In the opening verse of his most famous letter, Paul tells us the first thing he wants us to know about him. Here’s the Holman Christian Standard Bible:
Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus. (Rom 1:1) (HCSB)
He is a slave to Jesus, the Jewish Messiah.
But there is some friendly debate over whether the Greek word being translated there should be rendered “servant” or “slave.” Here is the recent revision of the same translation, the Christian Standard Bible:
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus. (Rom 1:1) (CSB)
Which one is right?
Both are, because they both show off a brilliant rhetorical move. Paul is using a paradox; choosing “slave” over “servant” sharpens that paradox, so I tend to prefer it. But the upshot is the same whichever rendering you go with: only when someone is completely submitted—even chained—to Christ is he truly free.
The power of paradox
When John Piper calls himself a “Christian Hedonist,” and when C.S. Lewis calls the Resurrection “True Myth,” many Christians recoil—as they should, at least initially. These writers are being purposefully shocking in order to teach a truth: true pleasure is found only in Christ, and Christ’s resurrection both really happened (“True”) and is a world-ordering epic story (“Myth”). Paul is using the same kind of rhetorical tool.
Paul’s rhetorical move is brilliant and paradoxical not just in first-century Rome but in its cultural heir, modern American society. From our earliest moments in front of the television we learn that freedom means no constraints; I can do whatever I want.
Q: Can I dye my hair neon pink? Can I stay up all night on a Netflix binge?
A: Well, it’s a free country.
The Army marketing slogan from 1980 to 2001 was “Be All You Can Be!” Previous generations of soldiers were attracted to the American military by the promise of being assimilated into a larger whole for the good of an even larger one, namely the nation (and many soldiers are still attracted by this vision). But by the year of my own birth, even the ultimate exercise in giving up one’s self-determination was painted as a way to actualize what’s inside you, to help you express yourself and be a better you. I’m not saying self-improvement is a bad desire, or that the Army fails to deliver it. It’s just that such an appeal fits (and shapes) our cultural moment.
It would be comical, if it weren’t so sad, how often characters in American movies and TV shows tell each other, “You’ve got to discover who you truly are and then just be yourself.” This is an old idea. Emerson said,
To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.
Even the youngest Hollywood stars keep repeating the mantra. Here’s Bindi Irwin, now age 19, preaching the same message:
To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself.
You just won’t ever hear a mainstream starlet introduce herself by saying, “I’m a slave.” And here’s Paul, whose very first words in his most important letter are not “Be yourself” but “Be someone else’s.”
Tim Keller is one of the sharpest Christian culture watchers out there. He points out that “the modern concept of freedom is . . . the absence of any constraint.” But, he points out, this doesn’t work: middle-aged men cannot exercise their freedom to eat unhealthy foods without restricting other freedoms and retaining the same pant size. Keller comments,
Freedom is not, then, simply the absence of restrictions, but rather consists of finding the right, liberating restrictions. Put another way, we must actively take tactical freedom losses in order to receive strategic freedom gains. You grow only as you lose some lower kinds of freedom to gain higher kinds. So there is no absolute negative freedom. (Keller, Preaching)
Paul gave up worthless freedoms to get better ones—freedoms he could only get as a slave. In Christianity, “Slave of Christ” is a title of honor, just as being a slave in the household of Caesar was an honor. John Murray got it right: “When the Master is the omnipotent Lord of the universe, the slavery is a consummate privilege and a passionate delight, as well as being infinitely worthwhile” (136).
For the Christian, “slave” is a paradoxically honorific title. Our bodies, our time, our talents are his. If he says to do or think or love or remember something; if he says to avoid or forget or hate something—we say “How high?” And yet this is a master whose yoke is easy, whose burden is light. This is the kind of master who takes a towel and wipes his slaves’ feet—and then lays down his life for them, displaying a love compared to which there is nothing greater. If we ever think to ourselves, as the nations do in Psalm 2, “Let us burst his bonds and cast aways his cords,” we won’t find freedom; we’ll simply find new chains, terrible ones instead of glorious ones.
Paradox lies at the heart of the Christian faith. To be a theologically orthodox Christian you have to accept the apparent paradox that God is three in one. You have to accept an eternal, infinite God incarnate. You have to accept a divine-human book.
Only a slave of Christ will have the freedom to base his life on these world-shaping truths.
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (forthcoming, Lexham Press).
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