Word Studies in the New Living Translation δοῦλος (doulos)

Greek:      δοῦλος (doulos)
English:   servant; slave

By Mark D. Taylor, NLT Bible Translation Committee

The word doulos is used 124 times in the New Testament. In the Greek culture of the New Testament era, the term generally referred to someone who was enslaved. English translations have often used the word servant to render doulos. But the terms servant and slave tend to have different connotations in our minds. We often think of a servant as someone who is hired and then paid for work, whereas we tend to think of a slave as being owned by a master, completely under someone else’s control. Since there are both similarities and differences between ancient notions of servitude and slavery and those of our modern world, how should doulos be translated?

In many passages, the term can be translated either way. While “slave” might generally be the best corresponding word for doulos, in some contexts, especially a number of Jesus’ parables, the agency attributed to the doulos may be better understood by modern readers through the notion of “servant” (for example, Matthew 24:45-51; 25:14-30).

Sometimes, the term doulos appears alongside another word that connotes “servant.” For example, in Luke 7:1-10 we read about a Roman centurion whose young slave (or servant) was sick and near death. The centurion was eager for Jesus to heal the servant, but he sent some friends to tell Jesus, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself by coming to my home, for I am not worthy of such an honor. I am not even worthy to come and meet you. Just say the word from where you are, and my servant will be healed. I know this because I am under the authority of my superior officers, and I have authority over my soldiers. I only need to say, ‘Go,’ and they go, or ‘Come,’ and they come. And if I say to my slaves, ‘Do this,’ they do it.” [NLT]

The Greek text uses two different words in describing the individual who was sick—doulos and pais (which refers to a young person, often a slave or servant). The narrator uses doulos throughout (7:2, 3, 10), but pais is used in the centurion’s plea of 7:7. And when the centurion refers to those who are under his authority, doulos is used. The NLT distinguishes these two Greek terms in this passage by rendering doulos as slave and pais as servant. Whether we understand this young person who was healed as a slave or a servant, the key point of the story is that the centurion had great faith in Jesus’ ability to heal.

In Luke 7:1-10, some translations render doulos as “servant,” and others render it as “slave”:


Another challenge translators face is deciding how to translate doulos when the apostles use that term in describing themselves. For example in Romans 1:1, Paul introduces himself as “a doulos of Christ Jesus.” Is he referring to himself as a servant of Christ or a slave of Christ? (See also James 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1; and Jude 1:1.)

Look at how various translations render doulos in these passages where the writer refers to himself as a doulos. In Romans 1:1, for example:


In this context, the NLT translators translated doulos as “slave,” which is generally conceived as a much stronger term than “servant.” Their understanding is that these writers saw themselves not just as servants of Christ, but as actual slaves of Christ. They considered themselves to be in complete submission to Christ. Like a centurion’s slaves, they would do whatever their master (Christ) told them to do. No arguing, no exceptions. Just do it.

Do we see ourselves as slaves of Christ? Or even servants of Christ? It’s all too easy for us to say that Jesus is our friend and that we will follow his bidding when we choose to do so. But to the apostles, there was no choice. They were 100% in submission to Christ. He was not only their Savior; he was also their Lord. May we learn to view our relationship with Christ with the same level of devotion.

7 thoughts on “Word Studies in the New Living Translation δοῦλος (doulos)

  1. I thought this commentary would discuss the word “slave” as it is understood in its 21st century context. While I appreciate the distinction between doulos and pais, I want to know how the people of biblical times treated their slaves (pais). Was it the same as today, or different? I choose to be a slave of Christ, however chattel slavery is brutal. Were ancient slaves (pais) treated with same brutality as we have come to understand in the modern context? Knowing these answers would be helpful when discussing slavery with those who believe the bible condones slavery. I am not one of those, but I want to have an intelligent discussion with those who do.

      1. I’m not an expert in lifestyle issues from the time of the NT writers. But I think it’s safe to say that ownership of actual slaves ran the gamut from oppressive masters/mistresses to gentle masters/mistresses. The challenge for Bible translators is to understand the meaning of the text as it was understood by the first-century hearers, and then to translate that meaning into terminology that gives modern readers the same message.

        It’s interesting that Paul speaks directly to slaves (doulos) in Ephesians 6:5-8. Paul exhorts those who are enslaved to “obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. . . . Remember that the Lord will reward each one of us for the good we do, whether we are slaves or free.” And then Paul speaks directly to the masters in verse 9: “Masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Don’t threaten them; remember, you both have the same Master in heaven, and he has no favorites.”

        It’s clear that Paul is not condoning slavery. He is simply speaking into the culture of the day, where slavery was common. And his exhortation to the masters is countercultural—in his day and in modern cultures where slavery still exists.

  2. What a refreshing, reassuring truth. I am challenged by the words “follow His bidding when we choose to “. So subtle yet many boast that we are not servants but sons. How I desire that I will always see myself as a slave of Christ.

  3. Good stuff, and it was good timing for this truth to be introduced to me
    thank you;– God is Good and He knows what you need and when you need it
    Again thank you

  4. Thanks for sharing that application in considering ourselves as a slave to Christ. I thought it was profound in our walk as a believer.

  5. I read where the word “slave” has its origins in the Slavic race, or European culture The word servant is an English translation of the word and has nothing to do with deference or compensation for services by status.

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