the weblog of Alan Knox

To deacon or not to deacon

Posted by on Dec 6, 2007 in blog links, office, service | 12 comments

As I was reading Dave Black’s blog this morning, I was encouraged by the way that he described his wife:

I like to tell people, “If you want to understand my wife, just read Romans 16:1-2.” Usually, people compare Becky and me to Priscilla and Aquila. We always travel to Ethiopia together. But on this trip she will be more like Phoebe. Note that Phoebe is described by two words: “diakonos” and “prostatis.” In the New Testament the noun diakonos is often translated “deacon,” not always a good choice in my opinion. The English word has a religious connotation lacking in its Greek counterpart. A diakonos is simply a person who serves other people. If you know Becky, she is a deacon par excellence. (I have written about this often.) The second word is even more emphatic. The Greek term prostatis is defined by Douglas Moo as “one who came to the aid of others, especially foreigners, by providing housing and financial aid and by representing their interests before the local authorities.” Moo thinks Phoebe was “a woman of high social standing and some wealth, who put her status, resources, and time at the service of traveling Christians, like Paul, who needed help and support” (Romans, p. 916). Now, if you will combine Rom. 16:1-2 with Phil. 2:3-4, you will understand exactly why Becky is going back to Ethiopia.

Are you familiar with the passage in Romans that Dave referenced?

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well. (Romans 16:1-2 ESV)

As Dave Black pointed out, the word translated “servant” above is the same word that is often translated “deacon”. In fact, sometimes within the same context the word will be translated different ways, giving the illusion that one refers to an ecclesial office while the other simply refers to being a servant. This distinction is unfortunate, in my opinion. For example, consider this passage from 1 Timothy:

Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 3:8-13 ESV)

This is the famous passage that gives “qualifications” for deacons. In fact, it is the only passage that speaks of “deacons” in this way. Interestingly, the phrase “those who serve well as deacons” is a translation of a two word participial phrase. The exact same two words are used as nouns only nine verses later in 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.” (ESV)

Did you see where Timothy was called a “good deacon”? No? Well, that’s because the translators did not translate that same phrase as “good deacon” this time, but instead they translated it as “good servant”. Why? Well, everyone knows that Timothy wasn’t a deacon, right? He was the bishop of the church in Ephesus, right? Only, Scripture never calls Timothy a bishop or an elder, but here Timothy is encouraged to be a “good deacon”. It seems strange to me that Paul would use the exact same phrase twice within a few sentences with completely different meanings. Could it be that the meanings are not different? Could it be that both passages are describing good servants of Jesus Christ without reference to any kind of ecclesial office?

Today, as with many discussions, the conversation surrounding “deacons” usually revolves around the issues of control and authority. How much authority should a deacon have? How much decision-making control should churches give to deacons? And, along with those issues, we find the issues concerning gender: Should women be deacons?

Honestly, I think these questions completely miss the point. Those who serve well are not interested in making decisions or having authority. They are interested in using their abilities, talents, gifts, and situations in life in order to serve other people. They spend their time and their energy by helping other people, both believers and nonbelievers, both friends and strangers. As Dave Black said, they come to the aid of other people.

In this sense, Phoebe is certainly a good example of a servant – a deacon. If Moo is correct that Phoebe was “a woman of high social standing and some wealth, who put her status, resources, and time at the service of traveling Christians, like Paul, who needed help and support”, then she should be an encouragement to us all. Wherever God has us, in whatever station or status in life, God has placed people around us that need help. They need physical help, emotional help, financial help, spiritual help. And, He has placed us where we are to be deacons in their lives – to be servants.

Are you looking for opportunities to deacon?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 12-7-2007

    Hi Alan,

    I have often had a problem with the people who say, “This phrase nearly always means the office of deacon, except when it is used of Phoebe!”

    The usual reason given is because, “deacons are men as they are only ever said to be husbands of one wife!” I believe the actually Greek phrase is “a one woman man!” From what I understand of Greek culture it was acceptable for men of status to have a marriage that joined families, this “sham” of a marriage was purely for political reasons so the man would have a mistress for other reasons! There is always the temptation to make leaders in the world leaders in the church.

    As far as I know women having more than one husband was never an issue in the culture to which Paul was writing! Why therefore do we take this tiny instruction as the fulcrum with which to interpret other passages? Why not take the Pheobe passage as the fulcrum?!

    More than that, the disciples were always arguing over status, “Who is the greatest?” Jesus turned down status (John 6:15, “So Jesus, perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone.“) If we would do what Jesus did then should we not withdraw when people want to “enthrone” us?!

    There is a difficulty here though, on the one hand I would say a true disciple would not want titles or status, however, these titles are New Testament! But they are clearly not there to “Lord it over!” However, show me a church leader who doesn’t “Lead and invision” the congragation!

    It is an interesting study to look at “concensus” in the New Testament. We assume that if there were “elders” then they stood at the front and gave orders. However, that is reading scripture through the eyes of 2,000 years of Rome’s influence on the Church. For example, in Acts 6 when the Apostles told the people to appoint deacons it was received as a “proposal!” and it was “all” the people who decided! “This proposal pleased the whole group.” Acts 6:5 (NIV)


  2. 12-7-2007

    Excellent post, Alan.

    Since beginning to study Greek, I was wondering about this word “diakonos.” I was wondering why we would get up in arms about women being servants. Why do you suppose we equivocate the language in such a way, that we would translate the same word, in the same basic context, with two different English words, when one would suffice in both places? Is it as underhanded as it might seem? I hope not….

  3. 12-7-2007


    Do you think those who say, “This phrase nearly always means the office of deacon, except when it is used of Phoebe”, would accept diakonos as “the office of deacon” in Romans 15:18?

    To tell you the truth, I’m not convinced that the men in Acts 6 were considered deacons.

    I also agree that Jesus turned status upside down, and this must be considered when thinking of any “leadership positions”.


    I don’t know if it was underhanded or not. It is certainly traditional to read diakonos as “servant” in some passages and “deacon” in other passages. I know that the KJV translators were told to maintain ecclesial language. As far as I can tell, only the Bishop’s Bible from 1595 maintains the same translations of diakonos (as “minister” which also meant servant) throughout 1 Tim 3-4.


  4. 12-7-2007

    Good post, I like it. You make me think of a book you might like to read on spiritual gifts called “What are Spiritual Gifts? Rethinking the Conventional View by Kenneth Bearding. He sees spiritual gifts much in the same way preferring rather to call them spiritual ministries over “gifts” to highlight their role in serving the body and not putting the focus on individual people.

    Here is the amazon link:

  5. 12-7-2007

    Hi Alan,

    Sorry if I am missing something but I can’t find the word “diakonos” in Romans 15:18.

    It is funny how much importance is attached to the Timothy instructions for “Deacon” in some churches and very little said about “discipleship” which Jesus gave a much harder qualification for! In other churches, it has been my experience that when they talk about the discipleship qualifications they don’t talk about the deacon qualifications!

    “25Now large crowds were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them, 26“If anyone comes to Me, and does not £hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. 27“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. 28“For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? 29“Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, 30saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31“Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32“Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33“So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.” Luke 14:25-33

    Are you thinking that “servant” is synonymous with “disciple?”


  6. 12-14-2007

    Great post, one question though, in your comparison of 3:13 and 4:6, isn’t 13 a participle and 6 a noun? I guess we could say serve well and be a good servant and still avoid the ecclesiastical feeling. I am encouraged by your article as I am preparing to guide our local body in a “deacon ordination.” The thrust of my message, which your article is at least somewhat responsible for, is that the deacon passage is for everyone to obey. I’ll also be including some statements about how we are not officiating anything. Thanks brother

  7. 12-15-2007


    Yes, one is a noun/adjective and the other is a verb/adverb. I think “serve well” and “good servant” are good translations. Isn’t it interesting how we immediately go from “service” to “officiating”, controlling, etc. Why can’t we stop at serving? Thanks for your comment.


  8. 12-15-2007

    I also wanted to thank you for your thoughts on ecclesiology as a whole. I am writing a thesis on Augustine’s just war theory, a theory which I think was intricately tied to his ecclesiology. Unfortunately, I think the remnants, and sometimes blatant pillars of this Roman ecclesiology remain in our evangelical and Baptist churches. Consequently, we are very quick to “crusade” for the Lord wherever an offense has been committed against our skewed and conflated conception of church and state. We really do view our leaders as officials, both in church and in government. I think the fathers of the church, as well as of our government thought of themselves more as servants. I think your thoughts on ecclesiology are so important to the way we view the church’s influence on the state. A top down ecclesiology yields ideas like federal marriage amendments, wars on drugs, wars on terror, all in the name of the good book and our “Christian” nation. You are being used of God here to open our eyes to the many errant implications caused by simply getting the church wrong.

  9. 12-16-2007


    Thank you for the kind words. I agree that there are many negative implications to misunderstanding the nature of the church. I hope that my writing points people to a more scriptural understanding.


  10. 7-20-2011

    Once again, the way our Bibles are translated create so much confusion. Thanks for the explanation.

    Coincidentally, I’m reading Eugene Peterson’s “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” and he just said that perhaps a more correct translation, or sense of the word, would be “waiter.”

  11. 6-1-2012

    WOW! This is helping me to understand the distinctions within my former “church” and where I was misunderstood. They kept calling me a leader, and I kept denying it. I didn’t see myself as a leader because I had no authority. I thought that’s what a church leader was. All I cared about was being a servant. Somehow that misunderstanding got me banned. I am still not sure how it happened.

  12. 6-4-2012


    In God’s kingdom, if you are serving others in Christ’s name, then you are a leader. Of course, that’s not the way it works today among many (perhaps most?) organizations and institutions that associate themselves with the church.