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The Shepherd of Hermas: All Slaves of God

How has slavery shaped Christian understandings of discipleship?
The Shepherd of Hermas offers a rare window into slave experience in the ancient world.

by Dr. Susan M. (Elli) Elliott

Shepherd of Hermas, Catacomb of San Gennaro, in Naples, Italy, Photo by Richard Paulson

Shepherd of Hermas, Catacomb of San Gennaro, in Naples, Italy, photo by Richard Paulson. Used by permission. Click image to pop up a larger image.

“You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

Bob Dylan, lyrics from “Serve Somebody”

Bob Dylan pointedly addresses people in positions of privilege in a lyric from the brief period of his conversion to evangelical Christianity (1979-81). In a few lines, Dylan encapsulates a concept that looms large in The Shepherd of Hermas.

“You’re gonna have to serve somebody” expresses what became a widespread Christian view, a view which Hermas represented at far greater length, the notion that every community member is a ‘slave of God.’

Most of us today justifiably bristle at the notion of slavery, and many of us seek to undo its terrible legacy. Yet the system of slavery is deeply embedded in concepts and language found in early Christian texts. Ancient slavery shapes more of our religious language today than we may realize. Understanding how the slave system is embedded in Christian language can play a role in overcoming slavery’s persistent influence. Many clues to the influence of slavery can be found in extracanonical texts, including The Shepherd of Hermas.

Why bother reading The Shepherd of Hermas today?

Most extracanonical texts are shorter than the long and repetitive document, The Shepherd of Hermas. Why is it worth reading? A major reason is the unique view its author, Hermas, offers of his experience of having been a slave, a freedman, and then the head of a household. His visions offer a window into his interior experience as well as information about the world of early Christ groups.

Some basic information about this text will be helpful before we consider the implications of Hermas’s slave experience.

About The Shepherd of Hermas

Where can I find The Shepherd of Hermas?

The Shepherd of Hermas is included in the collection known as The Apostolic Fathers. The documents in this collection, including The Shepherd of Hermas, were written in the late first and early second century C.E. These documents circulated widely among Christ groups in the early centuries. The Shepherd of Hermas was particularly popular and viewed by many as of the same value as texts now in the New Testament. Some say this text was more popular even than the Gospel of Mark. While these documents were valued by the church leaders who ultimately determined which writings would be part of the New Testament, they were not finally included. Published as a collection in the seventeenth century, writings in The Apostolic Fathers offer many insights into the thought and life of the Christ groups in the early centuries.

Who was Hermas?

Hermas was a freedman who lived in the city of Rome in the late first and early second century C.E., most probably a real historical person.  He shared his visions in the collection known as The Shepherd of Hermas. He was prominent in the Christ groups at Rome although he did not have one of the leadership roles that his work mentions. He nevertheless had charismatic authority due to his visions. He had been a slave who was freed and appears to have had some financial success before his subsequent reversals. He had become the head of a household, probably one embedded in a densely populated neighborhood in Rome where people of some means, like Hermas, lived in close proximity with the poor and provided as they were able for their more indigent neighbors.

Who was the Shepherd?

The visions in The Shepherd of Hermas are organized in three sections. In the first set, labeled “Visions,” Hermas meets a female guide who embodies the church, known here as the Woman-Church. The Shepherd is a second guide, a male who takes her place in the next two sections. The second set of visions narrates commands Hermas receives from the Shepherd as moral instruction. The third set relates visions also guided by the Shepherd, usually referred to as “Similitudes.” These are similar to parables. The Shepherd for whom the text is named is this male figure who guides Hermas’s visions in the second and third sections of the text.

A Community of Disciples as ‘Slaves of God’

‘Slaves of God’?

Hermas refers to members of his community as ‘slaves of God.’ He meant that they were slaves of God rather than of some other master. In the hierarchical slave system of the Greco-Roman world, Hermas did not imagine freedom as we might think of it today. Dylan’s song says it: “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.” For Hermas, too, the question was also “Who is your master?” not whether or not to have a master.

Today we no longer live in a world where legalized slavery is assumed although the legacy of slavery lives on. Yet the experience of slavery is still reflected in Christian language as has been mentioned. Other popular Christian music also reflects the experience of slavery that Hermas assumes. We might ask, for example, what is happening when Christians of many stripes passionately sing Dr. Margaret P. Douroux’s gospel hymn:

Give me a clean heart so I may serve you.
Lord, fix my heart so that I may be used by you.
For I’m not worthy…

The Shepherd of Hermas offers a window into what may be happening in the passionate desire to become worthy by serving and being used by God. It offers insights into ways that slave experience shaped and in many ways still shapes many Christians’ understandings of discipleship.

Every Member a Slave of God…

Hermas affirms the wisdom of the choice of members of his community to be ‘slaves of God.’ For Hermas, this assumption of slave identity has the leveling effect that Dylan’s song expresses. He identifies all of the members of his community as ‘slaves of God’ and exhorts all of them to conduct themselves accordingly.

The virtues Hermas promulgates for everyone are rooted in virtues expected of slaves. Trustworthiness, from the Greek word pistis, or fides in Latin, often translated as ‘faith,’ was a core virtue expected especially of slaves. Hermas exhorts all community members to exhibit this virtue as trustworthy and loyal slaves of God.

While the lists of virtues and vices vary throughout the document, the virtues do not emphasize the displays of mastery and strength associated with Roman manliness. The lists include milder virtues like simplicity, innocence, reverence, patience, virtues exhibited by people in subordinate positions. Lists of vices include qualities Hermas associates with the wealth and decadence in traits such as disobedience, haughtiness, and arrogance. The virtues and vices indicate what Hermas advocates as an appropriate relationship with God as a master. The behavior of slaves of God is not the behavior of those who dominate others, and the same virtues and vices apply to all of the members of the community.

…But Still with Distinct Roles, Rich and Poor as Elm and Vine

Although Hermas refers to all of the members of his community as ‘slaves of God,’ he still differentiates based on some traditional roles, and he places a major emphasis on the roles of rich and poor. The second of his parable visions, known as Similitude 2, explains a relationship of mutual dependence between rich and poor in his community.

The Shepherd converses with Hermas about the sight of an elm tree and a vine as he is pondering how well-suited they are to one another. The Shepherd explains that the elm and the vine “symbolize the slaves of God” (51.2). The elm and the vine are being used for a wine-growing practice known as an arbustum. Elm trees planted at intervals provide support for grape vines planted at the base of the trees.

Grape Arbor, photo by Dũng Võ Văn via Pixabay

Grape Arbor, photo by Dũng Võ Văn via Pixabay

The Shepherd explains the practice:

This vine … bears fruit; but the elm is a tree that does not. Yet if this vine did not grow up onto the elm, it could not bear much fruit, since it would be lying on the ground, and the fruit it bore would be rotten, since it would not be clinging to the elm. And so, when the vine attaches to the elm, it bears fruit both of itself and because of the elm. And so you see that the elm also gives much fruit—no less than the vine, but rather more (51.3-4).

The Shepherd applies this image to the rich and poor in the community comparing the rich to the elm and the poor to the vine. While the rich person has money, he “is poor toward the Lord, since he is distracted by his wealth” (51.5). The distraction of wealth weakens the rich person’s prayer so that it has no real effect. By providing for the poor person’s needs, the rich support the effective prayers of the poor.

For the poor person is rich in his petition and confession, and his petition has a great effect before God. And so the rich person supplies everything to the one who is poor, without hesitation (51.5).

Is This a Patron-Client Relationship?

Hermas describes a relationship that at first glance looks like the traditional Roman relationship of patron and client where the wealthier patron derives status and honor by supporting poorer clients who form part of the patron’s entourage. The clients’ display of their dependence gives honor to the patron. The poor and the wealthy lived together in the type of urban neighborhood in Rome where Hermas’s community probably formed. As a patron, a wealthier ‘big man’ of the neighborhood provided for at least the survival of the poorer residents as his clients. The wealthy householders would associate with one another as peers competing for honor among themselves, and the number of clients who depended on them enhanced their reputations.

Hermas advocates a different relationship. Rich and poor are all understood as members of the same community, all ‘slaves of God.’ Furthermore, while depending on the rich for support, the poor are understood as vitally important due to their ability to pray effectively. The poor have a vital community role and are not merely objects who display their rich patrons’ largesse. While all are slaves of God, the poor slaves’ petitions are the ones the divine master hears. The rich slaves must rely on the poor to communicate with the divine master and, ultimately, to be “recorded in the book of the living” (51.9). The relationship of rich and poor is turned upside down in the community of the slaves of God.

Why are the prayers of the rich so ineffective? Hermas points to the problem of ‘double-mindedness.’

Double-Mindedness and Self-Control

For Hermas double-mindedness is both an internal and an external matter. Internally, a struggle takes place in a choice of which master to internalize and obey. That struggle extends externally in a choice of loyalties, a choice between citizenship in the city where Hermas’s community finds themselves in Rome and the city ruled by God.

Man Up! – Hermas Sets an Example of Internal Self-Control

Hermas’s own process of maturation demonstrates the internal struggle with double-mindedness. He offers his own story as an example for other heads of household in his community. He draws on his own experience of starting as a slave who is freed and then becomes a paterfamilias, the father at the head of a household. His maturation is described as becoming a real man in taking full charge of the moral development of members of his household, and the Woman-Church, the embodied church figure guiding his initial visions, even pointedly instructs him to “Man up, Hermas!” or as the translation used here says, “Be a man” (4.3). Yet his manliness differs from the traditional Roman manly exhibits of mastery and dominance. Instead, the moral authority that comes from self-control is emphasized, also a notion of Roman manhood that was promoted in Hermas’s time.

Maturation as a head of household requires an internal struggle for self-control in order to be able to manifest the qualities of authority that establish household order. Self-control involves the management of desires. For Hermas this includes a form of sexless marriage that emerged among the early Christ groups, a more extreme management of sexual desires than was considered appropriate for even a straitlaced traditional Roman husband. Self-control for Hermas meant more than the management of sexual desires, however.  More important is controlling the desire for wealth and the pleasures of a wealthy lifestyle.

Self-Control – But It’s Not About You

Yet the focus in self-control is not really on the self. We might think of the focus on diet and wellness today. Some people with access to plenty of food focus on limiting their intake and on fitness, associating healthy personal lifestyles with morality. Some even judge the poor for their inability to stay slim and fit as a moral failure. Hermas addressed a similar self-obsession of the privileged members of his community.

While he challenges and denounces the lavish lifestyles of the rich as did some philosophers of his day, his challenge did not exhort wealthy community members to be preoccupied with how they could limit their luxuries or control their own desires. In a society where image was everything, self-denial could become as much of a performance for the enhancement of honor as the display of wealth.

For Hermas, self-control instead meant a redirection of desire by taking pleasure in the joy of helping the poor. Such redirection was a means to overcome double-mindedness by reorienting wealthier members to focus on the community rather than themselves.

Double-mindedness as Serving Two Masters: An Internal Struggle

Redirecting desire outward into pleasure in helping the poor still meant internal work, however. Hermas shared his own internal struggle as a guide.

Hermas’s Internal Struggle – Which Divine Master?

Hermas’s own story begins with an internal struggle that starts in a titillating scene where he sees Rhoda, his former owner, emerging unclothed from bathing in the Tiber river. As he assists her, he wishes she were his wife. Later in a vision, Rhoda confronts him about his unspoken desire for her and invokes the anger of God for the sin against her, a sin that God can see inside Hermas’s own mind (1.6).

Rhoda’s closing words clarify the choice later elaborated at greater length between living as one of the upright or as one of “those who are invested in this age, who rejoice in their wealth and do not cling to the good things yet to come” (1.8). Already the choice is about much more than sexual desire.

As Hermas is in distress at the impossibility of appeasing such a God, the Woman-Church guiding his visions appears to allay his fears (2.1-2). Hermas has internalized Rhoda as his master and with her the image of the angry God she invokes as the ultimate master, as the internalized threat that kept slaves in control. In a key transformation, the Woman-Church displaces Rhoda and introduces a different image of God as a divine master.

The Woman-Church does not tell Hermas that Rhoda is wrong. She confirms that his desire for Rhoda is not acceptable. She also does not tell Hermas that God is not angry, but she explains that God’s anger is due to the behavior of his household. The Woman-Church reassures Hermas that he can rectify these issues and please his divine master and that God will help him (2.3-3.2).

A more beneficent portrayal follows of God creating a beautiful world and easing the path in front of the chosen. The angry divine master has been displaced with a kindlier divine master who will aid Hermas. While God as this beneficent master may become angry when Hermas disappoints him, he is gracious to assist Hermas in doing what is necessary to please him as his master.

Divine Master or Earthly Master?

Hermas does not imagine life without an internalized master. Slaves of God are still slaves even though to be a slave of a deity indicated an elevated status in the Greco-Roman era.

Yet the choice to internalize God as a master in place of one’s earthly master challenges enslavement. For slaves, the choice creates an internal space of relative freedom with an internal master more powerful and more benevolent than their earthly masters. For the rich householders, this internalized divine master offers a challenge not only to the desire for elements of a luxurious lifestyle but also to the social connections that promote it. While the rich householders were not slaves, they were nevertheless in a subordinate role to someone above them in the hierarchical system. Choosing internally to recognize God as their master would also create an internal free space, yet as slaves of God along with people below them in the hierarchy.

As slaves of God internalizing God as a divine master, all the members of the community are not outwardly equal in status, but their inward self-concept moves toward a more equal vision.

Double-mindedness as Dual Citizenship: An External Choice

Which City?

The internalization of God as a master corresponds to a larger external choice that Hermas poses in Similitude 1, preceding the image of the elm and the vine (50). He uses a notion of dual citizenship that had widespread currency in philosophies of the time. The Cynics, for example, known for their ‘in-your-face’ lifestyle that defied the conventions of civic life, sometimes with quite outrageous behavior, promoted the value of self-sufficiency as part of their version of dual citizenship.

The Cynics saw themselves not as citizens of the cities where they found themselves but as citizens of the cosmos, as ‘cosmopolitans.’ Their severe outdoor lifestyle, without houses and in accord with nature, gave them a self-sufficiency that freed them to denounce the culture of wealth and decadence they saw in the cities.

The Cynics did not, however, live as hermits in the wilderness but as non-conformist individualists in the midst of the cities they denounced. They saw themselves individually as kings, presumably not internalizing any master and owing allegiance only to the laws of nature, understanding their vocation as speaking truth to power.

Hermas also connects the concepts of self-sufficiency and dual citizenship in order to denounce a culture of wealth and decadence. His focus is on the community, however. The Shepherd guiding his visions begins the Similitude by addressing Hermas and his community: “You know that you slaves of God are living in a foreign land” (50.1). He poses the problem by drawing on the experience of aliens living in a foreign city knowing that they may be expelled at any time. This may be the actual condition of many members of the community.

An Investment Decision

The Shepherd points them toward their own city and asks, “If, then …you know your own city, where you are about to live, why are you preparing fields, expensive furnishings, buildings, and pointless rooms for yourselves here?” (50.1). He points out that this kind of investment makes returning to one’s own city difficult. He returns to the theme of double-mindedness:

You foolish, double-minded, and miserable person! Do you not understand that all these things belong to another and are under someone else’s control? For the ruler of this city will say, ‘I do not want you living in my city; leave it, because you are not living by my laws’ (50.3).

He recommends a form of self-sufficiency as preparation for such a moment of expulsion and says it is better to live by the laws of God:

Take care, then, you who are enslaved to the Lord and have him in your heart. Do the works of God, remembering his commandments and the promises he made … Instead of fields, then, purchase souls that have been afflicted, insofar as you can, and take care of widows and orphans and do not neglect them; spend your wealth and all your furnishings for such fields and houses as you have received from God. For this is why the Master made you rich, that you may carry out these ministries for him. It is much better to purchase the fields, goods, and houses you will find in your own city when you return to it (50.7-9).

Divestment as Investment

Divestment by the rich, then, is not simply a matter of self-sufficiency to be prepared for a time when the ruler decides to expel them. The purpose of their divestment is investment, not in what ties them to their current location but in caring for the poor. Hermas’s notion of dual citizenship envisions a community that includes both rich and poor where the rich use their wealth to care for the poor.

The internal reorientation from craving the luxuries and social connections that wealth offers to taking pleasure in the joy of helping the poor is an external reorientation as well. The choice of which master to internalize is also a choice of citizenship, in which city to invest, which city’s laws to obey.

The life the Shepherd presents is an investment also in joy:

This kind of extravagance is good and makes one glad; it has no grief or fear, but joy instead. And so, do not participate in the extravagance sought by outsiders; for it is of no profit for you who are slaves of God. But participate in your own extravagance in which you can rejoice (50.10-11).

Whole-hearted Service and an Alternative Empire

Building a New Community – The Tower

The visions Hermas shares present a community that creates an alternative city in the midst of the city of Rome where they find themselves. Other visions elaborate the construction of that alternative city as a gleaming Tower under construction, composed of community members as stones, with lengthy descriptions of which stones are suitable for inclusion and how some can become suitable or not. Rather than imitating the Cynics and taking up individualist lives of denunciation, they form an alternative community.

Double-mindedness and divided loyalty is a recurring theme and is a problem especially for the rich. The opposite of double-mindedness is to serve as a slave of God with a clean heart. This means internalizing a divine master and all the virtues that come with a divine spirit so that all other competing desires and influences, all other masters, are displaced. Externally, this means undivided loyalty to the new community and a different ruler, God. That loyalty, in turn, represents the internalization of a different ruler, a different deity, than the one who rules Rome.

Meeting Fear Head-On

Such whole-hearted service as a slave of God has real power for Hermas. In the compelling imagery of Vision Four (22-24), he is outside the city. First, he hears a voice that says, “Do not be of two minds, Hermas” (22.4).  As he ponders this and continues on his way, he sees a dust cloud from far off, like the cloud raised by a herd of cattle. As it approaches, he realizes that it is something supernatural. As the sun shines on it, he can see that it is “an enormous wild beast, something like a sea monster, with fiery locusts spewing from its mouth” (22.6). The descriptions in the vision evoke a Roman legion with the colors of one of its standards on the head of the serpent: black, red, gold, and white. The serpent embodies the fear those subject to Rome’s violent rule experienced and signals the “coming affliction” mentioned in the narrative.

Image of a Roman Legion, Photo by Judith Meyer

Roman Legion, a modern reenactment, photo by Judith Meyer via Pixabay

As Hermas begins to be afraid, he remembers the voice saying, “Do not be of two minds, Hermas” (22.7). Hermas recounts that when he remembered what he had been taught,

I courageously gave myself over to the beast. And so it came on with a roar, enough to lay waste a city. But when I approached it, the enormous sea monster stretched itself out on the ground and did nothing but stick out its tongue; otherwise it did not move at all until I had passed it by (22.8-9).

By not being double-minded, Hermas has laid the fear to rest. After he has escaped the beast, he meets the Woman-Church again as a resplendent young woman. They discuss his experience. She explains that he has escaped because he “was not of two minds” and instructs him about preparing his community for the great affliction. She promises escape “if your heart becomes clean and blameless and you serve the Lord blamelessly the rest of your days” (23.4-5).

Themes for Further Reflection

“Give me a clean heart…” The gospel song echoes a theme in Hermas we have seen in The Shepherd of Hermas. What can this mean today? For some, the internalization of God as a divine master may be liberating. Others may find that such language entangles them in experiences of Christianity that have been oppressive. Others may find assurance in a focus on a ‘clean heart’ as an antidote to double-mindedness.

Perhaps the focus that Hermas advocates can be helpful today, too, for those who find themselves in states of anxious double-mindedness. Some may find that by focusing on living to build up their communities, fears of whatever approaches as a ‘beast’ can be laid to rest.

What could the multi-layered notion of disciples being ‘slaves of God’ that Hermas presents mean today?

Are you a slave of God? What would that even mean? Does this idea make you cringe? Does this notion give you strength and comfort?

Do you think of yourself as free? What does that mean to you?

Do you have a clean heart? What does that mean to you?

What does it mean to think of discipleship as enslavement to God? How can we think of membership in a faith community without being enslaved?

What is the difference between serving and being enslaved?

Do we have to serve anybody?


Translations are from Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers, Volume II. Loeb Classical Library 25, 2003. Citations follow the numbering in this translation.

More on The Shepherd of Hermas from Elli Elliott can be found here on Early Christian Texts.

This article is drawn from a chapter in a forthcoming book, Susan M. (Elli) Elliott, Christian Family Empires – From Resistance to Replication, Volume 2 of Family Empires: The Roman Family Empire and Early Christian Responses. Polebridge imprint of Wipf & Stock: Eugene, Oregon, 2021.