The same goes for those who want to be servants in the church: serious, not deceitful, not too free with the bottle, not in it for what they can get out of it. They must be reverent before the mystery of the faith, not using their position to try to run things. Let them prove themselves first. If they show they can do it, take them on. No exceptions are to be made for women—same qualifications: serious, dependable, not sharp-tongued, not overfond of wine. Servants in the church are to be committed to their spouses, attentive to their own children, and diligent in looking after their own affairs. Those who do this servant work will come to be highly respected, a real credit to this Jesus-faith. – 1 Timothy 3:10-13 MSG
διάκονος – or diakonos – is the ancient Greek word that can make or break a person. It can mean (1.) A messenger or courier, (2.) a servant, or (3.) in the Biblical sense of a minister or deacon. It’s probably from an obsolete word diako which means to run on errands. Let’s take a look at where it appears in the Scripture and see if we can get a keen sense of the word:
When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”- Matthew 20:24-28
Since it’s firmly believed that the role of deacon as a minister didn’t form until Acts 6, clearly we can rule out #3 as a meaning for servant here. It also doesn’t look like #1 is going on here either – Jesus is saying that a servant is a servant. In the Bible, servants can be male and servants can be female.
“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.
“Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
“For many are invited, but few are chosen.” – Matthew 22:11-14, “The parable of the wedding banquet”
Yet again, #2 seems to be the meaning of the word here – as servants are ordered by their master to do something. You never see them with the roles reversed.
“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. – Matthew 23:8-12
We can see Jesus calling on opposites – humbled / exalted; so too is servant the opposite of greatest. #2 seems to be meaning of deacon here.
They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” – Mark 9:33-35
We can expect Jesus to say this a lot. #2.
When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Mark 10:41-45
Jesus just said this the chapter before, but here he’s repeating himself. #2.
His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.
Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.” – John 2:5-10, “the wedding at Cana”
Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. – John 12:23-26
And this one is #2 as well. It seems fairly conclusive that wherever Jesus referred to diakonos, he was speaking of servants and the task of serving. Here on out, all references to diakonos will not be from Jesus.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. – Romans 13:1-5
This is really the first place we see where servants are connected to the authority of leadership – though this verse is generally meant in terms of the state. At this point and time, Nero is in charge of the whole Roman empire. If you know early Christian history – then you know this is the same Nero that blamed the Christians for the great fire in Rome, that expelled them from the city, that persecuted them and set them on fire as torches for his garden. It’s tricky to figure out which of the three meanings are closest – because the servants Jesus referred to were powerless. This servant is a powerful figure.
Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written:
“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles;
I will sing the praises of your name.” – Romans 15:7-9
The footnote seems suggest that Christ has become a servant of the circumcision – but whichever way you understand it – Jesus tends to be able to fulfill all three senses of diakonos; as a messenger, as a minister, and as a servant.
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me. – Romans 16:1-2
Easily the most controversial of every use of the instance of diakonos – some have tried to explain away this error on Paul’s part by suggesting that he simply meant servant/errand-runner. After all, Phoebe was entrusted with carrying the Book of Romans from Cenchreae to Rome itself. Which would technically also make her a courier or messenger. But she’s also played the role of benefactor – which involves ministering: attending to the needs of others by providing something they need – it would suggest that she was wealthy. Ultimately, it comes down to a personal decision – you’ll either believe that she was a deacon or minister in some leadership role or that she was a servant to whom Paul said: “Hey Phoebe, drop the mop and take this message to Rome, right away.”
What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. – 1 Corinthians 3:5
Paul often refers to himself as a servant, in chains for the gospel. He knows that he’s a leader, but he tends to be reluctant to play the part. It may be tempting to read Paul refer to himself as a servant and think of a high-level minister – but he often chose to live apart from expectations. Throughout 1st and 2nd Corinthians, Paul has to remind the body of believers that there is a difference between God’s servants and super Apostles who check off every box on the list and yet are deceiving them.
Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. – 2 Cor. 3:4-6
Here we see diakonos translated directly as ministers – but remember, in the original Greek the word hasn’t changed.
We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything. – 2 Cor. 6:3-10
When we think of leadership – this usually isn’t it. When we think of servants – particularly in an ancient context – this pretty much is it.
And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve. – 2 Cor. 11:12-15
Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. – 2 Cor:11:22-23
Both sets of verses are part of a longer talk about Paul vs. The Super Apostles. Paul said that these so-called servants of Christ who really were playing for the other team were the sort to exploit the congregation – making them pay to hear their teachings, they enslaved some, they slapped others in the face, and were taking advantage of them. In some ways, these charges don’t sound that far off from what some teachers do these days.
“But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker. – Galatians 2:17
Technically the English translation doesn’t show that the question is more like: “doesn’t that mean that Christ is the servant of sin?” When you look at what Christ represents – a departure from the traditional way absolving sin and the traditional teachings about justification; one might think that he’s promoting sin in the same way that early Christians had begun teaching that it was okay to eat unclean foods.
I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. – Ephesians 3:7-9
Here’s Paul’s trade-mark self-effacing attitude about himself.
Tychicus, the dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord, will tell you everything, so that you also may know how I am and what I am doing. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage you. – Eph. 6:21-22
Could go either way – just like Phoebe, he was sent on an errand, to deliver a message, in order to minister to the congregation.
Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: – Phillipians 1:1
Here we see “servants” from doulous (plural: douloi) as a whole different than that of diakonos, which is “servant” elsewhere. Doulous sometimes has a closer translation to slave or bond-servant. Deacons itself is still translated from diakonos – seemingly referring to a leadership position over the saints of the church.
You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, and who also told us of your love in the Spirit. – Colossians 1:7-8
Like the other instances where Paul referred to a believer as a diakonos – it sounds as if he could fit all three senses of the word, a courrier, a minister, and a leader.
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.
Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. – Colossians 1:21-27
Most likely sense #1, a messenger applies here.
Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here. – Col. 4:7-9
Here Tychicus is called both a diakonos and sundoulos – or a fellow servant. As before, he’s being sent on an errand, to deliver a message, and to minister to the congregation.
So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them. – 1 Thessalonians 3:1-3
I’ve never been taught to think of Timothy as a deacon – but in many senses, he was one. Often tasked with servant-like errands, deliver messages, and also having had a leadership position.
In the same way, deacon are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.
In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.
A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well. Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus. – 1 Timothy 3:8-12
This is where the office of deacon is established as a position of leadership apart from the general congregation. So far, we have seen people who have been referred to as deacons or servants of the church but not necessarily in any sort of office. Now the first deacons of the church were mentioned in Acts 6: 1-6 (MSG)…
During this time, as the disciples were increasing in numbers by leaps and bounds, hard feelings developed among the Greek-speaking believers—“Hellenists”—toward the Hebrew-speaking believers because their widows were being discriminated against in the daily food lines. So the Twelve called a meeting of the disciples. They said, “It wouldn’t be right for us to abandon our responsibilities for preaching and teaching the Word of God to help with the care of the poor. So, friends, choose seven men from among you whom everyone trusts, men full of the Holy Spirit and good sense, and we’ll assign them this task. Meanwhile, we’ll stick to our assigned tasks of prayer and speaking God’s Word.”
The congregation thought this was a great idea. They went ahead and chose—
Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,
Nicolas, a convert from Antioch.
Then they presented them to the apostles. Praying, the apostles laid on hands and commissioned them for their task.
It’s just so … intriguing that the office of deacon entails exactly what they apostles said was their task and was too important for them to stop and take care of the poor. I know of one deacon in a church in this area who opted to close down the church soup kitchen so that an electric sign could be put up. The woman who ran that soup kitchen (a true deacon if there ever was one) was upset beyond words that nearly a hundred poor souls in the community had one less way to grab a bite to eat.
If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed. – 1 Timothy 4:6
Here is the last reference to diakonos in the New Testament – it’s in the third sense.
It seems that once you look at them all, it’s not really as clear-cut as we make it out today. It’s as if we want everybody in church to be servants, but not deacons. Servants get to do those menial tasks like cleaning the building, preparing the snacks, dealing with children, running errands – but they’re not allowed the office of deacon. They can’t preach and teach – which was originally the role of the apostle and has been shared among the positions of leadership. Elders, pastors, and deacons can preach and teach – but they’re above the menial tasks of servant-hood. Yet when we look at Jesus’ teachings, he never created this hierarchy in church – he never wanted this separation. The movement that Jesus started isn’t the exact same one that Paul polished into a religion – one was a simple way of living and the other was organized like the religions around it. Jesus would have wanted everyone to be a servant on the same level. Paul opted to set some above the rest. But what I see isn’t gender setting precedent, it’s having a servant’s heart that makes the difference. Whether you’re Phoebe or Tychicus – you can do great things for your church if only they would let you serve the Church as if you were serving Christ your Lord.