123: The Virtue of Spiritual Simplicity (haplotēs) (Colossians 3:22; Ephesians 6:5)

On two occasions Paul gives specific instructions for Christians who are slaves (douloi). In both instances (Colossians 3:22; Ephesians 6:5) he urges them to engage their responsibilities “with sincerity of heart” (en haplotēti kardias), fearing (or reverencing) the Lord (Colossians), or as they “would obey Christ” (Ephesians), as translated in the New International Version (NIV). Why is the meaning of this noun haplotēs particularly relevant to the attitudes and actions of Christians who are slaves? And perhaps more pertinently, why is the rendering “sincerity” chosen rather than “generously” or “innocently”?

Paul is the only New Testament writer to use this noun. Other occurrences are found in Romans 12:8 (giving generously) and 2 Corinthians 1:12 (sincerity); 8:2 (generosity); 9:11 (generosity),13 (generosity); 11:3 (sincere). In one of Jesus’ teachings expressed both in Matthew (6:22) and Luke (11:34) the cognate adjective describes “eyes” that are “good” (haplous). As well James used the cognate adjective to describe God as one who “gives generously (haplōs),” encouraging people to petition God for wisdom. Within the NIV this noun and its cognates are associated with ideas of generosity, sincerity and goodness.

In Classical Greek the word signified singleness, simplicity, frankness. It is the opposite of diplous, i.e. double, twofold.  However, the moral dimension which this word group conveys in the New Testament is only infrequently evident in Classical Greek usage. Aristophanes, for example (Plutus 1158) used the adjective haplous in contrast with dolos (guile), to give the sense of “simple, open, frank” (Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon (new edition, repr. 1966), 190). The historian Xenophon (Cyropaideia 1.4.3) employed the noun haplotēs to describe “simplicity, frankness, sincerity” (Liddell and Scott, 191). Aristophanes and Xenophon lived c. 400 B.C.

We have to turn to the use of this terminology in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, to discern more clearly its linkage to moral issues. In one context (2 Samuel 15:11)  haplotēs translates the Hebrew noun tom (completeness, innocence, integrity). Absalom was conspiring to seize the throne from his father David. He invites two hundred leaders from Jerusalem to join him at Hebron. The text says “they had been invited as guests and went quite innocently (tēi haplotēti).” The obvious sense is that they had no awareness of Absalom’s intentions and took his invitation at face value being ignorant of Absalom’s guile. The other usage occurs in David’s psalm of praise to God spoken at the dedication of the temple (1 Chronicles 29:17, but in this context the Hebrew word is yosher (straightness, uprightness). David declares that God tests “the heart and is pleased with integrity….All these things have I given willingly and with honest intent (en haplotēti kardias).” Again the implication seems to be that David has given his treasure to God without guile or duplicitous motivation. Note that this Greek wording is the same as that used by Paul in Colossians and Ephesians.

The initial verse of Wisdom of Solomon urges those “who judge the earth” to seek the Lord “with sincerity of heart” (en haplotēti kardias). This attitude is linked with righteousness and goodness, but contrasted with testing God, distrust, crooked thoughts, plotting evil, involvement in sin, deceit, senseless thoughts, and unrighteousness. This response enables wisdom to take up residence in the soul. The author of 1 Maccabees tells how pious Jews rebelling against Antiochus were slaughtered because they refused to fight on the Sabbath. They say, “Let us all die in our simplicity (en tēi haplotēti hēmōn). Heaven and earth bear witness to us that you destroy us unjustly” (1 Maccabees 2:37). Some translations render the noun here as “innocence.” The Jewish rebels would not allow the attackers to force them to violate their consciences regarding Sabbath observance. A few verses later the last words of Mattathias are recounted as he dies. He reminds his sons, the Maccabees, how “Daniel, by his simplicity (en tēi haplotēti autou), was rescued from the mouth of lions” (1 Maccabees 2:60). Other translations for this term in this context are “guiltlessness” or “innocence.” The sense of “generosity” emerges in 3 Maccabees 3:21 as Ptolemy claims that despite the “innumerable matters that have so generously (meta haplotētos) been entrusted” to the Jewish people, they have with “native malice” turned down the offers of citizenship. Here the contrast is between generosity of spirit and malicious suspicion.

According to Greek Proverbs 11:25 “every totally sincere (haplē) person is blessed, but an ill-tempered man is not respected.” The Hebrew form of this proverb speaks about a “generous person” who is compared to a person who gives water. So perhaps the Greek text similarly expresses a sense of “generosity” in contrast to the “ill-tempered” person who refuses to help. The surrounding verses seem to be commending those who express generosity.

We see the same range of meanings in the Greek translation of the Old Testament which Paul expressed in his writings.

Philo used the noun twice (and the adjective frequently). In De Opificio Mundi (On the Account of the World’s Creation) 156 Philo comments on the Eve and Adam’s action in Genesis 3 and says that when they ate of the fruit, “this instantly brought them out of a state of simplicity (akakias) and innocence (haplotētos) into one of wickedness (panourgian);…”This usage parallels Paul’s concern in 2 Corinthians 11:3. He is afraid “that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning (panourgiai), your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere (haplotētos and pure devotion to Christ.” Paul just used the analogy of marriage to describe his role in the Corinthian believers’ conversion. They were presented “as a pure virgin to him” (11:2). Paul anticipates their complete loyalty and devotion to the Messiah will continue, despite Satan’s attempts to entice them to act in a duplicitous manner.

When the escaping Israelites are camped by the shores of the Red Sea, they hear the approaching Egyptian army. According to Philo at that moment they complain to Moses (De Vita Mosis I. 172), “Did you not know our [simplicity (haplotēta)], and the bitterness and savage temper of the Egyptians?” Exactly what the point of the comparison is has been debated. He also used the adjective in his discussion of what it means for God to be “one” or a “unity.” According to Philo (Legum Allegoria  II.2) God’s “nature is simple (haplē) not composite” in distinction from humans who are “soul and body.”

In the Jewish Hellenistic Testament literature (e.g. Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs) the writers frequently urge their readers to “walk in haplotēs according to the law” or “in simplicity (haplotēti) of heart” (e.g. T.Issachar 4:1; 7:7). The person who has “singleness of heart” waits only to do the will of God and is immune to deceit. The patriarchs voice the fear that their descendants will “forsake singleness…and leaving guilelessness will draw near to malice” (T. Issachar 6:1). As Spicq (Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, Vol.1, page 170) notes, “In the first  century BC, haplotēs, so exalted in the Wisdom writings, is considered the supreme virtue of the patriarchs.” There was no divided loyalty in their hearts when it came to serving Yahweh.

One inscription dated to the 2-3rd century A.D. found at Sounion (Greece) describes the actions of a slave to establish a temple to the cult of Men Tyrannos. Once in this inscription there is the prayer “may the god be very merciful to those who serve in simpleness (haplēi) of soul.” A second prayer is offered at the end: “And may the god be very merciful to those who approach in simplicity (haplōs).” There seems to be some relationship in this usage to the concept of purity. These two occurrences, though appearing at least a century after Paul’s letters, indicate that this terminology was in use in Koine Greek with a moral sense, parallel to the usage we have observed in Jewish Greek sources.

In conclusion let us review the uses by Paul of the noun in Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22 and 2 Corinthians 11:3. We suggested that in 2 Corinthians 11:3 the noun expressed “genuine loyalty” to the Messiah. No other Lord had stolen their devotion. In both the Ephesians and Colossians contexts Paul addresses Christian slaves. The essential command is to “obey your earthly masters (kuriois) in everything;…with sincerity (en haplotēti kardias) of heart,  out of reverent fear for the Lord (kurion).” The phrase translated in NIV as “with sincerity of heart” describes the manner of Christian slaves’ obedience to their human owners. This kind of service is contrasted with a service that obeys only when the owners are watching or just to please them (presumably to escape punishment or to gain special favour). These slaves are first and foremost “slaves of Messiah” (Ephesians 6:6), performing God’s will “from their innermost being” and “serving with goodwill.” Regardless of human masters’ attitudes and expectations, Christian slaves are serving the Messiah first and so their obedience to their human masters is offered primarily as an act of worship to the Messiah, being done in a way that demonstrates their pure loyalty to the Messiah.


      i.  if Christian slaves were to serve their human masters as an act of worship demonstrating their pure loyalty to the Messiah, how are Christians today to do their “work” as employees of secular or Christian organizations?  Do Christians work “when the owners are watching” or just “to please the boss”? Or is there a deeper sense of life’s purpose and centredness in the will of God as they do their work?

     ii.  how does Satan work in the minds and hearts of Christians so that they abandon their “pure loyalty” to the Messiah? When has this happened in your life and how did the Holy Spirit wrestle with you for restoration?


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