Slavery and the Gospel (Titus 2)

While continuing to work through the letter Paul wrote to Titus we arrive at a potentially controversial instruction by Paul as he writes, “Slaves are to submit to their masters in everything, and be well-pleasing, not talking back or stealing, but demonstrating utter faithfulness, so that they may adorn the teaching of God our Savior in everything” (Titus 2:9-10 CSB). Upon initial reading of these verses, some might feel a little uncomfortable with Paul calling slaves to be submissive to their masters rather than condemning the practice. Why would the Bible include passages on slavery without condemning such an atrocious practice?

Several years ago, John MacArthur released a book discussing the topic of slavery in the Bible, arguing for the re-insertion of the term slave to accurately translate the Greek word doulos. His argument for this modification developed from his realization that the English translations of the Bible have been mis-translating the Greek word doulos as servant, doing an injustice to the full implications of our relationship with God. MacArthur explains the difference between the two terms: “servants are hired; slaves are owned” (MacArthur, Slave, p. 16-17). Rather than viewing ourselves as Christ’s associate, the Christian must acknowledge “We have been bought with a price. We belong to Christ. We are part of a people for His own possession. And understanding all of that changes everything about us, starting with our perspective and our priorities” (MacArthur, Slaves, p. 21-22).

A Slave to Christ

In John MacArthur’s book Slave: The Hidden Truth About Your Identity in Christ, he asks the question in the opening chapter, “what does it mean to be a Christian?” Building on some understandings of the definition of Christian, MacArthur writes,

“For some, being ‘Christian’ is primarily cultural and traditional, a nominal title inherited from a previous generation, the net effect of which involves avoiding certain behaviors and occasionally attending church. For others, being a Christian is largely political, a quest to defend moral values in the public square or perhaps to preserve those values by withdrawing from the public square altogether. Still more define Christianity in terms of a past religious experience, a general belief in Jesus, or a desire to be a good person. Yet all of those fall woefully short of what it truly means to be a Christian from a biblical perspective” (MacArthur, Slave, p. 10).

MacArthur continues this thought process by reminding the reader that a Christian is someone that is a wholehearted follower of Jesus Christ. The name Christian “demands a deep affection for Him, allegiance to Him, and submission to His Word” (MacArthur, p. 11). By professing to the world that we are Christians, we are proclaiming that everything about us and our self-identity belongs to Jesus.

Yet one word of identification that a typical Christian may not think to use in trying to define their relationship to Jesus when explaining Christianity – slave.

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for slave (‘ebed) is used to describe believers more than 250 times, “denoting their duty and privilege to obey the heavenly Lord” (MacArthur, p. 12). The New Testament uses the Greek word (doulos) for slave at least 40 times.

One challenge for the reader in America in the 21st Century is the temptation to read the term slave through the eyes of our own experiences and understandings through the history of America. We should affirm that the slavery practiced in the antebellum South was wrong and was against the principles of Scripture. It is important that Christians understand the role of a flawed sinful man demanding authority over another in the form of slavery should not be how we view God’s leadership as our Lord. We must not forget the atrocity of slavery, and should be driven to speak up for those that do not have freedom. In Hughes and Chapell’s commentary on Titus, they define being submissive as “arranging one’s gifts under the purposes of those with proper authority” (Hughes and Chapell, p. 365). But what about those that take advantage of their authority?


Paul is calling slaves to be submissive to their masters, well-pleasing, not talking back or stealing, but demonstrating utter faithfulness. Though many of us in the United States today are not enslaved in the same way that was being described in Crete, we are still indentured to our occupation. Christian, when you work, you should work for God, and not for man. Let God be honored in all that you do. We are called to be a light in a dark place. We must present ourselves as something different from the world. Paul is very intentional to call for all of the Christians in Crete to live completely opposite from the non-Christians – even if they are enslaved.

What a great realization that everyone is called to have responsibility within the kingdom! No one is excluded from community responsibilities regardless of their station in the church or society.

But what value for the kingdom might a slave being submissive to their unjust master have for the benefit of the kingdom? As Hughes and Chapell expound in their commentary, “the slaves become the Savior’s representatives, responsible for conduct that can lead to their master’ salvation” (Hughes and Chapell, p. 366). This concept makes Titus 2:11 stand out even more when we read Paul describing that “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” From an eternal perspective, the master is the disadvantaged one. The slave possesses the higher privileges of eternity. Demonstrating faithfulness in all aspects matters to the Kingdom.

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