In this series, I’m going to discuss various biblical terms that are often misused or misunderstood because of the way we use the English terms today. In other words, we often read our modern day definitions into scriptural words. This is not a valid way to understand Scripture.
For example, consider the Greek word Î´Î¹Î¬ÎºÎ¿Î½Î¿Ï‚ (diakonos) which is variously translated “minister”, “deacon”, or “servant”. Here are a few passages from the ESV (other translations are similar):
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. (Ephesians 3:7 ESV)
Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. (1 Timothy 3:8 ESV)
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. (1 Timothy 4:6 ESV)
If you look up these three words (“minister”, “deacon”, “servant”) in an English dictionary, you’ll find that the three words have different meanings, and especially different connotations. For example, here are the definitions from wiktionary:
Minister: A person who is trained to perform religious ceremonies.
Deacon: A lay leader of a congregation who assists the pastor.
Servant: One who serves another, providing help in some manner.
Notice that in English, the three terms “minister”, “deacon”, and “servant” have varying degrees of “official” status. Thus, a “minister” in Protestant traditions is typically the most “official”, probably referring to someone who is a vocational pastor, evangelist, missionary, etc. A “deacon” would refer to someone who maintains an “official” status – though slightly less than the “minister” – while probably not being paid for his duties. Finally, a “servant” does not have any official status and certainly doesn’t get paid for serving in the church.
But, there’s a problem. All of these terms are translations from the same Greek term: Î´Î¹Î¬ÎºÎ¿Î½Î¿Ï‚ (diakonos). Now, granted, Greek words like English words can have different meanings and different references. But, this would have to be specified in the context of the passage. The context in which a word is used helps us to understand how it is being used. But, what if there is nothing in the context? Why is Paul called a “minister”? Why are some “servants” called “deacons”? What if they were all called “servants”?
Notice for instance that two of the passages above (1 Timothy 3:8 and 1 Timothy 4:6) are within the same context – only a few sentences from one another! But, the term Î´Î¹Î¬ÎºÎ¿Î½Î¿Ï‚ (diakonos) is translated two different ways: deacon and servant, respectively.
Of course, now we reach the crux of the issue. If we called “ministers” and “deacons” by the term “servant”, then they would lose their “official” status in the eyes of the people. And, of course, there are many, many “ministers” and “deacons” who do not act like “servants” – which means they should not be called “minsters” or “deacons” either.
When we read the words “minister” or “deacon” in Scripture, we should remember that those terms simply mean “servant”. If we impute any other significance onto those terms, then we are reading modern definitions back into Scripture. This means that we are not understanding Scripture the way the original authors (and God!) intended for us to understand it.