"Doulos" and the NASB: "…voluntary submission to deity…"

What with the ESV translation committee’s new concern that the word “slave” (translation of the Greek doulos) has “irredeemably negative associations and connotations,” I wondered how my preferred translation, the New American Standard Bible, handled the same word (and the prefixed version, sundoulos, which generally they translate by adding “fellow,” as in “fellow slave.”). The NASB mostly renders it “slave,” but at a number of places, it has “bond-servant,”—a fact which stood out to me when I began preaching through the book of James last year. James 1:1: “James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,…”.

Here’s the frequency of each of the NASB’s various translations of doulos (including the plural form and both singular and plural of sundoulos):

“Slave(s)”—103 times

“Bond-servant(s)”—25 times

“Bondslave(s)”—6 times

“Servant(s)”—4 time

I was curious about the variety, so I emailed the Lockman Foundation to ask for an explanation. Here’s the response:

The use of the term “slave” is a complex issue, one which we continue to review given its connotations. The NASB has the terms “bond-servant” and “bondslave” in places where “slave” might sound harsh for the context, though the three words all mean the same thing since “bond” refers to “bondage”. Of course “fellow” is included for the Greek sundoulos. The NASB translators felt that in all of these places a softer term than “slave” was justified because the relationship is one of voluntary submission to deity, though the duties and obligations are not thereby mitigated.

When you look through the specific verses, a pattern emerges that confirms their explanation…

Overwhelmingly, “slave” is used where the context is one of earthly, economic slavery or when that slave/master relationship is used as an example in a parable.

On the other hand, “Bond-servant” or “bondslave” is selectively used when referring to specific people and their relationship to God: Mary (Luke 1:38, 48), Simeon (Luke 2:29), the Apostles (Acts 4:29, 16:17, 2 Cor. 4:5), Paul (Rom. 1:1, Gal. 1:10, Phil. 1:1, Titus 1:1), Timothy (Phil. 1:1), Jesus (Phil. 2:7), Epaphras (Col. 1:7, 4:12), Tychichus (Col. 4:7), pastors (2 Tim. 2:4), James (James 1:1), Peter (2 Peter 1:1), Jude (Jude 1), John (Rev. 1:1), God’s people (Rev. 1:1, 2:20, 7:3, 11:18, 19:2, 19:5, 22:3, 22:6), and Moses (Rev. 15:3).

So, though the NASB asserts that the words “bond-servant,” “bondslave,” and “slave,” all mean the same thing, her translators chose to use the softer term in those places where the master is God because it better expresses a “voluntary submission to deity.”

Seriously? Anyone see a bit of a problem there?

Do we hate authority?

4 thoughts on “"Doulos" and the NASB: "…voluntary submission to deity…"

  1. Andrew, the Holman CSB translation appears to use “slave” throughout. Something I have been aware of since learning of the meaning of doulos. As James states, “I am a slave of God…”. I love His authority over me and I praise Him and worship Him for allowing me to be His slave and He my glorious Master.

  2. Dear Pastor Andrew,
    Thank you for taking care to make sure that modern biases don’t interfere with accurate translation. It does strike me as a bit strange that you bring up this distinction though. Here is the definition of bondservant – noun, a person bound in service without wages. • a slave or serf.
    It has always been clear to me from using the NASB that the two words have the same meaning and that they may be used interchangeably.
    If the word ‘bondservant’ actually softened the meaning, then I would have a problem with using it. Please let me know if I’m missing something.

    • Dear Steuart,

      Thanks for dropping by and making a comment.

      “Bond-servant” does not have the same meaning as “slave” (and, given the Lockman Foundation’s comment…they clearly believe the same thing…hence their choices)–though there may be some overlap. What I object in the use of “bond-servant” rather than “slave,” particularly when it comes to our relationship to God, is that the former does imply some voluntary nature to the relationship…whereas the latter more fully proclaims God the sovereign King He is. So, translation committees who are bitten by the modern-hatred-of-authority bug (which we all are afflicted with) feel the necessity to soften, to protect God from the charge of being an…authority. Jesus told the believing Apostles, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” God is to be feared. He is to be obeyed. He is to be relied upon for everything. He is a good King and we are His slaves–bound to obey Him and disciplined when we do not. We are unable to do anything outside of His authority–and that is a gloriously good thing, because He is a good Master. Certainly, there is more to the relationship between God and His people than slavery–He calls us friends (John 15:15), His wife (Rev. 21:9), and sons (Gal. 3:26). But, when Paul and James and other writers of Scripture use the words “slave of God,” they are pointing to the fact that they have no independence from God, no freedom outside of His sovereignty–only freedom in slavery to God. When we leave behind the word “slave” for the softer “bond-servant” we loose the clarity and forcefulness of the expression.

      John MacArthur just published a book on this topic entitled Slave: The Hidden Truth of Your Identity in Christ. I just ordered it…and, if you are able, I’d suggest you do the same. Here’s the book description:

      “Throughout the Bible, followers of Jesus are commanded to submit to Him as their King. They are told to obey and follow, faithfully and without hesitation. Every time Christians utter the word Lord, they make a subtle yet profound declaration-that God is their Master and that they belong to Him. In fact, the Bible describes believers as His slaves. They have been bought with a price and now live for Christ as a people for His own possession.

      But go into most churches today, even flip through most Bible translations, and you won’t see or hear the word slave anywhere. That’s because it has been lost in translation. In this gripping book, Dr. John MacArthur uses deep Bible teaching and historical evaluation to expertly uncover the one forgotten word that restores the Bible’s definition of true Christian freedom.

      What does it mean to be a Christian the way Jesus defined it? MacArthur says it all boils down to one word: Slave. “We have been bought with a price. We belong to Christ. We are His own possession.”

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