Know ye not, that to whom ye present yourselves as servants unto obedience, his servants ye are whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? But thanks be to God, that, whereas ye were servants of sin, ye became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching whereunto ye were delivered; and being made free from sin, ye became servants of righteousness (Romans 6:16-18).
“Slave” is not exactly the type of job to which many people would aspire.
The ancient world was supported and made possible by slaves. Slaves worked fields, quarried mines, educated children, cleaned clothes and dishes, prepared food, and an innumerable host of other tasks. Their hard work allowed their masters to enjoy the leisure time they expended in noble and less than noble pursuits: philosophy, politics, scientific exploration, symposia, debauchery, etc. While the Roman system of slavery was not nearly as brutal as that of the American South from the 1600s until the 1800s, the life of the slave was still not very pleasant. They were property, supposed to be invisible, always serving at the behest of their master. Some would gain their freedom; many others would not.
Slaves had no social clout and little standing; people did not voluntarily sign up to become slaves. We can only imagine how astonishing and controversial the message of Jesus of Nazareth and His Kingdom would have sounded to ancient ears when He affirmed the value of serving others and being as a slave (Matthew 20:25-28). It would have seemed quite strange to many to hear many of the great Apostles call themselves the slaves of Jesus (e.g. Paul in Romans 1:1, Peter in 2 Peter 1:1). Who would voluntarily decide to consider themselves a slave to anyone?
As Paul is attempting to explain how Christians are not under law but under grace he speaks of how Christians are “servants” (Greek douloi, properly “slaves”) to whomever they obey (Romans 6:16-18). In such a view everyone is a slave; true freedom is illusory. The only question involves precisely whom one will serve. Paul frames the experience of coming to the understanding of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, repentance, and the conversion process in general as making the choice to no longer serve sin unto death and condemnation but to serve righteousness in obedience according to the standard of teaching to which Christians have been committed, that is, the Gospel of Christ. Paul does not deny that a free will choice was involved; believers choose to serve righteousness and not sin. Nevertheless the choice was rather circumscribed: continue to serve sin in whatever guise you want to call it, be it idols, self, lusts, etc., or serve God in Christ. With such a perspective we better understand why it would be that early Christians called themselves slaves of Jesus; far better to be a slave of Jesus than to be a slave to the ways of the world!
It is also interesting to note how the Romans obtained their slaves. Some slaves were born into slavery. Others entered slavery on account of debt. Yet the Romans obtained a large number of their slaves from their conquests in war. The people who did not die but who surrendered to the Roman forces would become the next generation of Roman slaves.
“Surrender” is a term we do not find explicitly in Scripture; nevertheless, the concept is of great importance. To surrender is to give up; it is generally understood either to give up oneself in war when one can no longer stand their ground and fight or in terms of having to give up possessions to another for some reason. In terms of the Christian faith surrender is the necessary means by which one puts oneself in subjection to or to submit to the proper authorities; one must “give up” one’s right of self-determination in some way so as to follow the orders of the one in authority. In Scripture everyone is to be subject to God and the government which is given its authority by God (Romans 13:1). Christians are to be subject to one another (Ephesians 5:21). Wives are to submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ (Ephesians 5:22-24). Children ought to submit to their parents in the Lord (Ephesians 6:1-3). Members of the local church ought to submit to the eldership when present (Hebrews 13:17). In all of these situations and relationships real submission or subjection cannot take place until the person proves willing to surrender to the will of the proper authority.
Surrendering is one of the most difficult things any of us can do; whether we want to admit it or not, we like to maintain the (often little) power we think we have. Throughout time people have not thought highly of those who surrender; in some cultures it was considered so shameful that soldiers would rather commit suicide rather than to return to their people after having surrendered. We like thinking of ourselves as being in control and doing well; especially in America “giving up” seems to be the worst possible thing one could do.
Yet let us consider surrender in light of Romans 6:16-18. Just as we are all slaves to something, whether we admit it or not, we also surrender to something. We always “give up” or “give into” something. It may be the ways of the world as communicated in society, culture, family, education, etc. It may be one’s overvalued view of self. It may just be a constant giving into one’s desires. Yet in all those ways a person is surrendering, giving into the forces at work around them. The only other way is to surrender one’s will to God so as to serve Him in Christ!
We are to consider ourselves as slaves of God in Christ, seeking to be obedient from the heart to the Gospel (Romans 6:16-18). In order to be those slaves of God we must surrender our will to Him. It may seem scary and an admission of weakness; such is why we must always remember that God is faithful and worthy of our trust and that His power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 5:7, 12:9). We should also recognize that not surrendering is not an option: if we do not surrender to God and His ways in Christ, then we are surrendering to the forces of darkness in whatever guise they have taken, be it ourselves, our culture, our education, our lusts, etc. Let us therefore prove willing to surrender our minds, hearts, bodies, souls, and will to God in Christ, trust in Him, obey Him, and advance His purposes to His honor and glory!
Ethan R. Longhenry