In my two previous posts I have discussed the problems of transliteration of Greek words into English with reference to two terms used to describe church offices. The Greek word episkopos (which means “overseer”) became bishop through the magic of transliteration. Its companion word, prebyteros (which means “elder” or “old dude”), became priest. I should have mentioned that in the second case, the door was opened for importing many Old Testaments concepts of “priest” and “priesthood” onto the office of elder, an idea completely foreign to the New Testament or the early church. The New Testament authors celebrate the liberating concept of the priesthood of all believers, not the creation of a new, Christian class of priests based on the Jewish temple regulations.
Now we come to the third item in this grouping of church offices, the Greek word διάκονος (diakonos). It is easily seen that our English term “deacon” is a transliterated version of this word. The Greek term refers to one who “serves,” or a “servant.” Another understanding of this based on Latin roots is one who “ministers” or is a “minister,” with an older sense of the word minister as a synonym for serve/servant.
There is no question but that this term was used as the title for a church office in the New Testament itself. 1 Timothy 3:8 ff. give guidelines for “deacons.” Philippians 1:1 gives greetings to the “bishops” and “deacons” of the church as separate groups from the larger church. In Romans 16:1, Paul commends Phoebe as a “deacon” of the church in Cenchrea, the port for Corinth. Yet this word is used many other times where translators have not seen it as tied to a church office, and in these places it will usually be translated as “servant” or “minister.” Let me give two examples.
First, in the teaching of Jesus as found in Mark 9:35, we are told, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” This is not a call to the ranks of deacons. It is a description of the attitude and conduct that Jesus wished to cultivate among his followers, what has been called “servant leadership.” This verse applies to every person in every church who claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
Second, we should notice that this is one of Paul’s favorite designations for himself. By my quick count, Paul refers to himself as a diakonos seven times in his letters, and as an apostle sixteen times. But nine of those sixteen “apostle” references are are in the opening greetings of his letters, seemingly a standard designation in that setting. This means that in the body of the letters, he refers to himself as diakonos or apostle in roughly equal numbers. (BTW: I will discuss the transliteration problems of apostolos at some time in the future.) Often Paul refers to being called or appointed to be a diakonos (minister/servant), such as in Ephesians 3:7, ” I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power.”
So, what is the value of pointing these things out? Let me offer two things. In many churches we have “ministers” who are paid staff, and “deacons” who are volunteer leaders recognized by the church in some way. Shouldn’t we realize that the New Testament doesn’t really distinguish between these two? To translate diakonos as “minister” some places and transliterate it as “deacon” others does not seem to me to be consistent or a true reflection of the makeup of the early church. Second, if we translated diakonos as “Servant” when it referred to a specific church officer, we would avoid some of the nonsense surrounding the office of deacon. Deacons in the early church were called to serve in some way, not to form boards. And, their service was not just passing offering plates and communion trays. Let’s always keep the focus on service. The church always needs servants. Ministry should not be limited to the paid staff, to the ordained.