Study Of Servant/Slave

By Brent Thorwall


“…whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (NIV, Matthew 20:26-28) [Note: beside this passage and the parallel in Mark 10, I have only found one other verse where the doulos and diakonos roots are found together: Colossians 1:7. They seem to be complementary ideas which can stand alone to illustrate certain teachings.]

Goal: to get an understanding of how the words “servant” and “slave” are used with respect to Christians, and to look specifically at the implications for “body life.”

I. Word meanings

A. In what different ways does the NIV translate doulos (slave) and diakonos (servant)?

doulos group diakonos group

“primary” contextual “primary” contextual

serve servant servant attended slave slaving serve wait on slavery enslaved support attendant bondage serve as a slave service help have become slaves deacon care for slavery preparations addicted do work ministry distribution mission helper task, work administer promote

By looking through the concordance (included below) for “Servant/Slave,” note how often the doulos group words are translated “servant.” Why is this?

See the notes which accompany the word-study concordance for further discussion.

B. Consider the expressions “slave of God” and “slave of Christ.” Note that the expression “slave of God” was used and understood before the birth of Christ.

Luke 1:38 Mary calls herself “the Lord’s [slave]”
Luke 1:48 she again refers to herself as God’s [slave]
Luke 2:29 Simeon refers to himself as the Lord’s [slave]

See the other references marked with a = in the word-study concordance.

C. But are we really slaves? A slave has no rights or status. What about the following?

John 8:35 a son belongs to the family forever
John 15:15 I no longer call you servants … but friends
Romans 8:15 you received a Spirit of sonship [adoption]
Galatians 4:7 you are no longer a slave, but a son
Philemon 16 better than a slave, a dear brother

We must understand that whereas we are slaves of God, we do not (necessarily) have the social position of a slave. If we do not keep this clear, we will not correctly understand the question, “Does God want me to be a slave?” Why do we have difficulty accepting the scriptural lesson that we should in some sense conceive of ourselves as slaves?

1. A slave has no choice about what he is supposed to do (we think we always do, but there is at least one choice we cannot make except Jesus Christ help us; cf. John 8:36)
2. We forget that our slavery is to God (not a human master). Consequently, our slavery is not exactly like the social institution; we are simultaneously adopted sons and friends of Jesus. Note the important role reversal in Luke 12:37 and compare Luke 22:27 (but don’t forget Luke 17:7-10). The tension for us may be
expressed as “hope without expectation.”

D. By nature, all men are slaves to something or someone. For example:

Matthew 6:24 Money (cf. Luke 16:13)
John 8:33-36 Sin
Romans 6 (esp. vv. 7, 16) Sin or Righteousness (cf. 2 Peter 2:19)
note also Romans 7 (esp. vv. 14, 25) and 8 (esp. vv. 2, 6-8)
Galatians 4:1-8 “basic principles of the world”

2 Peter 2:17-21 depravity

Conclusion: Whatever controls you is your master: will you be a slave to
sin or a slave to righteousness?

II. Implications for the Christian

A. Christ’s example

Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45 “I came to serve” Luke 22:26-27 “I am among you as one who serves”
John 13:14-15 “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet [a slave’s job], you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Romans 14:1-15:9 “even Christ did not please himself” (15:3); “Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth …so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy (15:8,9)  Philippians 2:1-11 “but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant [slave]” (v. 7)

B. The believer’s obligations and responsibilities

1. to be ready at any time (Matthew 24:36-51, esp. v. 46; cf. Luke 12:35-48)
2. to serve (Matthew 20:26-27; cf. Mark 10:43-44)
3. to be concerned for another’s salvation (1 Corinthians 9:19)
4. don’t detract from God’s name (1 Timothy 6:2)
5. serve anyone as “unto the Lord” (Colossians 3:22-25; cf. Matthew 25:44)
6. to respond in obedience (Luke 7:8)
7. to remember one’s position (Luke 17:10; John 13:16)
8. do even more for fellow believers (1 Timothy 6:2)
9. don’t “lord it over” your peers (Matthew 20:25)
10. to serve one another in love, i.e., serve as a slave, or perhaps better: “be subject one to another in love” (Galatians 5:13;
cf. Ephesians 5:21)
a. we must remember that we are all part of one body; we should be developing a sense of community with the goal of growth (Romans 15:2)
b. and if we don’t, we’ll destroy ourselves (Galatians 5:15)

C. How to serve (preliminary list; not an attempt to be exhaustive)

1. Acts 11:29 give money (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:4-9:13)
2. Acts 19:22 missions (both send, and be sent)
3. 1 Corinthians 16:15 help (cf. Ephesians 4:1-16, esp. v. 12)
4. 2 Corinthians 6:3 don’t allow your service to be discredited by being a stumbling block (cf. Romans 14)
5. 1 Peter 4:10, 11 use whatever your spiritual gift is to serve others (cf. 1 Corinthians 12, 13, esp. 12:5)
6. Philippians 2:3-4 be constantly aware of others needs
7. Matthew 25:35-36 physically and spiritually meet those needs (examples: the woman at the well; the 10 lepers)

III. Conclusions for body life

A. Community/edification (Galatians 5:13)
B. Serve one another (Ephesians 5:21)
C. doulos stresses almost exclusively the Christian’s complete subjection to the Lord (vertical relationship) which entails service to others
D. diakonos is concerned with his service for the church, his brothers and fellow-men, for the fellowship, whether this is done by serving at table, with the word, or in some other way (horizontal relationship).

Do yourself the favor of actually reading through this special concordance. The words of Scripture are more powerful/effective than any other comments. Notice how often doulos and diakonos occur in the same
passage/context. The goal of this exercise is to help you discover the semantic range of these terms and hence develop understanding and thereby application for your own life.

The following key is to additional notes in the concordance.

– everyone is a slave to something/someone
– the special nature of a slave for Christ
– examples of the use of “slave for God” and “slave for Christ”
– the example set by Christ
– the obligations and responsibilities of a slave for Christ
– how to serve
– aid to definition or of special interest

The English word used to translate from either group is set off by >< or ][ according to the following system:]slave[ – “usual” translation of Greek word (primary definition and meaning)
“servant” – cross-cultural translation of Greek word (primary meaning)


[This following section is condensed from the articles pertaining to doulos and diakonos in Colin Brown’s New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Zondervan). The concordance accompanying this study was constructed by using the Englishman’s Greek Concordance of the New Testament (Zondervan) to get a list of verses in which the doulous group and the diakonos group occur. Then the NIV text was entered for each phrase where one of these words was used. Finally some special helps were added to aid in appreciating the impact of each verse on the understanding of servant/slave.]

In order to appreciate the nuances of the meaning of doulos in the NT we must first see what its attitude is to the position of the slave in society.  This can be found out principally from the parables of Jesus.

1. occasionally, responsiblity: Matt. 24:45
2. absolute obedience to master: Matt. 8:9
3. no one can be a slave to two masters: Matt. 6:24
4. entitled to no profit or thanks: Luke 17:7-10
5. the master could use his unlimited power over the slave
a. for good: Matt. 18:27
b. for unmerciful punishment (if guilty): Matt 18:34; 25:30

The NT resists the contemporary verdict on slaves as a contemptible lower class by the use of doulos in the parables of Jesus to describe the relation of all men to God. The sociological problems of the division of society into slave and master are mitigated by the fact that God’s revelation in Jesus Christ shows that all men are in the relentless grip of a completely different sort of slavery: a slave of sin (Rom. 6:17). It can consist of

1. a miserably meticulous observance of the “letter” in the hope of salvation: Rom. 7:6,25
2. a slavish adoration of the mediating cosmic powers: Gal. 4:3, 8f
3. a frenzied horror of death: Heb. 2:15
4. the service of the belly: Rom. 16:18
5. the service of one’s lusts: Titus 3:3

One cannot free oneself from this servitude of sin by one’s own efforts nor change masters by one’s own decision. Only he whom the Son sets free is really free (John 8:36). Christ’s redemption frees one for obedient service under the command of the Kyrios (Lord) (Rom. 12:11; 14:18; Col. 3:24) and leads one into the service of righteousness in the new Spirit-given nature (Rom. 6:18; 7:6). Paul sees himself, called to his office as an apostle, as in a special way a doulos Christou jesou “servant of Christ Jesus” (Rom. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Gal. 1:10). This title is also used to refer to the office of one of his colleagues like Epaphras (Col. 4:12). Used as a title, doulos is closest in sense to diakonos, servant, which is frequently used in Paul’s writings of the apostolic service of witness (Col. 4:7, diakonos kai syndoulos, “Servant and fellow slave”). Here, as elsewhere, the distinctive thing about the concept of the doulos is the subordinate, obligatory and responsible nature of his service in his exclusive relation to his Lord. At the same time, all who are called to freedom are set to serve one another in love (Gal. 5:13). Paul made himself a slave of all (1 Cor. 9:19); in the service of the gospel (Phil. 2:22) he is the servant of the community for Christ’s sake (2 Cor. 4:5). He who would be first in Christ’s community must be its slave (Matt. 20:27).

Consider the dignity given to slavery by the bestowal upon the Kyrios of the title of doulos. Christ divested himself and took on the form of a servant (Phil. 2:7, morphen doulou labon). Above all, the statement of Phil. 2:7 shows the theological significance of this group of words. When Christ takes on the form of a slave, he enters into full solidarity with mankind in its subjection to sin, law and death. As servant, he is subject to the nomos (law; Gal. 4:4) and bears its curse (Gal. 3:13). It is the form of the servant that exactly describes Jesus Christ’s incarnation as the deepest self- abasement. Thus the Lord’s form as a servant unmasks the nature of unredeemed man as douleia. This slavery is that of sin, i.e. man’s obsession with the illusion that he can make or maintain his own life and freedom with reference only to himself and in his own power.

Jesus Christ alone redeems man from the slavery of sin with the price of his death. The metaphor of sacred emancipation from slavery is here united with the idea of a change of masters. Believers “having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:18; cf. v. 22). This emancipation from the bondage of a supposed independence into freedom does not lead to a new independence. Rather, the one released from slavery to sin is set free for the “obedience of faith” which he presents to his Lord, Jesus Christ, as his servant (Rom. 12:11; 14:18; Col. 3:24; cf. 1 Thess. 1:9; Rom. 7:6). Yet this new relationship of master and servant is dominated, not by “the spirit of slavery [pneuma douleias] to fall back into fear”; believers “have received the spirit of sonship [pneuma hyiothesias]” (Rom. 8:15).  However, the freedom of God’s sons is not to become “an opportunity for the flesh.” Hence, the redeemed are called upon to “serve one another in love” (Gal. 5:13). This sort of service of love to one’s neighbors is rooted in Christ’s love in taking the form of a servant (cf. the exhortations of Phil. 2:1-4, which are causally related to Phil. 2:5 ff.). As a doulos, Jesus showed his love to his disciples by washing their feet (the duty of a slave), “that you also should do what I have done to you” (John 13:15). The nature of Christ’s loving work thus prevents anything like the orthodox, pharisaic separation of God’s service from the service of one’s neighbor. The freedom that is found in the obedience of faith expresses itself in loving service of one’s neighbor.

Hence, he who would be first in Jesus Christ’s community must be its slave (Matt. 20:27). It is not left to the choice of individual members of the community to decide whether or not to subject themselves and join this community. It is precisely the concept of douleuo, in contrast to that of diakoneo, that emphasizes the obligatory character of the service for God and to one’s neighbor that is the duty of the community of those who have been set free by Jesus Christ.

doulos: slave (124 uses, including: 30 Paul, 30 Matthew, 26 Luke) douleuo, douloo: be subject, serve (33 uses) douleia: slavery, bondage (5 uses) doule: slave (female; 3 uses)

Matt 6:24 “No one can ]serve[ two masters…”You cannot ]serve[ both God and Money.”I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
10:24 A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master


The primary meaning of diakonos is “the one who serves at table” (Matt 22:13, where there is an eschatological note; John 2:5, 9). It means a servant in a wider sense in Matt. 20:26 and Mark 10:43 (cf. Matt. 23:11), and a helper in Eph. 6:21; Col. 4:7. Especially in Paul, the word receives a specifically Christian sense, for example:

1. a servant of the new covenant (2 Cor. 3:6)
2. a servant of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:15)
3. a servant of Christ (2 Cor. 11:23; Col. 1:7; 1 Tim. 4:6)
4. a servant of God (2 Cor. 6:4)
5. a servant of the gospel (Eph. 3:7; Col. 1:23; cf. 1 Cor. 3:5)
6. a servant of thte church (Col. 1:25)
7. Christ is called a diakonos (of Israel) (Rom. 15:8)

In Phil. 1:1 and 1 Tim. 3:8-13 diakonos is used of a man holding the office of deacon in the church; the same title is applied to a woman, Phoebe, in Rom. 16:1; this office may be intended by 1 Tim. 3:11.

The NT meaning of diakoneo is derived from the person of Jesus and his gospel (Matt. 20:28 and Mark 10:45). It becomes a term denoting loving action for brother and neighbor, which in turn is derived from divine love, and also describes the outworking of koinonia (fellowship). When Jesus served his disciples and men in general, it was a demonstration of the love of God, and of humanity as God willed it. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet as an example (John 13:15) to challenge the disciples; the leader among them was to be as
one who serves (Luke 22:26; cf. Matt. 20:26, Mark 10:43; Matt. 23:11). Everyone should serve with the gift God has given him (1 Pet. 4:10). Anyone giving food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, clothing the naked, or visiting the sick and imporisoned (Matt. 25:35 f.) is serving Christ himself. This summons to service becomes binding because behind it stands the sacrifice of Jesus, who came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). 1 John 3:16 draws from this sacrifice the conclusion that “we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.”

The fellowship of the common meal, which involved serving at table (Acts 6:1), remains basic for the understanding of diakonia in the NT. We have to think of “the breaking of bread” in private homes, of the love-feasts in which the rich cared also for the poor, and the house-churches like that in the house of Stephanas which had devoted itself to diakonia (1 Cor. 16:15). Consider the following aspects of this service:

1. strength and possessions were used for others
2. the principal and maintaining element of fellowship (2 Cor. 9:13; cf. Acts 5:4; 2 Cor. 9:7)
3. extended from the local church to churches elsewhere that needed help (Acts 11:29; 2 Cor. 8:3 f.; 9:1-5)
4. the spiritual and physical diakonia of giving and receiving takes place in acknowledgement of the sacrifice of Christ (2 Cor. 8:9; 9:12-15).
5. comprehends body and life (2 Cor. 8:5) as well as money and possessions
6. becomes a means of edification of the whole body of Christ (Eph. 4:12)
a. that is why Paul calls the charismatic gifts “services” (diakoniai;
1 Cor. 12:5), parts of an organic whole
b. diakonia can also be used for each particular spiritual gift (Rom. 12:7), just as the deacon is one among all the others who serve
c. even more, the whole church becomes a body for service in the world (Eph. 4:1-16); it is composed of members, the “servants,” and functions in preparation for the Lord’s return.

Important for our understanding of diakonos is the difference between it and doulos. doulos stresses almost exclusively the Christian’s complete subjection to the Lord; diakonos is concerned with his service for the church, his brothers and fellow-men, for the fellowship, whether this is done by serving at table, with the word, or in some other way. The diakonos is always one who serves on Christ’s behalf and continues Christ’s service for the outer and inner man; he is concerned with the salvation of men. Concern with God’s salvation includes body and spirit. Hence, Paul was as concerned with the collection (2 Cor. 8:4; 9:1, 12 f.) as with the gospel. Proclamation and help
through actions complement one another.


Brent Thorwall
Crystal Lake Evangelical Free Church
Homebuilders Sunday School Class
October 20 and 27, 1985

Computers for Christ – Chicago

“Serve.” Article by K. Hess covers these words: diakonos: servant, deacon. diakoneo: serve, support, serve as a deacon. diakonia: service, office, aid, support, distribution (of alms, etc.), office of a deacon.

“Slave.” Article by G. T. D. Angel covers the following words: doulos:  slave. doule: slave (female). douleuo, douloo: be subject, serve. douleia: slavery, bondage.