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

Reading of 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, confirming 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?

Andrew Dionne is the pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Spartanburg, SC. He and his wife Sarah have six children.


Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. (Romans 6:16-22 NASB95)

If they want to change the text of Scripture so Christian faith is "voluntary submission to deity," why keep the language of slavery intact in Romans 6?When they retain involuntary submission to sin and righteousness above ("slaves of sin" and "slaves of righteousness") are they saying sin and righteousness have more agency in our lives than Satan and God? Honestly, scholars and their Bible publishers today won't stop until they've turned the Bible into Pat the Bunny or The Velveteen Rabbit.

The Church's officers must demand that translators and publishers serve the Word of God by allowing the Holy Spirit's choice of words to stand. 

Give it to us straight.

Thank you for this, Andrew.


The unfaithfulness of modern translators is fatiguing. What these scholars do to Scripture no one would stand for when it comes to The Velveteen Rabbit or Shakespeare or any other literature. 

I have been reading Spurgeon's Lectures to My Students. In his chapter on public prayers he laments the fact that many pastors botch the words of Scripture when attempting to quote it in their prayers. He says,

It ought to be a point of honor among ministers always to quote Scripture correctly. It is difficult to be always correct, and because it is difficult, it should be all the more the object of our care. In the halls of Oxford or Cambridge it would be considered almost treason or felony for a Fellow to misquote Tacitus, or Virgil, or Homer, but for a preacher to misquote Paul, or Moses, or David, is a far more serious matter, and quite as worthy of the severest censure. Mark, I said a 'Fellow,' not a Freshman, and from a pastor we expect, at least, equal accuracy in his own department as from the holder of a Fellowship.

...that said about quoting Scripture in public prayers. Would that those scholars charged with translating God's Word would understand the weight of their obligations and do their work as slaves of God.

If the ESV translators had a better sense of irony they never would have said that the word slave has "irredeemably negative associations." Can anyone think of a Redeemer who might have done something about this?

Can we get an account of how doulos has been handled historically? My recollection (which is often faulty) is that for most translations doulos was only changed more recently to 'slave' from 'bondservant' (like in the 20th century).

The Tyndale translation, Geneva Bible, and KJV all use "servant." I would think "servant" was a harder term back in the day than it is now.

Perhaps the Church (NAPARC?) should produce her own translation instead of relying on parachurch ministries.

The key thing with the translation of doulos is to carry through the meaning of no autonomy, choice, or self-determination. This is the universal meaning of "slave" today and it is precisely why those inclined to depend upon nuance rather than the words of God delete it. The meaning that is. And they delete it by avoiding the word that best communicates it.

So really, the question of past usages is almost moot. We live in the post-abolitionist age and 'slave' is the only word of the genre left standing.


Yes, exactly.

Ex 'servus' est. Forgive any botching of Latin there. : )

>>> 'slave' is the only word of the genre left standing.

If that's so, think of the witness of the Apostles at the beginning of their letters:

Paul in Romans:

Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God...

and again to the Philippians:

Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons...

and again to Titus...

Paul, a slave of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the faith of those chosen of God and the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness...

and James...

James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad...

and Peter...

Simon Peter, a slave and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ...

and Jude...

Jude, a slave of Jesus Christ, and brother of James, To those who are the called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ...

It whacks you awake right from the beginning of the letter. "What? A slave?" It rebukes my partial and half-hearted obedience right in verse 1, and makes me consider whether I am really willing to go on and see what my master requires of me in the next verses. Because I know if that's their calling, then it's my calling too.

Thanks very much for this, Andrew. Very helpful.

It seems like changes to the text are all over the place. I've been very irritated recently by the NASB changing all the verb tenses in the Gospel of John. 

So I'm telling a story to a couple guys the other night, and I start out, "So, I'm sitting in the grass..." and one of them interrupts me and says, "You mean, 'You were sitting in the grass.' And I say, "No. I said it how I wanted it." And he said, "Well, it means the same thing, and you wouldn't sound like such a hick if you kept your verb tenses straight." So I say to him, "I'm the one trying to make a point. I'm the one picking what to emphasize by changing verb tenses. I'm the one who wants to inject immediacy into the story, to draw the listener into the plot. I'm the story teller! How about you let me tell the story, ok?" 

I imagine John might say something like that to the translators.

Also, that story I just told is partly true. :)

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