Understanding the Office of Deacon: Introductory Matters

by Bob Douglas

Do you have a biblical understanding of the office of deacon? While the deacon is an important position highlighted in the New Testament, its role in the church is often misunderstood due to a lack of a clear, biblical interpretation and understanding of its meaning as it is described in Scripture. To understand the biblical position of deacon we must start with its meaning and usage throughout the New Testament. In this article, we’ll take a look at a brief introduction of the office of deacon as it is described in Scripture.

There are three Greek words used in the Bible that come from the root-word diakon. Two words are nouns:  diakonos (masculine), and diakonia (feminine). One word is a verb: diakoneo.  These three words occur exactly 100 times.  Depending on the English Bible translation, these will be translated as “deacon,” “servant,” “helper,” “minister,” or similar terms.  The apostle Paul used this simple term, which in its root means “to serve,” and transformed it into a technical title for the second office of the church. Greek nouns can have masculine, feminine and neuter forms. This provides clarity when translating. Below is the breakdown of the 100 times these Greek words are used and their translation in the English Standard Version (ESV).

Diakonos (Pronounced dee-ak’-on-os, noun, masculine)
Paul used the noun form diakonos to create the formal title of the office of deacon.  That word in the context of the office of deacon is used three times in Scripture: 1 Timothy 3:8, 12 and Philippians 1:1. Paul gives an outline of the office of deacon in 1 Timothy 3 and then he uses it only one other time.

The twenty-six other passages that use diakonos do not refer to the formal office.  This usage is made clear by the context of the passage. When the generic use of diakonos is used describing a person it is translated “minister” or “servant.”  Below are some examples:

Paul referring to himself:

  • Ephesians 3:7 – “Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power.” 

Paul describing Tychicus, Timothy, and Epaphras:

  • Ephesians 6:21 – “So that you also may know how I am and what I am doing, Tychicus the beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord will tell you everything.”
  • 1 Timothy 4:6 – “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed.”
  • Colossians 1:7 – “just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow bond servant is a faithful minister of Christ.”

Other examples of diakonos:

  • Matthew 22:13 – “Then the king said to the attendants” – The word refers to a servant to the king.
  • Romans 13:4 – “For he is the servant of God” – The word refers to secular rulers and authorities in government.
  • Romans 15:8 – “For I tell you that Christ became a servant” – Christ as a servant to God’s people.
  • 2 Corinthians 3:6  – “who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant” – All believers are ministers of the gospel.
  • 2 Corinthians 11:15 – “So it is no surprise if his servants” – These were  followers of Satan.

Below are all twenty-nine references of diakonos:

Title of office of deacon: Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8, 12

Servant, Minister, Co-Worker: Matthew 20:26; 22:13; 23:11; Mark 9:35; 10:43; John 2:5, 9; 12:26; Romans 13:4 twice; 15:8; 16:1; 1 Corinthians 3:5; 2 Corinthians 3:6; 6:4; 11:15; Galatians 2:17; Ephesians 3:7; 6:21; Colossians 1:7, 23, 25; 4:7; 1 Timothy 4:6.

Diakonia (Pronounced dee-ak-on-ee’-ah, noun, feminine)
Diakonia is a feminine noun used thirty-four times describing the service of Christian love by those caring for and ministering to others.  In the ESV this word is translated as “ministry,” “serve,” “service “or “serving,” and “relief.” This word was used by Luke, Paul, the writer of Hebrews and John (Luke 10:40; Acts 1:17, 25; 6:1,4; 11:29; 12:25; 20:24; 21:19; Romans 11:13; 12:7 twice, 15:31; 1 Corinthians 12:5; 16:15; 2 Corinthians 3:7, 8, 9 twice; 4:1, 5:18; 6:3; 8:4; 9:1, 12, 13; 11:8; Ephesians 4:12; Colossians 4:17; 1 Timothy 1:12; 2 Timothy 4:5,11; Hebrews 1:14; Revelation 2:19).

Diakoneo (Pronounced dee-ak-on-eh’-o; verb)
This verb is used thirty-seven times, primarily referring to the task of serving, ministering and helping other people.  In the ESV it is translated as “serve,” “minister,” “administered,” “help” and “support.”  The word is used by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, the writer of Hebrews, and Peter (Matthew 4:11; 8:15; 20:28 twice; 25:44; 27:55; Mark 1:13, 31; 10:45 twice; 15:41; Luke 4:39, 8:3; 10:40; 12:37; 17:8; 22:26, 27 twice; John 12:2, 26 twice; Acts 6:2; 19:22; Romans 15:25; 2 Corinthians 3:3; 8:19, 20; 1 Timothy 3:10, 13; 2 Timothy 1:18; Philemon 13; Hebrews 6:10 twice; 1 Peter 1:12; 4:10, 11).

Context Matters
As important as the word study of “deacon” is, each word’s meaning can only be determined from its immediate contextual setting. Historically, six passages are considered foundational in defining the position of deacon. Here I will offer a quick review of the contextual setting of each passage: Acts 6:1-6; 1 Timothy 3:8-13; Philippians 1:1; Romans 16:1-15; 1 Timothy 2:9-10; and 1 Timothy 5:9-13.

  • Acts 6:1-6: the Apostles, in the first church in Jerusalem, ordained seven men to specifically care for the widows. This was thirty years before the Apostle Paul formalized the office of deacon. There are many parallels to the qualifications and roles of the seven in Acts 6 and the formal qualifications provided by Paul.  As such, this passage is critical in the understanding of deacons and will be discussed in further articles.
  • 1 Timothy 3:8-13: Paul formalized the office of deacon by listing qualifications, roles and processes to select and install deacons. First Timothy 3:8-13 is foundational and essential in the study of a deacon’s position and role.
  • Philippians 1:1: Paul wrote Philippians probably while under house arrest in Rome in about 62 AD (Acts 28:14-31).[1]  This was before he wrote the book of 1 Timothy, which was written in 64-66AD.[2] Paul starts the book of Philippians with a greeting: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons” (Phil 1:1).  There is no formal teaching about deacons in the passage, just a simple recognition of the church with specific identification to the leadership.
  • Romans 16:1-15: Paul concludes his letter to the Romans by recognizing a number of “servants.” Some are specific servants of the church. Some are personally helpful to Paul. The nature of the passage is personal greeting, not instruction or command.  So, the passage is not one that teaches on the roles, purpose, or ministry of a deacon.  Phoebe is the first person mentioned in this list. Paul uses the Greek root of diakonos to describe Phoebe. This word has caused a challenge for Bible translators. Translators render this word variously as “servant,” “minister,” “deacon,” and “deaconess.”  In 1 Timothy 3:8, 12 and Philippians 1:1, where Paul specifically addresses the formal office of deacon, he uses the masculine gender. This would dictate Romans 16:1 be translated as either “servant” or “minister,” since the case is not the same as the other known three passages in 1 Timothy 3:8, 12 and Philippians 1:1. “Deaconess” is the most obscure translation. The Amplified Bible is the only modern or classic Bible translation to use this word.  Paul wrote Romans while in Corinth around 58 AD.[3]
  • 1 Timothy 5:9-13 and 1 Timothy 2:9-10: 1 Timothy 2:9-10 is commonly referred to as the “order of widows” from which the position of deaconess emerged.[4] The rationale is that 1 Timothy 2:9-10 establishes women for “works” of the church that is then outlined in vv 9-10:

likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.”

1 Timothy 2:9-10

Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work.

1 Timothy 5:9-13

In April of 2020, Pope Francis established a new commission to study a formal position of women deacons based on church tradition and these two passages.[5] There are, however, two contextual problems with these passages. First, neither passage is in the context of church leadership. In 1 Timothy 2:9-10, Paul is giving instruction on worship in the local church. In 1 Timothy 5, Paul gives instructions on older men, widows, and elders. Second, there is no form of diakon used in these passages. So these two passages are wonderful examples of the love and good deeds we are to show one another,[6] but they are not instructions on church leadership or directions on church deacons. For these reasons it is illegitimate to consider these passages to describe the formal office of deacon.

Summary
Most of the New Testament authors used at least one form of diakon to describe people, actions and explain theology in the 100 occurrences of the word. Diakonos is the form of the word used by Paul to formalize the office and only appears three times in noun form when describing or addressing the formal office of deacon (1 Tim 3:8; 1 Tim 3:12; Phil 1:1).

Beyond a word study of diakon the context of the six identified deacon Scriptures eliminated 1 Timothy 2:9-10 and 1 Timothy 5:9-13 from consideration.  1 Timothy 3:8-13 and Acts 6:1-6 proved to be valid and the foundational Scripture when studying the office of deacon. In Acts 6, the Apostles initiated the use of the word “servant” to assist them in their duties. Thirty years later Paul formalized the office of deacon in 1 Timothy 3. Philippians 1:1 and Romans 16:1 are needed to fully understand the office of deacon. In a subsequent article, we will look at the history of deacons in the New Testament.


NOTES

[1] C.G. Moule, Studies in Philippians, Kregel Publications, 14.

[2] Norman L. Geisler, A Popular Survey of the New Testament, Baker Books, 235.

[3] David Brown, Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary, Introduction.

[4] Christina Hip-Flores, “Consecrated Widows: A Restored Ancient Vocation in the Catholic Church,” Logos, A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Vol. 22, Issue 1 (Winter 2019).

[5] Sr Bernadette Mary Rei, “Pope Institutes New Commission to Study Women Deacons,” Vatican News, April 8, 2020.

[6] There are over 40 “one anothers” in Scripture based on Christ’s command given the night before his death in John 13:34-35:  A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Christ urged his disciples to love as he had loved them; to have a mindset of love; to act in love; to think in love toward one another.  He had a mindset of love toward us even when we did not show it toward Him.  Christ had taught the disciples to think and act in love, with his sacrificial death being the ultimate example. 

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