It's difficult to translate it into English, because our culture doesn't have an equivalent. It means slave or bondservant, but those words still don't really capture the idea. You see, the doulos chose their way of life. First century Greeks valued their freedom as much as twenty-first century Americans, and yet they still had this word because there were people who wanted to give their lives in service to another. The doulos was a servant who liked their master enough to choose a life in their service.
The word "slave" has a pretty heavy negative connotation thanks to the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade, but in the first century culture, it did not mean you were dehumanized. It was still a human position, just one of humility and servitude.
The word "bondservant" just sounds archaic, but the "bond" part has some credit to it. The root word of doulos is the word meaning "bond" or "fasten," frequently with chains in the biblical contexts. I like the term "bondservant," but it doesn't carry the severity, the umph, in English.
Doulos is a permanent, willing humility to a designated other.
I first learned the word when I was a young and naieve eighteen year old putting together a paper for Senior Bible class. I was fascinated by the concept that James the Apostle, the brother of Christ, chose this title, doulos of Christ, to start his canonical letter. I decided I wanted to be a doulos of Christ too. I thought it'd make a pretty cool tattoo.
But I waited almost six years before actually committing ink to my skin.
A lot has happened in those six years.
I just want to highlight a few things here, though. First of all, I want to explain why I chose to tattoo my body. In high school it was a cool thing to talk about doing, but I had the sense enough to think through the implications and potential complications for putting this mark on my body considering the life goals I had. I want to be a teacher at the same school I graduated from, and I know that some of the parents who send their kids there believe that tattooing yourself is a horrendous sin - based on their literal interpretation of Leviticus 19:28. Funny story, Leviticus 19:28 follows Leviticus 19:27. The same people who condemn me for having a tattoo wouldn't bat an eye at a male colleague who shaves. Those two verses are telling us something about the character of God when they're read in context. They are not a list of proof texts to pick and choose from according to our misconceptions of what God wants us to look like which are erroneously rooted in 1950s suburban white American culture.
The key text I had to deal with was not Leviticus 19:28, but 1 Corinthians 8 - meat sacrificed to idols. Paul told the believers that they had freedom in Christ, but they needed to be sensitive to their brothers and sisters who were not used to or yet comfortable with this freedom. If that meant an immature Christian told a mature Christian he or she was eating meat sacrificed to idols, the mature Christian had a responsibility to stop to keep the immature Christian from stumbling. So in my case, I knew I had the freedom to get a tattoo, but I also knew that there were immature parents in my teaching future who would not understand that freedom. Did I have a responsibility to refrain from getting my tattoo just because it would cause them to think I was a sinner?
I honestly had to wrestle with that because I didn't want to be discredited as a follower of Christ for getting a tattoo that labeled me as a follower of Christ… yeah, that happened. It was a big dilemma for me, but I talked to one of my Bible professors about it. He pointed out that Paul never encouraged Christians to pause their freedoms to keep their brothers and sisters immature. My refraining from this permanent and public declaration could be maintaining the immaturity of my brothers and sisters who might condemn me.
So I was going to get it. I wanted to have a permanent and public declaration that I was willingly giving my life to Christ. I asked my friend Angela to go with me, and she set up an appointment for me and asked if I had a picture of what I wanted. I searched online and typed the letters with the Greek font in Word. I even printed out the image I liked best in the appropriate size, but the night before I got my tattoo I realized I didn't want to be branded with those computer generated letters. I wanted a mark of ownership on my foot that represented the personal, loving relationship I have with my master.
Have you ever seen Toy Story? Andy has a personal, loving relationship with his toys, and he marks his ownership of them by writing his name on their foot. I wanted this particular name written on my foot. I didn't want a cattle brand; that's not how Christ works. I spent about half an hour writing and rewriting the Greek letters until I thought they looked perfect, and came up with the handwritten version of the tattoo you can now see on my foot.
It will always be there as a permanent and public declaration that I have an owner who loves me enough to mark me with his ownership and to allow me to be called his own.