Slave, Servant, Son

(The Nationalist, 21 April 2000)


There’s a tradition in the Russian Orthodox Church that people have one of three basic attitudes towards God: the attitude of the slave, the servant, or the son/daughter.

A slave is motivated by fear, especially the fear of punishment. He makes no decisions about anything; he is to be seen and not heard. He has no personal responsibility; that’s in the hands of others. His motto is to shut up, do as he’s told, keep his head down and stay out of trouble. Underneath his apparent compliance there is resentment and hatred: why do I have to be like this, to do this work, to take orders from so-and-so? Why can’t I do what I want? He will do as little as possible and get away with as much as possible. His morals are those of the cute hoor: keep up appearances, and, above all, don’t get caught. This results in a personality which is cunning and devious, and refuses to grow up and take responsibility for itself.

It’s a mistake to assume, as free people do, that slaves always want freedom. A long period in slavery can lead to the internalization of the slave mentality, to wanting and even preferring the security of slavery to the risk of freedom, and to actively and willingly participating in the perpetuation of the slave condition: fear of the insecurity and uncertainty that freedom would bring; fear of having to make choices and decisions, fear of responsibility, fear of growing up.

The servant has a self-seeking frame of mind. The question he asks is, ‘What’s in this for me? What do I get out of it?’ It was the question of Saint Peter, ‘What about us who have left everything and followed you?’ Who is so high-minded that such thoughts never crossed his/her mind?

The servant has a legalistic frame of mind: he goes by the book, follows the rules and takes no risks unless there is the clear expectation of a reward. He’ll do what’s required and no more. He’s watching the others to see if they’re getting more than he is. He may see the generous, willing volunteer as a naïve fool – or perhaps a threat. His rule-based outlook is a good servant – but a bad master. He starts with God as his ruler, and he ends with rules as his God.

Law, or rules, set a basic requirement below which one should not go. Love goes further and asks the question ‘What more can I do?’ Jesus said, ‘I do not call you servants any longer… I call you friends.’ (John 15.15)

Where the motive of the slave is fear, and the servant is self-interest, that of the son or daughter is respect, loyalty, generosity, self-giving. Being a son or daughter means growing up, being responsible, making choices, taking decisions – and being accountable for them. The prodigal son took the wrong decisions, but he remained a son all the same. ‘I tell you solemnly, everyone who commits sin is a slave. Now the slave’s place in the house is not assured, but the son’s place is assured.’ (John 8.34-35)

Being a son or daughter means having the courage to speak openly, the loyalty to look beyond one’s self to the needs of the other, being ready to walk the extra mile, to give without counting the cost. The son/daughter is not bound by rules, not because they ignore or disobey them, but because they go beyond them. They don’t say, ‘I make my own rules’ – that’s the attitude of the adolescent – but ‘I make the rules my own’. They absorb the meaning and purpose of the rules, so that while being faithful to their spirit they are able to be flexible with the letter – responsibly. They are able to think of freedom not only from but also – and more importantly – for, e.g. for service to others.

The Russian Orthodox lay theologian, Alexei Khomiakov said, ‘The will of God is a curse for the slave, law for the servant, and freedom for the son of God.’ It is clear which it is that Jesus Christ calls us to be. He taught us to call God our Father.

“Everyone moved by the Spirit is a son of God. The spirit you received is not the spirit of slaves bringing fear into your lives again; it is the spirit of sons, and it makes us cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’ The Spirit himself and our spirit bear united witness that we are children of God. And if we are children we are heirs as well; heirs of God and coheirs with Christ, sharing his sufferings so as to share his glory.”(Romans 8.14-17)