Problems of Translation: I Cor. 7:21

From the Differentiator magazine:
Vol. 21 New Series October, 1959 No. 5

I. CORINTHIANS 7:21"Art thou called (being) a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use (it) rather."

Twenty years ago I was called upon to revise and correct the Concordant Version of the New Testament, which, in the above verse, then read thus: "Were you called a slave? You need not care. But if you are able to become free also, use it rather."

Whether we use the word servant or slave for the Greek term (doulos) does not matter much. The term could apply to anyone in a servile position. Out of twenty-five occurrences the King James Version never once renders the verb (douleuO) as meaning to slave. It uses serve or service twenty-one times, and be in bondage four times. The noun (doulos or doulon) is found 127 times, rendered as servant 120 times, as bond six times and once as bondman.

Paul was both a servant and a slave of the Lord, and one reason for examining 1. Cor. 7:21 is that it might embrace all those who have been slaving for the Lord in some capacity.

In my criticism of the Concordant Version, I wrote as follows:

"The question is, use what rather? There is no antecedent.Had Paul said, 'if you are able to acquire freedom, use it rather,' the sense would have been quite correct. The Greekshews no word for 'it.'""This is the famous case of mallon chrEsai (rather use-thyself) which Stanley described as "one of the most evenly balanced problems in the New Testament." Up till the Reformation the sense was considered to be "remain in service." But after the Reformation the meaning was largely taken to be "take the chance to obtain your freedom if you can." Very probably what Paul meant was, if you can become free also, still make use of yourself, somehow or other. In this verse we find the only example where the verb to use has no object, unless we look at the verb as being in the Middle Voice, when it would mean "use thyself," or "make use of thyself."

The burden of the whole passage, vv. 17-24, is that each one should remain in that calling wherein he was when God called him. Was anyone called who had been circumcised? Let him not be decircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? Let him not be circumcised.
The Critical English Testament makes a good point which I have not elsewhere discovered. "Use thy power of compassing liberty, or rather, use thy servitude. For he who might become free, must have a kind master, whose service therefore, is preferable to the adoption of other callings, 1. Tim. 6:2. Compare v. 22. This explains why in v. 23 he says, not be ye not, but, become ye not (the servants of men). 'Remain rather in slavery' seems required by the language and the context; for the opposite rendering directly contradicts v. 20, and is not explained by v. 22."
Alford has much to say on the problem, and he is very definite. "Wert thou called (converted) a slave, let it not be a trouble to thee: but if thou art even able to become free, use it (i.e., remain in slavery) rather. This rendering is required by the usage of the particles ei kai (if also), by which the kai (also) does not belong to the ei (if), but is spread over the whole contents of the concessive clause. The burden of the whole passage is: Let each man remain in the state in which he was called." Alford remarks on the absence of a demonstrative pronoun after the word use, by which one is thrown back, not on the secondary subject of the sentence, freedom, but on the primary, slavery. As another strong objection to reading "take advantage of your freedom rather," he says this is utterly inconsistent with the general context. "The Apostle would thus be giving two examples of the precept, 'each one in what he was called, in this let him be remaining,' one of which would convey a recommendation of the contrary course." Another objection to "take advantage of your freedom rather" would be its entire contradiction to v. 22. Further, it would be quite inconsistent with the teaching of Paul, that in Christ (Gal. 3:28) freeman and slave are all one,—and, with his remarks on the urgency and shortness of the time in this chapter (29-31),—to turn out of his way to give a precept merely of worldly wisdom, that a slave should become free if he could. Alford then indicates the import of the verb to use in such a connection, as suiting better the remaining in, enduring, labouring under, giving one's self up to, an already-existing state, than the adopting or taking advantage of a new one.

On verse 22 Alford says: "For the slave who is called in the Lord is the Lord's freedman; similarly he that is called being free is the slave of Christ: Christ's service is perfect freedom, and the Christian's freedom is the service of Christ. But here the Apostle takes, in each case, one member of this double antithesis from the outer world, one from the spiritual. The (actual) slave is (spiritually) free: the (actually) free is a (spiritual) slave. So that the two are so mingled, in the Lord, that the slave need not trouble himself about his slavery, nor seek for this world's freedom, seeing he has a more glorious freedom in Christ, and seeing also that his brethren who seem to be free in this world are in fact Christ's servants, as he is a servant. It will be plain that the reason given in this verse is quite inconsistent with the prevalent modern rendering of verse 21."
Frederick Field, one of the Revisers of 1881, says the ambiguous phrase (rather use-thou) is explained by Chrysostom (4th century) as rather go on serving (mallon douleue), although he also knew the other interpretation, but rejected it as being "much opposite to Paul's manner."
Stanley says" the sense of the general context favours the old view: for why should Paul needlessly point out an exception to the principle of acquiescence in existing conditions of life, which he is so strongly recommending? Preference to slavery may be explained on the same grounds as the apparent preference given to celibacy (vv. 29-30)."

Although most of the English Versions favour the modern sense, a few give what must have been the primitive sense. Dewes reads, "rather remain in slavery still." Wakefield has, "continue as thou art." Goodspeed reads, "Even if you can gain your freedom, make the most of your present condition instead." The 20th Century paraphrase reads, "No, even if you are able to gain your freedom, still do your best."

Unfortunately, one of the latest 20th Century versions, the Revised Standard, thus reads: "But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity." Another modem paraphrase, that by J. B. Phillips, reads, "though if you find the opportunity to become free you had better take it." No doubt that is good worldly wisdom in our twentieth century. A pleasure-loving and leisure-loving age can only look on cessation from a life of toil as a boon greatly to be desired. But we can be Sure Paul never saw things thus.

It must not be overlooked that Paul says, "If you are able to become free ALSO." That is to say, you may remain where you are, in service, or you may also become free. There would have, been no point in the "also" had Paul meant that the slave ought to seize upon any opportunity to become independent. What is the point of v. 22, if v. 21 means that the slave should grasp any chance to get his freedom? Further, Paul reasons that even he who was called while he was a freeman, is a servant, of Christ. If then, the freeman has voluntarily become the willing slave of Christ, why should not he who has long been in service continue to make himself useful?

Alexander Thomson

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Listing of Articles

Who is our God? Chapter 1
Who is our God? Chapter 2
Who is our God? Chapter 3
Who is our God? Chapter 4
Who is our God? Chapter 5
Who is our God? Chapter 6
Who is our God? Chapter 7
Who is our God? Chapter 8
Who is our God? Chapter 9
Who is our God? Chapter 10
Who is our God? Chapter 11
Who is our God? Chapter 12
Who is our God? Chapter 13
Who is our God? Chapter 14
Who is our God? Chapter 15
Who is our God? Chapter 16
Who is our God? Chapter 17
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Acts 7:15 & 16
All Things
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An Answer to the Challenge of Hell
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Are You an Israelite? Chapter 1
Are You an Israelite? Chapter 2
Are You an Israelite? Chapters 3 & 4
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Book Review
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Common Sense
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Did the Lord give up His Flesh?
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The Problem of Evil
The Quality of Divine Love
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The Soul and the Spirit
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The Talmud of the Jews Parts 3 & 4
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The Differentiator Revisited 2009