Recently I caught the tail end of a radio program by John MacArthur, an evangelical pastor near San Diego (I’ve actually visited his church years ago, I was surprised to find people in Mennonite-ish clothing in Southern California). After he polished off his sermon he inserted a promo for what he claimed is the most important book he’s ever written (noteworthy because he’s written well over 50).
The promo claimed he’d found a startling truth that shattered his understanding of Christianity – that a Greek word traditionally translated as servant in the New Testament should only be translated as slave. Instead of seeing ourselves as servants, MacArthur suggets we should see ourselves as slaves to Jesus. He even claims it’s a cover-up that all of the English translators made this switch*.
Yes I’m making the now classic mistake of analyzing a book by it’s promo (I have no immediate plans to read the book). MacArthur is suggesting that we need a monumental shift in our identity as Christians, as the difference is not a subtle one.
I don’t doubt he’s right about the Greek. I’m no scholar. But it screams of legalistic, unintentionally manipulative religion at it’s best.
It brings up some complicated questions: Are we indebted to Jesus, or is his gift grace? Are we obligated to him because of what he’s done for us? Or are we free? Do we belong to God in a possessive way or in a paternal/relational way? (feel free to answer those questions in the comments!)
How can we be free slaves to God?
Ultimately I don’t think there’s any good way of getting Christians to see that they should be slaves. You can’t tell them what they should be – it has little power to make them what they should be. Instead I think it’s up to individual person to move toward’s seeing themselves as a slave. I think they had to reach that conclusion on their own.
You can’t tell someone they should be a slave to Jesus. They have to want to be one. They are so moved by Jesus and his sacrificial love that they want to be his slave. And so this could be the fatal error MacArthur makes – by telling people what they should be he could help capture them in the chinese-finger-trap world of legalism and religious bondage.
What do you think it means to be a slave to Jesus? Does the phrase sound a bit odd to you? What are it’s implications?
*This isn’t totally fair, as he suspects some translators changed it because of the connotation the word slave has today – likely quite different from the ancient Jewish understanding.