For thousands of years, servants have suffered at the lower end of the social ladder. In the story of Abraham, his servants are listed among his sheep and donkeys (Gen.12:6). The Mosaic Law allowed for any misbehaving servant to be flogged within an inch of his life providing he could stand up after two days and work again (Ex.21:21).

The example of Joseph illustrates in a dramatic fashion the slide from the status of favourite son to that of a captive in a pit, his years as a servant and imprisonment again, followed by his rise to be chief administrator in Egypt. Nothing could portray his nadir more clearly than casting him as a servant of foreign prison wardens, servants themselves. It was the pits, as they say.

It was similar in the Hellenic world. The Greeks valued freedom as paramount in life. Servanthood was to be avoided at all costs because it forced you to do what you did not necessarily want to do, what someone else could do or what had already been done a thousand times. The mundane was dehumanising, they believed.

The Hebrew word “servant” (ebed), notably, had a few shades of meaning. It not only meant a slave or household servant but also a ploughman, a free subject of the king, and a worshipper of God in the sense that worshippers were subservient to the supreme Being (e.g., Deut 32:36).

The concept of serving is expressed by a number of Greek words, each with its own special meaning. Pais refers to a child servant (e.g., Matt 8:6,8). A servant, oiketes, carries the specific sense of an ordinary domestic servant, as when Jesus said, “No servant (oiketes) can serve two masters (Lk 16:13). The more common word, doulos, is generally translated as “slave.” Paul wrote: “Offer the parts of your body in slavery (doulos) to righteousness (Rom 6:19)”. But the most fitting use for us at GNU is diakonos, meaning one who ministers. Jesus said: “The greatest among you will be your servant (diakonos)” (Matt.23:11). In this word “there is a stronger approximation to the concept of a service of love” (Kittel, Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words, vol.2, p.81).

Servanthood motivated by altruistic love is a most desirable value.

– Milton Hook