Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, ...
We have all read that introduction time and a time again. It liters our Bibles in the form of an introduction to most of Paul's epistles. And yet do we really understand it? Now I'm not talking about the mistranslation. The word doulos should be translated "slave." But because of the horrible connotation that has in the United States of America the equally correct but less graphic word "bondservant" is used. But many know this. Many of us have been taught to think of Paul's word choice in this more dramatic fashion. But is it correct?
Well in a sense it is correct. (In an oft repeated phrase, I thank Fortress Press for the chance to review their new student editions of "A People's History.") Early in the first volume I came across a pertinent set of paragraphs to the topic of slavery. In early Roman Society most people were ranked by their social standing and not their class. This means that women of a higher social standing were socially superior to men of an inferior class. So also this was true even with slaves. To be the slave of an important individual was to be socially superior to many freemen. It was a matter of pride to be a slave to an important individual and it did in fact come with a clear status symbol.
This revelation flies in the face of what is commonly taught conservative churches. I myself have taught about how this is Paul submitting himself to be "the low of the low." That this word communicate his bondage to the will of Jesus Christ and his pledged obedience. But, it is possible that Paul's introduction might in fact be a "humble brag." He is clearly demoting himself in the presence of Christ so my previous concept do not need to be tossed out. But this doesn't inherently mean that he is placing himself at the bottom rung of society. In fact it could be the exact opposite. Since Jesus Christ truly is the "King of kings" and "Lord of lords" then Paul's status to be His slave could be one of authority. This concept of authority would also make sense as an introduction for his letters.
So what does this mean for Christians today? Well since it is impossible to be dogmatic about the mindset of Paul, perhaps we should ask ourselves a set of pertinent and practical questions. We know we are slaves to Christ. But what about those around us?
Does this new view on Paul's introduction shed insight on why we don't like to serve people? Put another rather blunt way, do we lack a desire to serve people because we think poorly of them? If it was a matter of pride to serve a great person is it possible that our lack of desire is less culture and more relational? Honestly, do we suffer in serving people because we think so poorly of each other?
12 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. - John 13:12-16
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. - Romans 12:3
Perhaps, just perhaps, we the church have faltered in service to one another because we do not deem it a privilege to serve one another. To be called the "slave of that brother/sister" would not be a matter of pride but embarrassment. Well it is clear what Christ taught. And it is clear what Paul taught. We should be ecstatic to call ourselves the slave to the least of our congregations. They are joint-heirs with Jesus Christ! And if this is true, it should be obvious how our refusal to serve one another effectively denies the gospel.
If we in Christian fellowship are joint-heirs with Jesus Christ it would be foolish and nonsensical to not seek to be a slave to one another. Being a slave to Christ is a thing to be proud of and so is serving one another. When we let each other suffer alone instead of serving each other we communicate to them that they are not a heir of God. Ouch. Perhaps we should reconsider the language of Jesus,
"By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” - John 13:35
He was serious about this. And we can work ourselves in circles trying to figure out what "love" means. But perhaps its time we got serious about being slaves to each other,
20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. - Ephesians 5:20-21