2:14 and Revelation 18:13 and neither one of those passages is even translating the word doulos.

There isn't anything specifically wrong with translating doulos as "servant." A slave is definitely a servant to a master; however a slave is a servant who serves involuntarily and in many cases, under severe compulsion. There are several key instances of doulos being used by biblical writers where the concept of slavery is clearly being expressed and the word "servant" just doesn't capture the true intent of the original author's meaning and hence the claim of "most accurate" translation for the KJV is erroneous.

My study is born out of a series of email exchanges I had with a couple of cranky KJVers who frequent an email discussion group where I participate. During the course of our interchange on the subject of "superior" Bible translations, I raised the problem with the KJV translating the word doulos consistently as servant rather than slave. Pressed to back up my challenge, I began the process of doing some research, but figured it would be beneficial for a larger audience, hence the purpose of this essay.

Now, KJV-onlyists are keenly aware of these types of difficulties which challenge their defense of exclusivity for the King James. In response to such difficulties - which are many - KJV-only apologists have contrived elaborate "Bible studies" meant to repel and put down these sorts of criticisms and then defend the KJV as being the better Bible version in English ever. The translation of doulos as "servant" in the KJV is no exception.

In reply to my challenges against my KJV opponents, that because the KJV uses the word "servant" instead of "slave" to translate doulos it misses some important redemptive nuances, I was sent a link to an article written by one my antagonists attempting to provide a rebuttal.

To summarize it for my readers:

My opponent first rips into me for what he perceives as my deficient view of scripture. He calls me a "Bible corrector" because I suggest there are clearer translations than what the KJV offers. Name calling is a common tactic employed by the more extreme and desperate KJV-only apologist.

Then oddly - and I mean "odd" in that it is a bit weird - he blasts an article I supposedly wrote on the subject of slaves and servants that didn't exist at the time of him writing his article. The only mention I made to this individual on the subject of slaves and servants and how the words are used in various English translations was on a private email forum and I never really went into any detail on the subject. My conclusion is he must have some gift of prophecy or something.

Then he moves into outlining his main arguments against the translation of doulos as "slave." First, he provides a list of English translations both pre-KJV and post-KJV which do not translate doulos as "slave" with any consistency. He points out that most English translations render the word just like the KJV as "servant." But there are three problems with this argument:

First, we are not talking about how the NRSV or NKJV may or may not translate a word. Our subject is how the KJV translates a word. Next, none of the other proponents of these translations are claiming any sort of exclusivity for their chosen Bible version to the point of refusing to revise it because to do so is tantamount to changing God's Word. And then, just because other translations translate doulos as servant doesn't make the KJV right. They all are just as mistaken and are in just as much need of being revised as the KJV.

He then attempts to justify the KJV translation of doulos from how the O.T. word ebhed is translated. The Hebrew word ebhed may have a more far reaching usage in the O.T. depending upon context than the more specific doulos in the New, but we are not talking about how the KJV translates an O.T. word; we are discussing how it translates doulos in the N.T.

And then finally, his main argument defending the translation of doulos as "servant" is because Christ has "set us free" from sin, and so we are no longer "slaves" to sin, but "servants." As clever as that explanation may sound to some, it doesn't even begin to answer why, if the word "servant" is meant to be a positive declaration of our relationship to Christ after salvation, is it also used to describe our relationship to sin before our being set free by Christ.

With that as an introduction, let me move onto as to why I believe "slave" is a better translation of the word doulos than "servant." I will consider some grammatical/lexical data, look at some theological ramifications, and then draw some conclusions.

The Lexical Data for doulos

Let me begin with the basic English definitions of "slave" and "servant". My American Heritage Dictionary defines a "slave" as, "A person who is owned by and forced to work for someone else.," and a secondary definition states, "A person completely controlled by a specified influence, emotion, etc. " The definition of "servant" on the other hand is, "One employed to perform domestic or other services."

It should be noted that the primary difference between these two words hinges on the concept of legal ownership. A slave is technically "owned" by another person, which means the slave has no choice in the matter and must work for the master involuntarily by compulsion. The slave's work is thankless and a necessary duty. A "servant," however, is not "owned" as property nor is compelled by force to work, but is employed by another person voluntarily and retains the freedom to stay or leave. Additionally, unlike the slave, the servant's work will be rewarded monetarily for the most part.

The distinction between those two words in English is enough to demonstrate that at many points throughout the KJV the word "servant" is deficient as a translation when the context clearly implies "slave" or "slavery." In fact, the concept of ownership conveyed by the word "slave" is completely lost upon the KJV-only advocate who insists upon defending their pet translation against all odds to the contrary.

With that in mind, what about the lexical data for the word doulos itself?

Beginning with the most accessible lexicon to the average reader, The New Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon defines doulos as, "to ensnare, capture, serving, subject to, a slave, bondman, man of servile conditions." (pg. 158). Only the last entry hints at the idea of servant as one not owned as property.

Taking it up a notch, The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia Vol. 4 describes doulos,

"The Greek word doulos, in the N.T. more properly might have been translated 'slave' instead of 'servant' or 'bondservant,' understanding though that the slavery of Judaism was not the cruel system of Greece, Rome and later nations. The prime thought is service; the servant may render free service, the slave, obligatory, restricted service." (pg 2815).

Note the distinction. Even though both a servant and a slave are serving or could even rightly be called "servants," servants render free service where as the slave is obligated and restricted to serve. The key is ownership by another.

Then, moving on to The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology Vol. 3,

"In order to appreciate the nuances of meaning in the NT we must first see what its attitude is to the position of the slave society ... Occasionally, slaves are put in a position of responsibility and command (Matt. 24:45). "No one can serve as slave to two masters" (Matt. 6:24). His work earned him neither profit nor thanks; he was only doing what he owed as a bondslave (Lk. 17:7-10). The master could use his unlimited power over his slave -- for good (Matt. 18:27) or for unmerciful punishment if he were guilty of some fault (Matt. 18:34; 25:30) ... Repeatedly slaves are called to be obedient to their masters in all things -- even to unmerciful ones (1 Pet. 2:18)."

Again, note the emphasis on legal ownership and the position of a slave to serve his master regardless and his master's power either good or bad over him.

Then lastly, from the Theological Lexicon of the NT, Vol. 1, the entry for doulos begins emphatically by stating,

"It is wrong to translate doulos as "servant," so obscuring its precise signification in the language of the first century. In the beginning, before it came to be used for slaves, doulos was an adjective meaning "unfree," as opposed to eleutheros and this dichotomy remained basic in the first century ... The word slave refers above all to a legal status, that of an object of property. To be a slave is to be attached to a master... by link of subjection -- you are the slave of that which dominates you (2 Pet. 2:19; cf. Rom. 9:12). A slave is an article of personal property that one buys or sells, leases, gives, or bequeaths, that one can possess jointly..." (pp. 380, 381).

Hopefully - if folks are still with me at this point - these lexical citations clearly show there is a specific and precise meaning to the word doulos that implies the subjection of one to another and ownership of a master over his slaves. Moreover, and most importantly, there is theological implications with the use of doulos in the NT as it describes our relationship to sin and to our savior. So let me turn now to some theological implications,

Theological Implications with doulos in the NT

If doulos clearly speaks to a master-slave relationship and legal status and ownership, and the NT writers, especially Paul, employ doulos as a term to describe our soteriological status to sin and then our Lord, then there is an undeniable need to convey the word as precisely as we can when translating it. In this case, as "slave" rather than "servant" as the KJV consistently does.

Because I only need one example to show how the KJV-only claim of perfect accuracy for the KJV is false, let us consider Romans 6. The chapter follows after Paul's discussions concerning man's sin and God's justification by the death of Christ for sinners. Coming to chapter 6, Paul talks about our current relationship to Christ now that we are saved. The terminology he uses is compelling in the context of describing our legal status before God by justification in chapters 4 and 5.

Beginning in 6:6, Paul describes our legal status as being "slaves to sin." The word "slaves" is translated from douleuo, which means "to be a slave" or "enslaved." Our bondage was to sin. However, as Paul goes on, we are set free by the justifying act of Christ on the cross and our legal status changes. No longer are we "slaves of sin," but we are now "slaves of righteousness for holiness" (Romans 6:16, 18, 19) Our legal position is no longer indebted to sin, but now to righteousness (6:20), and we are rightly called "slaves of God" in 6:22.

The KJV through out this entire chapter never once uses slave to describe our position while in sin and now as we stand before God in Christ. I must ask: If being a servant is one that is voluntary and without compulsion, how exactly is our identification with sin exactly voluntary and without compulsion? Seeing that Paul describes our slavery to sin in such radical terminology in Romans 1-3, I find it hard to believe a person would understand sin's power in a sinner's life as being some inanimate force we just happen to choose to serve.

Additionally, this concept of slavery has major ramifications in the so-called "Lordship" debate, because if Paul's terminology is one of being a slave to God, that in turn means mandatory, subjective obedience to a sovereign ruler, or master. We are not "free" to live as we please. Our obedience to Christ is absolute and immediate upon the moment of justification by faith, because the act of justification places us in a brand new legal position: no longer slaves to sin, but slaves to God. There is none of this second tier Christianity where a person can choose to believe one day, and then later choose to make Jesus Lord of his life. That is a servant mentality of one who is employed and has the pleasure of coming and going or taking his leave as he may please. This is not what the Bible presents as true salvation before God. He is our rightful master because he purchased our deliverance from the bondage of sin with the blood of His Son who now makes us His own.


I believe the conclusions are obvious. The primary definition for doulos is "slave" not merely "servant" as a more accurate and precise translation into English. Not only does the lexical data support this definition, but so does the doctrines of salvation as outlined by the biblical writers.

This means a couple of things.

First, if we want to accurately reflect in our English translations to modern readers the true intent of what the biblical writers meant to convey in their epistles, we must use the most precise language available to do so or we miss giving the whole counsel of God to readers.

Moreover, those KJV-only advocates who make the grandiose claims that the King James Bible is the only English translation to accurately translate the original languages and then proceed to build an apologetic defense against any reasonable need to revise and update the language of this faithful old translation are not only seriously misguided, but are intentionally leading Christians into error about God's Word.


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