the weblog of Alan Knox

Just Semantics? (Servant)

Posted by on Dec 8, 2008 in elders, office, scripture, service | 11 comments

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 διάκονος (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: διάκονος (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 διάκονος (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.


Just Semantics?
1. Servant
2. Pastor
3. Worship
4. Preach


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

  1. 12-8-2008

    Alan, the context of 1 Timothy 3 and 4 does shed light onto the intended meaning of the authors. I do not say this because of my “traditional lens” either. Yes, they are in the same context but the context calls for a different nuance on each of the usages.

    I do not think that the IC traditionally has made this distiction for the purpose of “official status” and “pay”. The context begs distinctions:

    “Likewise must the deacons be grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre;
    9 Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience.
    10 And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless.
    11 Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things.
    12 Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.
    13 For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.
    1 Tim 3:8-13 (KJV)”

    1 Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils;
    2 Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron;
    3 Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.
    4 For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving:
    5 For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.
    He gives Timothy sound advice on how to be a good minister
    6 If thou put the brethren in remembrance of these things, thou shalt be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished up in the words of faith and of good doctrine, whereunto thou hast attained.
    7 But refuse profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness.
    8 For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.
    9 This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation.
    10 For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe.
    11 These things command and teach.
    12 Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.
    13 Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.
    14 Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.
    15 Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profiting may appear to all.
    16 Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.
    1 Tim 4:1-16 (KJV)

    Your cannot give this word a blanket definition here, the surrounding context does not beg an identical rendering. I think a simple reading of the text makes this clear.

    Misunderstood and misused, yes, and by all to some extent, but not to the extent you claim.

  2. 12-8-2008


    Again, a very pertinent article.

    I remember presenting a study at a deacons meeting some twenty five years ago. This was in a church where the deacons had developed the idea that they were literally the rulers of the church.

    I spoke simiarly to the way you have here aboutbeing a servant (diakonos).

    One deacon suddenly stood up and angrily said, “I’m no man’s servant!”

    The word “servant” seems to be very unpalatable to those who suppose they hold “titled office” in the Body of Christ.

    The Lord Jesus Himself, dealing with those who saw themselves as being further up the pecking order than others, declared that servanthood was what being a disciple of His was about. He made it clear that He also came not to be served (diakoneo) but to serve (diakoneo).

  3. 12-8-2008

    Two comments spring to mind:
    1. We read into the text exactly what we want to read into the text and translate it accordingly.
    2. If only the apostle Paul had been able to use the KJV he would surely have had a better understanding of what it was he was trying to say!
    Yours mischieviously

  4. 12-8-2008


    This is what I was taught. When you consider this, it puts a much different face on the situation. It goes to show exactly how messed up the idea of “ministry” has become.

    Are we slaves of Paul, Apollos, or Christ? A question each believer should ask, for his or her self.

    When one looks at the nature of some who are “professional ministers”, one can easily see how those various definitions came to be applied.


  5. 12-8-2008


    May I ask you sir. Given your second list of scripture (1 Timothy 3:8-13)shouldn’t this only apply to Timothy? Paul wrote this letter to Timothy and Timothy alone right? He says to Timothy if “you” or “thou” (since you used the KJV) do these things. Is this to be applied to everyone who call themselves a minister? If so how do you come to such a conclusion. And if so shouldn’t these ministers also obey this text:

    23 (No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.)

    If there is a one for one correlation with ministers and Paul’s use of the word minister and if we apply verse 22 to Elders shouldn’t we do the same for verse 23?

  6. 12-8-2008

    I like to hear the call for servant leaders; it is not leader servants that are called forth.

    The problem with titles are well they are titles and automatically people attach human significance to them.

    Would one serve if one got no recognition for it; if one served anonymously? That would be a check for a true servant’s heart.

  7. 12-8-2008


    I am only looking at distinction in service not importance. I would not in any way suggest that one is to be more higly regarded than the other, as they are both, and we are all servants of the body of Christ. I sincerely believe that the terms have been misrepresented to the church and that many men have been appointed servants, such as suggested in the text, that would not have ever taken the position if they knew what the biblical rendering really meant.


    My use of a particular translation does not have any bearing on the rendering of the term.

    Lionel,The second list of Scripture was to reference the context of the OP.

    I come to this conclusion because in the first instance Paul is telling Timothy to appoint servants based on a particular set of standards. Not all servants meet these criteria, so this is a appointment of distinction, right?

    In the second use Paul is telling Timothy that he is a good servant because of his particular conduct. The context tells what this service is, and it is distinctively different that that of those that Timothy was to appoint.

    To answer question of whether all servants should obey Paul’s instrution to Timothy in regards to wine, no, but if a little wine can help the stomach then a servant is free to drink.

    Lastly, if you do not think that there is to be any appointment of distict servants at all, then I just can’t seem to follow that line of reasoning, but I will watch and see.

    And yes I realize that “He gives Timothy sound advice on how to be a good minister” is not in the text, oops.

  8. 12-8-2008


    I guess I don’t see the distinction that you see between 1 Tim 3:8 and 1 Tim 4:6. I do agree completely with this that you said: “they are both, and we are all servants of the body of Christ”. I also agree that many would not have taken their titles and positions if they knew they were required to be realy servants. I wonder what excuses they’re going to give God.

    Aussie John,

    I’ve heard you tell the story about the deacon who said he was no man’s servant. Of course, he’s right. But, then, he’s no deacon either.


    Well, the KJV or almost any English translation. Remember that I quoted the ESV, which is a very recent translation.


    You said “professional minister”… it doesn’t have the same ring to it when you change it to “professional servant” does it?


    That’s a good question pertaining to normativity. Scripture doesn’t always tell us (in the text) what is normative and what is not.


    Serving without recognition is both real service and real leadership.


  9. 12-9-2008


    Sorry for the repetition. Old age you know!

  10. 12-9-2008

    Aussie John,

    I don’t mind the repetition at all! Your story goes very well with this post.


  11. 12-9-2008

    Hi Alan

    I realised that you quoted from the ESV. The problem is that the KJV interpretation of words (which was biased by the Church of England practice of the time)has ‘informed’ every English language translation since, even new and apparently completely fresh translations. The KJV has established the common understanding which people have when they approach how to translate a particular word in each context. This is particularly true of words related to ecclesiology such as ‘servant’, ‘office’, ‘minister’, etc.
    I still stand by my other point. People will interpret these words as best fits what they really want them to say. Huge apologies if that sounds a bit cynical, but 30 years experience as a Christian leads me to this conculsion.