ARE WE “SLAVES” OR “SERVANTS” OF CHRIST? A DISCUSSION ABOUT BIBLE TRANSLATION AND THE HCSB

Holman Christian Standard Bible

ABSTRACT: The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) offers an excellent contemporary translation alternative. However, the HCSB may present a potential unnecessary offense to some black readers by translating the Greek word “doulos” as “slave” in most occurrences regardless of context. This comes at a time when the Southern Baptist Convention is making good faith reconciliatory efforts toward the black community. The article is intended to spark reasoned discussion and not meant to be critical or divisive.

INTRODUCTION

About 2004 I purchased a leather-bound Holman Christian Standard Bible New Testament (HCSB). I heard that the HCSB was being produced by the Holman Bible Publishing Company so that Lifeway could include readings from the new version in Sunday school material as a contemporary translation of the Bible. Like many Southern Baptist church pastors, I began trying out the HSCB for teaching and preaching and at the outset a challenge was presented. In a Bible study of Philippians 1:1 a young black woman I had baptized raised some concern over a word in the verse. Here is the verse:

Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus: including the overseers and deacons. Philippians 1:1 (HCSB)

The word in question was “slaves.” Her comment was, “What does it mean to be a slave of Christ? One becomes a “slave” by force but one becomes a “servant” or “bond servant” by choice as other Bible versions translate the word. She said the verse created a troubling image in her mind as a new Christian. She could not envision Jesus forcing her to believe with a whip in hand. She had come to know Jesus by his love. Her question was thoughtful and one that other Christians of color are asking.

I began trying out the HSCB for teaching and preaching and at the outset a challenge was presented. In a Bible study of Philippians 1:1 a young black woman I had baptized raised some concern over the word “douloi” translated “slaves.” …She said the verse created a troubling image in her mind as a new Christian. She could not envision Jesus forcing her to believe with a whip in hand. She had come to know Jesus by his love.

I raise the issue herein respectfully not as a biblical language translator, though my seminary education included biblical languages. I am certainly not a biblical languages expert. However, the issue is important as my church is becoming a truly multicultural church. Have other church leaders heard comments or a rejection of the HCSB over the same issue? Why would the HCSB translators choose to translate the word “doulos” as “slave” in almost every case? Other options such as “servant” or “bond-servant” were available that would 1) make the proper translation equally well, and 2) avoid offending American blacks who have been deeply affected by slavery and the civil rights movement. It is interesting that some have started calling the HCSB the “Hard Core Southern Baptist” Bible. Will the HCSB receive broad use and perhaps cross denominational lines? Only time will tell but it will certainly be interesting to see whether the HCSB receives acceptance in the African-American community and culture.

Few non-blacks can comprehend how the issue of slavery continues to hurt and affect people. Just a few days ago a black leader in the church told a story of how his great grandfather was “lynched” for taking his own pig that had escaped to the neighboring farm that belonged to white people. He spoke of the disturbing event as if it happened recently. There should be greater sensitivity regarding the issue.

COMPARATIVE TRANSLATION OF THE WORD “doulos

A comparison of how various Bible versions translate the Greek term “doulos” indicates that two popular contemporary versions translate it to “slave.”

  1. KJV= servant
  2. NKJV= bondservant
  3. NIV= servant
  4. ESV= servant
  5. NLT= slave
  6. HCSB= slave
  7. NASB= bond-servant
  8. Amplified= bond servant

Which is most correct based on definition in the original language AND the context of biblical usage, AND how the reader will likely understand in the receptor language?

Holman Christian Standard Bibles

To be fair and accurate, the NKJV has 20 occurrences of “doulos”  translated as “slave” due to context and 81 occurrences of the same word translated as “servant.” The HCSB has 72 occurrences of “doulos” translated as “slave” or “slaves” and 3 occurrences of the word translated as “servant” or “servants.” Please realize that there are a few other Greek words that may be translated as servant or slave often indicating a child. However, it is clear that the HCSB translators made a choice to translate most occurrences of “doulos” as “slave” even when another choice was available. A small and insignificant point? Let the reader decide. I would love to hear the opinions of African-American Christians on this point.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  • To what degree is the receptor language of Bible translation important to translators?
  • To what biases are the translators susceptible?
  • Does the translation committee reflect racial diversity and sensitivity?
  • What is reflected in the “proceedings” regarding the translation of words in question?
  • To what degree is the committee aware that they are reaching beyond several demographics of social strata?

INSENSITIVITY, COMMITMENT TO ACCURACY, OR A MISTAKE?

It is true that the Greek word “doulos”  may infer voluntary or involuntary servitude so why raise the question? I pastor a church that has made a commitment to be a multicultural disciple-making church. We are one church with two congregations with the active church membership being about 50% white and 50% black. As the reader can imagine, merging a largely black congregation into a white congregation presents more than several challenges. The leaders are always on guard for issues of insensitivity and misunderstanding between the two cultures of the church. As a result, I do not use the HCSB because the translators were slavish regarding the translation of the term “doulos” as “slave.” I believe the Greek word could be translated as “servant” or “bondservant” and avoid the potential problem.

Christians in America will cross oceans to reach races of other nations with the Gospel but we must learn to cross the street.

Is this an example of insensitivity, a commitment to accuracy, or a simple mistake? Cultivating relationships in a multicultural church has required me to immerse myself into the culture of black Americans. It is unlikely that the translation committee for the HCSB considered the issues discussed herein. It is ironic that the release of the HCSB with the identified issue, comes at a time when the SBC is trying to be inclusive to black churches and leaders. It may indicate a lack of missionary prowess on the part of the coordinating leaders and agencies of the SBC.

QUESTIONS:

  1. Is this discussion much ado about nothing or is it meaningful?
  2. Do you understand the cultural barriers between Christians of differing races?
  3. Do you think the HCSB publishers should consider the issue discussed herein in a future revision?

SD Blessings,

Dr. Tom Cocklereece

——————–

Dr. Tom Cocklereece is CEO of RENOVA Coaching and Consulting, LLC
He is a pastor, author, professional coach, leadership specialist, and is 
a member Coach/Teacher/Speaker for the John Maxwell Team

Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Web | Blog | Book | Coaching

5 Responses to “ARE WE “SLAVES” OR “SERVANTS” OF CHRIST? A DISCUSSION ABOUT BIBLE TRANSLATION AND THE HCSB”

  1. Mark Penrith Says:

    Hey there, the photo of the Bibles, is it your own? Free to use in other posts?

    PS, Nice blog post. I prefer slave and I serve a predominately black church in South Africa. I favour slave because it uncovers the culture the writer was writing to and transports us out of our 21st century environment.

  2. Tom Says:

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for your comments. Both of the Bible photos were taken by me and you may use them if you like with credit to me, “Photo by Tom Cocklereece”

    Thanks,

    Tom

  3. Phil Says:

    Dr. Tom, thank you for broaching this topic. It’s Memorial Day, a great time to study history and the Bible. Before finding your blog I came across an essay at http://www.bible-researcher.com/slavery.html. This reply is partially a response to your question about the definition of servant-hood, and to Michael Marlowe’s treatise against political-correctness.

    The Holman Christian Standard Bible should either skip translating “doulos” in Philippians 1:1 (and similar verses) or write “servant”. This change would put acceptance of Christ into the proper context: That of free will. Christians make a fresh choice every day to follow Jesus. They aren’t forced into permanent bondage to God by external means. And we don’t stop following Christ after seven years of service.

    I’m African American. I’m not the only one for whom the word “slavery” immediately brings evil to mind. The American version of slavery has a unique legacy, currently manifesting as police and “Stand-Your-Ground” gun lobbyists shooting unarmed men in the back. Many would say American slavery continues in the mass incarceration of teenagers for petty crimes, chaining them to permanent criminal records and economic disenfranchisement. American “no-escape” slavery is in a class of it’s own.

    From at least 1640 (John Punch, first man to be enslaved for life in Virginia court) to 1865 (Juneteenth’s final emancipation in Texas), African Americans survived something much more restrictive than at-will or indentured servitude. The recipients of lifelong enslavement were legally prohibited from leaving the plantation or town where they worked.

    Americanized Africans were not allowed to read or educate ourselves. Not allowed to get married at-will, had spouses and children kidnapped, sold or traded away. In many cases, had lustful, un-equal sexual relationships forced on them by “owners”. Americans are now 150 years into recovery from giving, and receiving at least 200 years of spiritual and psychological torture.

    This English word “slavery” is not the same as the Greek concept of “doulos”. Even back in Biblical times, Moses saw a need to draw a distinction between types of slavery. Freed from permanent unpaid labor and Egyptian oppression, Moses came down from the mountain and presented the Israelites with limits on the use of indentured servitude.

    Moses said God would tolerate slavery as a temporary societal construct for the expiation of debt, a type of bankruptcy. Exodus 21:2:”If you buy a Hebrew slave, he may serve for no more than six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom.”

    In Deuteronomy 15:13-15 Moses continued, “‘And when you release him, do not send him away empty-handed. Supply him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress… Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you.” Despite this admonition, former slave “owners” sent most of us off the plantation empty-handed. The Freedmen’s Bureau proposed “40 aces and a mule” but it never became reality.

    So it’s better to draw a distinction between what we went through, and Apostle Paul encouraging us to be willing servants of Christ. When given the chance, English-speaking Christians can indeed grasp foreign words in the Bible. For example, we understand a “Pharisee” to be a member of a more puritanical, separatist Jewish political sect, active in Christ’s lifetime. The term stands alone. Pharisee does not show up in modern Bible translations as “ruler-wielding Sunday-School teacher”.

    A good pastor or bible-study leader can indeed help us understand terms in historical context. Apostle Paul took whippings and being chained up for Christ’s sake; he does have reason to use language stronger than that of “servant” when describing his role in the church.

    But it would be better to just leave the word “doulos” untranslated in Philippians 1:1, or write “servant” than to use the modern English word “slave” and give Bible students the wrong impression of what God wants from our relationship.

  4. Tom Cocklereece Says:

    Reblogged this on RENOVA Coaching and commented:

    Over 30k readers of this article since it was first posted.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: