Renowned evangelical preacher John MacArthur has been studying Scripture for more than 50 years. Yet in his new book, Slave: The Hidden Truth About Your Identity in Christ, he reveals that only recently he discovered a centuries-long “cover-up” by New Testament translators.
“Slave” is the word that almost every English translation of Scripture has avoided using, in favor of the term “servant.” But MacArthur insists that the image of a slave is absolutely critical for understanding what it means to follow Jesus.
MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, Calif., and author of more than 150 books, recently spoke to The Christian Post about his new book, the anti-government protests in North Africa and the Middle East, and his 50 years in ministry.
CP: You were a Christian your whole life and you’ve been studying Scripture for most of your life, and you’re saying that only recently you discovered what you call a “cover-up” of the term slave? Can you tell me when and how that happened?
MacArthur: It was probably four years ago or so that I was flying over to London. I had been given a copy of a book called Slaves of Christ by Murray Harris and I started to read this book and it began to dig into this issue. By the time I got over there and had followed the path of the book – the book deals with the word doulos which is the word in Greek for slave; every Greek dictionary will tell you it means slave, it doesn’t mean servant, it doesn’t describe a function; it always and only means slave. And yet it just wasn’t translated that way in any English version (of the Bible) so Harris was dealing with that issue.
I followed that up by trying to find some other studies on that, other information and I wound up looking at a journal article by a scholar from back in the 1960s in which he pointed out why the translators back in the 16th century didn’t translate the word slave. And he pointed out the fact that even back then there was so much stigma around slavery that they didn’t want to use that word. And so they started a trend and every other English translation up until today followed that trend. They will use the word slave if it refers to a physical slave, an actual slave or an inanimate slave like slave of sin or slave of righteousness. But whenever it refers to a believer, they wouldn’t translate it slave. So this just kept going and going.
Once I began to realize this I thought how have I missed this for so long? I guess it’s just that I never was prodded into it and once I did it just became apparent that because we don’t have the word slave, we therefore really don’t understand the paradigm that defines us as Christian.
CP: So what did this discovery do to your own personal faith?
MacArthur: It’s just so profoundly enriching. It didn’t add any new theology. It didn’t add any new understanding of the gospel and the realities of my relation to the Lord. It just put it in its proper paradigm. It elevated my understanding of what it means to say Jesus is Lord and it lowered my understanding of what it means to say I’m his slave. It’s just a very defining concept, a paradigm that’s unmistakable.
When you think that the word “Lord” is used 747 times in the New Testament we all understand that all Christians say Jesus is Lord. That’s our common confession. But I don’t think people get it. That’s topside of the word doulos. If he’s Lord, I’m his slave. And all of a sudden, all the sayings of Jesus – “deny yourself,” “take up your cross,” “follow me,” “why do you call me Lord and not do what I say” – all these things took on new meaning because that sets the paradigm so clearly.
CP: So how different do you think Christianity would look today if they did translate that word to say slave?
MacArthur: I think it would change everything. Even true Christians, the people who truly believe and are genuinely converted and understand the gospel, now if they understand the concept of slave, have a much I did a much richer a much more defining way to understand what the Lord has done for me, the benevolent grace which he dispenses to me – I’m a slave but I’ve become a friend and a son and a citizen and a joint heir and I reign with him – this is a new way to understand slavery, not in terms of American abusive African slave trade but in terms of I am owned by a master who loves me and wants to provide everything in his limitless resources out of that love to make my life eternally joyful. That is a concept of slavery that’s easily embraceable.
I think also because there’s a misunderstanding of this … this is an interesting thing, just to illustrate it, I read the other day the No. 1 group in the world in drawing audiences is YouTube; No. 2 is Joel Osteen. How in the world did that happen? But what’s his message? This message is whatever you want, whatever you desire, whatever you dream, whatever your heart longs for, Jesus wants to come along and give it to you. So now you have an inverted Christianity in which you are Lord and he’s your slave. That doesn’t exist if you understand what it means to confess Jesus is Lord and you’re his slave. That has been allowed to flourish to such a massive degree along with the health, wealth prosperity message which basically says the same thing – you’re in charge and Jesus will give you what you want. This whole inversion is because of a skewed understanding of doulos.
CP: You’ve long expressed your frustrations with contemporary Christianity. Do you think what you’ve discovered pretty much gets at the root of what the problem is in the churches?
MacArthur: I really do. That’s such a good perception on your part because I think this is it. Until you understand what it means that he is Lord and I’m his slave, you're going to get all kinds of things wrong. It’s what I’ve been saying for years. I wrote books – The Gospel According to Jesus, The Gospel According to the Apostles, and Hard to Believe and Reckless Faith – all these books attempting to get at the issue. But the issue really comes down to this idea that we understand what it means that he is Lord and I’m his slave. That is the most clarifying, far reaching paradigm because everything fits into that.
CP: Lately, many pastors have been expressing similar frustrations with how many Christians are essentially just minimalist or comfortable believers or are identifying with the faith only nominally. So let’s say churches all had a copy of your book and all began teaching that to be a Christian is to really be a slave. Would this cause a major exodus or a revival?
MacArthur: I think the first thing it would do is it would define who the true believers are. It’s a big problem. We’ve got churches still with non-believers, whom know they’re non-believers and many of whom don’t. They’re going to say “Lord, we did this, we did that” and he’s going to say “I never knew you.” The first thing it would do, it would provide a plum line, it would provide a reality against which people can measure the legitimacy of their profession. So I think one of the things that would happen is people would say “I don’t want that” like the rich young ruler. He runs to Jesus and he says “what do I do to inherit eternal life?” and if Jesus says to him “believe in me,” he’s going to say “okay, I’ll believe in you” and if Jesus says “pray this prayer,” he would have prayed the prayer. But instead Jesus went after the issue of who’s Lord. OK, let’s find out who’s in charge of your life. “Sell everything you have, give your money to the poor.” And he spun on his heels and left. He wasn’t about to let somebody else tell him what to do with his money. That’s a lordship issue. That’s what Jesus is saying – you’re going to acknowledge me as Lord and are you going to deny yourself and give your life to me? It’s basically like the First Commandment – have no other gods, Deuteronomy 6, love the Lord with all your heart, all your soul, all your might, all your strength, no room for any other gods. That’s why Jude 4 says that Jesus Christ is our only master and Lord. So I think that message of the true essence of the lordship of Christ would be a plum line in which people can measure the legitimacy of their profession.
I then think that for those who are true believers, they would embrace it because they are drawn to him already, they love him. That’s what it means to be a believer. True believers would embrace it. False believers perhaps some of them would come to embrace it, others would leave. The church would be better off if we could sort the true Christians out from the false ones.
CP: Currently we’re seeing sort of a revolution in the Middle East with protesters opposing authoritarian rule. They want their freedom. I wanted to get your response to the uprisings – what are we seeing, what does it signify?
MacArthur: I think there are a lot of ways to approach that but if you just talk about a biblical thing, they are all in violation of a biblical command – to submit to the powers that be because they’re ordained of God. I’m not saying Moammar Gadhafi is the best leader, I’m not saying that Mubarak is a great, benevolent and just leader, not when he’s got $70 billion in his own pockets at the expense of people.
But what I am saying is that whatever the government would be, even if it was Caesar in the New Testament, that the believers are commanded to live orderly lives, peaceful, quiet lives, subjecting themselves to the powers that be because they’re ordained of God. And the reason is any form of government is better than anarchy. You get a little bit of a taste of what’s going on right now – people are dying, property is being destroyed. You can’t have this. And inevitably what’s going to come out of this is going to be less order, more chaos, and perhaps what will come out of less order and more chaos is a worse kind of control, more dominating power that. You’d like to think that nothing but freedom would come out of this. That’s not what happened in Iran. It’s not likely to happen there because you got to bring all this mass, the violence, and this volatility under control; that becomes then a military issue. So I don’t think the future looks good.
But biblically speaking, I would have wished the American government, which has a history of Christianity, would have risen up and said “this is wrong, this is forbidden for people to do this, this is intolerable.” Look, if you live in Iran and you obey the law, you’re safe because that’s what happens. You might not like the law, you might not like a lot about it, but … obviously there are times when you have to break the law because the Lord commands us to do something the law forbids. I just think the upshot of all of this is more instability, more chaos, you can’t make a transition to democracy this way; it’s impossible. After all, who said democracy’s the best form of government? No matter what the form of government is, the Bible doesn’t advocate anything but a theocracy. Any form of government is going to self destruct because you’re dealing with corrupt people, sinful people. The Kingdom of God advances without regard for the government but from a Christian standpoint, a biblical standpoint this kind of behavior is not approved in the Scripture and freedom – certain freedoms, liberties and democracies – is not a justification for this kind of mass rioting and disobedience and overturning of governments.
The illusion is that these people are going to get freedom. But what we have to understand is that you’re either a slave to sin or a slave to Christ. As Martin Luther said in The Bondage of the Will, no sinner is free; that is the great illusion that the sinner is free. He’s only free to choose the sin. In other words, he’s only free to choose the course of his own damnation but he can’t do anything about it. This is another form of bondage. They’re going to end up in another form of bondage; they’re going to end up the same, sinful, corrupt, unsatisfied, unfulfilled people taking their same anxieties in a different direction. So it’s not a solution to anything. It’s a momentary reaction. I understand that like the French Revolution when they had enough. You know the story when Marie Antoinette they said to her the people need bread. She said well, let them eat cake and mocked their hunger. That’s what brought the revolution about. That doesn’t justify the anarchy but it explains it.
CP: So you see nothing good coming out of this? Even if it means possible religious freedom for Christians in the Arab world?
MacArthur: I don’t think religious freedom is even an issue in the advance of the church. If you look at China, I don’t know what the numbers are, tens of millions of believers in China when it was forbidden. Look at Japan which was open and free and you’ll search forever in any city in Japan to find one Christian. So democracy, freedom of religion or persecution, if you had to pick your poison I think you might want to pick persecution because you get a purer church. Now I’ve been to Russia a dozen times and the church there was so pure and so devout and yet you can go across the border from Russia into Western Europe and the church is dead, almost non-existent. And they had all the freedom. So you can’t make a case that religious freedom is a right. The powers that be ordained of God, God is the one who determines that – Acts 17 said the boundaries of the nations – these things happen within the purposes of God and God will rule through these things and overrule these things. But they don’t really have anything to do with the church and the advance of the Kingdom. It’s not tied to any form of government.
CP: You are currently 71 years old. Reflecting back on 50 years of ministry, could you provide some kind of self-reflection?
MacArthur: I would just say this – 50 years of being in the same church means that I have to say something different every week for 50 years, it’s actually 42 years, because everything I’ve said I’ve said to the same people. This has forced me every week of my life to study the word of God, to be fresh, to take a different passage. In fact in July I will finish 42 years going through the New Testament. So the benefit to me if I never preached was all these years in my study, studying the word of God, the sanctifying impact, all the powerful blessing and joy that has come to me by being in the same place, being able to consistently study. If I went to a different church every five or six years I probably would have preached the messages I preached at the last church but being in one place, going through the New Testament has been such a profound sanctifying blessing in my life.
And the other observation that I would say is that if you took a message of mine out of the 42 years I’ve been preaching, I could preach that message, and I have, in any period of time and in any nation on the face of the earth. Any sermon that I’ve preached, I could pull one out and I could preach it at any point in time over those years and at any place on the planet, which is to say that the word of God is timeless and boundless. This is a great lesson to me.
I just came back from Charleston, S.C., where I did a conference on slave in an African-American church and I preached that message there. I’ve preached that message in other countries. I’ve said so often to pastors, if your sermon can’t get out of your zip code throw it away. It has to be transcendent. If it can’t be translated into another language then it’s not a right reflection of the word of God. The great lesson of all these years is that there are all these expository messages out of the Scripture that are now available and being downloaded all over the planet and nobody cares when they were preached or where they were preached. I think that’s the living, powerful word of God that is never bound by geography and never limited by time.
CP: I’m curious, how did the African-American church receive your message on slave?
MacArthur: The pastor of the church heard me give a message on that and he said it was the most liberating message he’d ever heard and it needed to be preached to every African-American Christian in the country because they bore this heavy burden of the stigma of American slavery, which was so evil. And this washed that out and replaced it with what it meant to be a slave of Christ. It was just total change. He just came unglued and he said I want to bring you to Charleston, I want to bring you right into the African-American community and I want this liberating message to be preached to these people because they bear this heavy load of the ugliness of American slavery. I said to them that’s not your history. You’re Christians; your history is the history of the church; your history is redemptive history. Let me free you from that view of slavery and give you a glorious view of what it means to be a slave of Christ. And the response was, it was one of the most amazing events I’ve ever been to - the reception and affirmation.
CP: Do you have any other projects in the works?
MacArthur: There are always projects. I’m still working on the commentary series. I’m finishing up the New Testament, another couple volumes in Luke and a volume in Mark and I’ll be done. There is one book that’s coming out that my kids did. My four children wanted to do this. Through the years I’ve prayed pastoral prayers on Sunday mornings. They’ve collected some of these prayers and they’re bringing down a book down the road somewhere called Before the Throne. It’s just a very God-centered book that gives these prayers. I think there’s 52 of them in the book. They’re excited about that. I don’t know when it comes out, maybe in the summer.