Control, Slavery, and “Biblical Surrender”

A few weeks ago, I heard a message wherein the speaker advised “surrendering control of your life to God every morning when you wake up.” (That may be a misquote, but that’s a risk I’ll have to take. Surrendering control of your life to God certainly sounds like a spiritual and Christian thing to do… but is it really? Let’s find out.

An early warning / apology / clarification to the people I’ve tagged: This note doesn’t actually have you in it. It’s just something I thought you’d find interesting. (And something I wrote). I thought it might make interesting conversation. But it’s a long (and perhaps a bit tedious) note, so I figured I’d clear that early…

Does God want control over our lives? This is an interesting question and, I think, a pretty important one. If God wants control, then we can’t just go around doing as we please within certain limits; EVERYTHING we say or do, and perhaps even THINK!, gets tossed in that bucket of God controls me. And I think at that stage, we would become little more than puppets. Puppets who have the opportunity to decide whether we want our strings pulled by God or not, but puppets nonetheless.

There are a few other things I want to explore here, but they will come later. They are: Control, Slavery, and Surrender. (These things all seem to hang out in the same clubs, so they’ll probably mishmash together.

So how do we find out if God wants control? I suppose we would look it up in the Bible! So I strolled over to biblegateway and started searching.

Here’s the list from the old testament: People control themselves (meaning emotions), people get out of control, kingdoms control other kingdoms, kings control kingdoms and treasures, and people are warned to have control over their spirits. Interesting. So far nothing about God controlling us… hmmm…

Let’s visit the New Testament: Ananias and Saphira’s land was in their control, Paul talks to Felix, the Corinthians, Timothy, Titus, and the Galatians about self-control, and Peter talks about self-control, too. The one verse that comes closest here is II Corinthians 5:14. I have reproduced it below in context (v. 13-15)

“For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are of sound mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.”

Interesting phrasing, “The love of Christ controls us.” Note what he *doesn’t* say: “Christ controls us.” This seems to imply that our love for Christ controls us, or Christ’s love for us controls us.

Maybe this is the wrong translation. Let’s try the NIV.

Not a lot new here: People controlling geographic areas is really the only thing “new” here. Also, God is mentioned as controlling the clouds, and… here’s an interesting one, Psalm 32:9 (We’ll go into that later). More stuff on self-control, Nebuchadnezzar gets control over the wild animals… ooh!

Romans 6:20: “When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness.” So righteousness controls us. That sounds like something that would *impact* every part of our lives, but not puppeteer it.

Paul also talks about control in Romans 7:5 and 8:6:
7:5 “For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death.” The sinful nature controlled us… true story.

8:6 “The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace;” Hmm… sounds like Paul’s advocating having our minds controlled by the Spirit. Let’s grab our Greek New Testament and Lexicon and look this one over.

For convenience, I’m using the NASB. The NIV is frequently considered inaccurate. Here’s how it reads: “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace,”. Here’s the lexicon: It’s got a word that I assume isn’t important because it didn’t seem to translate, the word “For,” this word “phronēma,” “sarx” (the flesh) “death,” then “phronēma,” pneuma,” (spirit or Spirit) “zōē” (life), and peace. This word “phronēma” is the word the NIV translates as “the mind controlled by” and the NASB and KJV translate as “the mind set on.” Here’s what phronēma means: “What one has in mind, the thoughts and purposes.” So here’s a rough idea of what that might mean:”

“For” [if] “what one has in mind, the thoughts and purposes,” [are] “Flesh,” “Death.” [but if] “what one has in mind, the thoughts and purposes” [are] “S/spirit,” [then] “life and peace.”

There went that argument.

Now here’s an intriguing one, one of my personal favorites, that psalm:

32:9 (NIV) Do not be like the horse or the mule,
which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
or they will not come to you.

Wait, what’s that? Don’t be like those that have to be controlled by bit or bridle? Fascinating. But let’s try a different translation:

Do not be as the horse or as the mule which have no understanding,
Whose trappings include bit and bridle to hold them in check,
Otherwise they will not come near to you.

Okay, so maybe it’s not control… but there’s this implication that God doesn’t want to force us to… come near to Him? He wants us to come of our own free will? Hmmm…

The truth is, searching for the word “control” in the Bible and not finding anything that seems to indicate that God wants control just based on that word search will never satisfy the arguments of people who believe firmly in that concept. The word “trinity,” for example, never once appears in scripture, yet it is a fundamental doctrine of good theology.

So as I tried to figure out what else I might search for, I remembered: The apostle Paul frequently refers to himself as the bond-servant of Christ. The ESV translates it simply as “slave.” But what does it *mean?* I returned to

The word bond-servant is the greek word “doulos,” pronounced “du-los.” Here’s the definition (from

1) a slave, bondman, man of servile condition
a) a slave
b) metaph., one who gives himself up to another’s will those whose service is used by Christ in extending and advancing his cause among men
c) devoted to another to the disregard of one’s own interests
2) a servant, attendant

Interesting. Now, my research techniques are not the most consistent, I must admit. However, here I had to click the link for “doulos” to see where else that greek word occurs.

It sure looks like “slave” to me. Here are some of its’ uses:

• 8:9, the story of the centurion: “I also am a man under authority… and I say to… my doulos, ‘Do this!’ and he does…”
• 10:24: A disciple is not above his teacher, or a doulos his master.
• 13:27, the parable of the tares: “The doulos [plural] of the landowner came to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field?…”
• 18:23, the parable about forgiveness: “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his doulos [plural].”
• 21:34, the parable of the vine-growers: “When the harvest time approached, he sent his slaves to the vine-growers to receive his produce.”

There’s another kind of doulos, too: Matthew 24:45: “Who then is the faithful and sensible doulos whom his master put in charge of his household to give them their food at the proper time?” Now *that’s* an interesting one. I think it sheds some light on what we’re exploring here.

And look at this one! Jesus, talking about the kingdom of heaven again: “For [it is] just like a man {about} to go on a journey, who called his own doulos and entrusted his possessions to them.” (Matthew 25:14)

This is a bit telling, isn’t it? These slaves have responsibilities and duties. In the first example, the slave’s responsibility is to give his household their food at the proper time.

Particularly in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), God is portrayed as a man who 1) has doulos’s, 2) has a lot of possessions, 3) entrusts varying amounts of money* to them, and 4) leaves and says “take care of what I gave you.” The first slave goes and risks the money “trading” with it and doubles it. The second risks the money by trading with it, and he doubles it, too! The third slave is responsible and refuses to take the chance that he could lose it… and buries it. The master praises the first and second, and punishes the third. I suspect that the first and second were honored for doing something creative with the master’s possessions, and the third was punished for allowing fear to paralyze him into doing… nothing.

*note: Biblical scholars, like most scholars, refuse to agree on a great number of things, including the value of a talent. The NASB notes say a talent is about fifteen years wages for a laborer, and the ESV claims twenty. Regardless, let’s crunch some numbers with the smaller figures. The current US minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, and the typical workday is eight hours. The typical work week is forty hours, and there are (roughly) fifty weeks in a typical work-year, counting 2 weeks vacation. So… let’s crunch the numbers: Minimum wage ($7.25/hour) x 40 hours a week x 50 weeks a year x 15 years (the smaller number) x 1 talent = about $217,500. That’s a freakin’ LOT of money. The first and second doulos’s *risked* more – to the tune of $2.17 million and 1.09 million, respectively.

So where does this leave us? Clearly, slaves are people who have a master and responsibilities. The parable of the talents gives us the impression that these people also may have some level of liberty: sometimes they get specific instructions, other times the instructions call for creativity. Slaves do the will of their master. But let’s keep looking:

I Cor. 7:23: “You were bought with a price; do not become the doulos [pl] of men.
Eph. 6:5-6: “Doulos [pl], be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.”
In Philippians 2:7, Paul says that Jesus took on the form of a doulos. Now *that* is particularly telling. The master (greek kyrios) takes on the form of a doulos. And as we know from Matthew 10:24, “a doulos is not above his kyrios.” And if Christ, the Lord (kyrios) and Teacher (didaskalos), served us, how can we but serve Him and each other? (The idea was Jesus’, from John 13:14).

Speaking of Jesus Christ the Teacher and Lord, in John 15:15, He turns the whole ship upside-down: “No longer do I call you doulos [pl], for the doulos does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you.”

Some would argue that this only applies to the disciples, but Paul makes it eminently clear that this is not the case in Galatians 3:26-4:7:
3:26: “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” (emphasis mine)
4:1: “Now I say, as long as the heir is a child, he does not differ at all from a doulos although he is owner of everything…”
4:7: “Therefore you are no longer a doulos, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.”

Still, in most of Paul’s letters, he refers to himself at least once as the doulos of Christ. There seems to be this tension between “slave of Christ” and “free in Christ.” Are we slaves, or are we sons, or are we friends? The only appropriate answer I can think of is “Yes.”

But that really doesn’t quite answer the question posed at the beginning: “Does God want control over our lives?” For this, I think that the answer is “Yes and No.” Jesus insists that everyone who sins is a doulos of sin (John 8:34) and offers freedom (8:36) via “the Son,” Himself. Paul, in Romans 6:8, declares that freedom from being a doulos of sin means “presenting yourself as [a] doulos of righteousness.” (He also says that “I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh.”)

So what does this mean? To me, it means that our relationship with God is compound, found in nature as (among many other things) doulos, friend, and son. Not one of these appears (from what I have seen) to being controlled by God in the puppeteer sense. This “slavery” seems to speak of freedom within a certain (very broad!) framework. Our kyrios, Jesus, said (Matthew 19:19) that the two most important commands are to love God with everything in us, and love our neighbor. This is our assignment as doulos [pl]. Occasionally, we will get specific assignments, but I think that if we have received none will spending time with our Father, we are free to carry out the general assignments we have already been given in the way that seems best to us, given what wisdom we have been given by God and by our fellow douloses.

The word search. The question of surrender isn’t a matter of “must we?” but “aught we?” Is that even what God wants? Is it something we should aspire to, or is our relationship with God… something else?

The word “surrender” appears six times in five verses in the NASB. The first four refer to military surrender by one human party to another. The fourth is God, in Hosea, asking “How can I surrender you, O Israel? The fifth is I Corinthians 13:3: “And if I give all my possessions to feed [the poor,] and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.” Someone once discussed with me the “doctrine of Biblical surrender.” I don’t see that anywhere here.

Let’s try the KJV, just for kicks. “Sorry! The word surrender doesn’t occur in the KJV.” Fundamentalism is in huge trouble.

The NIV is all military surrenders, with the exception of I Corinthians 13:3.

Maybe what my friend Scotty calls the Non-Literal Translation will help us out. …Nope, it’s all military surrenders, and the word in I Corinthians 13:3 was translated differently. Looks like we’re gonna have to label “Biblical surrender” as “extrabiblical surrender.”

Ah, but this could be another “Trinity” case. So I looked up “biblical surrender” on google to see what the fundamentalists were saying.

J. Hampton Keathley, III</font> (because he was first on google)

“The entire New Testament, as summarized in Philippians 2:6-8, shows us that Christ was willing to surrender His rights and prerogatives as the second person of the Trinity to the will and purpose and plan of the Father. Then, out of that surrender came the willingness to sacrifice for God’s plan no matter what the plan called for. Surrender, then, is part of the pathway to maturity and effective Christ-like ministry.”

Say what? We find Jesus in the garden saying “not my will but yours be done.” Is that surrender, at least surrender in the military term? It sure doesn’t sound like it. It sounds like Someone who is wishing there could be another way, but it so used to knowing that the Father’s will is better, one way or another. Surrender, to me, means that the other force is so overwhelmingly powerful that you MUST give in! Jesus prays that the hour could pass, but adds “not My will, but Yours be done” so that the Father’s will gets top priority. He’s in no state to be making decisions right now. He is sweating-drops-of-blood stressed-out. IF surrender is “Biblical,” it’s not in the way that surrender is typically thought of. You could almost drop this word in the “church-speak” box next to “born-again” as a term that doesn’t make sense unless you’re super-rooted in fundamentalism. (We’ll talk about God’s will in a later post. Maybe.)

Let’s hear more from J. Hampton:

Surrendering to God’s agenda in and through us requires a clear view of the agendas we have prescribed for ourselves. Most people’s lists of things they consider important would include personal peace, happiness, comfort, prosperity, security, friends, good health, fulfilling experiences, and reaching their full potential.

The above list should make the need for our surrender obvious, for those plans often conflict or ignore God’s plan for us. It’s true that God may and often does provide for us measures of peace, prosperity, position, fulfillment, and other things on our lists, but our surrender to God’s plan is a statement that we will not live for these things (emphasis mine).

I don’t hear the Apostle Paul saying anything even remotely similar to that. Here’s his version:
“But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things…” (Philippians 3:7-8)

That doesn’t sound like surrender, or even what Keathley is saying! It sounds like everything he had, he added up and compared to knowing Christ… and decided that not only were they not equal to knowing Christ, they were actually so useless they were in the negative column. Beyond that, in context, Paul is talking about anything that would make him look spiritual; all his rule-keeping and apparent holiness. This is like a pastor who, instead of saying that going to church faithfully won’t get you heaven, says that going to church is a negative on the trip to heaven!

Todd Phillips (because he was second on google)

Todd Phillips uses the word “surrender” 36 times without 1) defining it properly in its churchianity Christianese context or even 2) citing scripture that refers to it in the intent (even in the abstract) as indicative. He chooses his word and defines it by its usage. On page 8, he even looks up the definition of “surrender” in Webster’s dictionary – to compare it to the word surrender that’s… not used in that context in scripture… at all. He then states that it is “an accurate but incomplete Christian definition.”

Really, I’m beginning to suspect that somehow the word “surrender” got into the Christianese dictionary by some kind of hook or crook or invention of man, because it sure isn’t in the Bible.
This looked more promising. They have a list of references, that (sadly) must all be explored before dismissing the doctrine as biblically unfounded. Some of them, sadly, don’t even have any apparent connection with this doctrine at all! I have explored all of them, just to be safe, and notated all of them so you won’t think I’m lying.

Romans 12:1 – present your bodies as a living and holy sacrifice… nope. Not surrender, at least not the way I’ve heard it preached.
Matthew 10:39 – “He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.” Nope. Not about surrender.
Romans 5:8 – “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” What the heck? Totally irrelevant to the topic of “surrender.”
Hebrews 4:12 – the word of God is living and active… not a surrender passage.
Mark 12:28-34 – What is the greatest commandment? Irrelevant to the topic at hand.
Philippians 4:6-7 – We’ve already looked at this! Paul sees everything as a loss in view of Christ.

Matthew 6:33 – Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness… nix. This is about priorities, not “surrender.” I suppose some could extend it to “surrendering to God’s priorities,” but really… let’s not extend the scriptures to mean what they don’t say.
Colossians 2:6-7 – As you have received Jesus, so walk in Him… nope, nothing here.
Galatians 2:20 – “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me, and the life I now live… I live by faith in the Son of God…” Nice. I feel like this could almost be extrapolated into a “doctrine of biblical surrender… but it feels more like a “doctrine of Christian crucifixion.” The previous verse states that “through the law I died to the law.” I think what Paul is doing here is talking about the law and how (in the context of Romans 6-7) one who is dead has no further obligation to the law. So… not really… It’s not about surrendering… It’s about dying. Dying to yourself, dying to the law and owing nothing to them.

Ephesians 5:2 – “Walk in love, as Christ loved you, and gave Himself up for us.” Beautiful. If you want a verse that looks like a basis for “biblical surrender,” this would be it. Christ gave Himself up for us… so we should do the same for him. WAIT A SECOND. Hold the phone. I feel like “Gave Himself up FOR us” isn’t the same as “gave Himself up TO us.” I’m tossing a flag on that one. Not that we are not supposed to “give ourselves to and for God,” only that it’s not a white-flag surrender thing.

Isaiah 6:1-8 – In the year that King Uzziah died… Isaiah sees God high and exalted. He’s stunned; God asks who He can send, and Isaiah says “Here am I, send me.” (Sadly, most pastors end the reading HERE and leave out what God said to say and simply insert at this point what they want to say, because it’s what they think God wants said, even though it isn’t even what He said! (Confused yet?)

Matthew 11:28-30 – “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden…” You did NOT just take my favorite verse and try to stick it on your agenda. It doesn’t even FIT! Jesus is saying “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. 30″For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
If that’s surrender, it’s not the kind I’ve heard preached. Surrender? Surrender your exhaustion and heavy-ladenness? Surrender to exchanging that for an easy load? Heavens, YES! Somehow, though, I’ve always heard of surrender as something… very, very hard. So I’m not going to count this as an argument in favor of what is referred to as “Biblical surrender.” It doesn’t match their description.

Deuteronomy 6:1-9 – The precedent for Love God with everything and love your neighbor. No “surrender” words or implications here.

Matthew 6:6 – When you pray, pray in secret. *Suspicious look* Am I being set up here? “Surrender” your desire to get noticed? I suppose we could stretch it into that… but I still think it’s adding to scriptures things that aren’t in scriptures.

Matthew 28:1-10 – The resurrection of Jesus. Surrender? Move along, nothing to see here.
Ephesians 6:18 – Pray all the time. What the heck has this to do with ye olde spiritual-sounding surrender?

Matthew 6:10 – “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Sounds like a prayer… a prayer that God’s will will be done. Sounds like a good thing. Sounds like something I could get on board with. If one came with one’s own agenda, maybe God’s will could be a problem… and even “surrendering” wouldn’t do it. Ever hear of resistance fighters? Yeah. You pretty much have to be dead, or on board with what God wants to do.

Matthew 26:39 – Jesus in the garden. Already addressed.
Acts 9:10-19 – Ananias has a vision to go see a Christian-murderer named Paul. He freaks out, but God says it’ll be okay. Surrender?
Colossians 3:1-11 – Lay aside the old self. Sounds like instructions to die, not surrender.
Jeremiah 1:4-10 – Jeremiah’s call. Once again, a forced argument at best.

And so here we are at the end of the list on “surrender.” It seems that instead of “surrender,” something else has emerged. Something less kosher-sounding. Dying, actually. I think at this point I may safely say that there is no command or instruction, visible or inferable, in scripture, to surrender, in the militaristic-white-flag sense, to God. God is not an attacking general with huge armies who demands to be surrendered to! Rather, to Christians, he portrays Himself “standing at the door and knocking,” not waiting to come in and take over, but waiting to come in and have dinner. To fellowship. To spend time with you.

And we learned from a guy named Zacchaeus that folks who hang out with Jesus change. I don’t mean change in the sense of start liking surfing so your girlfriend will like you. I mean change in the sense of something fundamental, deep inside of you actually changes. Frequently it’s beyond something you can understand. It’s a new outlook on life. It can never be worked up, or decided on; it just happens while walking with Jesus. It’s not immediate conformance to a set of rules and regulations; it is instead a change of heart. It’s what Jesus calls a new birth. It’s not that we act like a new person. It’s that we become a new person. And this takes time. Romans 12:2 talks about renewing your mind.

I wonder, though, if being born again from above… only happens once. Maybe it’s a process.

About David M. Schell





7 responses to “Control, Slavery, and “Biblical Surrender””

  1. Tyler Emery Avatar

    Wow! Thought provoking and enlightening…you really did a nice job looking into this : )

  2. Kristen Marie Avatar

    I second Tyler. 🙂

  3. Alyssa Prutz Avatar

    I printed this out and had to read it a couple times to take it all in! Good stuff Dave!!! Thanks!!! 🙂

  4. Jaye Beatty Avatar

    Have you compared surrender to submission? Surrender is forced on someone, submission is a choice – I choose to lay down my life, set aside my wishes or needs to serve yours, etc.. I submit to authorities, to my husband, to Jesus – He gives US the choice to accept His love and His calling to grow and be discipled into maturity. So, in a way, Submission is my choice, surrender is yours.

  5. David Schell Avatar

    Yeah. Yeah, I like submission better. It kinda feels like a war of semantics… but words have meanings, and the meaning of that word has been bugging me, as well as the theology that surrounds it. (White-flag surrender).

  6. Jaye Beatty Avatar

    Surrender can be used in a different way – like surrendering your desires…or surrendering TO your desires, so White flag is part of it, but not all. Is it so hard to say to jesus I surrender(give up) all to you? :>

  7. David Schell Avatar

    Like Pastor Mike told me.. "I think you're making this harder than it really is." I tend to do that… and i need people to keep me on task and not let me get away with making stuff harder than it is. Thanks for being one of those people 🙂 I think this is more of a hangover from fundamentalism, though…

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